Profiles of Cynthia Voigt

diceys song Profiles of Cynthia VoigtCynthia Voigt’s mother and daughter profile the author to celebrate her 1983 Newbery Medal Award win for Dicey’s Song.

by Elise K. Irving

When Cynthia called that Monday night, she asked if I was sitting down before she told me that she had won the Newbery. And she was right. It is an overwhelming honor. Having had a bookstore for a few years, I think she knew that I would be especially aware of that fact and appreciative of the magnitude of the achievement. And it is that duality that makes it so gratifying — the quality of her effort and the quality of the accolades rarely come into such a happy balance. She has worked long, hard, and lovingly and encountered more than her share of rejection slips. There is something, too, of a Cinderella syndrome since Atheneum did pluck from their mailbag, read, and accept her unsolicited manuscript and first book, Homecoming. She has been blessed with luck and talent and enhanced them both with discipline and perseverance.

Cindy is the second of five children; she had two sisters, and then when she was thirteen, suddenly twin brothers. She was a straight-haired, plump little bookworm, who felt that she lived in the shadow of her slender, curly-haired older sister. She puts it most succinctly: “In nursery school — she was Miss Muffet, and I was the Spider. When we got to dancing school — she was a Sweet Pea, and I was a Head of Cabbage.”

Whether her thirst for books was a by-product of this notion or a natural reflection of her intellect, I don’t know. But her library has always been her haven and her joy.

Most of her childhood was spent in southern Connecticut. She attended Dana Hall School in Wellesley, Massachusetts, from which she graduated “with distinction,” president of her senior class and a member of the Cum Laude Society. After her graduation from Smith College and a haphazard tour of Europe with a college friend, she settled into an apartment in Greenwich Village and a job at the J. Walter Thompson Advertising Agency.

A couple of years later she married a young man who was a student at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. There she worked briefly at odd jobs until she enrolled in St. Michael’s College to obtain a teaching certificate and found her other vocation — or avocation. It is difficult to draw a distinction between the two as she is devoted to both pursuits and each one enriches the other.

For personal reasons the young couple found it necessary to move East and finish the husband’s education at St. John’s in Annapolis, and Cynthia found her home. The marriage foundered and dissolved after the birth of her daughter Jessica, but her love for Annapolis, the Eastern Shore, and Maryland never has.

In 1974 she was happily remarried to Walter Voigt, a teacher of Latin and Greek at the Key School in Annapolis, where she teaches senior English and directs the English department. Their son Peter (Duffle) was born in 1977.

She lives a busy life with two children and an active teaching career but preserves her mornings for her typewriter. Cynthia is unswervingly loyal and attentive to family and friends but equally devoted to privacy. They now have an island in the Chesapeake which is devoid of any amenities, save a small generator to run her typewriter — not even running water. Here she and her small family cheerfully vegetate through the hot Bay summers and gorge on crabs which they catch themselves.

And she has a delicious sense of humor. She needs it to scramble through her days. When Homecoming was nominated for an American Book Award, she and her husband drove to New York for a festive weekend at the Plaza — in their cluttered, battered, and rusted little green heap. She gleefully reported that the doorman “whisked it right away!” And on the morning of their departure, having ordered their treasure from the garage, her husband — looking handsome, Nordic, and urbane in his trench coat — approached the doorman to inquire how long it would take for the car to arrive. Would there be time for a little window shopping? To their mutual chagrin he turned without hesitation but with some disdain and asked:

“Is it the green one?”

If you are her friend, she has a tireless ear and an inexhaustible coffee pot. Should you be ailing, she will be the first one there with comic books or Moby Dick, a flower, a loaf of homemade bread or a Scrabble board — whatever is needed to amuse you and advise you that she knows and cares about you.

If you are her child, she will be your constant shadow in your early years. You will live some part of every week in a playpen at the rear of her classroom, lest she lose a minute of your day while she pursues her teaching. She’ll feed you richly, hug you often, and restrain you little.

If you are her student, while you may delight in the charmer at the back of her classroom, I suspect you will know her to be both a demanding and a rigid disciplinarian, whose total pleasure is in helping you to realize your potential. Her love of books will infect you.

She regards cooking as a treat and housekeeping as a consummate bore only to be undertaken when there is an impending visit from her mother. And if you are her mother, you will know her to be a modest, witty, joyous, and loving friend. And you will think how fine it is to see her talent and diligence accepted and rewarded by such a distinguished body and to know that so many children will enjoy her gifts.

 

by Jessica Voigt

My mother is not perfect, but then, whose mother is? She is medium height, with dull black hair and eyes that laugh naturally. Even so, she can be very serious. She has wrinkles, but she doesn’t try to hide them because they are part of her. She only wears make-up for special occasions.

My mom is always quoting Shakespeare at me. She always understands me and what I want, but she doesn’t always do it. She can be grouchy, but she can also be the most fun person you have ever been with. She is très intelligente, but she doesn’t force it on you. She loves to laugh; she is laughing almost all the time. When I ask her a question, she hardly ever just tells me the answer. She asks me questions so I can figure it out myself.

My mom loves water. She loves the silent ripples in the morning, and she loves the thunder waves during a big storm. She loves the way you can see clear to the bottom in the winter.

Her favorite animal is the Great Blue Heron. It is a grouchy bird which reigns over the Eastern Shore marshes. It is also a solitary animal, and it emits a loud squawking noise when disturbed.

My mom hates housework, and she loves creative writing. She doesn’t like the word creative though, because of the way people use it. She loves to read other people’s writing notebooks. She can always do with a good “nosegay” by D. E. Stevenson or Elizabeth Cadell. She is working constantly, not always on her books, but molding her children and reaching out to touch the world.

From the August 1983 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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