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Profile of Newbery Medalist Paula Fox

by Augusta Baker

paula fox by mimi forsyth

Photo: Mimi Forsyth.

The Slave Dancer is Paula Fox’s first historical novel, though she has written fourteen books, eleven for children and three for adults. The novel is set in 1840 but its vividness reaches beyond the past — beyond the horror, the cruelty, and the ugliness of the slave trade — to touch us today. “I don’t think there is anything in the book that older children couldn’t face,” Paula Fox has said. “It was a true terror as opposed to the made-up horrors of the movies. Human history is partly a history of suffering. Children know more of pain than one thinks, and they don’t need artificially happy endings.”

Paula Fox knew her share of pain as a child. A New Yorker by birth, half Spanish, half Irish-English, she was sent at the age of eight to live with her grandmother in Cuba. She soon became fluent in Spanish, which she learned from the village children; they were her friends, and before long she was a player on the baseball team — the only girl. She remembers the heat  of the midday sun, the noise of the animals — guinea fowl and monkeys; and she made these memories live for me as we sat together in her home in Brooklyn. The children she knew as a child and those she has known as an adult are the ones she writes about in her books, whether they are the abandoned boys in How Many Miles to Babylon? (David White), or the privi­leged but isolated child in Portrait of Ivan (Bradbury).

When Batista came to power in Cuba in 1934, Paula returned to New York City. She describes herself as “a traveling child,” who seldom lived any place longer than a year or two, and sel­dom saw either of her parents. (However, her father was a writer, and she feels that her writing has been a “hook-up” with him.) “I attended nine schools before I was twelve, by which time I had discovered that freedom, solace, and truth were public libraries.” She had the feeling of being a transient, of not know­ing what was going to happen the next day. People beyond her family offered her what permanence she knew.

Paula began working at seventeen. But for years “writing was at the edges” of her life. She got a job with a newspaper, and another as a machinist for Bethlehem Steel. In San Francisco, she and three young Mexican-Americans worked to help six hundred Mexican families who were left stranded after their jobs on the railroad were ·terminated. She found that they had to protect the children of these families from exploitation by the community itself – police, courts, social workers. In London, Paula worked as a reader for a movie company as well as for a British publisher. In 1946 she got a job with an English news service and was assigned to Paris and Warsaw. Upon returning to New York, she married; had two sons, Adam and Gabriel; but then was divorced. As for writing, she says, “I had to wait until I could type without dogs or kids in my lap.”

fox_the slave dancerShe studied at Columbia University; then worked at a special school for emotionally disturbed children in Dobbs Ferry, New York. She taught English to Spanish-speaking children, and for several years taught fifth grade at the Ethical Culture Schools in New York City. She often read to her students — from Dickens, Joyce, Tolstoy, Orwell, Stevenson. “There was no ten­sion of accomplishment or grades connected with the reading,” she says. “It simply was, as literature should be.” Recently, dur­ing her semester’s appointment at a branch of New York State University, Paula discovered that young adults liked being read to for the same reasons the fifth graders did.

In 1962 Paula married Martin Greenberg, one-time Commen­tary editor and now Professor of English at C. W. Post College. She wrote a TV script and, to her surprise, sold it; then two short stories were published by Negro Digest. A Guggenheim Fellowship of her husband’s took the family to Greece for six months: “a golden time,” as Paula describes it. Adam, then twelve, worked for a carpenter; Gabe, ten, for a cobbler. And Paula began to write without interruption — which she has con­tinued to do since the family returned to the United  States.

Since the publication of Maurice’s Room (Macmillan), Paula Fox has given us many children in her books. One feels in her warmth, compassion, and sense of connection with young peo­ple that she has known them all somewhere in her life and that she sees herself in them.

From the August 1974 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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