Joan Blos died on October 12, 2017. This profile originally appeared in the December, 1994 issue of the Ann Arbor Observer.
Author Joan BIos
Bucking the horror-story trend to produce thoughtful stories for children
“I don’t expect books I write to be best-sellers, says Joan Blos matter-of-factly. A small, sixty-six-year- old woman with a curly mop of silver- dusted brown hair, horn-rimmed glasses, and a perpetually thoughtful expression, BIos (rhymes with dose) is sipping tea at Zingerman’s Next Door. Three of her fourteen books are spread on the table: the picture book The Heroine of the Titanic and two books for older children: A Gathering of Days and Brothers of the Heart.
BIos is hardly unknown: in 1980, A Gathering of Days won the John Newbery Medal, the most prestigious award in American children’s literature. The imagined diary of a young girl, it’s currently in its eighteenth printing and has sold 350,000 copies to date. “I think they’re in the process of making [A Gathering of Days] into an American classic,” BIos admits.
But although she appreciates the stature the award gave her in the world of children’s literature, she’s a bit wistful that Gathering has overshadowed her other children’s books. And sales of all of her books together are dwarfed by the hot new genre in kids’ literature: horror paperbacks with titles like Say Cheese and Die and Monster Blood. A single scary series, Goosebumps, sells an incredible 1.2 million copies a month.
The idea of marketing horror books to kids is hotly disputed. With some warmth, BIos questions whether the publishing houses “are entertaining the children or exploiting them. I don’t think those books are responsible for all the violence we see,” she says. But she adds, “I can’t help but wonder if it doesn’t play into the [problem] simply by making these acts thinkable.”
BIos’s books are the exact opposite of the horror books: they’re restrained, subtle explorations of the joys and sorrows of the human condition. A Gathering of Days is subtitled A New England Girl’s Journal, 1830-32. It’s the first-person story of thirteen-year-old Catherine Hall, who assists a fugitive slave, acquires a stepmother, and experiences the death of her best friend.
BIos has published two other books of historical fiction: Brothers of the Heart, a coming-of-age tale set in the Michigan wilderness of the late 1830’s, and Brooklyn Doesn’t Rhyme, a collection of linked short stories about a sixth-grader growing up in Brooklyn before World War I. BIos’s other books are picture books for young children – her particular passion, she explains, because of their “spareness and their theatrical nature.”
What connects her picture books to her historical fiction for older children, BIos believes, “is my own feeling about life and the ways it is important to relate to other people.” In The Heroine of the Titanic, BIos retells the true story of the legendary Molly Brown, the Denver socialite who helped save a lifeboat of survivors after the Titanic disaster.
“Molly Brown was different, eccentric,” says BIos in her measured but emphatic manner. “She survived because she could help others to survive. [The Heroine of the Titanic] expresses the value of being concerned for other people.”
Writing about children in contemporary times has never excited BIos. She’s not sure why, although one answer may be her fascination with sniffing out, like a historian, the day-to-day experiences of another era. “It really feels as if I’m uncovering, not inventing, a story,” she says, adding that she thrives on the hours she spends in the Bentley and other libraries poring over maps, diaries, and other old documents. Historical fiction is not as popular with children (or publishers) as are books with contemporary settings, BIos acknowledges. But, she says, “I don’t think I can write differently than I do.”
Blos was fifty-one when she published A Gathering of Days, her first book for youngsters old enough to read. Earlier in her career, however, she worked either with children or books for children, and she possesses extraordinarily vivid memories of her own childhood. In an essay for the Something About the Author Autobiography Series, she recalls going to the library at age four and watching the librarian stamp books “with a special pencil with a little outrigged stamp.” In vivid detail, she goes on to describe her happy times at her progressive elementary school in New York City (City and Country School), where beyond the rigorous academics both boys and girls learned woodworking, cooking, and other practical skills.
BIos was the only child of a child psychiatrist and an educator, and her subsequent careers reflected their interests. She majored in physiology at Vassar College. After graduation, she worked as a class- room assistant in a special nursery school for disturbed children. Subsequently, she studied for a master’s degree in psychology at New York’s City College. She detoured at Yale to study child psychology, and there she met and married her husband, medical student Peter BIos Jr. Later, she returned to City College to get her master’s; her thesis studied how children’s responses to stories might be predicted.
Bios worked for several years in the publications division of New York’s Bank Street College of Education, where she helped develop a pioneering reading series for inner-city children. In 1970, she moved with her family to Ann Arbor, where for several years she taught children’s literature at the U-M School of Education. Then, in the late 1970’s, came A Gathering of Days, inspired by family visits to her in-laws’ old farmhouse in New Hampshire. Apart from teaching an occasional class or a workshop. she has spent her time since then writing for children.
As she gets older, BIos acknowledges, she has less patience for stereotypes about children’s authors (“the little old lady image! Nah!”) and children’s books. She is further exasperated by people who assume that “we would rather be writing for adults.”
The New Yorker in BIos enjoys living in downtown Ann Arbor and walking rather than driving. A member of the Downtown Development Authority’s citizens’ advisory council, she’s passionate about efforts to get people living and shopping downtown. She wants to see more loft-style apartments filling up over storefronts. She also wants to see people living in the old Ann Arbor Inn – but she wants any plans to be shaped carefully and with great consideration for its inhabitants. “I don’t want it to be just affordable,” she says, “but enjoyable.”
BIos gets back to New York City frequently for meetings with editors and visits with her daughter, a teacher. Her other child, a son, died of cancer several years ago at age thirty. BIos is private on the subject, but she wrote, in Something About the Author, “You do not get over such sadness, I have found, but you do get used to it.”
BIos has recently experienced the joy of reading Old Henry to her two-year-old grandson; playfully, she reads it to him backward. She frequently reads to kids in schools, frontwards. Although she brings her Newbery Medal to schools when asked, BIos puts the emphasis on her books, not her prize. “There’s really nothing you can do with a medal,” she tells her young audiences, “except show it to people.”