2018-03-13 00:28:38 UTC
By Star Staff | February 21, 2018 - 11:24pm
Barbara Wersba, Aug. 19, 1932 - Feb. 18, 2018
Barbara Wersba, a Sag Harbor (NY) resident who was the author of more than two dozen books for young people and the founder of the Bookman Press, died on Sunday at the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, N.J. She was 85.
Ms. Wersba was the only child of a Russian-Jewish father and a Kentucky Baptist mother, Robert Wersba and the former Josephine Quarles. Growing up, she wanted to be a musician, or a dancer, or a poet, thinking that any one of these professions would lift her out of what she believed to be a sad life.
“I grew up in almost total solitude,” she once said. “I thought I was lonely when I was simply a loner — and spent much of my childhood daydreaming, writing poems, and creating dramas for my dolls.”
When she was 11 years old, in answer to a family friend’s inquiry, she impulsively declared her intent to be an actress and soon landed a part in a local play. Though she eventually decided she didn’t actually like acting, she stuck with it because it gave her purpose and helped her not to feel alone.
Ms. Wersba continued acting throughout college and then professionally, until she fell ill in 1960 and was forced into a lengthy recovery. On the advice of a friend, she turned to writing. The result was her first book for children, “The Boy Who Loved the Sea,” which was published in 1961.
Her breakthrough came in 1968, with the publication of “The Dream Watcher,” a novel. She adapted it for the theater when her childhood idol, the actress Eva Le Gallienne, read the book and wished to play the role of the elderly woman in the story. It opened at the White Barn Theatre in Connecticut in 1975.
Two of Ms. Wersba’s most popular novels were “Tunes for a Small Harmonica: A Novel,” released in 1976 and a National Book Award nominee, and “The Carnival of My Mind,” released in 1982.
In addition to her more than two dozen novels for children, teens, and young adults, she reviewed children’s literature for The New York Times, wrote theater and television scripts, and taught writing. She founded the Bookman Press in 1994.
Born in Chicago on Aug. 19, 1932, Ms. Wersba moved with her family to California. After her parents’ divorce, she moved with her mother to New York City, and later to Sag Harbor.
She will be buried in a family plot at Oakland Cemetery in Sag Harbor tomorrow at 11 a.m.
For years, her editor was Charlotte Zolotow (author of "Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present").
(read-aloud of "Do Tigers Ever Bite Kings")
(long birthday post from 2012, with booklist and synopses)
One of her more popular books for younger kids is "Walter: The Story of a Rat" (2005). About that one: "Walter, namesake of Sir Walter Scott and a rat that can read, lives in the home of Miss Amanda Pomeroy, a celebrated writer of children's books." "Quiet and unsentimental."
A former New York Times Book Review contributor and winner of at least one American Library Association Award, Wersba wrote an 11-page autobiography feature in 1999 for the "Something About the Author" encyclopedia series.
"My mother and I set up housekeeping in a hotel near the Broadway theatre district, and the first thing I did in New York was to go out and buy a ticket to a play. I had never heard of the playwright or the star, but when the matinee was over, I sat in my seat paralyzed by emotion. Ushers were picking up discarded programs, the work-light on stage had gone on, but I could not move. Finally, an usher led me from the theatre and deposited me on the sidewalk outside. The play was 'The Glass Menagerie' by Tennessee Williams, and the star was Laurette Taylor.
"I forgot about movie stars and concentrated my attention upon Broadway actresses. Lynn Fontanne, Katharine Cornell, Eva Le Gallienne. I sat in the last row of theatre balconies, holding a small flashlight and writing in a notebook, and watched these women act. I was in love with all of them, but one, Eva Le Gallienne, captured my heart with her steady pursuit of excellence in the theatre - classics, repertory. Thirty years later I would write a play for Eva Le Gallienne called 'The Dream Watcher'...
(In Rockland County, NY) "For some years home had been a nineteenth-century country store, with stained-glass windows, marble counters, and gas lamps...And since it had always been a country store, we decided to operate it as one again - selling penny candy and tobacco, Vermont cheese, homebaked goods, jams and jellies, housewares, toys. It was a marvelous store and though it never earned a penny, it received constant publicity...Theatrical people from New York drove out to sample its wares - Noel Coward, Katharine Cornell, Mary Martin, Ginger Rogers. During the seven years we ran the store, I was a writer in the mornings and a storekeeper in the afternoons. It was a good combination...
"In 1966, a friend asked me if I would be willing to read to an invalid twice a week in the neighboring town of Nyack. VERY reluctantly, I said yes, and the invalid turned out to be Carson McCullers...For the next two years, I visited Carson McCullers every day - read aloud to her, went shopping for her, ate meals with her, and loved her deeply. She was not easy to love, but before me always, in my mind, were her books. Her great books. Unable now to write physically, she dictated stories to me, phoned in the middle of the night with ideas...I think of Carson and remember that her left hand was crippled, but that the right was as thin and elegant as a hand in a Pre-Raphaelite painting. Morning and evening, it held a silver goblet filled with bourbon..."
In 1994, she created a small publishing company, The Bookman's Press.
In 2002, Wersba received a 48-page entry in the "Children's Literature Review" encyclopedia series.
"She frequently tackles themes considered off-limits by other writers of juvenilia. Regarded both as delightfully funny and darkly realistic, Wersba's works are considered a lasting addition to the field of youth literature...
"However, her handling of such controversial topics as sexuality, drugs, depression and alternative lifestyles (and mental illness) has led a few reviewers to charge her with sensationalism...
"Others insisted that her stories truthfully reflect the concerns of modern teenagers...
"Because Wersba's novels have so much to offer, it is puzzling that she has not received the recognition she deserves as one of the first and enduring writers in the genre...
"But even when teachers elect to study a particular topic such as AIDS or homelessness through young adult literature, they may inadvertently overlook Wersba's books because they are not simply topical problem novels.....Thus, for example, when a list of books with gay characters appears, 'Crazy Vanilla' or 'Just be Gorgeous' will probably not be on it. And again, this is not bad. It just means that Wersba's books are hard to pigeonhole."
Publications for Young Adults
The Dream Watcher also see below. New York, Atheneum, 1968 ; London, Bodley Head, 1988 .
Run Softly, Go Fast. New York, Atheneum, 1970 .
The Country of the Heart. New York, Atheneum, 1975 .
Tunes for a Small Harmonica. New York, Harper, 1976 ; London, Bodley Head, 1979 .
The Carnival in My Mind. New York, Harper, 1982 .
Crazy Vanilla. New York, Harper, 1986 ; London, Bodley Head, 1987 .
Fat: A Love Story. New York, Harper, and London, Bodley Head, 1987 .
Love Is the Crooked Thing. New York, Harper, and London, 1987 .
Beautiful Losers. New York, Harper, and London, Bodley Head, 1988 .
Just Be Gorgeous. New York, Harper, 1988 ; London, Bodley Head, 1989 .
Wonderful Me. New York, Harper, 1989 .
The Farewell Kid. New York, Harper, 1990 .
The Best Place to Live Is the Ceiling. New York, Harper, 1990 .
You'll Never Guess the End. New York, Harper, 1992 .
Life Is What Happens While You're Making Other Plans. London, Bodley Head, 1994 .
Whistle Me Home. New York, H. Holt, 1997 .
The Dream Watcher (adaptation of her novel of the same title), first produced in Westport, Connecticut, 1975 ; Seattle Repertory Theater, 1977 .
Publications for Children
The Boy Who Loved the Sea, illustrated by Margot Tomes. New York, Coward, 1961 .
The Brave Balloon of Benjamin Buckley, illustrated by Tomes, New York, Atheneum, 1963 .
The Land of Forgotten Beasts, illustrated by Tomes. New York, Atheneum, 1964 ; London, Gollancz, 1965 .
A Song for Clowns, illustrated by Mario Rivoli. New York, Atheneum, 1965 ; London, Gollancz, 1966 .
Let Me Fall before I Fly. New York, Atheneum, 1971 .
Amanda, Dreaming, illustrated by Mercer Mayer. New York, Atheneum, 1973 .
The Crystal Child, illustrated by Donna Diamond. New York, Harper, 1982 .
Do Tigers Ever Bite Kings?, illustrated by Rivoli. New York, Atheneum, 1966 .
Twenty-six Starlings Will Fly through Your Mind, illustrated by David Palladini. New York, Harper, 1980 .
Reteller, The Wings of Courage, by George Sand. Sag Harbor, New York, Bookman Press, 1998 .