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Frances O’Roark Dowell was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1964. Her family lived in Germany because her father was stationed there as a lawyer in the United States Army. Growing up in the Army meant that Frances had to move a lot. By the time she left home for college, she had also lived in Charlottesville, Virginia (two times), Springfield, Virginia (two times), Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, Bad Kreuznach, Germany, and Killeen, Texas.
Frances credits her ability to strike up conversations with strangers as a survival skill Army brats learn because they change schools so often. Frances’s grandfather was also a career officer in the Army, and military themes can be found in her novels, especially Shooting the Moon (2008) and, most recently, The Second Life of Abigail Walker (2012).
After finishing high school in Texas, Frances moved to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to attend Wake Forest University, where she graduated with a degree in English. In college, she briefly considered a career as a disc jockey. She went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Throughout college and graduate school, Frances considered herself primarily a poet, not a fiction writer. In one interview, she said:
I always loved to write—it was a happy day in school for me when we were assigned an essay—but I was never much of a fiction writer. I started writing poetry at an early age and after college went on to get an MFA in creative writing in poetry. It wasn’t until I started re-reading my favorite childhood books in my mid-twenties—Harriet the Spy, The Changeling, the Great Brain books—that I thought about writing fiction, specifically for middle grade readers.
Following graduate school, Frances moved back to North Carolina. Because she has lived most of her adult life in North Carolina and has deep family roots in Kentucky, Frances has come to think of herself as a Southerner. She currently lives in central North Carolina with her husband, two sons, and a dog named Travis. On the question of whether she is a Southern writer, Frances has said:
…There’s no doubt that living in the South has had a strong influence on what I write. For the most part I write books set in the South, in places where I’ve actually lived and know the people and the streets and the weather. I’ve listened to a lot of Southern voices talking, and they make their way into my stories, too.
Before becoming a novelist, Frances created an arts magazine for girls who wanted to become writers and artists. It was called “Dream/Girl: The Arts Magazine for Girls” and was intended to provide an alternative to the girls magazines available at the time, which were mainly focused on how girls should look and what they could do to find boyfriends. Frances said:
I thought there ought to be a magazine for smart, creative girls. There are tons of girls who fit this description, though you wouldn’t know it from reading Seventeen. Magazines such as Seventeen and YM strike me as having a very narrow idea of what girls can do and be.
Frances printed 200 copies of the first issue of Dream/Girl and handed them out to friends. The magazine caught the attention of a few newspaper and magazine reviewers, and soon found an enthusiastic audience with parents and librarians who were glad to find a publication that didn’t underestimate the intelligence of girls who were 9-to-14 years old. Before long, Dream/Girl was being printed in the thousands and had subscribers across the country.
When Frances decided to try to make her living as a writer, she naturally choose children’s literature as a starting point, since books for young people were her favorite type of books. She put the first novel she ever wrote in a desk drawer. Her second attempt was Dovey Coe.
My name is Dovey Coe, and I reckon it don’t matter if you like me or not. I’m here to lay the record straight, to let you know them folks saying I done a terrible thing are liars. I aim to prove it, too. I hated Parnell Caraway as much as the next person, but I didn’t kill him. (Opening paragraph)
Dovey Coe was published in 2000 to wide critical acclaim, with Publishers Weekly writing that the book “succeeds in capturing the essence of a young and unforgettable independent thinker, who uses honesty and common sense as her weapons against injustice.” Dovey Coe went on to win the Edgar Allan Poe Award and the William Allen White Children’s Book Award. It remains on school reading lists around the country and has been translated into several foreign languages.
Frances has published 12 novels since Dovey Coe, working on all of them with her editor, Caitlyn Dlouhy, of Atheneum Books for Young Readers. In addition to the Edgar and William Allen White prizes, her books have received other numerous awards, including the Christopher Award (Shooting the Moon), the Voya Book Award (Where I’d Like to Be), and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Excellence in Children’s Fiction, Honor Book (Shooting the Moon). Frances writes from around 9 a.m. to noon on weekdays. She has said she finds writing first drafts challenging and enjoys revising.
I write very bad first drafts, send them to my editor; she asks a lot of brilliant questions, and I revise. I love revising. That’s absolutely my favorite part of the process. I write in different parts of the house, and they’re all a mess. The one place I never write is my desk, so it’s very neat and tidy.
About 2012’s The Second Life of Abigail Walker, The New York Times Book Review wrote:
What’s wonderful is how Dowell, the author of several beloved books for tweens and teenagers including the Edgar-winning “Dovey Coe,” gracefully draws the many concentric circles of Abby’s life.
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SOME OF FRANCES’S FAVORITE BOOKS
‘Books I read when I was a kid’
- Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
- The Great Brain books by John D. Fitzgerald
- Jennifer, Hecate, MacBeth, William McKinley and Me, Elizabeth by E.L.
- The Changeling by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
- A Girl Called Al by Constance C. Greene
- Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
- Sunshine by Norma Klein
- Little Women by Louisa Alcott
- The Cay by Theodore Taylor
- The Hayburners by Gene Smith
- Ellen Tebbits by Beverly Cleary
- Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary
- Philip Hall Loves Me, I Reckon Maybe by Bette Green
- Sounder by William Armstrong
- Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
- Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
- The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
- Mama’s Bank Account by Kathryn Forbes
- Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
- The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
- The Little Princess by Francess Hodgett Burnett
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
‘And books I’ve read as an adult’
- Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
- Crash by Jerry Spinelli
- Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli
- Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
- Yolanda’s Genius by Carol Fenner
- The Exiles by Hilary McKay
- The Exiles in Love by Hilary McKay
- The Exiles at Home by Hilary McKay
- The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson
- Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
- Jacob I Have Loved by Katherine Paterson
- Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Green
- Catherine Called Birdy by Karen Cushman
- Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
- The Moves Make the Man by Bruce Brooks
- What Hearts by Bruce Brooks
- Mick Hart was Here by Barbara Parks
- The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
- The Homecoming Trilogy by Cynthia Voigt
- I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This by Jacqueline Woodson
- Goodnight, Mr. Tom by Michelle Magorian
- The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
- Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
- Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DeCamillo
- The Chronicles of Prydain (series) by Lloyd Alexander
- Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
- Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko
- Criss-Cross by Lynn Rae Perkins
- All Alone in the Universe by Lynn Rae Perkins
SOME OF FRANCES’S FAVORITE THINGS
Books: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and To Kill a Mockingbird are the big favorites. Other books I love include: Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, An American Childhood by Annie Dillard, Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons, The Port William novels by Wendell Berry (including Hannah Coulter, Jayber Crow, and In Memory of Old Jack), Victory Over Japan by Ellen Gilchrist, Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje, The White Album by Joan Didion, Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith, and Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood. Favorite poets and writers: Wendell Berry, Katherine Paterson, Jerry Spinelli, Margaret Atwood, Michael Pollen, Walt Whitman, Larry Levis, Philip Levine, Campbell McGrath, Jack Gilbert, Ellen Gilchrist, Lee Smith, Lynda Barry, Gary Paulsen, Sarah Dessen, Virginia Holman, Bruce Brooks, E.M. Forster, Nick Hornby, Anne Tyler, Barbara Kingsolver, Ian McEwan, Annie Dillard, Lucille Clifton, Tracy Kidder, Cynthia Rylant, Cornelius Eady, Christopher Paul Curtis, Jane Austen, Beverly Cleary, Michael Ondaatje, Chris Lynch, Eleanora Tate, E.L. Konigsburg, Nancy Reisman, Kate Daniels, Andrew Clements, Elizabeth Bishop, John Steinbeck, Stanley Kunitz, Stanley Plumly, Theodore Roethke, William Stafford, Joan Didion, Jacqueline Woodson, Eva Ibbotson, Hilary McKay, Edward P. Jones, Philip Yancy, Langston Hughes, David Foster Wallace, N.T. Wright, Kathleen Norris, Charles Simic, Tim O’Brien