A SHORT BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH OF FRANCES O’ROARK DOWELL
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, more 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 many novels since Dovey Coe, working mostly 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.
Also in 2012, Frances published her first “young adult” novel. The Horn Book said that with Ten Miles Past Normal, “Dowell gets all the details of ninth grade right: the changing relationships with friends; the allure and disappointment of the forbidden boy; embarrassing parents; and how having a passion changes everything.” National Public Radio called the book “Funny, wise, and artfully realistic.”
In 2014, General Mills asked Frances to write a fourth installment in her popular Phineas L. MacGuire series so the company could include it in boxes of Honey Nut Cheerios cereal as part of its Spoonful of Stories campaign. The result was Phineas L. MacGuire… Gets Cooking, a book that was released in three parts by including small paperback books in boxes of cereal. So in this way millions of kids across the country were introduced to Phineas over breakfast. Frances’s publisher also released the book in the regular way so that readers who missed an installment or who don’t like cereal.
In 2016, Frances published three novels: Trouble the Water, Sam the Man and the Chicken Plan, and Birds in the Air. Shelf Awareness calls Trouble the Water “…a spooky, slow-burning, multi-layered novel, with lively and pitch-perfect dialogue reminiscent of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Birds in the Air is her first novel for adults and draws on her love of quilting. Quilting legend Marianne Fons calls the books a truly enjoyable read about “the power of quilts to connect, heal, and restore the soul.” For years Frances has hosted the popular “Off-Kilter Quilt” podcast, where she talks about her latest quilt projects with friends and fellow quilters around the globe. Quilting fans can also visit Frances online at QuiltFiction.com.
A FEW OF THE MANY BOOKS FRANCES ENJOYED READING AS 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
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Below are some of the questions Frances gets asked most often by students working on book reports.
How did you become a writer?
I started writing poetry when I was in first or second grade, and that’s all I really wrote for years and years. It wasn’t until I was almost thirty that I started writing stories. I’d been re-reading some of my favorite children’s books (like Harriet the Spy, and The Changeling by Zilpha Keatley Snyder) and decided that I wanted to write books for young people, too. I wrote a sort of practice novel (which is still at the bottom of a drawer somewhere) and a few months later wrote the first draft of Dovey Coe. It would be several years before I wrote a second draft. In the meantime, I worked at a variety of jobs, including motel housekeeper, legal secretary, and arts administrator.
When one of my friends, a writer, met a children’s book editor, she asked if I could send this editor some of my work to look at. The editor said yes. I sent her chapters from Dovey Coe and The Secret Language of Girls (which was the fourth book I wrote — there was another book, too, the book I wrote after Dovey Coe (but way before Dovey Coe got published — it’s confusing, I know) that wasn’t ultimately good enough to be published). She wrote me to say she was actually leaving book publishing to become a writer herself, but I should send the entire manuscript Dovey Coe to her colleague, Caitlyn Dlouhy, who at that time was also an editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books.
Caitlyn read Dovey Coe and rejected it. She wrote me a nice letter saying she liked Dovey, the character, a lot, but that the rest of the book needed work. She gave me some good advice for revising, and told me that if I did revise the book I should send the revision to her. Which I did, a year later. By then, Caitlyn was an editor at Atheneum Books for Young Readers, a division of Simon & Schuster. She liked the revision and agreed to publish it. She still made me do a bunch more revisions, though! (She always does.)
I’ve been writing books (and Caitlyn’s been editing my books) ever since.
Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
No, although I always wrote (mostly poetry when I was younger). My career choices included cartoonist, painter (I can’t paint, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to be an artist), and radio disc jockey. In fact, I went to college thinking I would go into radio (I love music, but don’t have much musical talent), but fell under the influence of poetry and ended up majoring in English. It wasn’t until I was almost thirty that I decided I wanted to write children’s books.
Where do you get your ideas?
I’m inspired by all sorts of things — what I read in the paper, things that happened to me growing up, and just the stuff I wonder about when I’m driving around.
What advice do you have for young writers?
Read, read, read, write, write, write. Writing is like anything, you have to practice to get good at it. So if you’re serious about writing, make time to write every day. If you don’t know what to write about, write about your life. Keep a journal. Do character sketches of people you go to school with.
I don’t know many writers, even famous writers, who just sit down and write brilliant books without breaking a sweat. Most writers I know, including myself, write lousy or only so-so first drafts, make improvements, get feedback, and revise, revise, revise. All this to say: don’t expect to be perfect. Let yourself make mistakes. Do a lousy job — and then go back and do a better one.
Can you visit my school?
It depends. Sometimes it’s hard for me to travel a lot, because I’ve got a lot of family commitments. But if you’d like me to visit, you can have your teacher or librarian contact me using the information on the School & Library Visits Page.
Where and when do you write?
I have two writing spots: on the couch, next to my dog Travis, or else on my treadmill desk. I write mostly in the mornings and early afternoons. I write every morning Monday through Friday.
What inspired you to write Dovey Coe
I wanted to write a book set in the mountains of North Carolina, way back in the day, because I love everything about the mountains — the music, the folklore, and the arts and crafts. I started with a vague idea of writing a story about a girl and her brother, and then one day this voice came into my head and said, “My name is Dovey Coe, and I reckon it don’t matter if you like me or not.” The rest is history.
What inspired you to write Where I’d Like to Be
I got the idea for writing about a girl in foster care after volunteering in a group foster home very much like the one Maddie lives in. I was interested in writing about friendships that are made under difficult circumstances. At first I thought Maddie and Murphy would be good friends, but as I wrote the book that started to change. I realized that Murphy was a person with a lot of secrets. It’s hard to be good friends with somebody when you don’t know the whole truth about who they are.
What inspired you to write The Secret Language of Girls
When I was nine, my family moved to Charlottesville, Virginia. The first person I met was a girl named Suzie, who I immediately wanted to be best friends with. As it happened, another girl moved to our neighborhood about the same time I did, and she also wanted to be best friends with Suzie. I guess Suzie liked the attention, because for the next two and a half years, she would be best friends with Virginia for awhile and they’d give me the silent treatment, and then she’d turn around and be best friends with me, and we’d give Virginia the silent treatment. Finally, sometime around sixth grade, Virginia and I realized that we had much more in common with each other than either of us had with Suzie, and we became friends with each other and a whole group of neat kids who were smart and liked books.
What inspired you to write the Phineas L. MacGuire series
My son Jack really likes to read, but when he was little he was too young to read most of the books I’ve written. So I decided to write one I thought he and his friends would like, and since he was pretty interested in scientific matters, I decided to write a book about a kid who’s a serious scientist. It was fun for me and Jack to try out the experiments that Mac (aka Phineas L. MacGuire) does in the books.
What inspired you to write Falling In
I think probably one of the most common kid fantasies around is the one about stumbling onto a hidden world. Everyone loves the beginning of The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis for that very reason. A few years ago I decided I wanted to write a book about a girl who discovers a school beneath her school (I thought this up while dropping my son Jack off at his school on a rainy day, the exact right sort of day for imagining such a thing). Thus, Isabelle Bean was born.
It took me a long time to figure out the story. I’m not much of a fantasy reader (though I love The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander), so it took me a long to figure out the rules. For instance, when you fall into a whole new world, what’s happening in the world you left? Does anybody know you’re gone? Does time stop when you’re away?
I loved writing Falling In because it was so different from other books I’ve written. Because it wasn’t a first-person narrative, I could play around more with the narration and the language — I didn’t have to ‘stay in character.’ Will I write another book like Falling In? I don’t know yet. Stay tuned!
What inspired you to write Shooting the Moon
This was actually my husband’s idea. I was looking around for something to write about, and he suggested I write about a girl who was an Army Brat — that is, a kid whose mom or dad served in the U.S. Army. He figured that since I’d been an Army Brat myself, I’d know a thing or two about the subject. At first I didn’t think this was the greatest idea in the world, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked it.
It was fun to write about the way I’d grown up — like answering the phone “Col. O’Roark’s quarters, Missy speaking” (Missy was my childhood nickname) and some of the places I’d lived, like Fort Hood, Texas. Although what happens to Jamie and her family didn’t happen to mine (my older brother was much too young to serve in Vietnam — he wasn’t even a teenager at the time), I took a lot of my Army Brat experience and made it Jamie’s.
What inspired you to write Chicken Boy
I started writing Chicken Boy when I lived in the suburbs of Raleigh, North Carolina. North Raleigh is one of those places that just won’t stop growing, but driving around you’ll see little pockets of leftover rural communities tucked in between the subdivisions. I was interested in what it would like to be a country kid who goes to the school with kids who have no idea that people who say “yes ma’am” and “y’all” still exist. So the character of Tobin McCauley was born, and his story grew out of that triggering idea.