Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Hollidaysburg, Blair County
Writer of The Cat Ate My Gym Suit (1974), Paula Danziger lived in Hollidaysburg for a time.
Born on August 18, 1944, Paula Danziger used her niece and her own childhood as inspirations for her award-winning work as a children’s book author. She gained a strong following in both the United States and England with both her Amber Brown series and non-serial books alike. A vivacious personality, Danziger passed away in 2004, after winning the admiration of both children and adults, as well as honors such as the Ludington Award, given annually to an outstanding individual in the field of children’s literature; and the Read-a-Thon Author of the Year, given by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Paula Danziger was a children’s book author whose personality is as well-remembered as her award-winning books. After the success of her first published work, 1974s The Cat Ate My Gymsuit, Danziger wrote over 30 books, many of which have been published in 53 countries and 14 languages. Most critical acclaim for Danziger’s work notes her smart, witty voice and characters who accurately embody both the joys and struggles of children and teens. “I made the choice long ago to write about real life,” Danziger said in an interview with Kids Reads in 1998. “And real life is both serious and funny.”
Danziger was born August 18, 1994, in Washington, DC, and lived in Nutley, New Jersey, and Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, before her family settled in Metuchen, New Jersey when she was in sixth grade. The author made it no secret that she grew up in a dysfunctional family, and attributed much of her childhood angst to her father, whom she described as explosive and uptight. “He had a very bad temper,” she told her biographer, Kathleen Krull. “He never hit, just yelled. His word was law, and if you disagreed you got screamed at and demeaned. My mother was weak and couldn’t stand up to him.”
A bright spot in her childhood memories, however, was visiting the library. Danziger was drawn to books at a young age, and by second grade she knew that she wanted to be an author. “I remember growing up and having my father yell at me and thinking while he was yelling, ‘That’s okay, sometime you can use this in a book,” she told Krull. As a result, her first book, The Cat Ate My Gymsuit, aimed at pre-teens, is the most autobiographical of her works. Main character Marcy Lewis hates her father, is overweight, and has low self-esteem and an annoying little brother. When the reader meets Marcy, the 13-year-old is fed up with her family and peers, and dreads going to gym class—hence the title of the book, one of the pitiful excuses Marcy comes up with to avoid the torturous period. But then comes a savior, in the form of her new English teacher, Ms. Finney. Unlike Marcy’s last teacher, Ms. Finney seems to actually care about her students, and is smart, using teaching methods that actually interest the class. She teaches Marcy how to better communicate with others, and Marcy begins to come out of her shell, just in time to defend Ms. Finney when heartless principal Mr. Stone tries to fire her.
While readers have been known to find several other similarities between Danziger and Ms. Finney, such as a funky sense of style and brazen attitude towards authority, the most striking is that Danziger was also once a middle school English teacher. After earning her B.A. in English at Montclair State College (she later when back to earn her M.A. in Reading in 1973), before she decided to write books, she taught from 1967-1971 at two middle schools in New Jersey. She enjoyed her job and was popular with her students, who identified her as the “kooky yet fun” teacher. Danziger only began to reconsider her career when an ordeal in 1970 forced her to—she was in two major car accidents within one week, rendering her to a hospital bed for several weeks. She began to see a therapist for the anguish her accidents had stirred up in her, and decided that at this pivotal point in her life, she would finally do what she had always dreamed: become a writer.
Thus came The Cat Ate My Gymsuit. Shortly after its publication, Veronica Geng, for the New York Times Book Review, called it “snappy, contemporary… funny and alive.” And it still receives praise—years later, in 2005, Cindy Lombardo of the School Library Journal said “Paula Danziger’s compassionate and accurate portrayal of a young girl struggling to find her own voice rings as true today as it did 30 years ago. A full cast brings this modern American classic of teenage angst to life with humor and pathos.” Booklist included it in its “50 titles of literary merit and lasting appeal for a junior high audience” published between 1950 and 1984; also, the book won the Massachusetts Children’s Book Award, and was included in the “Children’s Choices” list of the International Reading Association’s Children’s Book Council. Danziger was an overnight success.
Marcy Lewis won so much affection from readers that in 1980 Danziger wrote a sequel, There’s a Bat in Bunk Five, which also won the Children’s Choice award. In a Booklist review, Barbara Elleman said “Danziger’s ability to create believable, funny dialogue and to capture the feelings and thoughts of a 14-year-old is highly evident… Readers will be captivated by the natural flow and breezy style,” noted Krull. Between the two Marcy stories, she wrote The Pistachio Prescription, about a well-liked yet insecure teenager, and Can You Sue Your Parents for Malpractice?, about a ninth-grader with an unhappy home life who wants to become a lawyer. Wacky books titles such as these were a device Danziger, who also liked to name her characters after her favorite comedians, would use consistently in her career.
As her success took off, Danziger’s life began to evolve. She moved to New York, where she split time between New York City and Woodstock, and took public speaking jobs. She also befriended others in the writing circle, even co-authoring two books with Ann M. Martin, creator of “The Baby Sitters Club” series. Additionally, she and Bruce Coville, also a children’s book author, began to read each other their manuscripts over the phone for advice and motivation. After her death, he told Publisher’s Weekly about how the first time he met Danziger at a librarian’s conference, she went around to all the librarians to engage them in conversation. “…Everyone in the room loved her before she uttered the first word of her speech,” he remembered. In the same article, author Elizabeth Levy said of Danziger: “In real life, as in books, she had the gift for creating intimacy, friends who could share their deepest fears, loves and hopes as well as laughs.”
Danziger also became an avid traveler, going to almost every state to speak to grade schoolers, and also to many foreign countries. She spent the most time in England, where she, her outrageous outfits, and her books became hugely popular, and even appeared regularly on the BBC children’s show Live and Kicking.
After a publishing several more non-serial books for teens, such as The Divorce Express (1984), It’s an Aardvark-Eat-Turtle World (1985), and Remember Me to Harold Square (1987) until the early nineties, Danziger decided to begin a series for older elementary-aged children. The idea blossomed after she was inspired by a telephone conversation with her niece, Carrie Danziger, who was seven at the time. Danziger came up with the idea for character Amber Brown, a precocious, spunky fourth-grader whose parents are divorced. In the first Amber book, Amber Brown is Not a Crayon, published in 1993, Amber (who at this time is in third grade) learns that her best friend, Justin, is moving away, and has to cope with both the loss of both him and her father (who has just moved to France). Concurring with other literary critics, the Horn Book Review said “Amber convinces the reader that she is resilient and will, even without Justin, make her way through the end of third grade; she is a pleasure to spend time with.” This same year Danziger was named the Outstanding Pennsylvania Author by the Pennsylvania School Librarians’ Association.
In the rest of the 13 Amber Brown books, Amber deals with subjects such as advancing to fourth grade, getting the chicken pox, hating her hair, and her mom getting remarried. As Danziger told Kids Reads, “Amber Brown seems to have struck a chord with so many kids. I think that’s lovely. It’s wonderful when I get letters that say how funny she is or how she helps kids get through difficult things. I hope Amber helps people be more gentle.” As Amber grew in popularity, Danziger also wrote a subset of Amber books for first through third graders.
Danziger died in 2004 at age 59, after complications from a heart attack she suffered a month earlier. Says her friend and fellow author Pamela Curtis Swallow, “Paula’s greatest gift was her insistence upon being true and honest to one’s unique self. She encouraged adults and children alike to enjoy their individuality, creativity and playfulness.”
The Cat Ate My Gymsuit. New York: Dell Publishing, 1974.
The Pistachio Prescription. New York: Dell Publishing, 1978.
Can You Sue Your Parents for Malpractice? New York: Dell Publishing, 1979.
There’s a Bat in Bunk Five. New York: Dell Publishing, 1980.
The Divorce Express. New York: Dell Publishing, 1982.
Remember Me to Harold Square. New York: Dell Publishing, 1987.
Amber Brown is Not a Crayon. New York: Putnam, 1994.