Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Bryn Mawr, Montgomery County
Young Adult author Catherine Murdock attended Bryn Mawr College.
Catherine Murdock grew up in Connecticut and went to Bryn Mawr College. She received her doctorate in American Civilization at the University of Pennsylvania. After graduation, she became a struggling screenwriter and scholar. Murdock wrote her first book, Dairy Queen, in 2006. She continued writing and went on to write sequels to Dairy Queen and many other young adult (YA) novels. At the time of this writing, she lives in Philadelphia with her husband and two children, Nick and Mimi.
Catherine Gilbert Murdock grew up on a Christmas tree farm in rural Litchfield, Connecticut, with her parents, her sister, Elizabeth, a few goats, and honey bees. Her parents worked as a chemical engineer and a nurse. The family had one television that received only two channels and needed to be cooled down every forty-five minutes. The young Gilbert sisters found other ways to entertain themselves. While Murdock was the empress of the Young Adult (YA) section of their library, her sister Elizabeth was considered the writer in the family. Elizabeth is now the famous author of Eat, Pray, Love.
Murdock had a lot of favorite books as a child, but two stood out to her: C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and Richard Adams’ Watership Down. To this day, she said that she “sees [Watership Down] on her shelf every couple years and [she] pull[s] it down and read[s] the last 150 pages because it is just so good” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014). Growing up, Murdock wanted to be a writer. In fifth grade, she decided that her pen name would be Gwen Tucker, because she thought the name was romantic. When she entered into high school, she tossed away the idea of becoming a writer along with her pen name.
After finishing high school, Murdock entered Bryn Mawr College, a woman’s liberal arts school. After graduating from Bryn Mawr in 1988, Murdock went on to the University of Pennsylvania where she earned her Ph. D. in American Civilization in 1995. Murdock published her dissertation titled “Domestic Drink: Women, Men and Alcohol in America, 1879-1940” in 1998.
Murdock’s career as a writer was not productive until she published her first book, Dairy Queen, in 2006. Until then Murdock was a struggling screenwriter and a struggling scholar. Asked by Angela Arnold and Linda Katzman what inspired her to become an author, she answered “Dairy Queen.” More specifically, she “came up with the idea for Dairy Queen, [and she] really wanted to read the story — but the only way this was going to happen was if [she] wrote it first! So [she] did.” Murdock’s sister told her that she had to publish the book, and without any thought, Murdock submitted it to a publisher. When Murdock got the call that the book was going to be published, she felt “Shock. Pure shock. [She had] written this book for [HER] to read — it never occurred to [her] that other people would want to read it, too.”
Dairy Queen is a young adult (YA) novel narrated by D.J. Schwenk, a fifteen-year-old who is the only girl in her Wisconsin farm family. When D.J.’s father is injured, she ends up picking up the slack around the farm, which ends up cutting into her life outside of the farm. She ends up tutoring the rival school’s star football player, at the request of his coach, who happens to be a family friend. D.J. ultimately falls for the player and chooses to try out for her own football team.
The novel was received with opened arms, and the critics raved about it. Ruth Conniff wrote in The New York Times: “This book is a breath of fresh air among bookshelves crammed with young adult novels featuring mean obsessed girls with looks, designer labels and claustrophobic high school hierarchy.” Murdock did not write Dairy Queen thinking it would turn into a series, but she did end up writing two more books to follow.
Dairy Queen’s sequels, The Off Season (2007) and Front and Center (2009), help D.J. develop as a character when she is faced with decisions such as what college she should choose and what to do about her best girl friend developing feelings for her. Murdock’s readers enjoyed these books as much as they did the first time around. The Booklist critic Jennifer Hubert said that D.J.’s “self-deprecating and humorous voice is still as fresh the third time around” (2014). Although readers fell in love with D.J. the Wisconsin farm girl, Murdock changed setting completely for her next few books.
Murdock taught creative writing at Bryn Mawr College for the 2008-2009 school year. At the same time, she began writing her other books, Princess Ben: Being a Wholly Truthful Account of Her Various Discoveries and Misadventures, Recounted to the Best of Her Recollection, in Four Parts (2008) and Wisdom’s Kiss: A Thrilling and Romantic Adventure, Incorporating Magic, Villainy and a Cat (2011), are both about princesses that find themselves in unusual situations. Princess Ben is about an orphaned princess whose parents kept her away from the royal life and let her play in the dirt. Her aunt, the queen and her new guardian, is cruel and wants to marry her off, but Ben finds a way to make a double of herself and enchant a broom. Wisdom's Kiss features a princess who is traveling with her family to go to a wedding, but ends up getting involved with the circus.
Princess Ben, although very different than her first three books, was received very well. Gillian Engberg of The Booklist stated that “Murdock’s protagonist [Princess Ben] is a winning, iconoclastic teen female.” Engberg also said that Murdock “spins a rip-roaring yarn that borrows fairy-tale conventions… and reverses them to suit her strong, resourceful heroine. The wild adventure, intricately imagined setting, memorable characters, and romance will charm readers.”
Wisdom’s Kiss was met with glowing reviews. Frances Bradburn’s The Booklist review states that the book was “interwoven with the straightforward narration… such as letters and diary entries, a play within a play, and excerpts from The Imperial Encyclopedia of Lax, 8th Edition. Packed with double entendres, humorous dialogue and situations, and a black cat that will capture the reader’s imagination, this is a joyful, timeless fantasy that teens will savor.”
Leaving the fairytale motif behind, Murdock published Heaven Paved with Oreos in 2013. Written in the style of a journal, the reader travels with fourteen-year old Sarah as she goes on a trip with her Grandma to Rome, but, while there, her Grandma suddenly loses gusto for the trip.
Murdock talked about Oreos during a promotional interview for her publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on YouTube. When she asked for one word that describes her book, she offered the word “important,” because her book is about “how to be a kid, how to be in a family, about how to handle love, and trust and all these big concepts. [Concepts] that you grapple with when you are 12 and [that] you’re kind of grappling with when you’re 45 and [concepts] people grapple with their whole life.” She did not write the book for it to be a message book, but she likes the message that is woven into it. In the same interview, she says that middle school readers will like her book because:
… [I]t’s a story about real people. It’s a story about a real girl wondering what it’s like to be in high school. And wondering what it’s like to be in a relationship with someone. And what it means when adults around her are keeping secrets and finding them out and what she is going to do with those. And these are real issues… there is stuff that goes on in adults that does not go on in children. And it’s about trying to figure out how to balance between the two.
Heaven Paved with Oreos was made “for younger readers, and features D. J. in a smaller but still important role,” as Ann Kelley wrote for her review in The Booklist. Kelley also acknowledges some of the flaws of Murdock’s book: “Sarah is 14, heading into ninth grade, but she sounds and acts much younger, which can be distracting… the scenes at the Roman churches feel long, ultimately, this is a sweet story about family and love, which should appeal to tween readers of Wendy Mass.”
Catherine Gilbert Murdock is happily married to husband James, is a mother to two children, Nick and Mimi, and owns several cats. She and her family live in Philadelphia and still travel north to her family’s farm. Murdock continues writing with magic because, as she told Arnold and Katzman: “Every story is better with a bit of magic in it.”
Domesticating Drink: Women, Men, and Alcohol in America, 1870-1940. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
Dairy Queen: A Novel. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.
The Off Season. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007.
Princess Ben: Being a Wholly Truthful Account of Her Various Discoveries and Misadventures, Recounted to the Best of Her Recollection, in Four Parts. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008.
Front and Center. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2009.
Wisdom’s Kiss: A Thrilling and Romantic Adventure, Incorporating Magic, Villany, and a Cat. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2011.
Heaven Paved with Oreos. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2013.