Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Bryn Mawr, Montgomery County
Author of the novel Riding the Bus With My Sister, Rachel Simon teaches at Bryn Mawr College.
Born in 1959, Rachel Simon had a turmoil-filled childhood. She spent the end of her childhood and young adult years struggling with her parents divorce, her mother’s abandonment, and her sister’s mental disability. These struggles served as topics for her books in indirect ways. After studying at Bryn Mawr College, she wrote Riding the Bus with My Sister (2002) —a novel that documents the issues in Simon’s life directly. This book not only brought her public recognition as a literary figure, but she also became well-known after the book was made into a movie. Today, she continues to write as well as speak out about understanding the differences between people, which is a trait she learned from her disabled sister.
Rachel Simon was born in 1959 in Newark, New Jersey. She was the second child of four. Her younger sister by only eleven months, Beth, is mentally disabled, which led Simon to write Riding the Bus with My Sister. At the age of eight, Simon’s father left her mother for an English professor who worked at the same college at which he taught. Years later, her mother became involved with an abusive con artist, whom she later married. Simon, her older sister, and younger brother all moved out, leaving Beth with their mother. Eventually, Beth came to live with their father where Simon and their brother lived. These events resulted in a falling out of six years between Simon and her mother.
Simon attended Solebury School, a boarding school in New Hope, starting at age 16. She then studied anthropology at Bryn Mawr College. After she graduated, she worked in various jobs, including paralegal, administrative assistant, and research supervisor for a television study. At 26-years-old she enrolled in a graduate program for creative writing.
After getting her degree in creative writing, Simon began teaching private creative writing classes. Later she took a job coordinating literary events at a Barnes & Noble in Princeton, New Jersey. She also began writing commentaries in The Philadelphia Inquirer and authored well-known books, such as The Magic Touch, The Writer’s Survival Guide, and Riding the Bus with My Sister. The Magic Touch, as described by the New York Times, is about a woman who is able to heal “the spiritually and physically wounded through sex.” After the woman realizes her gift, she sets out to save lost souls. The Magic Touch isn’t just an adult fairy tale; it also includes satire of real life with characters, who share resemblances to Dan Quayle and John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer, and theological contemplation of whether God or the devil really exists. The Magic Touch was hailed by Publishers Weekly as being unpredictable and inventive, with “a slam-bang finish.” Valerie Sayers, in a book review published in the New York Times, said, “Rachel Simon is a sharp, expansive satirist, and The Magic Touch is an auspicious debut.” But others criticized her first novel as having an implausible setting. Kirkus Reviews said of the novel: “...despite its heavy themes...the novel never gets any more than ankle-deep.”
A couple of years later, Simon wrote The Writer’s Survival Guide. Unfortunately, the book didn’t become very well-known. Simon, then, developed writer’s block for several years. Eventually, she was inspired to write Riding the Bus with My Sister, which gained national recognition. Riding the Bus with My Sister is an autobiography of sorts.It describes the events of one year that Simon spent riding the public buses of a small Pennsylvania city with her mentally disabled sister, Beth. Beth had decided years before this to spend her days on the public buses with the drivers and passengers, who became her friends, instead of looking for a job like her family had wanted. After riding the buses with Beth one day for a commentary on her sister’s unique activities, Beth invited Simon to ride with her for a year. Simon was then inspired to write a novel about her life and the struggles she encountered having a mentally disabled sister. Riding the Bus with My Sister switches between the events that take place throughout the year and Simon’s family’s past. Simon covers the many troubling events in her life and uses these to try and explain how she became who she is. Riding the Bus with My Sister received nothing but praise. June Pulliam called the novel “absorbing and honest.” Publishers Weekly described Riding the Bus with My Sister a “perceptive, uplifting chronicle.” The novel went on to win the School Library Journal Best Nonfiction Award and the Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award. Riding the Bus with My Sister was also adapted into a Hallmark movie starring Rosie O’Donnell and Andie MacDowell.
Even though the popularity of Riding the Bus with My Sister put Rachel Simon in the limelight, not much has changed. She continues to teach creative writing classes both privately and at Bryn Mawr College. She still writes a commentary for the Philadelphia Inquirer, though she is now a resident of Delaware. She is currently working on a follow-up book to The Writer’s Survival Guide. The change that has been made in her career is that she is now a sought-after guest speaker. She has spoken on the issues surrounding having a family member with a mental disability and how to be more accepting and open to others. The largest change in her life since Riding the Bus with My Sister was her renewed relationship with her sister, Beth.
Little Nightmares, Little Dreams. Boston: Houghton Mifflin/ Seymour Lawrence, 1990.
The Magic Touch. New York: Viking, 1994.
The Writer’s Survival Guide. Cincinnati: Story Press, 1997.
Riding the Bus with My Sister. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.
“Rachel Simon.” The Gale Literary Databases: Contemporary Authors Online. 15 Nov. 2005. 23 Jan. 2006 <>http://www.galenet.com>.
Rotella, Mark, Sarah R. Gold, Lynn Andriani, and Michael Scharf. Rev. of Riding the Bus with my Sister, by Rachel Simon. Publishers Weekly (17 June 2002): 54.
Sayers, Valerie. “Kit Loves Caboodle.” Rev. of The Magic Touch, by Rachel Simon. New York Times (15 May 1994): A28.
Simon, Rachel. “Prodigal Mother; After six years, I saw her again. And came away thinking that everything I had believed until then—about her, about my family, about good and evil—was wrong.” Washington Post (29 Aug. 1999): W14.