Cynthia Voigt 1942–
Voigt's novels for young adults are noted for their realistic plots and well-developed, individualized characters. The role of the family figures prominently throughout Voigt's work. Her first novel, Homecoming (1981), introduces Dicey Tillerman, who is also the protagonist of Voigt's Newbery Prize-winning Dicey's Song (1982). In Homecoming, twelve-year-old Dicey must take charge of her three younger siblings after their mother, who is on the brink of a mental breakdown, deserts them. This novel recounts the hardships faced by the children during their search for a home and the warmth and love that binds them together. Although some critics found the work overly detailed and lacking in credibility, most gave the book favorable reviews. Dicey's Song, which many critics consider more tightly constructed than Homecoming, follows the lives of the Tillerman children after they move in with their grandmother. Critics commend the depth with which Voigt portrays the children's psychological growth as they struggle to adapt.
Voigt's recent A Solitary Blue (1983) chronicles the painful adolescence of Jeff Green, a boy introduced as a secondary character in Dicey's Song. This work also revolves around family issues: Jeff's mother has deserted him, leaving him in the charge of his distant and reserved father. Together the father and son learn to trust each other and to enjoy the love developing between them. Tell Me If the Lovers Are Losers (1982) explores the friendship between four individuals with strikingly different backgrounds and attitudes toward life. The Callender Papers (1983) differs from Voigt's other novels, for it is a mystery set in the past. However, like the other novels, its plot is realistic and carefully paced and its thematic foundation is based on the family.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 106 and Something about the Author, Vol. 33.)
The characterizations of the children [deserted by their mother in Homecoming] are original and intriguing, and there are a number of interesting minor characters encountered in their travels. While the scope and extent of their journey has an element of unbelievability about it, the abundance of descriptions that detail their efforts to survive and keep going help achieve a semblance of reality. The only real problem with the story is that it's just too long, and despite the built-in suspense of the plot, the ongoing tension suffers in the multitude of crises.
Marilyn Kaye, in a review of "Homecoming," in School Library Journal, Vol. 27, No. 8, April, 1981, p. 144.
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[In Homecoming the father of four children] had walked out long ago, and now Momma had left them in a parking lot and disappeared; en route to the Connecticut home of a great-aunt, the four children decided to walk there. Dicey, thirteen, takes charge of the younger three…. The writing style is good, the children strongly characterized if a bit precocious, and many of the incidents on the various stages of their journeys have drama (the six-year-old steals food when they are all hungry; a mercenary farmer tries to capture them, claiming they're his foster children; they are rescued by a circus owner and stay with the circus for a time) but the book is too long, too detailed, too uneven in pace to have real impact.
Zena Sutherland, in a review of "Homecoming," in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Vol. 34, No. 9, May, 1981, p. 183.
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Despite flaws, the alarmingly hostile characterization of most adults, an overly long ending, [Homecoming] is a glowing book. Its disturbing undercurrent of hostility and cynicism is counter-balanced by the [children's] obvious love and loyalty to one another, and by the capability, cleverness and determination that characterize all the survival episodes on the road and the homemaking scenes in Maryland.
The bleak fundamentals of the children's situation may be strong stuff for many young readers, but for those who have the resilience to take it, the accomplishments of this feisty band of complex and, in contrast to the adults, sympathetically conceived kids makes for an enthralling journey to a gratifying end.
Kathleen Leverich, in a review of "Homecoming," in The New York Times Book Review, May 10, 1981, p. 38.
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Karen M. Klockner
The children [in Homecoming] … are carefully individualized, and the author reveals with subtlety and perceptiveness the psychological stress on each of them. She has a good command of language and moves easily between descriptive passages and dialogue. Throughout the book the children try to understand why they have been left in [their] … situation and what they should do about it. Although the outcome is not wholly convincing, the account of the events leading up to it is imaginative, thought-provoking, and worked out to the finest detail. (p. 439)
Karen M. Klockner, in a review of "Homecoming," in The Horn Book Magazine, Vol. LVII, No. 4, August, 1981, pp. 438-39.
(The entire section is 106 words.)
An eastern college for women of high ability is the setting for [Tell Me If the Lovers Are Losers], an unusual teenage novel about three disparate freshmen who come together as room-mates in 1961…. Volleyball becomes their common ground as Hildy, who has an almost mystical impact on her teammates, coaches and leads the freshmen toward the championship. Vivid imagery vies with effectively subtle understatement in a thoughtful multiple-character study written in the third person but filled with introspection, primarily from Ann's perspective. Characterizations—not only major but supporting ones—are consistently and distinctively individualized while interactions and mutual influences are developed naturally, making this both provocative and rewarding….
A review of "Tell Me If the Lovers Are Losers," in Booklist, Vol. 78, No. 14, March 15, 1982, p. 950.
(The entire section is 124 words.)
School Library Journal
[Tell Me If the Lovers Are Losers] is heavy going…. After a sluggish start, during which the girls get acquainted (eventually they develop a strong bond of friendship and respect), there is lots of volleyball action as that sport becomes the center of the girls' lives their first semester. The story offers a good look at adjusting, coping, and competing to win. But it is thick with philosophy as each girl presents her background and view of life. The girls talk like very intelligent college students. The author also gives midwestern Hildy a prim, precise and stilted voice that does not register as true or representative of the region. Nothing special is done with the time period. One can come to know these roommates, but there is much to go through to get there.
A review of "Tell Me If the Lovers Are Losers," in School Library Journal, Vol. 28, No. 9, May, 1982, p. 88.
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The forging of the [volleyball] team is the real story [in "Tell Me If the Lovers Are Losers"], and it's a compelling, immensely satisfying one. A collection of six disparate and, in many respects, disagreeable young women grows through stress and self-discipline from anarchy and infighting, past tolerance and mutual respect, to devotion and loyalty.
As with Mrs. Voigt's previous novel, "Homecoming," the theme of this book is bonding. No problem in that, but "Tell Me If the Lovers Are Losers" suffers (and to an even greater extent) from the same excesses that marred the earlier work: exaggeration of character and the sacrifice of the theme to improbable theatrics. No literary or thematic purpose is served by the melodramatic ending; on the contrary, the book is considerably diminished. And readers would be more inclined to accept the characters if their personalities were drawn in subtle shadings instead of in caricatures.
Mrs. Voigt is a wonderful writer with powerfully moving things to say. Her books, however, overcompensate for what she apparently feels are excessively subtle conflicts and an atmosphere that is too rarified for the general reader. When she dispenses with contrivances and sensationalism, her characters and scenes come alive in their own unique and exciting way.
Kathleen Leverich, in a review of "Tell Me If the Lovers Are Losers," in The New York Times Book...
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Denise M. Wilms
[Dicey's Song] details Dicey's settlement into adolescence and a new life with Gram…. The story is a perceptive exposition of two strong personalities, Dicey and Gram, neither of whom is perfect but both of whom learn powerful lessons in reaching out and accepting love…. The vividness of Dicey is striking; Voigt has plumbed and probed her character inside out to fashion a memorable protagonist. Unlike most sequels, this outdoes [Homecoming] by being more fully realized and consequently more resonant. (p. 50)
Denise M. Wilms, in a review of "Dicey's Song," in Booklist, Vol. 79, No. 1, September 1, 1982, pp. 49-50.
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The strong characterization of Homecoming … to which [Dicey's Song is a sequel is one of the most trenchant facets again, in this story of the four children who live with their grandmother on the Eastern Shore of Maryland…. [Dicey's Song] is much more cohesive than Homecoming, in part because the physical scope is narrower, in part because the author has so skillfully integrated the problems of the individual children in a story that is smoothly written. Dicey learns how to make friends, how to accept the fact that she is maturing physically, how to give and forgive, how to adjust—in a touching final episode—to the death of the mother whose recovery she had longed for. A rich and perceptive book.
Zena Sutherland, in a review of "Dicey's Song," in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Vol. 36, No. 2, October, 1982, p. 38.
(The entire section is 142 words.)
[With Dicey's Song, Cynthia Voigt] proves that heroines of young adult fiction can be mature, considerate, even exemplary, and still seem quite real. Dicey Tillerman, the heroine of Dicey's Song, is not just good, she is strong, like a birch sapling, and it is Voigt's skill in convincing us of that strength that makes her seem so real. (p. 8)
Of course the journey [that began in Homecoming] isn't over once Gram's house has been reached. Dicey still must play the leader, making accommodation with a proud and independent grandmother (who reluctantly has to go on welfare to support them all), trying to help Sammy, Maybeth and James navigate successfully through a new world.
Dicey is a fulcrum for the characters balanced about her: zany Sammy who, at 8, is trying to be good, for a change; Maybeth, a musical prodigy who still can't quite read; James, bookish and serious, but struggling to make friends; Gram, hard-nosed and intensely private, shielding herself from further pain. Dicey seems to know how to exploit one's strength to compensate for another's weakness. And she and Gram somehow keep everything and everyone in equilibrium.
In spite of its carefully circumscribed rural setting, Dicey's Song, is rich with themes and harmonies, even verities. Loyalty and love, "reaching out" as Gram says, are the qualities Voigt writes about here with grace and wit. (pp. 8-9)...
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Mrs. Voigt has a nice way with language, blunt, taut and precise. She uses small but powerful images that rise above the ordinary yet still remain within the grasp of a juvenile audience. She keeps her distance and sustains an objectivity that prevents the story from falling into melodrama.
"Dicey's Song" … is a series of movements and contrasts. But under it all there's a goal of harmony that's eventually realized as Dicey learns what to reach out for and what to give up.
Marilyn Kaye, in a review of "Dicey's Song," in The New York Times Book Review, March 6, 1983, p. 30.
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Spunky heroines: I've lived my life since girlhood wanting to be one and to this day they remain my preferred characters in fiction. But, in reading these two new novels, Them That Glitter and Them That Don't [by Bette Greene] and The Callender Papers [by Cynthia Voigt], I missed that familiar frisson of identification with the protagonists of either book. This isn't, I hasten to add, simply because I'm from the wrong age-group, or I don't think it is; certainly, I continue to become Alice or Dorothy over and over again, when I reread their adventures….
This magical process of "identification" can't be achieved by formula; rather, it's like what they say about love: it's chemical…. [There] wasn't a single moment in either book that I had that connection with, and I want to explain why.
Both Bette Greene and Cynthia Voigt have chosen to write about worlds which they are viewing from the outside…. [Voigt] places hers in the later 19th century and has given us a gothic plot ("eine kleine Gothik"), the conventions of which she takes on earnestly and with a funless air of being duty-bound to provide the necessaries. In The Callender Papers the self-contained and resolute but unconvincingly juvenile heroine is a mere 12-year-old, an orphan, sent to a mysterious manse to help an old acquaintance of her guardian sift through and arrange some family papers….
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Less ambitious than Voigt's other novels, [The Callender Papers] conforms to an established juvenile-fiction genre, but it is a superior example of its type. Written in the first person with a touch of period primness, it's the story of Jean Wainwright's 13th summer in 1894, which she spends away from Aunt Constance, the admirable girls'-school headmistress who raised her, in the employ of wintery Mr. Thiel, the widower of Aunt Constance's girlhood friend Irene Callender. Mr. Thiel has summoned Jean to sort and dispose of several cartons of Callender family papers, a dull and bewildering task. But the Callender family mystery proves more in riguing: Why is Mr. Thiel not on speaking terms with Enoch Callender, Irene's younger brother, who lives nearby? Was Irene murdered, and if so by whom? And what happened to her child, who disappeared soon after its mother's death? As the summer and her task proceed, Jean becomes better acquainted with both Enoch and Mr. Thiel, and with Mac, the local doctor's son, who becomes her partner in tracking down the family secrets…. [Through] it all she exhibits a direct good sense and alert intelligence that win regard from all parties, and from readers as well. Readers may suspect all along what Jean discovers only at the end—that she herself is the Callender heir, Mr. Thiel is her father, and Enoch, spoiled and discontented, is responsible for his doting sister's death. But knowing that doesn't lessen the...
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Ethel L. Heins
Fluent but never terse, the author compounds the mystery [that is the center of The Callender Papers] with a multitude of details and digressions, some of which border on melodrama. And Jean, so young in years, may strain the reader's credulity with her mature, self-possessed first-person account, which occasionally dips into fairly complex moral, and even philosophical, discussions.
Ethel L. Heins, in a review of "The Callender Papers," in The Horn Book Magazine, Vol. 59, No. 4, August, 1983, p. 458.
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Uncovering what the past has hidden, Jean [in "The Callender Papers"] finds the present menacing. Thinking carefully, as she has been taught to do, doesn't protect her from the evil she meets in life for the first time. She learns that what lies beneath the surface in people is not always what one imagines as she slowly pieces together what is really going on….
As in her Dicey Tillerman books, Cynthia Voigt gives us a spunky young heroine forced into precocious independence and resourcefulness, as well as adults who'll victimize kids if allowed. Although this genre novel is entertaining, interesting and well-written, it does not, and does not pretend to, offer the sensitively drawn, richly memorable real-life characters and situations that made its predecessors so rewarding.
Miriam Berkley, in a review of "The Callender Papers," in The New York Times Book Review, August 14, 1983, p. 29.
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Gloria P. Rohmann
Written in a purposefully detached style, early sections of [A Solitary Blue] read like a journalistic case-study of child neglect. The confrontation with [Jeff's mother], Melody, which would seem to be the climax, comes quite early in the book, and further chapters, while necessary to show Jeff's ultimate resolution of his relationship with his parents, are choppy, episodic and disconnected. The last section, in which he meets Dicey Tillerman and her family [from Voigt's earlier books] … is unnecessary and dull. While well-written (the character of the father is outstanding), the book ultimately disappoints: Melody is a monster, and Jeff's feelings are never clearly portrayed. The theme of a child abandoned by his mother will be interesting to some, but many will lose interest in later chapters. (p. 140)
Gloria P. Rohmann, in a review of "A Solitary Blue," in School Library Journal, Vol. 30, No. 1, September, 1983, pp. 139-40.
(The entire section is 146 words.)
[A Solitary Blue] is the story of Jeff Greene, the guitar-playing high school boy Dicey Tillerman meets in Dicey's Song (1982)—but the connection isn't made until near the end. The story begins, matter-of-factly but with Kramer vs. Kramer pathos, when Jeff at seven finds his mother Melody's note explaining that she loves him but had to leave him to help the world's less fortunate and "make things better." Jeff is left with his stiff, expressionless father…. The summer Jeff turns 12, his mother invites him to stay with her at her grandmother's house in Charleston; and though he doesn't see much of her he is overcome with love—cherishing her memory through the year, writing monthly unanswered letters, and buying a cheap used guitar because she had played one…. The next summer Jeff returns to Charleston, but sees even less of his mother—she is off on long trips with her dreadful boyfriend—and goes home dangerously withdrawn. The healing process begins several months later with a move from Baltimore to a Chesapeake Bay cabin he and his father choose together. Jeff does well at his new school, makes some friends, meets Dicey, and hangs out with the Tillermans—and he and his father, still reserved, become closer and easier with each other…. Later Jeff resolves his mixed heritage by deciding to go into ecology: "No, not saving the world or getting back to the good old prehistoric days, not that," he tells his father. "But...
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In "Bleak House," Charles Dickens gave us Mrs. Jellyby, who took such a charitable interest in far-away Borrioboola-Gha that she failed to notice when her own wretched children were falling down the stairs.
Cynthia Voigt [in "A Solitary Blue"] has created a contemporary version of Mrs. Jellyby, an equally appalling mother-philanthropist…. (p. 34)
The reader guesses from the beginning of this beautifully written story that the mother is a washout—guesses too that the father's still waters run deep. The book has a natural suspense. One wants to see the boy discover the truth about his parents for himself. There is an "I could have told you so" satisfaction in seeing him betrayed once again by his mother, pleasure in watching the development of his new friendship with his responsible father. Professor Greene's repressions and inhibitions begin to seem like virtues compared with Melody's treacherous "I love you's".
"A Solitary Blue" takes its name from the great blue heron Jeff sees in a South Carolina marsh while he is visiting his mother. Its solitude matches his own.
The story is slightly damaged by the appearance of a flock of new characters at the end, but nothing can undo the artistic thoroughness of this study of a boy in pain. (pp. 34-5)
Jane Langton, in a review of "A Solitary Blue," in The New York Times Book Review, November...
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