Wojciechowska, Maia (Teresa)
Maia (Teresa) Wojciechowska 1927–
Polish-born novelist, biographer, poet, and translator.
Wojciechowska won the Newbery Medal in 1965 for Shadow of a Bull, which, according to the awards committee, "epitomizes all humanity's struggle for conquest of fear and knowledge of self." The novel, set in Spain, relates a boy's agonizing decision not to follow his famous father as a bullfighter, but to establish his own identity. The need to become one's true self and to refuse to accept an identity based on others' expectations is a recurring theme in Wojciechowska's fiction. Her protagonists strive to find courage within themselves to confront and resolve problems that are usually the result of family or societal pressures.
While some critics complain of a didactic prose style that leads to contrived resolutions, most praise Wojciechowska's presentation of the struggle to assert oneself. Both Shadow of a Bull and Till the Break of Day, an account of Wojciechowska's adolescent flight during the Nazi invasion of Poland and her later anti-Nazi efforts, are viewed as important works and are strongly recommended for young adults. Although Wojciechowska turned away from young adult fiction in the mid-1970s, she remains an influential figure in young adult literature.
(See also Children's Literature Review, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 4; and Something about the Author, Vols. 1, 28.)
John R. Tunis
["Shadow of a Bull"] deals with fear in the heart of Manolo Olivar, a 12-year-old Spanish boy, son of a great bullfighter who had been killed in the ring.
The book is tight,… done by a writer whose native language is not English. Miss Wojciechowska knows bullfighting and, more important, she is a magnificent writer. In spare, economical prose she makes one feel, see, smell the heat, endure the hot Andalusian sun and shows one the sand and glare of the bullring. Above all, she lifts the veil and gives glimpses of the terrible loneliness in the soul of a boy.
Perhaps the ending was ever so slightly contrived. But the whole is so good it does not detract from an eloquent, moving book…. This book is a must; buy it, read it. If you do, I promise two things: anyone who starts "Shadow of a Bull" will finish it in a single sitting. Second, he won't be quite the same person he was before reading the book.
John R. Tunis, in his review of "Shadow of a Bull," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1964 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 22, 1964, p. 22.
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["Shadow of a Bull"] is about a little Spanish town whose heart is the market place and whose soul is the bull ring. The hero—or anti-hero—is the ten-year-old son of a famous bull-fighter. In the main square is a huge statue of his father, and in the cemetery, marking his father's grave, is another. The boy was three when his father was killed in the ring, and doesn't even remember him. Because of his father, he is treated with more respect than other boys, he is taken to the bullfights, he is allowed to see the bullfighters dressing and eating and waiting their turn in the ring, and to listen to their conversation. The men of the town talk to him incessantly of his father, and though he is unable to summon the courage to jump from a hay wagon with the other boys, he is expected to enter the bull ring alone when he is twelve and kill his first bull…. He wishes that he had not been born the son of his father, that he had not been born at all. It is a theme worthy of [Joseph] Conrad. The book's only weakness is its ending. So often, good fiction for children has a contrived ending—as if a book were a nursery that had to be tidied up, and the characters put back on their proper shelves, and the door firmly closed. But then the same thing is true of fiction for adults. Miss Wojciechowska knows everything there is to know about bullfighting and a lot about fear and courage.
Emily Maxwell, in her review of...
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["Shadow of a Bull"] is disarmingly simple; yet nuances of feeling continually break through, and their subtlety astonishes the adult reader who supposes that a book for children is necessarily … childish.
"Shadow of a Bull" is the story of Manolo Olivar, age 9 when the tale opens, and 11 when it concludes. He is the son of the man who had been the greatest bullfighter in Spain. (p. 103)
But Manolo lacks the fire of afición, the true love of the archaic contest—the ritual confrontation of a brave man with a brave bull, "the victory of man over death" which the Spanish call la fiesta brava. A sensitive, brooding, introspective boy, he knows this; but he is the son of his father, and that is a great burden as well as an exalted privilege….
A new illumination comes when he assists an old doctor in treating the wounds of a gored torero—and knows that healing is his true vocation.
Nevertheless, he engages in a novice fight. He is brilliant with the cape—but he is not born to the art and fails finally, cannot go through with the faena, the finale leading to the kill. But he has vindicated his honor, and now he can become a healer of wounds, and in that sense, a killer of death.
As accomplished and colorful as this prize-winning book is, it still poses interesting questions concerning the nature of children's literature. It can be argued...
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The author may well be proud of [Odyssey of Courage: The Story of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, a] history that reads like fiction, with a style that is flawless. Maia Wojciechowska has chosen to write about a man who is relatively unknown, but one who deserves much more recognition. Cabeza de Vaca's overland journey from Florida to Mexico, seeking for those cities of pure gold, is one of amazing endurance and courage, as exciting as any tale that [Walt] Disney could imagine…. [Cabeza de Vaca] tried to bring peace and freedom where only brutality and avarice existed. His enemies saw to it that he was imprisoned, misunderstood and misrepresented, that he would die a broken man with only his dreams and ideas and fervent love of God intact. But his principles live on to this day and young readers of the present will feel privileged to read this wonderful account.
A review of "Odyssey of Courage: The Story of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca," in Best Sellers (copyright 1965, by the University of Scranton), Vol. 25, No. 4, May 15, 1965, p. 102.
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Knowing perfectly well that only the certifiably insane believe it, I am all for instilling in legal infants the tragic sense of life, ideas of radical evil, existential decision, the intolerable certainty of death—though I would not, of course, deny them healthy play and sufficient sunlight. I have the lunatic, indefensible conviction that it is good for them—morally and aesthetically. I realize, by some monstrous irony of history and human perversity, that the great "children's books" are among the most unbearable of all books. Take the Brothers Grimm, and [Lemuel] Gulliver, and Huck [Finn], and [Robinson] Crusoe. Like any other great work of art, they tell the truth, they tell it pitilessly; and the truths they tell are often ugly, sometimes very nearly insupportable—which is simply to say that they tell the truth. (pp. 321-22)
We have so many ways of lying, so few of telling the truth. And lying is of the very essence of bad art. Lies are always prettier than the truth. They come in soft pastels and they smell nice. They seem more suitable—certainly for children. We tell ourselves they're not ready for the truths we know. After enough feedings, lies become the only truths they know….
The 1964 winner [of the Newbery Award] is Maia Wojciechowska's Shadow of a Bull, a book which seems to me to be a case in point. Although it contains some drawings, it is no picture book for tots. It is a short novel...
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Alden T. Vaughan
The exploits of the Spanish conquistadors are not always considered proper fare for children's books: the truth about them is too harsh, too cruel, too immoral. Maia Wojciechowska,… faces the facts squarely in ["Odyssey of Courage: The Story of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca"] her brief, vigorous biography of the man who first explored much of the area that became the southern United States and who later served as Spanish Governor of Paraguay.
The story is not a pretty one. The Spanish explorers and settlers display the full range of human crimes and vices: avarice and treachery, murder and slavery—even cannibalism. Yet over-shadowing all the brutality and terror are the courage, fortitude and humanity of Cabeza de Vaca. Almost alone Cabeza practiced Christian ethics in a part of the 16th-century world that paid lip service to God, but worshiped gold….
Miss Wojciechowska has based most of her book on Cabeza de Vaca's own "Relation," from which she quotes often and effectively. She employs imaginary dialogue skillfully if sometimes fancifully. "Odyssey of Courage," part fact, part plausible fiction, makes a fascinating, often shocking story of one man's courage in the face of appalling physical hardships and human opposition.
Alden T. Vaughan, in his review of "Odyssey of Courage: The Story of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1965 by...
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Houston L. Maples
[In A Kingdom in a Horse] a young teenager, David Earl,… feels betrayed and thwarted by his father, a daredevil rodeo clown. A rodeo catastrophe has convinced the father that his son must not follow his career. Retirement to a Vermont village brings an end to David's dreams and a period of bewilderment and pain. The horse is a tentative gift from the father. While David's love goes out to it immediately, he refuses to accept the horse and it is sold to a lonely widow: Sarah Tierney. With mounting enthusiasm the author describes the growing significance the horse comes to have for this elderly woman. It is the rebirth of loving, caring, giving—an Indian summer of fulfillment after helpless bereavement. Sarah's autumnal romance seems to reflect a greater degree of personal involvement for the author. One is carried along and persuaded, because Miss Wojciechowska … is a skillful writer: a suspicion lingers, however, that her interest in David declines as the story proceeds. Horse-story fans will relish the vivid portrait of a beautiful animal, probably without worrying about the significance of the horse. More thoughtful readers may be disappointed in the baldly convenient happy ending, which undermines the integrity of the whole. (p. 41)
Houston L. Maples, "Growing Pains," in Book Week—The Sunday Herald Tribune (© 1965, The Washington Post), October 31, 1965, pp. 20, 41.∗...
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Ellen Lewis Buell
It's well known that horse lovers are dedicated—some to the point of nuttiness—yet it is distressing to read [in "A Kingdom in a Horse"] of a 64-year-old woman as enamored of her first horse as any teen-age heroine. It is also hard to believe that Sarah, a Vermont farm woman, though newly widowed and lonely, would spend most of her waking and some of her sleeping hours with her mare.
One can believe in 13-year-old David Earl, though, whose life is briefly but momentously entwined with Sarah's and that of her mare, Gypsy…. [Maia Wojciechowska] poignantly evokes David's desperation when his father, a rodeo clown, retires after a nearly fatal goring. David, who has dreamed of being his father's partner, feels betrayed and retreats into sullen loneliness until he succumbs to Gypsy's charms and, eventually, to Sarah's generosity. David, in his hurt and natural self-centeredness, is the real thing but Sarah is an awkward invention. It follows that their story is fantasy, rather than the moving study of friendship between youth and age it might have been.
Ellen Lewis Buell, in her review of "A Kingdom in a Horse," in The New York Times Book Review, Part II (© 1965 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 7, 1965, p. 20.
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I saw her, for the first and only time, on a rainy November afternoon in 1962. We both boarded the Fifth Avenue bus, going downtown, at Forty-second Street. We both found seats at the back of the bus, and she sat across the aisle from me.
She wore glasses, had straight, long, mousey brown hair, an armful of books, an alpaca-lined raincoat, and a sad, small face. She was ugly and she knew it.
I imagined that she was the only child of an intellectual couple no longer married to each other. Her mother had a full-time job and would not be home until six. At least two evenings a week the mother took courses toward her master's, maybe once a week she went out with a man. Her father was a writer addicted to collecting, and adding to, obscure reference books. When she was little, before her parents were divorced, she was the center of their world. Now she was very much alone. Her intelligence made her a displaced person. It isolated her from other children and, even more, from adults…. Among her schoolbooks were two library books with their spines away from me, but with the stamp of the New York Public Library system on the accordion of pages. They were too thick to be children's books. (p. 142)
I stared at the girl until she looked at me, wrinkled her nose, and turned her head away. With that visual dismissal I suddenly knew that what I really wanted to do with my life was to write the kind of books she...
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Maia Wojciechowska is an extremely gifted writer. But in [The Hollywood Kid] it is painful to say, the excellence of her writing cannot mask the fact that what she is dishing out is specious, The Hollywood Kid is a stark little tale that begins at the bottom of despair and swiftly descends. Bryan Wilson, the 15-year-old only child of Hollywood's greatest movie queen, sits morosely beside his mother's huge swimming pool and asks: "Does life need to be so crummy?"
Bryan and his one friend, a 12-year-old girl named Martha, are lonely, sophisticated, cynical, bright, world-weary kids, drenched in luxury but thirsty for emotional life, deprived not only of love but also of anything resembling a normal home. They are frightened, hypersensitive, withdrawn and thoroughly bewildered. Both kids are casualties of destroyed marriages and disordered family lives, and both suffer from indifferent, egotistical and usually absent parents. And when Bryan tries to go outside himself and cope with the world the results are either dismal or disastrous. Each time, he builds brave illusions that then are promptly smashed, leaving him bruised and reeling and hopeless. But Bryan suddenly realizes what life is all about and what he can do to reverse his downward spiral.
Yes, you did read it correctly: he Suddenly Realizes. It's meant to be uplifting, but in fact it's enough to make strong psychiatrists shudder. The idea that a...
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School Library Journal
In [The Hollywood Kid] Miss Wojciechowska does succeed in conveying some idea of what life in the Hollywood milieu must be like for a sensitive adolescent boy. Despite this, the book is a blatant failure mainly because it is a pseudo-adult rather than a juvenile novel. Hollywood families obviously have problems which are quite different from those of average families. And, the 15-year-old hero's problems arise from his life; it is certainly difficult to be the son of a famous movie star, to live amidst the glamour and phoniness of Hollywood, to lose two fathers—the real one by divorce, the stepfather by death. Bryan's search for help somehow strikes the wrong note and the solution to his problems does not ring true. In many scenes, Bryan seems to be an adult masquerading as a teen-ager, in other scenes he is realistic and appealing. The conversations between Bryan and Martha, his 12-year-old friend, and Paula Wing, an ex-movie star, are stilted and embarrassingly false. The style of writing is contrived and there is a basic flaw in the use of point of view. The first five chapters of the book are written from the boy's point of view, but in chapter six (and throughout the rest of the book) the author begins a violent switching back and forth between Bryan's thoughts and those of various other characters which destroys the reader's identification with the hero. The author had a good idea which hasn't come off, because she seemingly can't...
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A. H. Weiler
[Maia Wojciechowska] again illustrates, through "The Hollywood Kid," her sensitive insight into the enigma of a genuinely troubled juvenile born to the purple of picture royalty….
Miss Wojciechowska's taut, precise prose makes it plain that she knows the heart and mind of an unusual lad struggling to free himself from a tinseled world he never made or wanted.
The author's expertise extends to the man-made planet bounded by Hollywood Studio sets with their frustrations and tensions, the exclusive menages of Bel Air, the manufactured merriment of Disneyland. She writes as though she had had first-hand contact with Bryan as he lives through the turbulent death of the stepfather-director he admired; the brief contacts with the poet-teacher father he scarcely knows; and the neuroses of the glamorous mother, whose compulsive need for his presence threatens his dream of freedom in an Eastern prep school.
A. H. Weiler, in a review of "The Hollywood Kid," in The New York Times Book Review, Part II (© 1966 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 6, 1966, p. 8.
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The distinguishing characteristic of ["The Hollywood Kid"] … is its author's profound contempt for the mental capacity of her readers….
[The protagonist, Bryan,] is the only son of a beautiful movie actress who puts stardom before motherhood and devotes just half an hour every day to her son—an arrangement, considering the quality of his conversation, one can hardly blame her for. When the book begins, the boy's stepfather has just died. He had been a movie director and the one person, besides a Polish cleaning woman, "who ever said anything to Bryan that he remembered." The dull-witted boy, however, is considerably less affected by his stepfather's death than he is exercised about the décor of the mortuary chapel where the body lies. "Why did everything in California have to be phony or a lie?" he wonders. The mother takes the director's death at its face value—as the plot device it is—and dutifully assumes the tired part of the mother trying to extract from her son the love she never gave him and has no right to expect from him. The book records at great length how the boy comes to terms with her and learns to feel sorry for the awful people in California instead of hating them. In the climactic scene, which takes place in Disneyland, the mother is mobbed by her fans, and the boy goes to the rest room and throws up. A man appears and explains that the fans are "just a bunch of poor slobs" who "do all that because they need...
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[In A Single Light, a] deaf-and-dumb girl whom the world has rejected, a pedant and a priest who have, each in his own way, rejected the world, are brought together by a marble statue of the Christ Child concealed in a remote Spanish church…. Roughly the first half is the girl's story, and it has the undeniable heart-tug of a Jane Wyman movie at a more measured pace. With the advent of Larry Katchen, the American, the somber absorption is blasted into facetious fragments; although he has a chance to recover his humanity, the book never recovers even a sympathetic conviction. It becomes a cryptoparable that masticates love and morality into pulp. (pp. 344-45)
A review of "A Single Light," in Kirkus Service (copyright © 1968 Virginia Kirkus' Service, Inc.), Vol. XXXVI, No. 6, March 15, 1968, pp. 344-45.
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Maia Wojciechowska is obviously on the side of the angels. Her new book [A Single Light] is a legend imbued with the desperation of the human need for love. Its vivid setting is the harsh, gnarled landscape of Spanish Andalucia. In it lies a poverty-ridden town named, symbolically, Almas—Spanish for "souls." Its heroine is a deaf-and-dumb girl, so unloved by her widower father that he has even neglected to name her. She is a creature of seraphic simplicity, unsentimentally portrayed….
It is after her "miracle," her discovery of [a lost statue of the infant Christ], that a middle-aged American art expert appears on the scene. A failure, as rejected and as thirsty for human love as the Andalusian deaf mute, his adult life has been a single-minded quest for this very statue—a missing work by a Renaissance sculptor.
As the villagers learn of their unsuspected treasure's value, the story turns into an ironic study of human greed. It concludes with a miracle of understanding and regeneration which some readers may find a little too pat.
Maia Wojciechowska's message of love and understanding is somewhat impaired by didacticism and over-simplification. And yet, although her new book is not entirely successful, it is a far better one than most, which are less ambitious and do succeed.
Edward Fenton, in his review of "A Single Light," in Book...
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John R. Tunis
["A Single Light"] is a short book, not more than 30,000 words. (How often good books are short!) I read it twice, to see whether it was as fine as it seemed. It was even better.
Basically a parable, "A Single Light" is a message of love and need, hung round a deaf-and-dumb girl….
The unnamed girl's story is told in the simplest terms. As it moves to its climax, we see how her presence changes the lives of those around her: the priest, his housekeeper, the towns-people—even the visiting art-expert from America, who discovers a priceless Renaissance sculpture of the Christ Child hidden in the local church.
The girl, who has long since accepted the statue as the counterpart of a real child she once nursed, flees with it to the woods. The people of Almas, deciding she is a witch, are prepared to kill her, until the local hunchback gives his life to turn the human stampede aside. Later, the priest and the art-expert find the girl beside a forest stream, with the statue cradled in her arms. The American wants to take her away for "rehabilitation." The priest, who has gone through a moral catharsis of his own, insists that she stay on in Almas. Together, he says, they will teach their neighbors to love instead of hate.
But the overtones in Maia Wojciechowska's book defy synopsis. The finale, in the hands of a less skillful craftsman, could have seemed overdone, even spurious. Here, it...
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Told with controlled pathos, the plight of a young deaf and dumb girl, who grew up unwanted in an Andalusian village, and the impact of her presence on the villagers, the local priest, and an American art expert traveling in search of a priceless lost sculpture makes a strong story [in A Single Light]. The themes are the overwhelming human need for love and the possibility for even the meanest persons to change. Because of the appeal which these universal themes have for young people and the smooth and unobtrusive quality of the writing, the book should have a wide readership.
Bernice Levine, in her review of "A Single Light," in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, July, 1968; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company); copyright © 1968 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 93, No. 13, July, 1968, p. 2738.
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Laura Polla Scanlon
The horror and despair of the drug scene is conveyed in this excellent book [Tuned Out] without romance or sensation. The book's substance is the journal of a 16-year-old boy, his record of the summer that Kevin, his older brother and idol, returned from the University of Chicago.
For Jim the summer is a nightmare. Kevin learned to "turn on and tune out" at school. LSD is his bag now. The family is respectable, middle class. The parents are kind but incredibly dense and unaware of any change in Kevin. Jim bears the burden of caring for him through his last freak-out. The journal tells more than Kevin's story. It reveals much about the family and about the complex relationship between the two boys. The author is so skillful that the narrator's own ambivalence and anger is effectively expressed, sometimes through subtle changes in the journal's style. The book offers no pat resolution. The author knows too much about human nature to indulge in that.
Laura Polla Scanlon, in her review of "Tuned Out," in Commonweal (copyright © 1968 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LXXXIX, No. 8, November 22, 1968, p. 289.
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ANITA MacRAE FEAGLES
Nothing is fudged up [in "Tuned Out"]; the sadder parts of the drug scene are left out (the sexual indiscrimination common among female users, for example), but the essential story is told.
We are shown in convincing detail the effects of pot and acid; the whole drug scene is handled with authority, from the hippie pad to the mental hospital. The differences among the drugs are clearly spelled out; finally, someone has said how important it is to lump marijuana with the more dangerous hallucinogens. The story is vivid enough to need no moralizing. Motivation is clear and readers know what happened. Not everyone else has been so lucky.
If one is slightly uneasy at remaining dry-eyed in the face of Jim's sensitivity and misery, perhaps it's because it's hard for a female author to carry off a boy's story—in first person. Or perhaps it's because one becomes impatient with Jim's consuming adoration of his brother.
The father and mother, as Jim sees them, don't come off too well, but then older people seldom do these days. Although they are constantly advised to trust their children, they must also, according to some of the fatuous remarks made by young people on the back jacket, be perpetually alert to horrid possibilities. This is a tough assignment, and I would not agree that "Tuned Out" should be a ready-reference work for parents. It is certainly worthwhile reading for young people for whom...
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Anguish and fear cry out in [Tuned Out, a] rare, moving novel about two brothers sucked into deepest despondency by the world of drugs. So intense is the conflict, so satanic the power of "grass" and "acid," that the drama seems to proceed on two levels: the desperate struggle of Jim to save Kevin's soul and sanity, and the universal war between good and evil…. [When] Kevin takes his trip with LSD, Jim stays behind as a terrified onlooker, battling against Kevin's nightmare visions and the strangling circles which reduce the boy to a quaking, terrified animal. No recent novel or factual treatment succeeds as well in showing the self-deception, the sense of alienation, the bitterness against the established order of today, which drives the Kevins toward the touted pleasures and release of drugs. (pp. 714-15)
Jane Manthorne, in her review of "Tuned Out," in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1968 by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), Vol. XLIV, No. 6. December, 1968, pp. 714-15.
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Maia Wojciechowska is often a fine writer. ["'Don't Play Dead Before You Have To'"] is nearly one of those times.
There are good things. Here is an attempt to write about the kid in-between—neither college nor slum-bound, neither bright nor deadeningly dumb, not ambitious but aware—the middle achiever who is too frequently ignored. There is an honest, moving, yet oddly oblique look at the depression and attempted suicide of a very bright child whose parents are separating. And there is a lovely coup de théâtre as an old man, a once-famous philosopher, allows a television interview knowing he will die on camera.
There are some not-so-good things, too. The contrivance on which the entire novel rests. An inconsistency of focus. A confusion about how perceptive, how alone our hero is really to be.
Can a book's basic flaws be overcome by enough shining albeit scattered moments? Miss Wojciechowska's other books have been alternately very good and very much less so. But there is an additional, happy feeling in "'Don't Play Dead Before You Have To'"—that of an author "getting it all together" for a new, and real, event. Perhaps, soon, a book as honest and moving as "Shadow of a Bull"?
John Neufeld, in his review of "Don't Play Dead Before You Have To," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by...
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John W. Conner
Record the voice of an adolescent as he speaks and writes to a child for a three-year-period and you will have an interesting account of that adolescent's growth. This is the device employed by Maia Wojciechowska in her new novel, "Don't Play Dead Before You Have To." The device is as pretentious as the quotation marks about the title of this brief novel.
It doesn't work. Byron, the adolescent, is an unbelievable, average guy who is sincerely concerned about the problems and welfare of a five-year-old boy for whom he babysits…. A reader learns a great deal about Byron through these oral and written conversations with Charlie. But what a reader learns does not contribute to the character the author tries to develop.
The language in which Byron couches his ideas lacks credibility. Byron's sentences contain an occasional four-letter epithet but they are never incomplete. His expressions are not those of a mid-adolescent. Near the end of this brief novel, Byron defends his swearing, because, he says, it is similar to long hair. Both, he says, don't mean a thing. I'm afraid "Don't Play Dead Before You Have To" doesn't mean a thing either. (pp. 277-78)
John W. Conner, in his review of "Don't Play Dead Before You Have To" (copyright © 1971 by the National Council of Teachers of English; reprinted by permission of the publisher and the author), in English Journal,...
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Pamela D. Pollack
Despite her obvious attempt to speak for contemporary young people in her newest novel [The Rotten Years] Maia Wojciechowska succeeds only in tediously preaching at them. The barest essentials of characterization and plot are summarily disposed of in the first two chapters which introduce the protagonists: 14-year-old Denise Brown, whose "rotten years" (here arbitrarily defined as ages 12 through 15) are further complicated by her paranoid, Agnew-spouting, fanatically religious mother; and Elsie Jones, the "resident subversive" high school history teacher at Mark Twain Junior High School…. The bulk of the book is devoted to the activities of Mrs. Jones' experimental class set up to mobilize her students for a children's crusade against American "moral depression."… Denise Brown is scarcely mentioned after the opening pages but the italicized paragraphs which precede chapters are apparently passages from her diary. From these we learn of her growing rebellion against her mother; in the final entry which concludes the book she discusses the arson/death of Mrs. Jones at the hands of her now totally insane mother. Elsie Jones is clearly the vehicle for the author's beliefs and very obtrusive biases, and the rest—a militant mother who wants only black studies taught; foster parents whose charges "[mean] no more than a monthly check"; etc.—are clay pigeons set up to be shot down.
Pamela D. Pollack, in her...
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[The] defects that mar most problem political [books for juveniles] are of two kinds—excessive detachment (inability to feel the exciting, promising newness of politics to youth) and excessive righteousness (lack of responsiveness to the humanity, however ignorant, of the benighted opposition). And neither of this season's interesting political juveniles—Nat Hentoff's "In the Country of Ourselves" and Maia Wojciechowska's "The Rotten Years"—is free of one or the other of those defects. (p. 3)
[The] impression left by ["In the Country of Ourselves"] as a whole—namely that politics is boring—is under-nourishing and false.
A nearly opposite failing scars Maia Wojciechowska's "The Rotten Years." The book's heroine, Elsie Jones, is a high school history teacher, a worshiper of Bobby Kennedy and Lecomte du Noüy, a thoroughly passionate activist. Mrs. Jones secures her principal's permission to conduct a 30-day experiment in intensive moral education with one class. ("During that month," she tells her students, "you can become potential saviors of mankind … addicted for life to the search for truth.") The experiment enrages the community, the teacher herself is burned to death in a fire set by the demented mother of one of her students, and the event is perceived as martyrdom. The strength of the book—it's less negligible than the story in summary can suggest—is the author's fine enthusiasm for great moral...
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John W. Conner
Maia Wojciechowska says that [The Rotten Years] is her only important book. It is certainly her best book since Shadow of a Bull. The editorial gimmicks the author has been intrigued by in recent books are skillfully handled in The Rotten Years contributing valuable effects: headlines scream actual news events; the succession of letters written by parents to Mrs. Elsie Jones come as a natural result of the activities in the story; varieties in type size call legitimate attention to important distinctions in speakers.
The Rotten Years recounts one month in the lives of Mrs. Elsie Jones and her seventh-grade class in American history…. During this month Mrs. Jones vows (with her principal's blessing) to put aside traditional texts and homework and try to instill some of her own great respect for human life in her students. Her students become their own texts, studying themselves and their relationships with their parents and other human beings. In a carefully prepared series of lesson plans, Mrs. Jones tries to make her students aware of the conventional ways in which children are molded into adults like their parents before them, and the compromises adults make to achieve adulthood. Mrs. Jones believes that the evils in this system could be rectified by one generation of children. She asks this group of children to spearhead that movement.
Much of the author's passion for moral and...
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The theme [of "Through the Broken Mirror with Alice"] is Man Against Man; nature has … been eliminated and, as far as one can see, all good men, including fathers and grandfathers, have been killed off. The scene is Harlem; the heroine is Alice who has been kicked out of her 12th foster home with only an imaginary bee to keep her company and a copy of [Lewis Carroll's] "Through the Looking Glass." Bee and book are both important: the bee to buzz inside Alice's head whenever life becomes too much, the book to convert the unhappy world of Harlem into the chessboard world of Lewis Carroll.
Alice, of course, becomes a pawn; the local librarian is the White Queen, the school history teacher is the Black Queen ("All the black ways around here belong to me," the Black Queen says. "And all the white ways belong to me," the White Queen adds); the school principal and the school psychiatrist become Tweedledum and Tweedledee ("Trust us, child," they tell Alice, "we know better than you who you are"); the welfare worker is Humpty Dumpty who believes in people staying "where they're at."
The most dangerous character, however, who pursues Alice throughout the book (and is finally rejected by her) takes on no Lewis Carroll disguise. In the old days when he felt loved, he was known as Uncle Sam, but now he is simply Sam, the Pusher Man who promises everyone safety inside his castle of dreams. A bitter and clever book with the air...
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Two volumes of World War II memoirs may appeal as much to parents—for whom the war was reality—as to their teenagers, for whom it is merely history…. [Johanna Reiss's The Upstairs Room and Maia Wojciechowska's Till the Break of Day] both offer straightforward, not-to-be-missed accounts of what it was to leave childhood abruptly behind as Europe entered and endured world war.
Their victory-over-adversity themes are nothing new. But they present them with such disarming freshness and candor that it is difficult sometimes to remember the authors are drawing on 30-year-old memories….
Maia Wojciechowska was 12 when Germany invaded her native Poland in 1939. From then until the family went to America in 1942, her life became a series of personal vendettas against the Nazis that belied both her age and sex. She reveled in fear and danger, flirted with the idea of her own early death, and seemed to thrive on the close calls that resulted from her reckless courage.
But she was also vulnerable: her father's absence was a source of constant pain. By admitting her weaknesses as well as her precocious strength and independence, Miss Wojciechowska has put together an amazing, admirable story. In revealing herself here she also adds dimension to her other books for teens, and the reasons for her success (and theirs) become obvious.
Marilyn Gardner, "In...
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Mary M. Burns
Confession may be good for the soul, but confessional writing may not be good reading unless the penitent is blessed, as is the author of [Till the Break of Day, Memories: 1939–1942] remarkable document, with an understanding of life's absurdities, a sense of the dramatic, and a felicitous talent for precise, vivid description. Because [Maia Wojciechowska has] these qualities, her reminiscences of a turbulent adolescence during the Second World War are both intensely personal and yet recognizable as a universal statement on the tragicomic conditions which are a necessary part of maturation. The Foreword, comparing the writing of autobiography to the making of a movie, makes use of a particularly apt analogy, for the narrative techniques—employing flashbacks and montages of impressionistic detail—suggest contemporary cinematography. And only a wide screen with stereophonic sound would be appropriate for a heroine who, in three short years, conducted a personal war against the Nazis, become involved with a strangely romantic and mysterious ballerina, and at fifteen, finding life unbearable, decided to die magnificently—like all the great women of fiction. Frank in its delineation of the adolescent's romantic fantasizing, painful in its exploration of the daughter's yearning for her hero-father's approval, provocative in its appraisal of war's effects on family and social relationships, the book is a dazzling blend of emotional pyrotechnics...
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There is no overall tone or mood to unify the ten brief folk tales included [in Winter Tales from Poland. And] it's hard to know what to make of the unfolksy opener, with its pointed putdown of people who are greedy or who distrust what is different, about a Polish poet-angel with clipped wings. In the same moral vein is "The Freak," about a "baby" who is born as an old man into an unheeding village that is soon destroyed by war—but there are also conventional fairy tales featuring riddles and tests of love, a stepmother who appears as a mare and a prince in disguise who marries the princess. The flimsiest tale concerns an incompetent witch who falls in love; the one about a tailor so skinny he can only eat spaghetti is both funnier and more fully treated in [Virginia] Haviland's Favorite Fairy Tales Told In Poland….
A review of "Winter Tales from Poland," in Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1972 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), Vol. XL, No. 23, December 1, 1972, p. 1358.
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[Wojciechowska] presents legendary folktales of her native country [in Winter Tales from Poland]. One is about a baby born an old man, with the power of speech. He asks the villagers why they engage in battles every 10 years, and if they can remember what was the last just cause they had fought for. But he's killed by a bullet before they can answer. Some of the stories are light and entertaining but most have a heavy moral; all are tightly structured and engrossing.
A review of "Winter Tales from Poland," in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the February 12, 1973 issue of Publishers Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1973 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 203, No. 7, February 12, 1973, p. 68.
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With great candor, humor, and vividness, Maia Wojciechowska gives an autobiographical account of how she lived through the years 1939–1942 [in Till the Break of Day]…. Her family managed to escape from Poland and went from town to town in France and then to Madrid, Lisbon, London, and finally the United States. At each stopover Maia waged her personal war against the Germans. For example, in France she and her brother were willing to risk death in order to shoot at the Germans. Frustrated in this attempt, they harassed the enemy by stealing hundreds of their bicycles, slashing tires, wrecking truck motors. Many of Maia's escapades and lucky breaks will make the reader gasp. In describing herself Maia gives a true picture of the adolescent. Her obsession with ideals, death, love, self-hatred will strike a responsive chord. This is a book for everyone.
Shirley Weinstein, in her review of "Till the Break of Day," in Best Sellers (copyright 1973, by the University of Scranton), Vol. 33, No. 2, April 15, 1973, p. 47.
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Gertrude B. Herman
[Winter Tales from Poland is a collection of] freely adapted and embellished Polish folk tales [which] contain all of the elements familiar to that folklore: the mixture of mysticism and common sense; the presence of angels and death in human guise; and, the testing of wits or virtue by riddles and dilemmas. Readers will recognize Joseph Nitechka (here Josef Niteczka), the jolly tailor who is so thin he can only eat noodles and who saves a village from flood by mending a hole in the sky. The vigor and humor of [Lucia Merecka] Borski and [Kate B.] Miller's The Jolly Tailor and Other Fairy Tales … are less evident here, where the balance falls to more somber themes. However, Wojciechowska effectively carries the cadence of folk telling, and this book is pleasant in style and content.
Gertrude B. Herman, in her review of "Winter Tales from Poland," in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, July, 1973; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company); copyright © 1973 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 98, No. 13, July, 1973, p. 2198.
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I. V. Hansen
Reviews of a number of the novels of Maia Wojciechowska contain phrases like 'a blatant failure', 'too blurred to be effective', 'succeeds only in tediously preaching', and 'the pretentiously allegorical parades of stereotypes'. These are hardly the sentiments to encourage readership and there is a sense in which Wojciechowska is her own worst enemy. It is not too fanciful to suggest that her personal life has been so exotic that she finds it very difficult to communicate with ordinary mortals….
It is a pity,… that two of [Wojciechowska's] novels from the 1960s are in danger of being lost. They are Shadow of a Bull (1964) and A Single Light (1968). Both are set in Spain. It is the Spain of the tourists and the guidebooks, of stark and barren hillsides, of paella and the muezzin cry of flamenco songs, of olive groves and hot sun. (p. 186)
There is much [of Ernest] Hemingway in the atmosphere of [Shadow of a Bull]. There are references to the killer of death in the bullring, for instance. Bracketed together in Manolo's education are Belmonte and Joselito, photographs of whom appear in fact on the same page in Hemingway's study of the Fiesta Brava (in Death in the Afternoon). There is a starkness and simplicity in the telling of Shadow of a Bull very reminiscent of Death in the Afternoon.
The wrench Manolo feels between loyalty and the need to...
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