Sonia Levitin 1934–
German-born American novelist for young adults and younger children, short story writer, picture book author, autobiographer, and journalist.
Levitin's historical and humorous books for young people use factual structures and thoughtful undertones as their basis. Several of her stories deal with survivors who succeed despite stress or hardship due to their openness and strength. Levitin's hopefulness and humor permeate her works, and balance the seriousness that underlies her subjects.
Born in Berlin, Levitin came to the United States at the age of four. Journey to America, her first book, is a fictionalized account of her experience. Levitin portrays the horrors of war and Nazi Germany as she sensitively depicts the joys and pains of growing up. The book was critically well-received and Levitin was praised for writing without sentimentality or self-pity. It was awarded the National Jewish Book Award for juvenile literature in 1971.
The teenage protagonists of Levitin's two historical novels both withstand the trials of being pioneers in unexplored America. In Roanoke: A Novel of the Lost Colony, Levitin combines skeletal facts about the colony with exciting fiction to logically explain its disappearance, and she was praised both for the success of her characterizations and the depth of her research. By depicting William's appreciation for Indian culture as a method of escaping the fate of the other colonists, Levitin provides an illustration for her readers of the value of being open to other cultures. The No-Return Trail deals with the adventures of the first woman trail-blazer, Nancy Kelsey, who survived a cross-country journey from Missouri to California. Basing her story on the Bidewell-Barleson Expedition of 1841, Levitin was able to draw on the memoirs of its participants, aided by the documents in the Moraga, California, Historical Society, which she founded. The novel was given the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1978.
Levitin's witty stories about contemporary teenagers, Jason and the Money Tree and The Mark of Conte, make subtle points about wealth, freedom, and the problems students have with school administrations. These popular titles have been praised for their cleverness and sprightly dialogue, and for Levitin's accurate observations, gained from her experiences as a teacher. However, The Mark of Conte was criticized for silliness and for Levitin's excessive exaggeration of its characters. Beyond Another Door, a satirical look at a teenager who discovers she has ESP, received similar comments, but all of Levitin's works have been commended for their well-written depictions of young adults both past and present encountering situations that lead them closer to maturity. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed., and Something about the Author, Vol. 4.)
Terry M. Cole
A very moving though never maudlin story with good characterization and a fast pace, [Journey to America] will be a definite asset to any collection. Young Lisa Platt tells of her family's fortunate escape from Nazi Germany…. There is not a great deal of information about what happened to the Jews in Germany, but the terror and hopes of the people are very realistically portrayed.
Terry M. Cole, "The Book Review: 'Journey to America'," in School Library Journal, an appendix to Library Journal (reprinted from the May, 1970 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co./A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1970), Vol. 95, No. 9, May, 1970, p. 76.
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Elizabeth Minot Graves
A Jewish girl tells the story of her family's escape from Nazi Germany [in Journey to America]…. This warm, moving story of kindness and courage, and family love, is the first book by a new author. One of the best books of the year, indeed of any year, I hope it will be followed by a long string of others.
Elizabeth Minot Graves, "A Selected List of Children's Books: 'Journey to America'," in Commonweal (copyright © 1970 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. XCII, No. 10, May 22, 1970, p. 248.
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"Journey to America" describes the [Platt family's] escape from Nazi Germany in direct, unsentimental prose.
The author briefly sketches the humdrum background of Lisa's life: the ballet lessons, skating parties and schoolgirl pranks. Firmly anchored to reality by the warmth and devotion of her family, the girl succeeds in transforming fear into action, pain into humor as she is plunged into a nightmare world of storm troopers, indifferent bureaucrats and extortionists who prey on the misfortune of others…. Lisa's subsequent adoption by a Christian family is a joyful prelude to the family's ultimate reunion in America.
Although Mrs. Levitin has done little to camouflage the tragedy of the Hitler years, today's children—so often over-whelmed by a sense of pervasive moral and environmental crisis—will find this story of a family's courage and devotion more thrilling than terrifying. (pp. 26-7)
Gloria Levitas, "Stories of Adventure and Adversity," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 24, 1970, pp. 26-7.
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Lisa's experiences at a refugee camp for children and her happier time staying with a Catholic family [in Journey to America] are vivid and poignant. This reads more like a documentary script than a novel, but it is a dramatic script, well-written and perceptive in describing the tensions and reactions of people in a situation of stress.
Zena Sutherland, "New Titles for Children and Young People: 'Journey to America'," in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (© 1971 by the University of Chicago; all rights reserved), Vol. 24, No. 6, February, 1971, p. 95.
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[A writer does two things when he introduces the dimension of memory]. First, your hero's personality and his motivations become clear. Because of the widespread knowledge of modern psychology, the writer cannot ignore motivation. It is no longer enough to describe how a character acts and feels; readers want to know why.
Secondly, the use of memories can become the fine-edged tool of the writer's craft. Memories bridge time and distance, heighten tension, reveal character, sharpen the moment of climax. These are only a few of the technical bonuses we reap when we use the characters' memories to our advantage as storytellers. (p. 18)
Just how much of a character's life hinges on memories can be revealing in itself. In my book for young people, Journey to America (… 1970), a minor character, the cook, is characterized largely by the fact that he lives in memories….
[We] know what to expect of the cook as the story unfolds. He is kindly but ineffective, living as he does, mainly in his memories. And again, this memory provides a bonus. The cook's preoccupation with the past symbolizes the more universal disorientation of the total refugee experience. The present is unbearable, the future unthinkable. Only the past holds comfort.
In the same book, a memory is used to bring contrast to a present situation, thereby heightening its impact. At the camp,...
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The bare outline of facts about the lost colony of Roanoke is familiar. In this substantial, well-researched novel [Roanoke: A Novel of the Lost Colony] the facts are spun out and woven into an absorbing narrative in which what is known to have occurred and what could well have occurred are inseparable…. Characterization is convincing, historical background detailed, and the reasons for the colony's disappearance well within the realm of credibility.
Beryl Reid, "Early Fall Booklist: 'Roanoke: A Novel of the Lost Colony'," in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1973 by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), Vol. XLIX, No. 5, October, 1973, p. 466.
We never quite figured out exactly what lesson Grandfather hoped to teach when he left Jason a ten dollar bill that sprouts into an honest-to-goodness money tree, but all that seed money causes Jason nothing but anxiety from the start [in Jason and the Money Tree]. Jason wonders whether the tree's fruit is really legal tender and frantically seeks odd jobs so that he will be able to account for his growing wad of bills. His preoccupation neatly parallels his father's worries over the approaching bar exam and the family's overburdened budget, and his sense of guilt makes one wonder whether Jason knows more than we do about the money missing from his storekeeper friend's cash register which he secretly replenishes....
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The realistic background [in Jason and the Money Tree] is convincing, the writing style and dialogue acceptable, but the fantasy and realism don't mesh, and there are several aspects of the story that seem to have been contrived so that Jason's secret can be maintained. (p. 181)
Zena Sutherland, "New Titles for Children and Young People: 'Jason and the Money Tree'," in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (© 1974 by the University of Chicago; all rights reserved), Vol. 27, No. 11, July-August, 1974, pp. 180-81.
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Elizabeth A. Marafino
Although Levitin throws a monkey wrench into this entertaining fantasy [Jason and the Money Tree] with a confusing discussion of dollar devaluation and the mechanics of the I.R.S., her characters—especially Jason and Mr. Matroni, an understanding shopkeeper—are all believable, and readers will be kept guessing as to the outcome of Jason's unusual predicament.
Elizabeth A. Marafino, "Book Reviews: 'Jason and the Money Tree'," in School Library Journal, an appendix to Library Journal (reprinted from the September, 1974 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co./A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1974), Vol. 21, No. 1, September, 1974, p. 88.
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The strength of Sonia Levitin's story [in Jason and the Money Tree] lies in the way in which she realistically works out the unforeseen complications which being the owner of a money tree brings and she spices this with sharp-edged humour and characterisation…. The problem eventually resolves itself and Jason of course learns that money can't buy the really important things in life, but nevertheless this is a lively and entertaining story competently told and with some keen observation which readers of nine to thirteen should enjoy.
John Ives, "Eleven to Fifteen: 'Jason and the Money Tree'," in The School Librarian, Vol. 22, No. 4, December, 1974, p. 347.
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Levitin's wacky story [The Mark of Conte] will appeal to any students who have ever been hassled by a school computer…. Every character is a caricature—the paranoid school counselor, scheming students, programmed computer science teacher, liberated artist mother, and psychologist father—but this zips along at a remarkably brisk pace. Just the ticket to provide laughs between [Jay Williams's and Raymond Abrashkin's stories about] Danny Dunn and Donald Westlake's adult comedies.
Robert Unsworth, "Book Reviews: 'The Mark of Conte'," in School Library Journal (reprinted from the April, 1976 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co./A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1976), Vol. 22, No. 8, April, 1976, p. 90.
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[The Mark of Conte] is a spoof, of course, but it's a spoof just this side of reality, because all of the daft, hilarious things that happen and the people in Conte's life could be true. [Sonia Levitin] writes with zest and vitality, poking fun at everything in sight, but doing it with affection, and while Conte's rocky path is strewn with some peculiar stony obstacles, the problems he and his friends cope with are very real concerns for most adolescents.
Zena Sutherland, "New Titles for Children and Young People: 'The Mark of Conte'," in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (© 1976 by the University of Chicago; all rights reserved), Vol. 29, No. 11, July-August, 1976, p. 177.
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[The] extrasensory perceptions that Daria has always known she's had develop into a psychic ability to communicate with her long-dead grandmother [in Beyond Another Door]…. Too many themes and personal implications crowd the plot; and Grandmother's appearances, "looking very much like white cheesecloth a trifle damp" and accompanied by silvery angels, push the credibility factor. However, Daria's search for expression through art and her troubled situation with her mother are perceptively drawn, while the subject ensures the book's popularity.
Barbara Elleman, "Children's Books: 'Beyond Another Door'," in Booklist (reprinted by permission of the American Library Association; copyright 1977 by the American Library Association), Vol. 73, No. 15, April 1, 1977, p. 1170.
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Sally Holmes Holtze
The treatment of psychic phenomena [in Beyond Another Door] is never heavy-handed but is used as an effective device enabling the author to explore the relationship between the girl and her mother and to bring Daria an awareness of herself. The reader can easily identify with the mature, individualistic protagonist as she probes the complexities of love and friendship.
Sally Holmes Holtze, "Stories for Intermediate Readers: 'Beyond Another Door'," in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1977 by the Horn Book, Inc., Boston), Vol. III, No. 3, June, 1977, p. 315.
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[The No-Return Trail] is told from the viewpoint of Nancy Kelsey…. Unfortunately, what should be rattling good historical fiction comes off as only modestly interesting due to a few improbabilities (jelly made of crabapples and choke-cherries in May; poor travelers having rubberized sheets and matches) and a lot of talk taking the place of suspense. (pp. 94-5)
George Gleason, "Book Reviews: 'The No-Return Trail'," in School Library Journal (reprinted from the April, 1978 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co./A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1978), Vol. 24, No. 8, April, 1978, pp. 94-5.
[The travelers in The No-Return Trail face] quicksand, illness, hunger, dissension; but none of this is dramatized, and in fact there's a disappointing tameness to the whole narrative. Similarly Nancy, despite being "strong as an ox" (her husband's boast) and "spunky" too, and despite ending the trip with an almost ecstatic love for life and for her husband, comes across as oddly bland.
"Older Fiction: 'The No-Return Trail'," in Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1978 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), Vol. XLVI, No. 11, June 1, 1978, p. 600.
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Denise M. Wilms
Rigors of the trail are the storytelling mainstay for Levitin's re-creation of the Bidwell—Bartleson expedition [in The No-Return Trail]…. The reactions of … Nancy Kelsey provide emotional substance as she watches the struggling group dwindle and worries over her strained relationship with husband Ben. The mood is generally intense, particularly near the conclusion when illness and approaching winter threaten to finish the weakened travelers. A sober undertone encourages respect for the enormity of the task these settlers undertook. Nancy Kelsey is said to be the first white woman to travel overland to California. It's unfortunate that occasional derogatory references to Indians—indigenous to these Kentuckian's views—aren't offset by multidimensional portrayals of the not-always-hostile Indian groups encountered along the trail. Absorbing, if conventional, historical fiction in spite of the ethnic omission. (pp. 1618-19)
Denise M. Wilms, "Children's Books: 'The No-Return Trail'," in Booklist (reprinted by permission of the American Library Association; copyright 1978 by the American Library Association), Vol. 74, No. 20, June 15, 1978, pp. 1618-19.
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An historical event interlaced with a fictional account of what might have happened is a popular and advantageous way of creating interest in a subject for all readers but especially for younger ones. If done properly, this type of novel allows more familiarity with the characters and content than a footnoted academic work. The No-Return Trail is done properly, and its intended adolescent audience will not be disappointed. The novel is about a covered wagon expedition to California in 1841. The journey was far from glamorous; it was filled with a sense of urgency and decisiveness which the author conveys well. She spares the raw details yet makes it realistic enough for the adolescent reader. (pp. 230-31)
Being the most prominent character, [Nancy Kelsey] leads the reader through the excitement, hardships, and the final satisfaction at the journey's end. For the younger reader these can be memorable—Indians, buffalo stampedes, uncooperative weather, and improvised medical cures. Equally important, the characters demonstrate the importance of making decisions which involve the entire party if their goal is to be reached. That these decisions do not come easy permits the novel to be instructional as well as entertaining. The short bibliography at the end adds a certain credence to the story and gives interested youngsters direction for further reading. Finally, the novel is not a droll account of people, places, and things. More...
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