Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 649

Barbara Wersba came to be a writer after an earlier career on the stage. Born August 19, 1932, in Chicago, to Robert and Lucy Jo Wersba, she was an only child who escaped loneliness by writing stories and dreaming about working in the theater. The family was living in San...

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Barbara Wersba came to be a writer after an earlier career on the stage. Born August 19, 1932, in Chicago, to Robert and Lucy Jo Wersba, she was an only child who escaped loneliness by writing stories and dreaming about working in the theater. The family was living in San Mateo, California when eleven-year-old Barbara joined a community theater group. She began with backstage tasks, such as fetching coffee and running errands, but soon rose through the ranks and made her stage debut. After her parents divorced, Wersba and her mother moved to New York, where Barbara immersed herself in Broadway theater, and spent time visiting the city's museums, bookstores, and many arts venues. While still a teenager she studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse and danced with Martha Graham's company.

After graduating with a degree in drama from Bard College, Wersba moved back to New York City and into the usual lifestyle of an aspiring actress: sharing a Greenwich village flat with other young entertainers, making the rounds of casting agents and auditions, and picking up outside work to pay the bills, including waitressing, typing, and department store clerking. She experienced some success on the stage, acting in summer stock and touring companies, but paralyzing stage fright was a constant companion. Wersba soon reached a turning point in both her acting career and her life. With a group of friends, she started an acting company; one of their first projects was a production entitled When I Was a Child, comprised of short stories about childhood adapted for the stage. Although Wersba had been writing for years, she never considered her work publishable, but adapting these stories satisfied a creative need and paved the way for her career as an author. Although the production toured for three months and there were even plans to take the show to Broadway, in many ways the tour was disastrous. Wersba ended up seriously ill with hepatitis, and spent her recuperation at a friend's house in Martha's Vineyard. The friend suggested that she bide her time by writing a story. Through a series of events that Wersba credits to "beginner's luck," this first story, The Boy Who Loved the Sea, was published in 1961.

Over the next several years she wrote a number of brief, fanciful volumes for children. While working on a historical story, the contemporary voice of a teenage male began to echo in her mind and she put the historical manuscript away while she captured the first-person narrative of a lonely fourteen-year-old boy named Albert Scully and his relationship with an eccentric elderly woman in The Dream Watcher. This groundbreaking novel changed the course of Wersba's writing career. Although she continued to write an occasional volume for young readers—usually stories of dark toned whimsy—her focus has been on young adult novels about sensitive loners searching for self-awareness and love in an often uncaring world.

Wersba considers herself a loner and spends much of her time exploring nature and caring for stray animals. Yet she also spent seven years running a country store with a partner, has experienced the artistic collaboration of adapting The Dream Watcher for the stage (two early productions starred one of Wersba's childhood idols, Eva LeGallienne), and has run her own school, The Women's Writing Workshop. Throughout, she has continued to publish young adult novels to generally positive critical response. During a lengthy professional relationship with the legendary writer and editor Charlotte Zolotow, Wersba produced Tunes for a Small Harmonica, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 1977, and two trilogies. The first—composed of Fat : A Love Story and its sequels, Beautiful Losers and Love Is the Crooked Thing—concerns overweight, headstrong Rita Formica. Heidi Rosenbloom, a teenage dog walker from New York City is introduced in Just Be Gorgeous. This book is followed by two more novels about Heidi: Wonderful Me and The Farewell Kid.

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