Elizabeth George Speare was born in Melrose, Massachusetts, on November 21, 1908, and lived in New England her entire life. She had one brother and spent her childhood doing activities that essentially trained her to write The Witch of Blackbird Pond. With her family, she went hiking through the woods and meadows of New England, many of which have not changed substantially since colonial times. Speare was also exposed to the arts, particularly plays and concerts, and as a girl she was given the long hours to read freely that Kit remembers so fondly in The Witch of Blackbird Pond. It is little surprise, then, that Speare started writing her own stories at age eight.
She earned a bachelor’s degree from Smith College and a master’s degree in English from Boston University. She taught high school for several years, and then in 1936, she married Alden Speare. The couple moved to Connecticut and had two children. While the early desire to write that had led her to fill notebooks with poems and stories resurfaced from time to time, Speare devoted these years to her family and didn’t start writing seriously until her children were in junior high school. When she did, she wrote about what she knew best—family—starting with articles about family outings and activities.
When she turned her hand to fiction, Speare combined this love for family with her knowledge of younger readers gained as both parent and teacher, her extensive travels around New England, and the historical research on her home region that she did for her own pleasure. Speare published her first novel, Calico Captive, in 1957. Like The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Calico Captive is a historical novel written for younger readers, and it also explores the American colonial period through the eyes of a young female protagonist. The Witch of Blackbird Pond came out the following year, and it won the 1959 Newbery Medal, the most prestigious award for American literature written for children.
The Bronze Bow, Speare’s third book, was published in 1961. Another historical novel with a troubled youthful protagonist, this one set in the time of Jesus, The Bronze Bow also won a Newbery (in 1962). A later young adult historical novel, The Sign of the Beaver (1983), won numerous awards, including the Christopher Award (given to works that affirm the highest value of the human spirit) and the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction. In 1989, Speare was given the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, which honors ongoing contributions to children’s literature. This award is all the more striking given Speare’s limited output: she published only four novels for children. Speare was known for qualities too often distinct from one another: the quality of her historical research and her ability to make it come alive.
Speare died of an aneurysm in Tucson, Arizona, on November 15, 1994.