Isabelle Holland Essay - Critical Essays

Holland, Isabelle


Isabelle Holland 1920–

American young adult and adult novelist and short story writer.

Holland explores the lives of lonely, troubled adolescents and concentrates on issues important to contemporary young people. Her protagonists are sympathetically portrayed, triumphing over distressing family situations with ingenuity and good humor. Holland draws weak, ineffectual parents to illustrate that adolescent problems are caused by a lack of traditional authority figures. She also deals with the adult who becomes a guiding force in the young person's life, such as Justin McLeod in The Man without a Face. Holland's treatment of such themes as self-respect and the universal need for companionship has led critics to charge her with being didactic and imposing her conservative moral values on the reader. She has also been criticized for manipulating plot and action to lighten more disturbing episodes and for oversimplifying and distorting character and situation to make her points. It is generally agreed, however, that Holland's strengths lie in her convincing portrayals of and sensitivity to the needs of adolescents.

Because of their realism, several of her works are controversial, most prominently The Man without a Face, which includes a homosexual episode. Although it is generally felt that Holland handles the brief encounter between Charles and Justin tastefully, some critics see Justin's death in the end as Holland's way of avoiding a more natural resolution of the relationship; Holland has stated that the encounter is itself less important than Charles's resulting emotional maturity. Of Love, Death, and Other Journeys is considered one of Holland's most successful books. The reader follows Meg through difficulties, including the death of her mother, that lead her to a better understanding of herself and others. This book illustrates Holland's ability to capture adolescent qualities and is the first of her works to soften her earlier vision of the flighty, incompetent parent.

In the mid-1970s Holland began writing contemporary Gothic mysteries. These light, well-written novels are considered superior to most books of the genre. Like her novels for young people, these works are characterized by Holland's strong sense of humor. Her respect for the integrity of the young is especially evident in her books for them, and her popularity among this audience suggests a mutual admiration. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed., and Something About the Author, Vol. 8.)

Edith C. Howley

["Cecily"] is too slight to be a novel. The time span is short, the three dimensional characters few, the action limited, and little is finally resolved. What there is, however, is tightly knit and plausible, the characters of Tim, Elizabeth and Cecily clearly enough drawn so that Cecily's catalytic effect on an otherwise emotionally well-balanced Elizabeth is quite believable. It is well done, but slight.

Edith C. Howley, "Fiction: 'Cecily'," in Best Sellers (copyright 1967, by the University of Scranton), Vol. 27, No. 1, April 1, 1967, p. 7.

Ruth Hill Viguers

[Cecily is an] almost flawless novel…. Several of the mistresses of Langley School, the girls who play even small parts in Cecily's misery or reclamation, and certainly the main characters are so well understood, so alive, that they demand the reader's complete involvement. A beautifully polished gem of a novel … that will be a relief from tired stories written especially for teen-agers.

Ruth Hill Viguers, "'Cecily'," in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1967, by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), Vol. XLIII, No. 3, June, 1967, p. 353.

Alice Low

["Amanda's Choice"] is fragmented, veering between Amanda, the baffled adults who analyze and explain her strong language and delinquent behavior, and Manuel, a resentful Cuban teenage musician…. [In] a soap opera ending, Amanda, her father and his new wife relate with honesty, warmth and reason.

The author understands child-rearing, psychological nuances and social problems, but she uses her characters to carry messages rather than to tell their flesh and blood stories. She makes important points: among them that emotional deprivation scars more deeply than material deprivation, and that Spanish Harlem has a richer, more genuine life than Amanda's insulated island.

Alice Low, "For Young Readers: 'Amanda's Choice'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 3, 1970, p. 23.

Zena Sutherland

Like the author's Cecily, [Amanda's Choice] is a book with a young protagonist … but sensitive and sophisticated enough to appeal to older readers…. The ending is not as sharply etched as the rest of the book, but the whole is impressive. Memorable characterization, good style, and a note of poignancy in the harsh reality of the situation…. (pp. 9-10)

Zena Sutherland, "New Titles for Children and Young People: 'Amanda's Choice'," in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (reprinted by permission of The University of Chicago Press; © 1970 by the University of Chicago), Vol. 24, No. 1, September, 1970, pp. 9-10.

Kirkus Reviews

[Chuck, in The Man without a Face, is a] teenage misogynist and compulsive underachiever…. Inevitably, he finds a mentor in the horribly scarred and romantic recluse Justin McLeod…. And inevitably again, this relationship between two emotional cripples leads to a once-only homosexual encounter (though the unsophisticated will have a tough time figuring out from the text just "what happened"). Chuck's bitterness is painfully real and the recognition of his sexual feelings commendably frank, but in return for this measure of honesty, the whole story is slanted to justify the "daring" subject matter—the psychological underpinnings are intrusive (talk of Oedipus complexes and sibling rivalry), the twin...

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Sheryl B. Andrews

Without being mawkish or false, the author has delved into the joy and sorrow concomitant with love and growth [in The Man Without a Face]…. The author handles the homosexual experience with taste and discretion; the act of love between Justin and Charles is a necessary emotional catharsis for the boy within the context of his story, and is developed with perception and restraint. Justin McLeod is presented as neither a damned soul nor a fallen angel, but as a human being…. Over and over again, the reader is made aware of what maturity entails: "You can be free from everything but the consequences of what you do."… A highly moral book, powerfully and sensitively written; a book that never loses...

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Isabelle Holland

[I] didn't set out to write about homosexuality [in The Man Without a Face]. I started this book with only the idea of a fatherless boy who experiences with a man some of the forms of companionship and love that have been nonexistent in his life. Because the other side of Charles' dilemma or emotional history arises from his feeling of being both suffocated and rejected by the predominant female influence in his home—his four-times married mother and his older sister. His stepfathers have come and gone too fast for him to do anything but dislike them. Emotionally, Charles has lived his life as an armed camp, hanging onto a shadowy memory of his own father. Hence the revolutionary impact that Justin has on...

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Ethel L. Heins

[Heads You Win, Tails I Lose] is capably written, full of clever, often bitter dialogue. But the author has not produced an important or powerful book—as she did with The Man Without a Face. Her new book lacks both the unity of theme and passionate focus of its predecessor. Perhaps she has pulled out too many stops and has diffused her creative energies in an attempt to cope with too many problems; for the life of almost every character has been touched by the wretchedness of drug addiction or alcoholism, divorce or estrangement, loneliness or isolation. (p. 57)

Ethel L. Heins, "'Heads You Win, Tails I Lose'," in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1974...

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Nora E. Taylor

Isabelle Holland has moved into the field of the Gothic novel with somewhat gingerly tread. No screams of horror in ["Kilgaren"]; just muted moues of apprehension. For all of that, she has written a rippling story that unfolds skin after onionskin of the unexpected, until the core is reached. It is worth the peeling.

Miss Holland, as a novelist of considerable experience, is accustomed to fleshing out her characters until they become as real as relatives to the reader. And giving substance to her settings until they seem equally familiar.

She has done this with Barbara Kilgaren of Four Winds; with the West Indian island, Kilgaren itself; and to a lesser extent perhaps with Barbara's...

(The entire section is 156 words.)

Zena Sutherland

A romantic story in the Gothic style [Kilgaren] comes, unexpectedly, from a writer who has excelled in contemporary realism. Isabelle Holland is too skilled a writer to portray characters who are not believable, and the style and dialogue are competently handled—but the plot is too intricate to be convincing, too dependent on Guilty Secrets Revealed. (p. 43)

Zena Sutherland, "New Titles for Children and Young People: 'Kilgaren'," in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (reprinted by permission of The University of Chicago Press; © 1974 by the University of Chicago), Vol. 28, No. 3, November, 1974, pp. 43-4.

(The entire section is 94 words.)

Diane A. Parente

"Trelawny" is a novel for a summer afternoon, a winter evening. In the modern Gothic style, complete with a haunted family mansion, it provides a temporary diversion from life's weightier problems.

The plot is relatively intricate and laced with enough surprises to maintain a high level of reader interest throughout despite a lack of any distinctive literary style or flair on the part of the author. A strong principal character, Kit Trelawny, provides the cohesive force in the story as she struggles to come to grips with the past through a weird and often frightening series of current events. (pp. 382-83)

[The] story line is as twisting and full of zigs and zags as the architecture...

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Kirkus Reviews

[Of Love and Death and Other Journeys] begins on a deceptively supercilious note with an odd family assortment of emigres, calling themselves Flopsy, Mopsy, Peter and Cotton…. Mopsy discovers that her Mother (hitherto Flopsy) is dying of cancer and she (and we) begin to understand and admire this vulnerable eccentric. Much of what Mopsy learns is revealed by her father…. Holland is an aggressive writer and some of this—father's button-down sincerity as well as Mopsy's flip sophistication—seems manipulated. But Mother's character and Mopsy/Meg's sorrow at seeing her waste away in silence are genuinely moving, and though later Mopsy's grief is sublimated in a crush on Cotton and worked out through his...

(The entire section is 173 words.)

Anne Marie Stamford

The plot itself [in Of Love and Death and Other Journeys] is interesting enough, but what makes the book really entertaining is Isabelle Holland's ability to capture all the precarious qualities of teenhood. Difficult as it must be to write through the eyes of a fifteen-year-old when one has passed that transient age, the author manages it with style and wit. The desperate throes of first love, the longing to be twenty-one, can be relived vicariously in these pages. The author's straightforward sense of humor when describing people and situations made me laugh out loud, a response rare indeed to novels these days.

Anne Marie Stamford, "'Of Love and Death and Other...

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Publishers Weekly

The tongue-in-cheek touch, the wry wit just beneath her heroine's frantic final plight, make Isabelle Holland's novels a great deal of fun for sophisticated readers. [In "Moncrieff"] the mysterious old house is in Brooklyn Heights (very aptly and authentically described), the damsel in distress knows damn well she is sometimes behaving foolishly, and she has a most engaging querulous small son,… able to take with a great deal of style his nervous mother's admission that her husband was not his father…. Ms. Holland does a neat job of putting it all together, and as always with that underlying sense of humor that distinguishes her work.

"Mystery and Suspense: 'Moncrieff',"...

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Joseph J. Feeney

A pleasant entertainment though not a significant novel, Moncrieff offers the strange combination of a realistic domestic novel and a Gothic thriller. (p. 306)

This linking of the realistic and Gothic traditions is generally successful. As a Gothic novel Moncrieff offers chills and suspense, especially since it focuses much of the mystery on the old house of Antonia and her twelve-year-old son. It is carefully plotted, too, as a suspense novel requires. As a domestic novel Moncrieff tells about her failed marriage, about bringing up a bright son without his father, and about the motives of Antonia, her former husband, and the novelist. There are some problems, though, in...

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Holland's novel [The Man Without a Face] contains one of the most destructive and fallacious stereotypes [in YA novels dealing with homosexuality and the homosexual lifestyle]—the homosexual as child molester. Justin, whose scarred face is noted by the title, is responsible for the death of a boy under unclarified circumstances. In light of such limited coverage of the gay experience in YA fiction, the possible identification of such a major character as a corrupter of children is grossly unfair. (p. 308)

Frances Hanckel and John Cunningham, "Can Young Gays Find Happiness in YA Books?" (copyright © 1976 by the H. W. Wilson Company; reprinted by permission of the...

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Joseph A. Cawley, S.J.

["Grenelle" is bizarre]—until you recall happenings on college campuses in the '60s, the decade of uninhibited activities. Grenelle is both college and seminary of High Anglican persuasion. The clergy are both traditional and Now. And the troubles begin with the latter. That and an innocent relic. Well, the relic has been stolen and the campus hubbub begins. Much ado about nothing? So it seems—until disquieting phenomena transpire…. (p. 381)

The authoress wields a painter's brush in her delineation of the characters involved. Quite the master is she in rousing sympathy for or distrust of, admiration of or disgust for the actors as they come on scene, play their part, depart. The weaving of the...

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Kirkus Reviews

Sentimental as the basic situation is [in Alan and the Animal Kingdom], Alan's urban milieu and its population are drawn with reasonable verity, and his devotion to his kingdom is understandable, even to those who don't list keeping animals alive as a high priority value. For most kids, of course, Alan's is an eminently sympathetic cause, and the added interest of coping alone enhances his likely appeal.

"Younger Fiction: 'Alan and the Animal Kingdom'," in Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1977 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), Vol. XLV, No. 6, March 15, 1977, p. 285.

(The entire section is 87 words.)


Alan faces the world alone [in Alan and the Animal Kingdom]. This causes him no dismay. What does dismay him is the certain and terrible knowledge that if adults—any adults—take over his life they will destroy his animals….

Isabelle Holland tells Alan's story the way fantasies are best told: with simplicity and convincing detail. Alan's problems are entirely credible. His journey, alas, is not a thrilling voyage on a raft. It is a trip into today's world. His crises and hair's breadth escapes involve ringing telephones, crime in the streets and above all money. How does a 12-year-old cash a check? How does he pay a vet when his cat is sick? Because of this urgent problem Alan meets a man...

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Nora E. Taylor

By art and artifice Isabelle Holland first establishes the pastoral ambience of life in a great English country house, then sends out chills of bewilderment and apprehension as that life is seen to be filled with the darkly unexpected [in "The deMaury Papers."]…

[This] is the stuff of suspense, of course, and Miss Holland makes the most of it.

As always, it is next to impossible to put down a Holland mystery until the last thread has been untangled. At that point one is likely to sigh, "Of course, I should have guessed." But one never does.

Nora E. Taylor, "Isabelle Holland's Latest," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by...

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Joe Vinson

[The deMaury Papers] is another of those logical suspense books which drop clues in just the right place to keep the reader interested. Unfortunately, there is almost nothing to keep the reader alert, and certainly no suspense. The few clues that are given turn out to be quite obvious. How about the plot? Unfortunately, that doesn't have any saving graces either….

The most glaring deficiency of the book is the main character. She is simply a lousy person. She is always asking questions, making mountains out of molehills, and generally being insufferably nosey. She also turns out to be a terrible detective. In fact, the reader doesn't do very well either. The end of the story is both...

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Shirley Wilton

Angry with her father, 16-year-old Pud decides to hitchhike home from boarding school with her dog Ruff instead of taking a plane [in Hitchhike]…. As a result of her frightening experience [with four teenage boys who pick her up], she has to rethink her values and her judgments. The messages about the caring side of parental discipline and about learning responsibility come through, and Holland avoids the familiar teen novel trap of damning the older generation, but the relentlessly topical story is didactic and heavy-handed.

Shirley Wilton, "'Hitchhike'," in School Library Journal (reprinted from the September, 1977 issue of School Library Journal,...

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Joyce Milton

The suspense [in "Hitchhike"] gets bogged down in sour didacticism. Adults are always either lecturing Pud or reproaching themselves. In addition to the warning that girls who hitchhike invite rape, there are stern words on pot-smoking, people who mistreat animals, and watching one's weight. Perhaps it's the strain of handling potentially explicit material in a manner suitable to the age group, but Holland gives the impression of being out of sympathy with youth. (pp. 34, 36)

Joyce Milton, "Children's Books: 'Hitchhike'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 30, 1977, pp. 34, 36.


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Corinne Hirsch

Deeply troubled youths struggle through the pages of Isabelle Holland's young adult novels….

Holland uses [her] material successfully to explore her characters' loneliness and need for love, but she seems to mistrust her adolescent reader's ability to face the disturbing consequences of the situations she creates. To prevent her novels from becoming terribly distressing, she resorts both to shallow psychologizing and plot manipulation to ameliorate her characters' problems. (p. 25)

A further problem in Holland's fiction lies in her attempt to impose her moral values on her adolescent readers. Her eagerness to condemn what she sees as the loss of traditional authority in child...

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Zena Sutherland

There have been other books about fat children, but few have explored causes and reactions with as much depth and perception as [Dinah and the Green Fat Kingdom]…. [The end of the novel brings] a clearing of the air that promises better future relations, but Holland never promises Dinah a rose garden; she's lost only five pounds, there's been no change in the behavior of her peers, and the new parental rapport is a hopeful sign but not an unrealistic capitulation. The writing style is smooth, with good dialogue and excellent characterization; it is, however, in insight into motivations and relationships that the author excels.

Zena Sutherland, "New Titles for Children...

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Eugenia E. Schmitz

This early-teenage novel [Dinah and the Green Fat Kingdom] is a thoroughly wholesome story…. (p. 111)

The book explores modern society's cruel treatment of people who are slightly different—the obese and the physically or mentally handicapped. It involves a perfectly normal family. Dinah learns that her parents really do love her, and that neither the pup nor the Green Fat Kingdom can compensate for her resentment of her rejection by society. She must decide to diet, not to please people or buy their good will but to please herself, or choose to stay fat and accept and respect herself that way.

A more artistic effect might have been created if the moral had been implied...

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Emily Vincent

The buffetings of misfortune and bad judgment bring two unloving sisters together under their aunt's roof where with different approaches they become entangled in a mildly terrifying international plot. By the end [of The Marchington Inheritance] all the dangling teasers and red-herrings have been fully sorted out and there is only one victim who is so lightly mourned that he was apparently expendable….

The suspense in this novel is on a par with the postman's anticipated daily delivery. A slight but not overpowering curiosity is evoked and held through the story. Most of the revelations at the end are telegraphed early in the book and depend on the inability or refusal of the characters to...

(The entire section is 190 words.)

Kate Fincke

Holland seems to have a twofold purpose [in The Man Without a Face]. One is to speak some psychological truth on the matter of homosexuality; the other is to alleviate anxiety and to absolve guilt in the young adolescent reader about his own homosexual inclinations or acts. In order to do this and perhaps to take some of the fright out of homosexual longings, she presents a relationship between an older man and a young boy that facilitates growth. She locates the psychological motivation for the boy's love in his "lost" father…. Holland conveys what is missing in the family by what she includes in McLeod, the father surrogate. And this is, to my mind, a little alarming, for McLeod himself is an old...

(The entire section is 506 words.)

Marilyn Kaye

While [Now is not too late] is a complex novel that revolves around an assortment of personalities and situations, it is to the author's credit that the complexity does not overwhelm the essential story or bury the main character in a sea of faces. Cathy comes across as a very real and substantial figure whose hopes and fears are as vivid to the reader as they are to herself. As usual, Holland writes with compassion and a sensitive understanding of human nature and its idiosyncrasies.

Marilyn Kaye, "Children's Books: 'Now Is Not Too Late'," in Booklist (reprinted by permission of the American Library Association; copyright © 1980 by the American Library...

(The entire section is 114 words.)

Zena Sutherland

Holland builds clues into [Now Is Not Too Late], structuring it deftly so that Cathy's discovery that the artist [for whom she has been posing] is her mother … will come as no surprise to the reader. Because Holland writes with polish and perception, the crux of the story is not that the discovery is made but how Cathy will react, for her emotions and especially her feelings about those she loves have been explored deeply. Running throughout the book are some wonderfully intelligent conversations with Granny (a fine character) who helps Cathy see that it is possible to compromise with life and still maintain principles and dignity….

Zena Sutherland, "New Titles for...

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Mary M. Burns

The author has once again created a feisty character [in Now Is Not Too Late], bright and articulate, so that the narrative retains its conversational tone while remaining free of clichés. The elegantly crafted story offers palpable descriptions of setting and characters as well as wonderfully pungent and wise observations on the human condition.

Mary M. Burns, "'Now Is Not Too Late'," in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1980, by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), Vol. LVI, No. 3, June, 1980, p. 297.

(The entire section is 80 words.)

The Junior Bookshelf

Granted the initial subterfuge, the plot [of Alan and the Animal Kingdom] hangs together firmly, cemented by Alan's passionate concern for his animals. He commands our sympathy, however much we may disapprove of his actions; the clash of values for an orphan who has been badly let down by adults and scorns their trust is sharpened as practical demands overwhelm idealistic devotion. The final resolution is neither sentimental nor engineered…. (pp. 143-44)

"The New Books: 'Alan and the Animal Kingdom'," in The Junior Bookshelf, Vol. 44, No. 3, June, 1980, pp. 143-44.

(The entire section is 89 words.)

Publishers Weekly

The youngsters [in "Counterpoint"], surly and rebellious, are completely believable, and as in all of Holland's damsel in distress suspense novels, there are some engaging animals. Less successful, however, is the plot, which finds Kate linking up with a bestselling author who possesses more than a touch of ESP to find out who is manipulating stepsister into near madness and causing things to go bump in the night. It isn't too difficult to figure out who the bad guys are, and once the clues begin to slip into place the suspense evaporates, which is too bad because there are some nice touches along the way involving Kate trying to win over the kids.

"Fiction: 'Counterpoint',"...

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Isabelle Holland

My books have always dealt with the relationship between the child or adolescent and the adult or adults who live in and dominate the young person's portrait of self. In later years that child, become an adult, may be able to see that the first portrait was as much created by the prejudices, fears, anxieties and desires within the adult as within the child. But at the time the portrait was being painted—"You're lazy, you're stupid, you're untidy, you start well but you never finish, you're too …" (you can add anything to that)—they became the strong first strokes that created a self-image that the child will never wholly lose. He may use it intelligently, he may battle against it, he may suffer from self hatred,...

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