(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Jean Lee Latham 1902–

(Also has written under pseudonym Julian Lee) American young adult biographer, novelist, poet, playwright, and editor, and adult playwright and essayist. Latham is considered a leading writer of fictionalized biography. She chooses doctors, inventors, scientists, naturalists, and mathematicians as her subjects, people ahead of their time in pioneering technical advancement. Latham reduces massive data into a form that is understandable to her young adult audience, and she has consistently detailed the important aspects of her subjects and their achievements without disturbing the flow of her narratives. She is also an extremely thorough researcher who uses the letters and samples of the work of her subjects to enhance and verify her narratives. Formerly a dramatist, Latham claims that it is the suspense in a person's life and his ability to achieve despite setbacks that makes him appealing as a subject. She began writing plays in high school, and eventually became both an actress and a drama teacher. She was editor-in-chief of the Dramatic Publishing Company in Chicago for six years, and wrote her first book about acting and directing. She has also written many plays for both stage and radio. During World War II, Latham was appointed civilian in charge of the National Training Program for Signal Corps inspectors. After the war she concentrated solely on narrative writing. Latham discovered Nathaniel Bowditch, the American astronomer and authority on navigation, when she read the introduction to The American Practical Navigator, which he wrote in 1799 at the age of twenty-six and which is still considered the standard work among sailors. Carry On, Mr. Bowditch renewed interest in its subject and won the 1956 Newbery Medal. She aimed this work at a specific reader, the adolescent boy. Most of her works have male heroes and have their greatest appeal to those with an interest in technical subjects. She has been criticized for these aspects, and for a writing style that is sometimes stilted and choppy. However, Latham's works have introduced young people to real characters from whose accomplishments they can learn and with whose dreams they can identify. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed., and Something about the Author, Vol. 2.)