When Nancy Farmer was young, her father managed a hotel in Yuma, Arizona. Growing up in a hotel full of interesting strangers, Farmer became fascinated with storytelling. As she remembers, "Every night until past midnight I listened to stories from truck drivers, cowboys, and railroad workers." However, she did not act on this fascination until she was 41 years old, having in the meantime been sidetracked by a love of science and travel. From 1963 to 1965 she was a Peace Corps volunteer in India. After two years of further travel, she returned briefly to the States, then set out to work her way around the world. She never made it beyond her first stop—Africa. She worked as a chemist and entomologist in Mozambique for three years, then in neighboring Zimbabwe for almost 14 years. In Zimbabwe she met and married Harold Farmer, an English instructor, and in 1978 she gave birth to her only child, Daniel.
Farmer began her writing career in Zimbabwe, where she published four books for children, including an early version of her first Newbery Honor Book, The Ear, the Eye and the Arm. Despite the fact that she is a white American writing about African characters, her books have been well received in Zimbabwe for their authentic representation of Shona culture. Even after the Farmers moved to California in the early 1990s, Nancy continued to set her books in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, and she says that her years in central Africa have had a profound effect on her writing. She certainly emerged on the American scene as a full-fledged professional writer of great depth and maturity, and she began to reap critical acclaim for her work before scholars and critics even recognized her name. Both The Eye, the Ear and the Arm and A Girl Named Disaster were named Newbery Honor Books, and the latter was also a finalist for the National Book Award.