Paula Fox writes novels for adults and young people. Her novels tend to be realistic, treating serious individual and social problems. She is best known for her novels for children and young adults. Her children’s works have received many awards, including the John Newbery Medal in 1974 for The Slave Dancer, given by the American Library Association for the best American book for children on the basis of its story. In 1978, she received the Hans Christian Andersen Award, given by the International Board on Books for Young People because of the contribution her works make to children’s literature. Her adult books tend to win few awards; however, Borrowed Finery was selected as one of The New York Times best books for 2001.
In interviews and in her memoir, Borrowed Finery, Fox discusses her strange childhood. She was born in New York City, the child of an American screenwriter and his Cuban wife, who abandoned her shortly after birth. She spent most of her first six years—according to Borrowed Finery, among her happiest years—living with Elwood Amos Corning, a Congregational minister to whom she was not related, and his arthritic mother. During this time, her parents rarely visited or contacted her.
Fox then lived for a while with her parents, mostly in California. Her father drank heavily, and both parents abused her emotionally. Beginning in 1931, she spent several years with her maternal grandmother, for a while in New York City and then in Cuba on a sugar plantation where her grandmother worked. She married, divorced, placed a child up for adoption, remarried, had children, and divorced again. She worked at many jobs, including salesperson, magician’s assistant, newspaper correspondent after World War II in Poland (where she met her second husband), and teacher. She withdrew from Columbia University without a degree because of money problems. Her career as a professional writer began in 1966 with the publication of Maurice’s Room, illustrated by Ingrid Fetz.
Critics agree that her main strength lies in her novels for older children and young adults. Several of these works are extremely controversial. How Many Miles to Babylon? deals with a young, urban African American, James Douglas, forced to help three older boys steal dogs to get rewards for returning them. Winner of many awards, The Slave Dancer tells of Jessie Bollier, kidnapped from New Orleans and forced to play his fife on a slave-trading vessel so that the slaves would have music for exercising. The book received praise for being beautifully written, sensitive, and realistic as well as criticism for giving an inaccurate view of the slaves. Monkey Island treats a child, Clay Garrity, abandoned by his father and then his pregnant mother. Clay lives on the streets for months, cared for by two homeless African American men, until he catches pneumonia and goes to the hospital. Then he reunites with his mother and his new baby sister. The Eagle Kite treats Liam Cormac, whose father dies from acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Although Liam’s mother tries to convince him that his father got AIDS from a blood transfusion, Liam saw his father on the beach embracing another man.
Many of Fox’s works seem to draw directly from her own childhood and her mixed heritage. For example, One-Eyed Cat treats Ned Wallis, a minister’s son, who lives in a house and a location very like the one Fox describes in her memoir. Some of Ned’s adventures also occur in Fox’s memoir. The Moonlight Man and The Village by the Sea both treat problems of living with alcoholic relatives. The Moonlight Man especially mirrors many of Fox’s experiences in relation to her father. A Servant’s Tale draws on the time she spent as a child in Cuba and growing up in the United States with a Latino background and on experiences of her maternal grandmother, who worked as a servant to a rich Cuban. Influenced by her family and background, Fox has produced works for both children and adults, many of which have been hailed as being of lasting value.