Paula Fox 1923–
American novelist, essayist, and author of children's books.
The following entry presents an overview of Fox's career through 1996. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2 and 8.
Fox is one of the most highly acclaimed contemporary American writers of children's and young adult fiction. Her writing for children has earned her numerous industry awards, including the Newbery Medal and the Hans Christian Andersen Medal. Additionally, Fox has been praised for her novels for adults, many of which explore the small, private moments of despair and alienation in everyday life.
Fox was born in New York City to Paul Harvey and Elsie de Sola Fox in 1923. Her parents rarely lived in one place for very long, and as a young child Fox was sent to live in New York's Hudson Valley with a minister and his invalid mother. There she developed a love for stories that later influenced her decision to become a professional writer. In 1931 Fox went to live with her maternal grandmother on a sugar plantation in Cuba, where she attended a one-room school and became fluent in Cuban Spanish. She returned to New York City three years later, when the revolution led by Batista y Zaldivar made Cuba socially and politically unstable. After high school Fox held many jobs, working as a machinist at one point and moving on to low-level positions at publishing companies and newspapers. After World War II she took a job with a leftist British news service, which sent her to cover post-war Poland. When she returned to the United States, she married and had children, but the marriage ended in divorce. Fox then attended Columbia University but never received her degree because of financial difficulties. Nonetheless, she worked as an English teacher for Spanish-speaking children. In 1962 Fox remarried and spent six months living in Greece while her husband, an English professor, held a Guggenheim fellowship. It was then that she decided to make writing a full-time career. Fox resides in Brooklyn, New York.
Fox's writing for children and young adults is highly regarded because of the way Fox deals with difficult, often tragic, situations with neither sentimentality nor condescension toward her readers. Her second major work, How Many Miles to Babylon? (1967), is considered a classic in the young adult fiction genre. Ten-year-old James Douglas, an African-American child living in the inner-city, is left with three great-aunts after his mother enters a mental institution. In order to cope, James creates a fantasy life in which his mother is really a queen returned to Africa. He is drawn into a group of young thugs with a dog-napping scheme, taken to a Coney Island funhouse where the dogs are hidden, and, using his ingenuity and intelligence, escapes and rescues the dogs. When he returns home, he finds his mother there waiting for him. The Slave Dancer (1973), Fox's most acclaimed and most controversial book for young adults, tells the story of a kidnapped white child trapped on a slave ship. Thirteen-year-old Jessie is taken from his home onto a ship bringing slaves to the United States and forced to play his fife while the slaves are forced to dance to amuse their captors. Thrown into these nightmarish circumstances, Jessie attempts to retain his sense of morality and humanity. Fox's novel is a meticulously researched tale of innocence forced to face violent experience. One-Eyed Cat (1984) depicts the guilt a boy feels after shooting a cat in the eye. The complicated story that develops deals with family secrets and ultimate attempts at reconciliation. In Monkey Island (1991) a formerly middle-class boy finds himself abandoned and homeless in the city. In The Eagle Kite (1995) a teenager must come to terms with his parents' separation because of his father's homosexuality and later death from AIDS. Similarly, in Fox's fiction for adults, complex situations lead to alienation and often despair as characters attempt to find meaning and focus in their lives. In Desperate Characters (1970) a middle-class couple in New York are complacent about the distance between them, but the story gradually reveals deeper and more violent feelings destroying their relationship. Annie, the protagonist of The Western Coast (1972) drifts among people she cares little about, all of whom leave a bigger impression on her than she leaves on anyone. Finally, her search for meaning leads her to an unknown future in Europe. A Servant's Tale (1976) features a similar protagonist whose actions are often inscrutable. The illegitimate child of a servant and the son of a wealthy plantation owner in the Caribbean, Luisa spends her entire adult life quietly insisting on working as a servant, although her decision is misunderstood by everyone around her.
While Fox is generally considered one of the most important authors of fiction for children and young adults, her work is not without detractors. The Slave Dancer, in particular, has received negative commentary from some critics who claim that Fox portrayed the captured Africans as weak and dispirited and the captors as victims of circumstance themselves. Nonetheless, the book won the prestigious Newbery Medal and is widely hailed as classic of children's literature. Fox's other works for young people, especially How Many Miles to Babylon?, are also praised for their integrity and honest presentation to children of complex social and personal issues. Fox's novels for adults have not been as well received, although many critics admit that the works are brilliant, if not likeable. Both The Western Coast and A Servant's Tale have been harshly reviewed because of the ambiguous, obscure natures of their protagonists; but other critics have found the novels appropriately weighty for their subject matter. Desperate Characters is Fox's most successful novel for adults. Pearl K. Bell observed that the book is "a small masterpiece, a revelation of contemporary New York middle-class life." Of the judgment that her works are "depressing," Fox has stated: "'Depressing,' when applied to a literary work, is so narrow, so confining, so impoverished and impoverishing. This yearning for the proverbial 'happy ending' is little more than a desire for oblivion."