Lowry, Lois Ann (Hammersberg)
Born: March 20, 1937, in Honolulu, Hawaii
Vocations: Children’s Book Author, Science Fiction Writer, Journalist, Photographer, Editor, Short Story Writer
Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Carlisle, Cumberland County
Keywords: Boston Globe-Horn Book Award; Brown University; Children’s Books; The Giver; Newbery Medal; University of Southern Maine
Abstract: Lois Lowry was born on March 20, 1937, in Hawaii. Her family moved to Carlisle, Pennsylvania in 1942. Lowry excelled in school and attended Brown University. However, she married and started a family before finishing her degree. Lowry nurtured an early interest in writing, which gradually turned into a professional career. Her many children’s books include the Anastasia series, Autumn Street, and The Giver. She has won Lowry two Newbery Medals and a Boston Globe-Hornbook Award. Lois Lowry currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but she also spends a good deal of time at her farmhouse in Maine.
Lois Lowry was born in on March 20, 1937, to Robert E. Hammersberg and Katherine Landis in Honolulu, Hawaii. In 1939, they moved to Brooklyn, New York, and then they moved to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in 1942, when the U.S. entered World War II. Hammersberg, an army dentist, was called off to duty.
When six-year-old Lois entered the Franklin School in Carlisle, she had already been reading for three years. She attributed this precociousness to her mother, a kindergarten teacher, and to her older sister Helen, who read to her. Lowry’s younger brother Jon was born that same year. It was during these early years in Carlisle that Lois experienced some of the most profound events of her mostly happy childhood. These memories later proved to be important for her writing career.
In 1948, the Hammersberg family moved again to Tokyo, Japan. Lowry attended a special school for military families, but she felt stifled by a curriculum that did not challenge her creatively. However, she fondly remembers Japan. The family briefly moved back to Carlisle in 1950, where she attended ninth grade, but in 1951, they moved to Governor’s Island, New York, where Lois attended Curtis High School on Staten Island. In 1952, Lowry entered Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn Heights, New York, where she finished high school. She entered Brown University in 1954, where she met Donald Grey Lowry, a naval officer. In 1956, Lowry left school to marry Donald and move with him to San Diego, California.
Lois Lowry and Donald moved around the United States several times with their four children: daughters Alix and Kristin, and sons Grey and Benjamin. According to Joel Chaston’s biography, Lois Lowry, Lowry recalls the first several years of her married life as a “nice, pleasant, interlude. ” However, in 1962, her sister Helen’s death from cancerwas a sobering experience that later played a prominent role in Lowry’s life. As her children grew older, she found time to complete her degree in English literature from the University of Southern Maine in Portland in 1972. After getting her B.A., she pursued graduate studies at her alma mater. During this coursework she was introduced to photography, which became a life-long passion and profession. Her specialty was child photography, but she also took pictures to accompany the articles she submitted as a freelance journalist. As Lowry nurtured her budding careers, she and Donald became less compatible, and they divorced in 1977.
As a freelance journalist in the 1970s, Lowry submitted a short story to Redbook Magazine that caught the attention of an editor at Houghton Mifflin. The story was meant for adults, but was told through the eyes of a child. The editor suggested that Lowry write a children’s book. She agreed and wrote A Summer to Die. This 1977 novel parallels Lowry’s own experience with her sister’s terminal illness. She began her career as a writer for children and young adults, which is a career that does not shy away from the difficult experiences of life. In 1980, Lowry published her most autobiographical work, Autumn Street. The main character is a girl named Elizabeth, whose father is away at war. Elizabeth befriends her grandmother’s African American cook Tatie and her grandson Charles. In the course of the story, Elizabeth encounters racism, her beloved grandfather’s debilitating stroke, and the murder of Charles. In the end, with the love of her family, Elizabeth comes to terms with the fear and grief of the adult world. Elizabeth’s story closely parallels Lowry’s actual childhood in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. “Charles” was actually a girl named Gloria who was murdered during Lois’s childhood. Gloria was the granddaughter of Fleta Jordan, who was a cook for Lois’s grandfather, and Fleta was the real “Tatie.” The real “Autumn Street” is called College Street in Carlisle.
While many of Lowry’s works deal with somber topics, she is equally well-known for the fun and humor in her books. In 1979, she began her “Anastasia” series of books with Anastasia Krupnik, the story of a precocious and quirky ten-year-old girl who wants to be a writer. The Anastasia character was based, in part, upon Lowry’s own daughters. In one scene, Anastasia is in a foul mood because her new baby brother has the conveniently short name, “Sam.” She complains that her own somewhat unusual name is too long because it will not fit on a t-shirt: “Into the armpits, right? The letters would go right into my armpits!” Even in her lighter books, however, Lowry does not shrink from confronting the gloomier issues of life. For instance, Anastasia must deal with her grandmother’s senility and impending death. Lowry manages to mix the comic and the tragic aspects skillfully in her stories in a way that makes them irresistible for many young readers. Her readers often face the same issues her characters cope with.
Because she has taken on difficult subject matter, some of Lowry’s works have been controversial. Some parent groups have been concerned about her 1993 book, The Giver. This novel for young readers presents a dystopian view of a future society where history is hidden, where people are conditioned not to see colors, and where those who do not fit within the society’s narrow definition of acceptability are “released.” The protagonist discovers being “released“ is synonymous with being euthanized. Many have deemed this material to be inappropriate for children, and as a result, The Giver has been banned in some schools. Nevertheless, Lowry won a Newbery Medal for this book in 1994. The Giver has been published in over thirty languages, including Russian. She continues the controversial themes apparent in The Giver in her books Gathering Blue and The Messenger. Writing about both funny and serious issues has sustained Lois Lowry through her own hard times. Her son Grey was killed in a fighter plane crash in 1995. This was the most difficult day of her life, but through her steady work as an author, she has persevered.
Her most recent books include The Willoughbys, Crow Call, The Birthday Ball, and Bless This Mouse. She won the 2008 Parents’ Choice Gold Award for The Willoughbys. In 2011, she also wrote Like the Willow Tree: The Diary of Lydia Amelia Pierce, Portland, Maine, 1918 for the Dear America Series.
Now, later in life, Lois Lowry remains active in her own quiet fashion. She continues to write and makes speaking appearances. She spent thirty years with her long-time companion Martin Small, who passed away in spring 2011. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her Tibetan Terrier, Alfie, and her cat, Lulu. She also spends time at her farmhouse in Maine each year with her grandchildren. She says she writes for her grandchildren and their generation, “tr[ying], through writing, to convey [her] passionate awareness that we live intertwined on this planet and that our future depends upon our caring more, and doing more, for one another.”
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This biography was prepared by Thomas Fitzgerald, Spring 2005.