Sue Alexander wove her life into the children’s books she wrote and helped create a support network for others as a founding board member of the International Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. She helped grow the organization from three members to over twelve thousand during her twenty-five-year involvement. Alexander sold her first book to Scholastic in 1973, Small Plays for You and a Friend, based on dramas she created to entertain her own children. She went on to write more than twenty-five books, incorporating her own childhood struggles into her work. She taught picture-book writing at UCLA for a number of years, and SCBWI named an award for promising new writers in her honor.
At an early age Sue Alexander learned to attract other children’s interest and approval by telling stories. Her passion for storytelling and her understanding of the emotional ups and downs of childhood led her to write twenty-six books for children, notable for their appeal and variety. Alexander is also important for her pivotal role in the growth of an extraordinary international organization, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). At the cost of her own creative writing time, for more than twenty-five years she devoted countless hours to nurturing the group as it grew from three members to over twelve thousand, because, she said, “I was helped... It’s a giving back.”
Childhood and Family
Born August 20, 1933, in Tucson, Arizona, daughter of Jack M. and Edith Pollock Ratner, Alexander moved to Los Angeles with her family when she was a year old and to Chicago when she was five. Small and uncoordinated for her age, Alexander, influenced by her mother, became a passionate reader. Gradually she used the stories she read, and some she made up, to amuse herself and sometimes others. She said this stage of her life is reflected in her award-winning chapter book, Lila on the Landing (1987), which “was a painful book to write” but let her make peace with the hurt of feeling different and being left out.
Her family life was more satisfying. She, her younger brother, and her parents would go flying with her father, an avid pilot. She went with her grandfather to the Jewish markets and neighborhoods. She haunted book stores. Watching a revival of The Desert Song, Alexander was fascinated with the Bedouins on stage. Years later, she used that background in one of her most acclaimed books, Nadia The Willful (1983), a story she wrote to deal with the pain of her brother’s death. Nadia, a young Bedouin girl, disobeys her father’s command not to mention the death of his lost son, her beloved brother. As Nadia finds people with whom to talk about Hamed, she keeps his memory alive and her father ultimately learns that no one is dead if they are not forgotten.
Education and Early Career
Alexander planned to become a journalist, but while at Northwestern University she changed her major to psychology, which she said helped give her the understanding to make the characters in her stories more real. In her senior year, she left school to marry, and her first child, Glenn David, was born in 1956. When the marriage ended, Alexander moved to Los Angeles, where her parents were then living. She married Joel Alexander on November 29, 1959, and the couple had two children, Marc Jeffry and Stacey Joy.
Alexander had continued to write but it was not until the death of her mother in 1967 that she seriously focused on polishing her craft, determined to “do something with my life that would have pleased my mother...” Her first stories were published in children’s magazines and she reviewed children’s books regularly for the Los Angeles Times. Though Alexander had not yet published a book herself, it was at this time she became a charter member and active board member of the newly formed SCBW (later SCBWI), an involvement that over the years was to help educate and encourage hundreds of aspiring writers like herself.
Books, Skits, and Plays
When her daughter could find no suitable skits to put on with friends, Alexander wrote some, remembering her own imaginative youthful playlets, and Scholastic published Small Plays for You and A Friend in 1973. Alexander’s fourth book, Witch, Goblin and Sometimes Ghost (1976), a book she filled with “tender friendships and lovable foibles,” brought her critical notice and a wider audience of enthusiastic young readers. By popular demand, she revisited these lovable spooky characters several times. She also wrote two more play books, Small Plays for Special Days (1977) and Whatever Happened to Uncle Albert? And Other Puzzling Plays (1980). Other popular Alexander books are the “World Famous Muriel” series about a little tight-rope walker who loves to solve mysteries; There’s More...Much More (1987), a celebration of spring and the senses; Sara’s City (1995), an evocative look at growing up in Chicago in 1940; and One More Time, Mama (1999), a warm and reassuring picture book. Her nonfiction for young readers includes the award-winning Finding Your First Job (1980) and America’s Own Holidays (1988).
Alexander’s last work, Behold the Trees (2001), was very different, a religious and political history of Israel presented succinctly by explaining why and how the face of this piece of earth was changed again and again through the centuries. Alexander’s poetic prose pays tribute to the Jewish National Fund and to how the Jewish people made a barren land bloom again.
In addition to her writing and her massive involvement with SCBWI, Alexander taught picture-book writing at UCLA. In gratitude for her nurturing the talents of others, Southern California SCBWI established the “Sue Alexander Service and Encouragement Award,” while the international SCBWI now has an annual “Sue Alexander Most Promising New Work Award”, promoting the publication of new works by their members.
Alexander passed away on July 3, 2008, at the age of 74.
- 1980 Dorothy C. McKenzie Award of the Southern California Council of Literature for Children and Young People (SCCLCYP) for distinguished contribution to the field of children’s literature
- SCBW Golden Kite Honor Plaque 1980
- Los Angeles Central Library’s Friends of Children and Literature FOCAL Award for Outstanding Contributions to Children and Literature
- Notable Children’s Book in the Field of Social Studies, Child Study Association Children’s Book of the Year, 1984
- SCCLCYP Distinguished Work of Fiction, 1984, all four awards for Nadia the Willful.
Selected Works by Sue Alexander
America’s Own Holidays (1988);
Behold the Trees (2001);
Finding Your First Job (1980);
Lila on the Landing (1987);
Nadia The Willful (1983);
One More Time, Mama (1999);
Sara’s City (1995);
Seymour the Prince (1979);
Small Plays for You and A Friend (1973);
Small Plays for Special Days (1977);
There’s More...Much More (1987);
Whatever Happened to Uncle Albert? And Other Puzzling Plays (1980);
Witch, Goblin and Sometimes Ghost (1976);
World Famous Muriel (1984);
Short stories in Children’s Playmate, Weekly Reader, the Los Angeles Times and for Walt Disney Studios.
Alexander, Sue. Essay in Something About the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 15, Gale (1993): 51–66, and Volume 89, Gale (1996): 2–7.
Murphy, Catherine Frey. “Sue Alexander: Springing from the Self” in Children’s Writer Guide to 1997, edited by Susan M. Tierney (1997).
Roginski, James W. Behind the Covers: Interviews with Authors and Illustrators of Books for Children and Young Adults, Volume 2, Libraries Unlimited (1989): 1–15.