Paula Danziger

Author of 'The Cat Ate My Gymsuit'

Paula Danziger, children's writer: born Washington DC, 18 August 1944; died New York 8 July 2004.

Author of over 30 children's books, Paula Danziger excelled in problem stories with happy endings. But such problems were never allowed to seem too great, and their happy conclusions owed much to main characters' developing positive attitudes for themselves while also sometimes coming across a potentially romantic new interest into the bargain.

Young readers loved the optimism on display in this fiction together with the author's capacity for making good jokes, while also retaining a sharp memory for the typical anxieties experienced in pre-adolescence.

Born in Washington in 1944, the elder of two children, Danziger had to put up with the verbal aggression of her deeply frustrated father while her mother sought shelter in passive acceptance enlivened by occasional bursts of binge shopping.

At the age of 12 the future novelist was put on tranquillisers, a decision she bitterly resented in later life, feeling that all she needed at the time was a little psychological help and understanding. As she put it herself, "I always say that the family would now be called dysfunctional; back then we were just Danzigers." She also vowed from the age of seven that whenever her father yelled at her or made fun of her weight or clumsiness she would later use this material in a novel.

She kept her word in her first and best story, The Cat Ate My Gymsuit, published in 1974 but still in print, together with most of her other books. Written after Danziger had qualified and worked as a teacher, it features Marcy, a sparky, wise-cracking child who insists with reason that things in her life could still be much better. Or, as she confides to her readers,

My life is not easy. I know I'm not poor. Nobody beats me. I have clothes to wear, my own room, a stereo, a TV, and a push-button phone. Sometimes I feel guilty about being so miserable, but middle-class kids have problems too.

The chief threat once again is a sarcastic and unloving father tolerated by a beaten-down wife who prescribes tranquillisers for herself and huge bowls of ice cream for her children, so exacerbating the weight problem mocked by the father in the first place.

But help is on hand from Ms Finney, an inspirational English teacher who has her own problems at school when she refuses to salute the American flag. Banding together with her friends, Marcy helps save the situation and also initiates some improvements at home. By the end of the story her father is behaving better, but kind and sensitive Ms Finney leaves teaching in favour of a course in bibliotherapy - the art of choosing the right story for the right child in terms of their particular psychological need at the time.

The firm belief that certain stories can significantly help a child by describing their problems - and then some possible solutions - in print was one that Danziger always held to, remembering the emotional isolation she felt during her own childhood.

Other novels followed fast, with Danziger going over to full-time writing in 1978. All featured typical pre-pubertal embarrassments and worries in situations enlivened by the author's customary wit and skilful punning. The Pistachio Prescription (1978) describes ways in which a child can survive a disintegrating marriage, while Can You Sue Your Parents for Malpractice? (1979) discusses tactics for loosening a patriarchal father's grip on his family.

In There's a Bat in Bunk Five (1980), a slimmer, 14-year-old Marcy returns as a counsellor in training at a Creative Arts Camp to which she has been invited by her old friend and ally Ms Finney. But, while things are now going better at home, Marcy has still much to learn about herself and others, particularly a new boy that she finds herself liking very much indeed.

Many other novels were to come, often aimed at much younger readers, as in the popular Amber Brown and Matthew Martin series. But with growing success the anger that made Danziger's early novels so effective was replaced by a blander type of all-purpose psychological understanding. Stories became increasingly formulaic, with their cheerful author now taking acting lessons and confident enough to appear on her many public engagements in rhinestone-decorated spectacles, feather hats, bright, beaded outfits and abundant jewellery. She said that she would have liked to be a stand-up comedian.

Living partly in London, which she adored, she appeared for some time on the BBC Television children's show Live and Kicking, where she talked about books and interviewed other writers.

Never marrying, she was a much-loved aunt and a popular figure in the schools she constantly visited, sometimes travelling 30,000 miles in a year.

Nicholas Tucker

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