Conly honored for her honest tale of alcoholism, grief and disabilities VTC

KIDS' BOOKS

February 11, 1994|By Molly Dunham Glassman | Molly Dunham Glassman,Sun Staff Writer

Jane Leslie Conly isn't the first son or daughter of a Newbery Medal winner to be honored by the Newbery committee. But there aren't many others.

Ms. Conly, who lives in Lauraville, wrote "Crazy Lady," one of three Newbery Honor Books selected earlier this week by the American Library Association. The year's top prize -- the Newbery Medal is considered the Pulitzer of children's literature -- went to "The Giver," by Lois Lowry.

Ms. Conly's father, Robert Conly, used the pen name Robert C. O'Brien when he won the 1971 Newbery Medal for "Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH."

Yet Ms. Conly, 46, hadn't planned to follow her father's lead. After attending Smith College, she entered the Writing Seminars Program at Johns Hopkins University. While she was there in the early 1970s, her father died. She completed a book he had been working on, "Z for Zachariah."

But she didn't want to continue as a writer. "I had an open doo and decided I wasn't interested," she says. Then, after her daughter, Eliza, was born 13 years ago, she found the door was still ajar.

Someone had tried to write a sequel to "Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH," and had sent it to the family for approval. Ms. Conly decided she would rather try to write a sequel herself. The result, "Rasco and the Rats of NIMH," received glowing reviews when Harper & Row published it in 1986.

She followed that with "R-T, Margaret, and the Rats of NIMH," in 1990. Then she left the fascinating culture her father had first created among the sophisticated rats of the National Institutes of Mental Health. "Crazy Lady," her third book, is set in 1981, in a working-class neighborhood near Memorial Stadium.

The narrator is Vernon, who is just starting junior high. His mother has died of a stroke, and his father struggles to hold the family together. But he can't read, so he can't help Vernon when he falls behind in school. And he can't find the affection that deserted the family when his wife died, and grief took over.

The title character is Maxine Flooter. She isn't crazy; she is an alcoholic known for her public rantings. The neighborhood kids taunt her and her teen-age son Ronald, who is severely retarded.

Vernon comes to befriend Maxine and Ronald. She helps Vernon find a tutor, and he, in turn, organizes a neighborhood fund-raiser to send Ronald to the Special Olympics.

Vernon's affection and sense of responsibility blossom, and he works hard to keep Maxine sober, knowing that Ronald stands to lose his mom if social services finds her unfit.

Maxine isn't a bad person, but she fails them both. In arranging to have Ronald live with relatives in the country, she breaks Vernon's heart. But as he struggles to say goodbye to Ronald, Vernon learns how to say goodbye to his own mother.

"Crazy Lady" (HarperCollins, $13, 180 pages, ages 10 and up) is honest in dealing with alcoholism, grief and disabilities. You want to say it's unfair for Vernon to have to confront so many troubles at such a young age. But kids do -- and, like Vernon, they grow up fast.

Ms. Conly grew up on a farm outside Leesburg, Va. When she was young, her father was a writer and editor for National Geographic, and her mother wrote for Newsweek. In a letter to a group of children after receiving an award for "Racso," Ms.

Conly writes about one of the few times she felt influenced by her parents' work.

The family was getting ready to go somewhere, but it couldn't leave until Mr. Conly finished editing an article for National

Geographic.

"He gave me a page and told me what to look for: sentences that didn't sound natural, like spoken conversation; and words that fuzzed up meaning rather than making it clearer," she recalled.

"I found the phrase, 'the long, narrow tunnel' and suggested that one of the two adjectives be cut. Dad did so, and I was very proud. I had 'edited' something for National Geographic!"

Now she is writing full-time. She lives in Lauraville with her husband, Peter Dwyer, and their two children, Eliza, 13, and Will, 8.

She is working on two manuscripts. The first is about a group of city kids who steal bikes, and then a pet, from other kids in the neighborhood. It's told from two sides: that of the perpetrators, and that of the victims, who set out to catch the thieves.

The second is about a 13-year-old girl whose family lives in a small West Virginia town. One day, her father leaves, and her mother, who has always wanted to move, uproots the family.

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