ON HER BROCHURE for author visits, Gloria Skurzynski quotes the old Chinese saying "May you live in interesting times." She has added, "Life is exciting!" `Skurzynski's enthusiasm for life and her thirst for sharing her enthusiasm has brought about more than two dozen books. Her investigations have taken readers from the Middle Ages to adventures in today's world to explorations of the future. A writing career that has spanned almost three decades has produced picture books, folktales, middlegrade adventure stories, nonfiction titles, and "futuristic" novels for young adults.
Gloria Skurzynski says that she is different from many other writers for young people in two ways: "First, I didn't know I wanted to be a writer until I was a grown-up woman with five children. Second, I grew up in a home with very few books. When I was seven, and forced to stay in bed because of tonsillitis, a friend of my parents gave me a copy of Heidi--the first book I ever owned."
An only child, Skurzynski received a copy of Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates for Christmas when she was 10 years old. After that, she bought herself a copy of Aesop's Fables for ten cents. "Now, over 50 years later," she notes, "I still have all three books. The pages are dry and crumbling and the bindings are falling apart, but I treasure them. I loved books from the moment I turned that first page of Heidi, and I still love them--the touch, the smell, and most of all, the wonderful woads found in the pages of books."
It was her love of good writing and her admiration of the writer that prompted her to write a fan letter to Pulitzer Prize-winner Phyllis McGinley in 1965. Their correspondence grew into a friendship and McGinley encouraged Skurzynski to try her hand at writing. Her first published story, accepted by Teen magazine after 58 submissions to other publications, was about her daughter Serena's broken leg. Eventually she had several magazine articles and picture books published in the 1970s. As her five daughters moved through their school years, she began writing novels for children seven to 13 years of age.
One of her books, The Tempering, is based on her father's childhood. He often told her stories during her growing-up years in Pennsylvania and she knew that some day the "rich background would end up in a book." She began to write his story only a year before he died. Much of it grew out of the grim reality of his youthful experiences in the steel mills. One of the most dreadful scenes, in which a character's foot is burned with molten lead, actually happened.
Another book, Good-Bye, Billy Radish, came from Skurzynski's own childhood home in what she describes as the "smoky, sooty, western Pennsylvania town where flames set fire to the night." She was born in Duquesne, Pennsylvania, in 1930, where her father worked in the mills and her mother was a telegraph operator. Skurzynski herself worked for a time as a clerk at U.S. Steel Corporation in Pittsburgh after a year of college.
In 1951 she married and began to raise a family Her husband, an engineer, was transferred to Utah where they have lived since. For a dozen years Skurzynski's family, her husband Edward and all five daughters, camped in the Utah desert at least once each summer. There Skurzynski got her ideas for a series of adventure fiction for intermediate-age readers, the Mountain West Adventures published by Lothrop.
Her observations of the desert animals, plants, and insects and her research into the effects of dehydration on the body led to the first of the series, Lost in the Devil's Desert (1982). Some years later she and her husband made a weekend trip to the red rock cliff country of southern Utah and northern Arizona. "The night we arrived, a fierce thunderstorm dumped rain on the mesa tops and into the canyons, creating spectacular waterfalls and a flash flood. The next morning the water was gone, but evidence of the flood remained. A full-sized automobile flipped on its roof in a stream bed, boulders flung helter-skelter like pebbles, a road washed out completely" These images planted the seeds for the next adventure title, Trapped in Slickrock Canyon (1984). The book, set in Arizona, incorporates the flash flood into a story about two cousins who are fleeing from criminals.
Skurzynski continued the series with a book set in Idaho, Caught in the Mort Mountains (1984), that tells the story of the worst earthquake in 25 years. A story set in Nevada, Swept in the Wave of Terror (1985), focuses on an actor, performing in Las Vegas, who plans to destroy part of the Hoover Dam and plunge the city into darkness.
Next, Skurzynski turned her attention to nonfiction writings and novels that explore the world of high technology and life in the future. "It isn't wise for an author to go off in too many directions. (but) I dislike confining myself to any one type of book. The world is just too full of fascinating topics and challenging genres."
She adds, "Adventure novels are a lot of fun to research and write, but high-tech research lets me meet people who are working on the cutting edge of next-century technology. When they see that I'm really interested in their work, they open up and share things with me that I can't wait to share, in turn, with my readers. I don't know enough to really understand, in depth, how these technologies work, but I can learn enough to introduce them to kids, to make the kids aware that these marvelous creations exist. And there's always the hope that my readers will get motivated to become creators themselves when they grow up."
Skurzynski's series for middle-grade readers about technological advances was called Your High-Tech World (Bradbury). Although the research is often time-consuming, she says, "None of the high-tech titles was really difficult to research. I become so enthused about the subjects that I can't wait to talk to the people who work in those fields, which means I learn as much as I can before I even contact them. They sense my enthusiasm and it all turns into a big, happy party."
Skurzynski won the 1992 American Institute of Physics Science Writing Award for the second in the series, Almost the Real Thing: Simulation in Your High-Tech World (1991). It is an introduction to physical and computer simulations used in airplane and automotive safety testing and in astronaut training. She has also investigated and written about robots (Robots: Your High-Tech World, 1990), telecommunications (Get the Message, 1993), video games (Know the Score, 1994), and automation in the movemerit of the U.S. mail (Here Comes the Mail, 1993).
In her novel Cyberstorm, Skurzynski explores the concept of teleporting (separating at the molecular level and moving through time and space over some unknown electromagnetic wavelength) and the possibility of reliving one's past life through virtual reality. "Cyberstorm was my first venture into science fiction, although I prefer to think of it as a futuristic novel, rather than science fiction, because I tried to base it pretty much on what the world will actually be like in the year 2015." The characters are well drawn, the plot is fast-moving, full of adventure and suspenseful moments. Publishers Weekly (June 26, 1995) called it "reminiscent of Ray Bradbury's 1950 story "The Veldt," while VOYA (August 1995) said Skurzynski's novel "is (lifted) beyond a simple SF adventure to the level of possible Newbery contender."
Virtual War (Simon & Schuster), her most recent futuristic novel, is the story of three teenagers trained all their lives to fight in a virtual war between the global confederations that control Earth. The population of Earth has been decimated by diseases, including eboli and AIDS, and a nuclear war. The bloodless, computer-controlled war has been scheduled to determine which confederation will win some islands that have become decontaminated over time.
Her nonfiction high-tech books are illustrated with color photographs, most of which Skurzynski takes herself. Other photographs are selected and arranged by her. "I'm doing almost all of my own photo illustrations these days because I know what it is I want to show in the picture. When I can't take my own (as in Zero Gravity, since NASA wouldn't let me go up in the shuttle), I visited both NASA/Kennedy in Florida and NASA LBJ in Texas. As always, I've studied the subjects ahead of time so I know what I'm looking for." Often she uses her grandchildren as subjects in her photographs, and all seven have appeared in her books.
When asked about what she will be working on in the future, Skurzynski says that she and her daughter Mane have been collaborating on a series of mysteries solved by science. Mane Ferguson is a well-known writer of mystery titles. So Ferguson "does the mystery part" and Skurzynski "does the science." Two of the books are already written but not yet published. Skurzynski says, "We love working together, and it looks as though we'll be under contract for many additional titles." Mane is the only daughter who still lives within driving distance, but Skurzynski notes "when we work together, we most often connect by modem."
Skuzynski does her writing on a computer with access to the Internet and CD-ROMS. Although Skurzynski often browses the Internet, she views herself as "an observer, as I usually am in the real world, too--just cruising around quietly to see what other people are up to, no letting myself become too conspicuous."
Her interests in technology, learning, and creative thinking are shared by her family. Her husband, a retired aerospace engineer, "loves computers." Their oldest daughter, Serene Nolan, practices medicine. Jan Skurzynski met her husband, Dale Mahoney, on the Internet. She works for Hewlett Packard and performs throughout the Northwest as half of the music duo Black Diamond. The Skurzynskis' third daughter, Joan Alm, designs Western clothing for Southwest boutiques. The youngest two daughters are Alane Ferguson, the mystery writer, and Lauren Thliveris, a computer engineer.
When Gloria and Ed have spare time they "watch movies, dink around on the computer, or travel." She enjoys hearing from readers and prefers to receive messages by e-mail. Don't be disappointed if you must wait for an answer. At the time I interviewed her for this article, she was getting ready to conduct, with Mane, a full-day workshop at the Nevada Library Association's annual conference. Two weeks later she was to speak about science in fiction at a conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Maryland. And once she was home from that trip, she was off to Sacramento for school talks.
Making Connections with Gloria Skurzynski's Books
Caught in the Moving Mountains. Lothrop, 1984; Beech Tree paperback, 1994. --Paul and Lance's father hopes that the 13-year-old boys' three-day backpacking trip in Idaho's White Cloud Mountains will make Paul more confident like his adopted brother Lance, The roles seem to be reversed when the boys encounter an injured drug smuggler, who forces them to help him. An earthquake finishes off the drug smuggler and threatens the boys' safe return. A survival story filled with suspense.
- By the end of the story Paul and Lance seem to have gained new respect for one another. Do you think their father's opinion of them has changed as well? Explain.
- In order to write this book, Skurzynski did research on the mechanics of flying a small plane, drug smuggling, backpacking, and earthquakes. Do you think that research was apparent (and important) in the book? Explain.
- Read other books that involve survival in
the wilderness, such as:
Wi1derness Peril by Thomas Dygard (Morrow, 1985);
River Rats, Inc. by Jean Craighead George (Dutton, 1979);
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen (Bradbury, 1987; Puff]n, 1988);
No Way Out by Ivy Ruckman (Crowell, 1988);
and Night of the Twisters by Ivy Ruckman (Crowell, 1984).
- The earthquake in this book really did occur at Mount Borah Peak, Idaho, on October 28, 1983. The events were reported in The Arco Advertiser, P.O. Box C, Arco, Idaho 83213-0803. If a copy of the news account can be obtained, compare the facts with the fictional account.
Cyberstorm. Macmillan/Simon & Schuster, 1995. -- In 2015, Mrs. Galloway, 85, has spent her life savings to relive the happiest moments of her life in a virtual-reality Rent-A-Memory machine. When the machine malfunctions, Darcy Kane hides herself and her dog inside and begins to relive Mrs. Galloway's memories. Losing her memories, Mrs. Galloway desperately finds a way to get into the machine too, and when she does, neither she nor Darcy can be found. Experts on the outside believe that the two may have teleported.
- Compare Skurzynski's story with some of Ray Bradbury's science fiction.
- Interview a computer engineer regarding his or her opinion of teleporting.
- Read Skurzynski's book Almost the Real Thing and discuss the possibility that virtual reality will be part of your life in the near future.
Dangerous Ground. Bradbury, 1989. --Twelve-year-old Angela and her 78-yearold great-aunt Hilda usually spend the school year together, but now Angela will stay with her own family. The two take one last trip together, to Yellowstone Park. Aunt Hil takes a friend's prescription medicine to alleviate the depression she is feeling over losing Angela. The medicine has some drastic side effects, causing Angela to believe that her aunt may be suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.
- Research the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease and compare them to the symptoms exhibited by Aunt Hil.
Get the Message: Telecommunications in Your High-Tech World. Bradbury, 1993. - Scientific principles and the technology involved in telephone calls (conventional, cellular and mobile phones, satellite transmissions, and fiber optics and lasers) and facsimile transmissions are explained, along with theories about future possibilities in telecommunications.
- Investigate the use of fiber optics in your community. What will the fiber optics networks be used for and how will the networks change the status quo?
- Describe how telecommunications impact your daily lift'.
Good-Bye, Billy Radish. Bradbury, 1992 - The setting is a small, western Pennsylvania steel-mill town in 1917, as the United States enters World War l. Tenyear-old Hank observes the changes taking place in his hometown but does not understand why his older Ukrainian friend, Billy, is drifting apart from him.
- Investigate the role the Ukrainian government had in World War I and discuss how this role might have impacted Billy's situation.
- Interview a member of your community about their memories of World War II. Ask specifically about attitudes in relation to people who were natives of the countries involved in the fighting. Discuss those attitudes in relation to the townspeople's attitude toward Billy Radish.
Know the Score: Video Games in Your High-Tech World. Bradbury, 1994. - The history, design, hardware, presentation, and state-of-the-art technology involved in video games are shared with readers. The book also profiles several people responsible for the development and promotion of some of these games. Some of the many photographs show the "insides" of video games and computers.
- Using the book as a beginning point, make a list of the careers that might be involved in the promotion and development of video games. Investigate the education and skills required and job opportunities.
Lost in the Devil's Desert. Lothrop, 1982; Beech Tree, 1994. - Kevin is trapped in the back of a truck stolen by escaped convicts. When the truck is stopped, eleven-year-old Kevin jumps out and into the Devil's Desert. He has to use all of his survival skills in the desert.
- Explain three things Kevin did that helped him survive in the desert.
- Do you think the story is realistic? Do you think an eleven year old could really survive in the desert?
Swept in the Wave of Terror. Lothrop, 1985. - An actor performing in Las Vegas threatens to blow up the Hoover Dam. The story combines show business, scuba diving, and one of the most remarkable engineering feats in the United States, the Hoover Dam.
- Why do you think Tyler agreed to help Ernesto?
- Do you think Tyler should have realized the seriousness of what he was helping to do? Why or why not?
- Tonia's and Tyler's parents did not seem to know much about what their children were doing. Do you think they were interested in their children or not? Defend your answer.
- Find out more about Hoover Dam.
Gloria Skurzynski has become a noted writer of suspense and adventure tales. In the recent years several of her titles are co-authored with her daughter Alane Ferguson. Those include as series of National Geographic adventure/suspense titles that take place in national parks. Most of her recent titles center on technology and the scienitific world. Find out about Skurzynski's most recent titles on her website at http://www.gloriabooks.com.
Sharron L. McElmeel is director of McBookwords www.mcbookwords.com (a literacy organization) and an instructor of children's literature and young adult literature at the University of Wisconsin Stout's online education programs. She often writes and speaks about authors/illustrators and their books. www.mcelmeel.com.
This article first appeared in Book Report (first publication rights only) Copyright for all other uses copyright by Sharron L. McElmeel. The contents of this article may not be copied or e-mailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder`s express written permission. However, users may print, download, or e-mail articles for individual use. Book Report, Nov/Dec97, Vol. 16 Issue 3, p25, 3p Current Source: http://www.mcelmeel.com/author/otherwriting/articles/skurzynski.html