In Memory of Norma Fox Mazer


Elizabeth Bluemle - October 19, 2009

With so many of you, we share the sad news that beloved writer and teacher, colleague and friend Norma Fox Mazer passed away over the weekend after a sudden and courageous battle with cancer. Norma was an award-winning writer for children and young adults; she was also a lovely, wise, brilliant person whose warmth was felt by strangers and friends alike. She was a calm, good-humored presence, easy to relax around, with the most wonderful smile. But she was also alert, quick, incisive, and direct, a trusted critic and advisor.

Students at the Vermont College of Fine Arts called her the Sultan of Structure for her unfailing expertise in that tricky arena, and those who worked with her marveled at her generous mentorship. Norma was ageless; her slight frame and whimsical braids, and her open, imaginative, curious and lively mind, gave her an air decades younger than her actual years. There was something magical about Norma; one felt happy to be around her.

Josie remembers her casual visits to the bookstore: "Having written more than thirty books, Norma could easily have had an ego, but she didn’t. She lived in Vermont, so every once in a while she’d pop by to the store to say hi and be among the books. I didn’t get to know her well, but I’ll always remember how bright and engaging she was with a kind-hearted smile. I tended to fumble around when she came in the store, rushing to find books for her to sign, and she would calmly take my elbow, look me in the eyes and remind me to breathe. Not many authors try to take care of the frantic bookseller; I liked that about her. I know students from Vermont College’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults felt the same way. She was a nurturer and really loved it when student work was good. I have heard from my friends that she was precise and thoughtful in critiques. She inspired people, be they aspiring writers or readers who found themselves in her books. The children’s book world is diminished by her passing, but we can all find solace in her books."

Twenty-five years ago, in the days before the World Wide Web, I wrote a futuristic short story in which there was a tradition called TalkAbout, or TalkOut; I can’t recall which. When someone died, anyone could go to one of the ubiquitous public cameras and televise their memories of the deceased, no matter how minor their relationship or how small and personal the memory. It was a communal way of grieving that was both personal and widespread. This weekend, when news and loving thoughts about Norma snowballed across Facebook and in writers’ online discussion groups, I thought about how lucky we are to be able to share our memories with each other across the miles, with people who understand what has been lost, and what remains, of the people they love.

Many fine obituaries will detail Norma’s accomplishments in the field of children’s literature. She was an incredible writer, versatile and always moving forward in art. Here in ShelfTalker, we’d like to invite all of you to share your memories of Norma and her books and what they have meant to you, if you’d like.

For those readers who may not have met Norma but have loved her books, here’s a little snippet of a Scholastic interview with her:

There are two poems that put me in mind of Norma. The first sounds like something she might say to the rest of us. It was written in 1910 by the Canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Henry Scott-Holland.

Death is nothing at all,
I have only slipped into the next room.
I am I and you are you
Whatever we were to each other, that we are still.

Call me by my old familiar name,
Speak to me in the easy way which you always used.
Put no difference in your tone,
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.
Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed together.

Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was,
Let it be spoken without effect, without the trace of shadow on it.

Life means all that it ever meant.
It it the same as it ever was, there is unbroken continuity.
Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?
I am waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near,
Just around the corner.

All is well.
Nothing is past; nothing is lost
One brief moment and all will be as it was before
How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!

***

Finally, I’ve always loved this Emily Dickinson poem, which I read at my mom’s memorial service many years ago, and which has always seemed to me so perfect for a writer:

I dwell in Possibility – (466) — by Emily Dickinson

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

27 thoughts on “In Memory of Norma Fox Mazer

  1. April Pulley Sayre

    Norma was my advisor one semester at Vermont. I remember a shake of her braids, a little smile, and her words. “April, a novel is not an intellectual exercise, it’s an emotional journey!” She had great guidance, such as this, on many matters. She was seasoned and wise in one moment and the next moment laughing and chatting like a 15-year old. She was ageless.

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  2. Helen Hemphill

    Thanks for the lovely post, Elizabeth. I had Norma for a workshop at VCFA. She was passionate and pointed in her comments, but so gracious and loving in her tone. I will treasure my notes from her lecture on structure, now well worn from my rereading. I wish her family peace. We will all miss her. Helen.

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  3. CAROL EDWARDS

    I first read Norma Fox Mazer when I took a class called ‘Adolescent Literature’ at a podunk college and discovered I loved it. “Up in Seth’s Room” just knocked my socks off and I tried to read everything else she wrote ever after. Particular favorites are “Taking Terri Mueller” and “When She Was Good.” She never repeated herself and each new book was a treasure to discover. A real loss!

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  4. Emily Smith Pearce

    Thanks for your post. We are all feeling her loss. Norma was my first workshop leader and first advisor at Vermont College—it was also her first semester there. She was encouraging but also tough, and I loved that about her. And yes, she was ageless. I was always amazed at her yoga-like pose on the couch, fingers sparkling with her many silver rings. It’s an honor to have known her and to have been taught and encouraged by her.

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  5. Julie Larios

    Perfect, Elizabeth – thanks for putting that photo up, which is just exactly the vision I have of Norma in my mind. I was lucky to be able to get to know her a bit once I joined the Vermont College faculty. She was, as you say, quiet and introspective one minute, lively and animated the next. Ageless seems like just the right word.

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  6. Mindy Hardwick

    I met Norma at the National Book Foundation Summer Writing Camp. I got to watch her in action with how she mentored and worked with the teens at that camp. Later, in her workshop when I dissolved into tears over a critique, she let me cry and cry before suggesting that I apply for the Vermont College Program. I did, and the first day, she met me in the office with a warm, welcome smile. Norma was a guiding light in mentoring others and will be missed.

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  7. Anita Riggio

    Thanks, Elizabeth. Your words and the poems you posted are just right. Norma would be pleased–humbled, vaguely embarrassed, but pleased, I think by these and the hundreds of tributes that have been posted. I’m struck by Lee’s comment, especially. I thank Norma for every bit of her Normaness! Grace and peace to all who knew and loved her. AR

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  8. Carolyn Foote

    What a truly lovely tribute to a true leader in young adult literature. It make me feel like I knew her. And I love your idea of sharing memories. Thank you for sharing yours.

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  9. Ann Teplick

    What a beautiful tribute, Elizabeth. Norma was my third semester advisor at Vermont College. Her wisdom, precision, grace and wit continue to be a gift in my life. And oh, that beautiful smile! She was loved, and now will be missed by so many.

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  10. Kathi Appelt

    Thank you, Elizabeth, for this lovely tribute to Norma. One day as I was standing in the hallway in Noble, Norma walked up to me and handed me a pair of cat earrings and cat ring to go with them. She started laughing and told me to wear them with abandon. I do. I think that Norma did life with abandon. She lit the path in a million ways, large and small. xoK

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  11. Dianne White

    What a lovely tribute, Elizabeth. My most recent memory of Norma was a year ago last summer when she shared lunch, under the trees outside College Hall at Vermont College, with those who gathered to hear about her most recent book at the time, Missing Girl. Her generosity of spirit, devotion to hard work, confidence in the process, and willingness to share and encourage will long be remembered.

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  12. McMahon

    Beautifully said Elizabeth. I always turn to Mary Oliver’s words, which I read at my mother’s funeral: “In order to live in this world, you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal, to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends it, and when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.” How hard it is that all we love are mortal, and how hard to let them go.

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  13. Ann Angel

    Each month, when I worked with Norma as my thesis advisor, she would end her seven and eight-page critiques with the words, “You’re not finished yet.” She taught me that I must develop fiction in the same patient way I was trying to develop values in my children’s lives. Long after we parted ways as teacher and student we remained friends and she became such a role model to me when I found myself a motherless mother of four. I could count on her to ease my worries and calm my fears and my life was so much richer for knowing her. I will miss her so very much.

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  14. Vicki Wittenstein

    How absolutely true, and so beautifully said, Elizabeth. When I applied to VC my one wish was to have Norma as an advisor, and my wish came true. I am so grateful that I had the chance to get to know Norma. Her heart was so big and her spirit so full of joy. How wonderful that she achieved so much in her life, and had such a positive impact on so many people.

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  15. Kathi Baron

    For my critical thesis at Vermont College,I read Norma’s “When She Was Good” over and over, studying how she wrote trauma and flashbacks. To this day, I’m still in awe. How lucky to know her and to have this gift of her work!

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  16. Amanda

    What a beautiful tribute Elizabeth. I read Norma as a teenager and loved her books. I look forward to introducing my children to her books one day.

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  17. Mary Ann Rodman

    Although my personal contact with Norma was limited to a second semester workshop, her ability to get to the heart of a story with an economy of words is something that has stayed with me through the years. As other has have said, she was an ageless soul (the picture is perfect, Elizabeth), with a passion for writing that she shared with all of us who she has touched. Norma was a rare “edition” indeed.

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  18. Marlene Perez

    I heard Norma Fox Mazer speak at an SCBWI conference about how she used the “fedora” method to get her internal critic to shut up. Six months later, I had a first draft of what became my first novel. Just this April, I sent her a fan letter thanking her for that workshop, and she replied the very next day.

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