Newbery medalist aims at 'realism' for youngsters; Cynthia Voigt: family comes first

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Cynthia Voigt's directions for finding her house were brisk, clear: Take the second Annapolis exit . . . turn right and go to the center of town, take three more turns, and you come to ''a brown and yellow house, with a scruffy yard.''

She laughed a lot over the telephone. She was direct, efficient but also funny, friendly, and warm. She sounded happy.

Mrs. Voigt, winner of the 1983 Newbery Medal for her book ''Dicey's Song,'' the sequel to her earlier ''Homecoming,'' could be 13-year-old Dicey herself as she opens the door. She's slight, almost bony, with a big smile, dressed casually in jeans, shirt, sweater, and sneakers.

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Dicey is the elder sister who fights in ''Homecoming'' to find a new home with their grandmother on Maryland's Eastern Shore after their ''momma'' left them. She's the central character in ''Dicey's Song.''

We talked over the kitchen table, with children Jessica, 12, and son Peter, 5 (who wanted to be ''interviewed,'' too).

Cynthia Voigt is a loving, somewhat permissive parent, whose life centers on her family, teaching, and writing - in that order. She majored in English at Smith College, class of 1963, and has lived in Annapolis most of her adult life.

''I love teaching; I love little kids,'' she says, ''and while success is incredible after all the years of trying, success isn't going to alter my life.

''I'm not going to leave my family and hole up alone for two years writing,'' she says, ''and I'll continue teaching.''

How do fame and fortune feel? ''The fortune is easier to take, but the fame may make my life in Annapolis less easy than it is now,'' she comments. She grew up in Connecticut, in a well-to-do family of seven, and she emphasizes it was a happy childhood, full of family, friends, fun.

The awarding of the prestigious Newbery Medal, given for ''the most dintinguished contribution to literature for children,'' to a writer just beginning to be published is somewhat unusual. Voigt's first published book, ''Homecoming,'' was previously nominated for the award, and ''Dicey's Song'' is her second published work. Two more books are due for publication shortly.

Above all, she is pleased with the Walt Disney Productions plans to film ''Homecoming,'' possibly on location in Annapolis and the Eastern Shore next summer.

''It's going to be a good movie, and I think it will be good for adults also, '' she says.

''Homecoming'' has its detractors because of its 312-page length; it has been criticized for ''dragging'' in the middle (it was cut down from its original length by one-third). Both books are marketed by Atheneum Publishers in New York for the 10- to 13-year-old age group, but mature audiences seem to enjoy them as well.

The family will travel by train next month to Los Angeles, mainly as an educational experience for the children. In L.A. Mrs. Voigt will receive her medal and give a 10-minute speech at the American Library Association's annual conference.

''Homecoming'' follows four children through the difficulties of finding a new home after their ''momma,'' overwhelmed by poverty, had abandoned them. Their father, never married to their mother, left years before. They managed, under Dicey's leadership, to make their way from Connecticut to Crisfield, Md., to their wonderful, eccentric ''Gram.'' ''Dicey's Song'' is about their adjustment to their new home and to their mother's death.

Voight tells it the way it is - what it's like to live close to the bone. She is a serious writer on serious themes. Her characterizations have dimension and depth. The reader really cares about the characters. Dicey is an example; her name is especially important, and it sums up the book; ''dicey'' is the British slang expression for chancy, risky.

The plot is well developed, fast paced, with some suspense. The book deals with the pain of losses - death, separation, poverty - but also with responsibility, friends, wisdom, happiness, survival. It's about insecurity but, above all, love and happiness through family.

Mrs. Voigt is divorced from her first husband, Jessica's father, but her obvious happiness with her present family of four radiates from her and can also be seen, one feels, in the book.

Although the New York Times has called her work ''strong stuff for young readers,'' Voigt believes books should deal with bottom-line situations. ''They're milder than Grimm's Fairy Tales,'' she emphasizes, ''and there's always pain in great literature.''

''Kids are really tougher than adults,'' she adds, ''but we tend to forget this in an affluent society that lets kids indulge themselves.''

Her books are not autobiographical, but the recurring themes of water and music are distinctively hers. Both books are set near the shore - Provincetown, Mass.; Bridgeport, Conn.; as well as Maryland. Dicey tries doggedly to repair a boat so she can sail.

Referring to the ocean, Mrs. Voigt says, ''It's wonderful to look at something so blatantly eternal, the washing in and washing out. It's always changing, and I love the rhythms. Going crabbing in the Chesapeake Bay with my family is a similar rhythm. I need water, trees, space, and rhythms.''

''Dicey's Song,'' as the title implies, is also full of music: the children singing together; little sister Maybeth's singing and piano lessons; Maybeth's piano teacher becoming a family friend; Dicey's friend Jeff strumming his guitar. Voigt sees music as a symbol of happiness through family.

She began writing intensively when she was expecting Peter and switched from full-time to part-time teaching. She took ''two years off,'' to care for Peter and write the books we've seen published.

Her family doesn't mind that she writes or feel that it competes against them for her attention and love. ''I'm not a compulsive writer,'' she says with a laugh. ''I wish I could be compulsive about something. I have no regular writing routine. There's no split. I early learned to focus.''

She says, ''I was no scholar in college, and was arrogant about what I thought. I was an independent thinker, like Dicey.''

Perhaps it's these qualities that make her books so special: They depict problem solvers who are young, dealing with their problems in unusual, resourceful ways, and as part of a family who love one another very, very much.

Like Cynthia Voigt.

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