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After a circuitous route, she's a 'real live author'


Children's author Mary Downing Hahn thought she was finall living her dream to be a celebrated novelist when she was invited to be the guest star in a Boise, Idaho, parade.

Of course, that was before she wound up marching behind an odoriferous lamb and wearing a sandwich board proclaiming her a "Real Live Author."

"When I was invited to be in the parade, I had this vision of riding in a limousine convertible, carrying flowers," recalled Mrs. Hahn, who has just published her 13th book, "The Wind Blows Background."

"You sort of have to watch your step when you're walking behind sheep."

Not exactly the stuff of dreams.

But Mrs. Hahn, 55, is indeed living a life many writers seek, said James Cross Giblin, her longtime editor at Clarion Books, the New York publishing house she's remained with since her first novel in 1979.

Clarion Books, a Houghton Mifflin imprint, claims her as one of its best-selling children's novelists, success that has allowed Mrs. Hahn the freedom to write full time and travel nationwide for speaking engagements.

"Mary's story really is inspiration for a lot of aspiring children's book authors," Mr. Giblin said. "Most seem afraid of sending out their manuscripts for fear that book editors are faceless, nameless and inhuman. Mary had that fear, too, but she didn't let it hold her back."

A time-tested way of finding new authors is culling the manuscripts that come in the mail -- just as Mrs. Hahn's first work showed up in the late-1970s, he said.

"It's scary, I often find myself wondering if it all will end, and what if it does?" said Mrs. Hahn while comfortably ensconced in a small, cluttered writer's den she's fashioned in an upstairs room of the Columbia town house she shares with her husband, Norman Jacob, a Prince George's County library branch manager.

Mrs. Hahn said her route to finally writing and sending off that first novel was "circuitous."

In the early-1970s she worked part time as an illustrator for a public television program that matched the reading of children's books with illustrations. Mrs. Hahn began musing about writing her own book.

A few years later, working as an assistant librarian in the children's section of a county library, Mrs. Hahn gave herself a mandate -- publish a novel within five years or sign up to get a master's degree in library science.

To squeeze in a few hours of quiet writing time before getting herself off to work and her two daughters to school, Mrs. Hahn often got up as early as 5 a.m.

Her first draft was rejected by four publishers. When Mr. Giblin received the manuscript he saw it needed revisions in structure and story flow, but he was impressed with its strong characters and good writing.

Two years and seven tedious revisions later, the assistant librarian saw "The Sara Summer," landing on library and bookstore shelves in the fall of 1979.

"My assistants and I just sensed there was a real writer there when we read the first draft," Mr. Giblin recalled. "I just kept sending the book back with suggestions. She was a quick study. I look for authors who can contribute many books, not just one. I sensed Mary had that to offer."

After a dozen children's books, her new work, "The Wind Blows Backward," is aimed at what publishers refer to as the "young adult" market, 13- to 17-year-old readers.

The novel centers on Spencer and Lauren, high school friends who fall in love and share in uncovering the tragic family secret that haunts Spencer. As in most of Mrs. Hahn's works, the book is characterized by a metamorphosis of the lead character, in this case Lauren. Shy and bookish, Lauren evolves into a confident, resourceful young woman.

Though the novel has received favorable reviews in literary and library journals, the author worries whether any of her loyal readers -- or school and library boards -- will be jarred by the story's inclusion of sexual intimacy between the two main characters.

In her writing room she is surrounded by shelves and cabinets full of delicate, glass unicorn statues, garish wizard dolls, puppets, and miniature ceramic castles. A jumble of dolls, collected in her childhood, crowd a cabinet.

"These are my protectors," said the affable Mrs. Hahn, who keeps a book-a-year schedule. The ornaments and dolls give her not only a sense of security but rekindle memories of her own childhood, a source for her fiction.

"I don't aim to include a lesson learned in my stories," Mrs. Hahn said. "But I do find myself writing to reach the kids who might be like I was when I was growing up.

"I wasn't very confident and kept a lot of myself hidden for fear I'd get teased and laughed at. I want kids like that to know the importance of accepting yourself and other people. I try to let the story write itself, but if there is any common theme, it's that."

Another common element in her works is exploring "the power children have to hurt each other."

In short, this is a novelist exploring tolerance and individuality among children and teens, Mr. Giblin said.

For example, her 1991 novel, "Stepping on the Cracks," which won the prestigious Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction, focuses on two children who at first demean but later sympathize with a neighborhood youth who refuses to serve in the military because of his pacifist beliefs. The novel is set during World War II.

"She has a really remarkable record of pleasing the critics and the young readers," said Zena Sutherland, a retired professor of children's literature at the University of Chicago and children's book reviewer. "She is dependably good. There are no hackneyed formula plots in her books."

Mrs. Sutherland believes Mrs. Hahn's stories are so popular with young readers because of the writer's sensitivity to the fact that children and teens "are very aware that there is pain as well as joy in childhood."

A tall, lanky woman who revels in talking about her writing, the author sees her success this way:

"I'm simply addicted to writing. I find it compulsive. Once I get a story going I can't let go. I really get into the characters."

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