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Colby Rodowsky, children’s book author, dies

Colby Rodowsky was inspired to write about families by her parents' rocky marriage.
Colby Rodowsky was inspired to write about families by her parents' rocky marriage. (BARBARA HADDOCK TAYLOR / Baltimore Sun)

Colby Rodowsky, a prolific author of children’s and young adult novels often set in Baltimore and the Eastern Shore, died of congestive heart failure Oct. 5 at her Riderwood Village home in Silver Spring. The longtime Guilford and Charlesbrook resident was 88.

Book critics said that she built a nationwide following and that her name was a familiar sight on the American Library Association’s annual Notable Books list.

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“I’ve always marveled at her impressive body of work,” said Linda Lapides, a retired Enoch Pratt Free Library staff member. “She discovered her calling later in life and wrote with honesty and perception. She didn’t shy away from poverty, mental illness, absent parents and death. Her stories resonated with her readers.”

Ms. Lapides also said, “As a child, Colby was an inveterate reader, and it gave her great pleasure in later life when her readers told her their lives were impacted by her work.”

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Born Colby Fossett in Baltimore, she was the daughter of Frank Murphy Fossett, an insurance broker, and his wife, Mary Coulbourn.

In a memoir, she wrote of being an only child, saying that her obsession with families may have risen from her parents’ marriage, "which was rocky at best and sometimes downright horrific.”

As a child she lived on Park Avenue in Bolton Hill. After her parents separated, she lived with her grandmother in Cape Charles, Virginia. She spent much of World War II in New York City and typed her first try at a novel there. Her mother sent it to an editor friend at Simon & Schuster. It was rejected on the grounds of a wartime paper shortage, which Ms. Rodowsky thought was a polite way out by the publisher.

She said that she enjoyed her time in Manhattan in the 1940s, recalling sledding in Central Park and ice skating with elderly aunts at Rockefeller Center.

She later spent time in Washington, D.C., and was a graduate of Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School, after which she earned a degree from what is now Notre Dame University of Maryland.

She taught in Baltimore’s public schools and the old Saint Francis School for Special Education on Maryland Avenue in Old Goucher. She was also a Notre Dame Preparatory School librarian’s assistant. She reviewed children’s books for The Sun in the 1970s.

She met her future husband, Lawrence F. Rodowsky, a judge on the Maryland Court of Appeals, at a college dance. They married at Corpus Christi Church in Baltimore in 1954.

“She was a person who was most thoughtful, considerate and mindful of others,” Judge Rodowsky said. “She was also extremely well read.”

After raising her six children and having her afternoons free, she began writing. She was encouraged to write by one of her former college teachers, Sister Maura Eichner, a poet and Notre Dame of Maryland University faculty member.

One again, she initially got a rejection, but the publisher asked her to try again. She did and her first published book, “What about Me?” came out in 1976. The work dealt with a teenage girl whose brother has Down syndrome

"I had no idea whether anyone would publish it,” she said in a 2007 Sun interview. "It was all so new to me.”

The Sun article said Ms. Rodowsky’s stories kept coming. “She established herself as an author of children’s fiction. And last month, when Farrar, Straus & Giroux published ‘Ben and the Sudden Too-Big Family’ — about a Baltimore boy whose single dad abruptly remarries — it was a landmark, her 25th book.”

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The article said, “Quite a feat for a woman who says that after each work comes out, she still fears she’ll never get another idea. But there have been plenty.”

A friend and fellow writer, Mary Claire Helldorfer, said, “Her characters were real. They were beautifully drawn. Her style was simple and elegant.”

Her husband said she wrote from an office in their Norwood Road home. “It technically overlooked Sherwood Gardens, which you could see when the leaves were off the trees,” he said.

Her daughter, Emily Savopoulos of Lewes, Delaware, said, “She would sit on the edge of the sofa reading a book with all the chaos of the neighborhood surrounding her — her children, their friends, dogs and cats. All the while she was quiet, but she was a watcher and a thinker.”

She was a member of the Children’s Book Guild of Washington and was awarded the School Library Journal’s Best Book for Young Adults (for “Julie’s Daughter”) and its Best Book of the Year.

Asked what makes a good children’s story, she said, “I think [it’s] what makes a good anything story. Characters; plot. ... I usually know a lot about my characters before I write. I’ll think about them."

She said of her writing habits: “My theory is, as long as a book is moving forward, it doesn’t much matter if I spend four hours one day and half an hour the next. I guess in that sense I’m not disciplined. When I’m working on something, I do put in some time every day if possible. I actually spend a lot of time just staring at the computer screen."

Funeral services are private.

In addition to her husband of 66 years and daughter, survivors include four other daughters, Laura Ramos of Philadelphia, Alice Seegers of Springfield, Virginia, Sarah Rodowsky of Potomac and Kate O’Connor of Silver Spring; a son, Gregory Rodowsky of Wilmington, Delaware; and 15 grandchildren.

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