Before there was J.K. Rowling or R.L. Stine, there was award-winning children’s author Barbara Brooks Wallace ’45. Highly regarded by the Junior Library Guild, the American Library Association, the New York Times, Kirkus Reviews and Young Readers Review, Wallace has earned the NLAPW Children’s Book Award and International Youth Library “Best of the Best” for Claudia (2001), the William Allen White Children’s Book Award for Peppermints in the Parlor (1980) and two Edgar Allan Poe Awards from the Mystery Writers of America for her work with the Peppermint series.
“Bobbie,” as she is known to her friends and loyal readers, is also a proud graduate of UCLA. While she holds a degree in international development, she recommends that prospective authors choose courses that lead more logically to a writing career. Wallace was a member of Alpha Phi sorority, and was, she says, “just a happy UCLA campus student.”
Her field of study is just one of many interesting twists on the path that led Wallace to become one of America’s most beloved children’s mystery writers.
“I happened to be born in China,” she says, describing the first of those unexpected turns in her life. “My father, after graduating from UC Berkeley, became an actor with the Flying A film company in Santa Barbara, but then decided to sell oil for the lamps of China with SOCONY [Standard Oil Company of New York]. There, on a blind date, he met a nurse, my mother, who had left Russia at 16. At 17, she entered Harvard Medical School of China in Shanghai as a nurse probationer. They eloped in a sampan, a perfect Hollywood film ending courtesy of the Flying A and the Harvard Medical School of China. Later, in Soochow, they produced my sister, and a year after that, me.”
Wallace’s exotic birthplace provided her with her first inspiration to write children’s literature, she says. “I wanted to capture some memories of growing up there. So I stopped doing adult short stories, on which I was cutting my writing teeth, and produced a terrible excuse for a fantasy. It’s still growing moss in my file drawer. But it hooked me on writing books for children.”
Though Wallace spent her childhood in China, she took occasional trips to a faraway, exotic land. “We had several home leaves,” she explains, “and always, our first taste of magical America was San Francisco.”
After graduating from UCLA and working for an advertising agency in Hollywood, Wallace returned to San Francisco to work with the Red Cross at her first professional job – adding more twists to her path, and fodder for future creations.
“I lived in a boarding house euphemistically called a ‘guest house,’” she says, “a shabby white-pillared mansion. Legend had it that it was once owned by an early fabled family in the sugar trade.”
Wallace’s readers now know the place as Sugar Hill Hall from Peppermints in the Parlor. Like Wallace’s career, the book’s life has been full of surprising twists and turns. Peppermints in the Parlor has been in print continuously since its debut in 1980, was recorded as an audiobook by Angela Lansbury and inspired a musical produced by the Tapestry Theatre Company in Alexandria, Va.
“I’ve even been told that many librarians consider it a classic,” Wallace says. “What has delighted me most about this book, however, is it has been called ‘Dickensian’ by reviewers. Charles Dickens is my hero and favorite author, followed only by Anthony Trollope and Jane Austen.”
Wallace says her literary heroes have inspired her five other Victorian-era novels. “I’ve never thought of them as mysteries,” she says, “but The Mystery Writers of America thought otherwise.”
The organization awarded its Edgar to two of them, The Twin in the Tavern and Sparrows in the Scullery, and nominated two others, Cousins in the Castle and Ghosts in the Gallery, for the prestigious award.
Though she’s enjoyed the unexpected turns, Wallace says she is content to stick with her writing now. She has two manuscripts out under consideration by publishers, and another story, A Tale of Two Tails, is being considered for film.
“I’m often asked if I have any advice for prospective writers,” she says. “My main piece of advice is if you want to do it, go for it! Don’t listen to all those naysayers telling you how tough it is to get published. Sure it is, but it always has been. And if I’d listened to all those many telling me I should take up another ‘hobby,’ I would never have had that mind-blowing call from an editor telling me they’d be publishing my first book” she says, or when it was time to shop her book Claudia, hearing that there wasn’t an editor in New York who wouldn’t have bought it.
She adds that if she hadn’t persevered, she would also have missed the fun of seeing her books The Trouble with Miss Switch and Miss Switch to the Rescue turned into wildly successful Saturday-morning animated specials for ABC.
“And furthermore,” she says, “I would never have drummed up the courage to send a book to one of the top children’s book editors in New York, especially when it had been turned down by six others. That was the terrific Jean Karl of Atheneum, who bought the book. And yes, of course, that book is Peppermints in the Parlor. Is anyone surprised?”