Julia Woolfolk Cunningham

Date of Birth

October 4, 1916

Date of Death

February 27, 2008

City of Death

Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara children’s author Julia Woolfolk Cunningham, 91, died February 27, 2008 in Santa Barbara. Her family was with her.

Born October 4, 1916, in Spokane, she was the daughter of Sue L. and John G. L. Cunningham. She is survived by her niece, Mary Cunningham and her partner Danina Culver, of Austin, TX; her nephew, Richard Cunningham and his wife Kathy Patric, of Lafayette, CA; her grandnieces Erica Sepulveda and her husband Cory, of Austin, and Ellen and Allyson Street, of Sacramento; her grandnephews, Christopher and Samuel Cunningham, of Lafayette; her great-grandnephews, Torin Patrick Sepulveda and Skylar Sepulveda (step), of Austin and her sister-in-law, Vella Cunningham, of Lafayette. Her grandnephew, Patrick Cunningham Howard (1986-2000) was waiting for her arrival. She was also preceded in death by her brothers John and Lawrence; and by her nephew, John A. Cunningham.

Judy’s father met her mother on a cattle-buying trip to Deer Lodge, Montana, where her grandfather had made a fortune in gold mining, produced two Kentucky Derby winners, and capitalized a bank. When she was a toddler, Judy’s family left the northwest for New York, where her father worked as a civil engineer.

Her childhood of music, storytelling, costuming and playing in Central Park was punctuated with a number of life-altering events. Judy didn’t walk until she was three; recurrent mastitis required frightening hospitalizations and multiple operations, and pain. At age six, her father left and disappeared; She described feeling “hooded by a darkness I couldn’t understand.” Neither he nor his leaving were ever mentioned.

During the next two Christmases, Judy and her brother, closest in age, John, waited: “From the windows of rented houses, we watched the corner of the street for a return that never came. We never spoke as we watched……… I believe now that we feared that words would have destroyed the thin chance of the waning miracle. And wasn’t it somehow out fault that he left?” After two years hoping, she gave up and collapsed into grief, becoming seriously ill. Her family thought she was dying. Her father sent her a fateful crate of oranges from wherever he lived. She told them to take it out of the room and then cried for what seemed like forever. Judy said she got well to please her family, but never felt the same. She recalls leaving herself, becoming a pretender — having been abandoned, she became abandoning and betrayed herself. While this angst lessened in later years, she shared an intimacy with the orphans of her books.

Judy and her brother John both began writing as very young children, and both became published authors (John Cunningham was most well-known for The Tin Star (1952) the story that became the movie High Noon), but their shared vocation was a source of unspeakable tension as adults, fueled by newspaper articles comparing the two.

In the mid-1920s, the family moved to Charlottesville, VA, where Judy attended eighth grade and high school, and was mentored into a writer by an attentive English teacher. On paper, she discovered that she didn’t have to pretend. She was on the basketball team, and good too. She played tennis and studied French. There was a broad exposure to the arts outside of school, but the family bank in Montana went down in 1932, and along with it, monetary support for Judy’s single mother. The piano was sold to pay back rent, and they returned to New York. Everyone went to work her mother in a laundromat, where she worked with the mother of Susan Hirschman, who down the road, as founder, publisher, and editorial director of Greenwillow Books, read one of Judy’s poems and asked for more the birth of The Stable Rat.

Judy worked at a bank (“deadly”) in a music store (“restless”) and at Dell Publishing where she answered fan mail sent to the movie magazine. (In her trunk of treasures, I discovered a handful of original file photos of Greta Garbo, on 'permanent loan to Judy). She was promoted to associate editor. Her favorite job was at the Metropolitan Museum bookshop. Judy enjoyed these later New York years of friends, music and solidifying her goal to be a good writer. She was part of a civilian patrol during World War II, walking her assigned area after dark to make sure citizens complied with blackout rules.

At a certain point on a certain evening, without any particular provocation, the past came to a head, and Judy ceased to speak, literally. She found courage to see a psychiatrist. Divining her-self from family and circumstantial chaff, Judy did hard work, once a week, with this man. One night, she had a cathartic dream she watched as a crate of oranges floated away in the ocean — her father’s abandonment had lost its valence and she re-entered the world as her-self. She headed to France and spent a tough year in Tours, with no shortage of challenges or triumphs. It was the mid-50s.

Judy returned to New York. After working four more years at the Met, she moved to Santa Barbara, where she became children’s book buyer at Tecolote Bookstore. She wrote. Her mailman dreaded delivering a returned manuscript 19 rejected before the first acceptance.

The tide turned in the late 1950s. Cunningham authored 20 books* for children and young adults, as well a collection of poetry. Her poems and stories also appeared in magazines and anthologies.

She made history in 1965 with the publication of Dorp Dead! Considered controversial by the critics when first published, Dorp Dead introduced “a sinister psychological reality into the genre:. centering on children who endure psychological isolation before their spiritual release ” (LA Times, 2002). The New York Times called it “Enthralling: one of year’s best juveniles”. Among other awards for Dorp Dead include the Book World Children’s Spring Book Festival Award (1962); Lewis Carrol Shelf Award (1972) and an American Library Association Notable Best of the Best. Reviewers who did not exactly welcome Cunningham’s darkness and imagery were often drawn to her writing. Sutherland, in The Best in Children’s Books: The University of Chicago Guide to Children’s Literature 1973-1978, wrote that “Cunningham is so compelling a writer that one is content to accept the mystery and symbolism, the violence of the past of her characters, and the transmutation from evil to good that her protagonist effects.”

In the 60s, a new realism had emerged in children’s literature. Historically taboo subjects — injustice, abuse, neglect and less-than-adequate parents came into children’s literature to stay. Dorp Dead is regarded as a precursor to the movement toward this gritty realism in young adult novels (Publisher’s Weekly, 2001).

In the Afterword of the 2001 reissue of Dorp Dead, Betsy Hearne, Professor of Literature at the University of Illinois, called Dorp Dead a historical touchstone, a landmark in the volcanically changing world of children’s books. While Hearne acknowledged the importance and staying power of Dorp Dead, she also interpreted Cunningham’s use of certain images, motifs and words as choices intended to manipulate the reader. Judy’s response to the critique was minimal, remarking, “She doesn’t really get it.” Highly intuitive, she ascribed her writing to “instinctive drive, unconsciously present”, inherently at odds with conscious manipulation of the reader.

Other awards and honors include: New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year for Burnish Me Bright (1970) The Treasure is the Rose (1973) and Come to the Edge (1977); Christopher Medal for Come to the Edge (1977); and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor for Flight of the Sparrow (1981); The Treasure of the Rose was also a National Book Award Finalist.

Julia Cunningham gave an uncommon attention to her friends, her family, and to her characters, whom she loved and grieved when the writing was over — that attention, which she saw as foundational for writing, “to everything that passes, that happens, that makes for terror, joy, sorrow, humor that same kind of intense attention that a very young child gives to whatever is suddenly new.”

Fulfilling times in her middle years included visits to elementary and middle schools, meeting with small groups of writers who were children. The pedagogical aspects of her teaching were limited (don’t listen to your teachers; grammar doesn’t matter; just write the thoughts in your heart, little pieces here and there; get a notebook and write everything down.) Instead, she saw, as her contribution to the aspiring writers, the realization that the choice to be a writer was available to each one of them.

Equally rich were the weekly writing classes she taught with Gayle Lynds for three years, and the poetry groups, which meet still. Judy continued to write until about two months before she died, when her writing lost legibility. Her last poems included one following the May 2007 death of Clyde Bulla, fellow children’s author, travel companion and lifelong friend; and a poem titled “Wheelchairs”.

Judy’s loss of old friends is not unusual for someone who lives until 91. But this page wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Don Freeman, Vivian, Donald Pearce, and Katy Peake. And Jackie Potter, who is still here. Judy never waxed sentimental about her losses, but you could see pain flash across her eyes at certain times of loneliness for a particular friend. She also carried the loss of Patrick, her grandnephew. It was to everyone’s delight and amazement when, unbeknownst even to Val Hobbs, the author of Defiance, one of Judy’s poems that was central to all who journeyed with Patrick in his 14 years here, was imprinted on the cover of Defiance, underneath the book jacket.

Judy was a lifetime member of The Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators, was a judge for several book awards, and participated on numerous panels.

A Celebration of Julia Cunningham’s Life will take place Sunday, April 20, 2008 at the Faulkner Gallery, Santa Barbara Public Library-main branch, from four to seven p.m.

Contributions may be made in Julia Cunningham’s honor to Storyteller Children’s Center in Santa Barbara, or to the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County (4554 Hollister Avenue, Santa Barbara 93110). Storyteller provides NAEYC-approved, tuition-free early childhood education and care for homeless and at-risk children in the Santa Barbara area. Funds will establish Miss Cunningham’s Corner a reading area where parents and children can enjoy books together, complete with a rocking chair, soft pillows and special books arranged on Patrick's Bookshelf. (Storyteller Children's Center, 2115 State St, Santa Barbara 93105. Memo line –Cunningham fund.)

From Four of Julia Cunningham’s writer-friends—

Valerie Hobbs, Santa Barbara, respected author of fiction for teens.

Judy was persistent and inspirational, the best kind of teacher, though she never called herself one. When she believed in you and what you were writing, she’d gently, and sometimes not so gently, push and push until you finished whatever it was you were working on. She was my muse when I wrote Defiance, a story about a twelve-year-old boy with cancer. Whenever I got stuck-which was often-Judy was there to remind me that “this book needs to be written.” It wasn’t until the novel was nearly finished that she told me about her grand-nephew, Patrick, who had fought long and hard against a cancer that eventually took his life. I think Defiance was her way of bringing Patrick back.

When I last saw Judy she was tired, weak, fading in and out of consciousness. I leaned over the bed and lightly touched her hand. “Judy?” Her eyes opened. “This is a bad time,” she said. Then her eyes focused: “How’s the book coming?” And she was gone again. I don’t think I will ever write a book that Judy isn’t in some way a part of.

Valerie Hobbs

Ellen Chavez Kelley, Santa Barbara, poet and children’s book author, California Poet in the Schools, University lecturer and college writing instructor.

A mentor teaches, inspires and encourages. Julia Cunningham did all this for me, and more. She viewed the world from a unique angle, with unending curiosity and keen and compassionate awareness. Judy once told me, “The world was not made for poets,” yet she found her poet’s way in the world, and taught me to do likewise.

Judy and I had rich conversations about creating children’s books and poetry, about process, struggles and successes. There was no small talk with her, rather, she was outspoken and got to the heart of things quickly. If I praised one of her stories she’d say, “You’re only as good as your next book.” She didn’t like to be fussed over.

She treated her characters with deep respect and considered it an honor to be chosen by them to tell their stories. All of us, and especially her young readers, were gifted with her remarkable books and unforgettable characters. Who can forget Andrew, the rat who visited Chartres Cathedral, A Mouse called Junction, a raccoon named Macaroon, or Wolf Roland? Who can forget Oaf, Gilly Ground, or Auguste?

Like many of her writer friends, I was fortunate to share frequent written correspondence with Judy. Sometimes we’d write in the voices of characters: for a time I was the rat Henri, while she was Phillipe, a mouse who confessed, “I am Swiss although often I wish I was French and called Severin the First. But one must accept one’s destiny:think you not so?” I did think so, but sometimes I’d stumble and lose faith in my writing, or worry about the market. Judy would say, “The writing comes first, a long way ahead of one’s hopes for it.”

I like to remember her in our writer’s group, listening intently to a story, smiling to herself, and stirring her coffee with a pen. She saw the light in others’ work and rejoiced in it. I like to re-read her letters, the worlds she created in them, and the questions she asked, like “Are we all children forever?” That’s how Judy still gets me thinking, and writing again.

Marnie McGee, Santa Barbara, children's book author, in a writing group with Judy for almost 20 years

I knew her first as Julia W. Cunningham, the famous author who had written so many exquisitely crafted, ground-breaking works for children. I was surprised and touched when I discovered that this grand person wished to become not Julia to me, but Judy my friend.

I was, by no means, alone as the lucky recipient of her beautiful cards, but that does not diminish their sweetness. One, for example, sent “a gentle hug and a crown of kisses as fragile as dandelion fluff.” Her notes were always from a writer to a writer. She used them to nourish the spirit and hopes of her many writing companions and to share her own joy in the craft that we loved together. Membership in that loosely-knit “club” was a blessing indeed.

In 1986 Judy convinced me to join her in a poetry class. I resisted with the blinkered claim that poetry was a kind of writing I would never-ever do. But she pushed and pulled until I agreed. I went, really, to be with her. To my absolute amazement, poetry became the cornerstone of my writing from that moment. I gratefully acknowledge my debt.

“The Great Jude,” as we sometimes called her, put words together in the most astonishing ways. Almost every poem begs for quotation with snippets such as these:


"I walked out to drink the wind

and tasted what I could not see"


"Dusk has come to smudge the edges

of a too sharp day and the knives of night

are blunted …"

She often wrote in the voices of animals, though she could also be a pencil or a pumpkin as evidenced in her poem titled: “Well, if life were simple we would all be pumpkins”. But listen to Judy as the sheep on the hillside on the night when Jesus was born:

“I stand within my wool and wonder.
There’s been a great scurry ever since the sky blued
and the wind stilled.
Our leader looked up, pointing his nose at a star
and the rest of us, as we always do, looked up and
pointed too.”

And who could forget the transcendence of her Stable Rat:

“I am a shadow, gray, gray, gray
Never lightened by scarlet or splotched gold
or even a dot of the green I see when
I gaze from the cracks …”

But when the rat is touched by the Christ-child, he is gloriously blessed by colors, and

“Haloed by a flame, a fire was he,
Arising higher than the evening star
A glory given me, shadow and self together.”

Finally, that’s what Judy was about: transformation, transcendence. . . the life of the spirit, the work of words.

Lisa Merkl, Santa Barbara,, poet and playwright, remembers Judy from the perspective of a writer and long-time friend

Julia Cunningham (Judy to her friends) was an eminently original human being, full of surprising insights and perceptive observation. She would have been unforgettable even if she had never published a word. But how fortunate for all of us that she was a writer and more than 20 books bear her name. In English and in translation, her stories have made a difference in the lives of kids around the globe.

Recalling reading one of Judy’s books when she was a girl, one of her readers says: “There couldn’t have been a more wretched little girl than me. When I found Dorp Dead, I finally found myself. And the child in it escaped!” This book, which Pantheon brought out in 1965, changed the face of children’s literature.

Judy had a quiet awareness of people in all walks of life and connected with them. She somehow brought out in others the confidence to reveal their dreams and be encouraged by her validation.

In the Autobiography Series, Something About the Author, Julia Cunningham tells about her habit of getting out of her study at home and taking her paper pad to a coffee shop. Sometimes she wrote a poem, sometimes just watched and listened. In the old McDonald’s in Victoria Court on State Street, she tells us, “The regulars come and go. One is a woman, gallantly bereted, who has left the rational lanes of living. She talks to herself in a kind of desperate rush, her anger spat out in sudden gushes of unrelated words.”

Without saying a word, she honored perfect strangers simply by “seeing” them.

I have been re-reading letters and cards and notes I received from Judy over more than 20 years. Many of the small notes are signed “moi” which always delighted me.

Having been born in Portugal, my first foreign language in school, from age 11 to 14, was French. I fell in love with it and had this in common with Judy: an affinity for all things French. She told me early on, “I suspect you love France as much as I do.”

I looked forward to her letters at various times when my husband and I traveled. Judy had traveled extensively. Her insights and questions made you look at people and places with fresh eyes.

In a letter to me in Paris in June 2002, for example, she spoke of her experience of “first meeting a French person–an alert comprehension that is not meant to be critical, just interested to form an inner image.” Another time, when we lived in a small town in Tuscany, she asked: “What does your street look like? Is the area dry country or very treed? And the scents (or smells) that always seemed so foreign and fascinating?” But her first love was France, the “country of [her] heart.”

In that same letter of June 2002, Judy confided: “I sometimes have a bit of trouble adjusting to the quietness of my present life. The adventuresome part of me is physically blocked…"

But her books, many of which are set in France, will continue to travel, maybe even to Chartres Cathedral, where she wished she could return and, as she put it, “let my soul stand silent before those incredible and devotional stained glass windows.”


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