Paula Danziger, a popular children’s book author who infused tales of teenage angst with humor and pain, died Thursday of complications from a heart attack at a New York City hospital. She was 59.
The former junior high school teacher began her writing career 30 years ago with the autobiographical novel “The Cat Ate My Gymsuit.” Three dozen more titles followed, including the Amber Brown series featuring a spunky, pigtailed heroine modeled after a beloved niece.
“She really understood the complexity of growing up,” Lin Oliver, a Los Angeles author who knew Danziger for two decades, said Friday. “She used to say, ‘We spend our whole lives recovering from high school.’ She knew and related to the difficulties of growing up, but wrote about it with humor and without sentimentality.”
A large, flamboyant figure who wore a ring on every finger and favored sequined sneakers and boots, she won many honors, including the Children’s Choice Award given jointly by the International Reading Assn. and the Children’s Book Council.
She lectured and gave readings around the country and spent time in London, where she hosted a children’s book spot for the BBC.
Born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Metuchen, N.J., Danziger was the daughter of a garment worker and a nurse who often told interviewers that she grew up in an unhappy family and turned to books “to escape all the yelling.” The first lines of her debut novel -- “I hate my father. I hate school. I hate being fat” -- were rooted in her own experience.
“At age 12, I was put on tranquilizers when I should have gotten help,” she told the monthly review BookPage several years ago. “There was nothing major and awful. I just didn’t feel [my family] was supportive and emotionally generous. My father was a very unhappy person, very sarcastic, and my mother [was] very nervous and worried about what people thought. They weren’t monsters, but it wasn’t a good childhood.”
Her mother encouraged her to follow her into nursing, but Danziger was a lackluster student who did not excel in science. At Montclair State College in New Jersey, she studied to be a teacher instead.
While in college, she met poet John Ciardi. She became his children’s baby-sitter and he became her mentor.
Ciardi took her on family trips to writers conferences and loaned her books from his shelves. He taught her how to read a poem by underlining the funny words in red and the serious lines in blue. By the end of the poem, the page was purple. “And that’s always what my goal is when I write,” she said years later, “that mixture of funny and sad.”
After graduating from college in 1967, Danziger taught junior high English in New Jersey while pursuing a master’s degree in reading. Her studies were interrupted by back-to-back car accidents, the first of which left her with a bad case of whiplash.
While driving to get treatment later, her car was hit head-on by a drunk driver. Danziger was thrown into the windshield, sustaining temporary brain damage that gave her nightmares and impaired her ability to read.
As part of her recovery, she began to write “The Cat Ate My Gymsuit,” which focused on an insecure 13-year-old named Marcy Lewis who describes herself as “a baby blimp with wire-frame glasses and mousy brown hair.” Called fresh and funny by critics, it remains in print after three decades.
She soon gave up teaching to write full-time. In books such as “The Pistachio Prescription,” “Can You Sue Your Parents for Malpractice?” and “The Divorce Express,” her protagonists were girls struggling to define themselves within the confines of maddening families and imperfect schools while also dealing with pimples, weight problems and boys.
In the Amber Brown books, which began in 1994 with “Amber Brown Is Not a Crayon,” she dealt with separation and divorce.
She also wrote a series of books featuring an 11-year-old male protagonist named Matthew Martin. She co-wrote, with Ann M. Martin, author of the Baby-sitters Club book series, “P.S. Longer Letter Later,” which was structured around the correspondence of two best friends suddenly separated when the loss of a job forces one family to move.
Her first picture book, “Barfburger Baby, I Was Here First,” is due out in September from Putnam.
Danziger, who had homes in Manhattan and Woodstock, N.Y., was single and had no children.
She is survived by a brother, Barry, and four nieces and nephews.