Joyce Carol Thomas, Berkeley children’s author, dies at 78

Celebrated local children’s author Joyce Carol Thomas — a poet, playwright and winner of the National Book Award — died Aug. 13 at Stanford University. She was 78 years old.

The prolific author, who lived in Berkeley, died of cirrhosis of the liver from hepatitis C, the New York Times reported.

Born in Ponca City, Oklahoma, Thomas moved to California with her family when she was 10 years old. Both states served as settings in some of her fictional works, which often drew from her own experiences of discrimination as a Black woman growing up in Oklahoma.

Her book “In the Land of Milk and Honey” spoke of California — the “golden land” — said Suzy Mead, the library technician at Washington Elementary School in Berkeley, which carries nine of Thomas’ titles.

“She included her own childhood memory from her family’s migration from Oklahoma to California, contrasting a service station owner’s bigotry and her mother’s dignity in the times of segregated bathrooms,” Mead said in an email.

Thomas had visited Mead’s library in 2004 to read from her then-recently released children’s book “Gospel Cinderella.” Mead recalls that Thomas was “very charming (and) totally positive” and that the children responded very well to her.

“Hearing an author give a rousing reading of her own book gave the students a memory of a lifetime,” Mead said in an email.

In 1983, she rose to literary acclaim with her first novel, “Marked by Fire,” the story of a young Black girl’s coming of age in a small Oklahoma town. Jean Feiwel — who, as Thomas’ publisher, helped establish her career — called its debut in paperback a “groundbreaking” move at a time when critics dismissed works not published in hardcover.

Nevertheless, Feiwel said that one of Thomas’ earliest champions was New York Times reviewer George Woods, who described the book as “lyrical” with “an abiding faith in the ultimate triumph of goodness.”

That year, “Marked by Fire” won the National Book Award. It subsequently was adapted into a Broadway musical, “Abyssinia,” and its sequel, 1983’s “Bright Shadow,” won the Coretta Scott King Book Award.

“She’s a beautiful writer, (and) she writes magnificent descriptions,” Feiwel said about Thomas’ debut novel. “I don’t think I edited much of it — it was almost perfect as it was.”

From there, Thomas moved on to a prolific career, including more than 35 books and many awards — among them the International Reading Association Award, the New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year, two Governor’s Awards and an Oklahoma Lifetime Achievement Award.

In addition to writing, Thomas spent many years teaching. For more than two decades, the Stanford alumna served as a professor at the University of Tennessee and at Purdue University.

Beyond her academic and literary careers, friends remembered Thomas for her dedication and compassion, which made her stand out, Feiwel said.

“It was a privilege to launch her career, and it was a privilege to know her,” Feiwel said. “It’s a huge gap in the universe to lose her.”

Contact Shradha Ganapathy at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sganapathy_dc.