Prize-Winning Author Joyce Carol Thomas, Who Wrote of African-American Life, Dies at 78

Joyce Carol Thomas in an undated photo. Credit: Amy Matarazzo
Joyce Carol Thomas in an undated photo.
Credit: Amy Matarazzo

Joyce Carol Thomas, a poet, playwright and award-winning children’s writer whose work portrayed the complexities of African-American rural life, a subject often simplified in young-adult fiction, died on Aug. 13. She was 78.

Her publisher, HarperCollins Children’s Books, confirmed her death.

She died in Northern California, according to The Associated Press, quoting her sister, Flora Krasnovsky, who gave the cause as cirrhosis of the liver, which she said Ms. Thomas had contracted through a blood transfusion.

Ms. Thomas wrote mostly adult plays and poetry before the publication of her first young-adult novel, “Marked by Fire,” in 1982. It won the National Book Award for children’s fiction in 1983.

The story, rendered in luminous prose, follows a girl named Abyssinia Jackson as she grows up in a black community in poor, rural Ponca City, Okla. With a plot centering on a rape, abandonment and destruction wrought by natural disasters, the novel portrays Abyssinia, her family and neighbors overcoming hardship through their faith and the strength of their communal bonds.

Ms. Thomas lived in Ponca City as a child and drew some of the characters and events from her own experience.

“As the story progressed, I became engrossed, because Miss Thomas writes with admirable simplicity and finds a marvelous fairy-tale quality in everyday happenings,” the playwright Alice Childress wrote in The New York Times Book Review in 1982. “Her people move through troubled times but never fail to celebrate sweeter days with church suppers and the joyous sound of gospel singers.”

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SOURCE: The New York Times
Daniel E. Slotnik