Author Penny Colman is passionate about nonfiction, and her love for the genre dates back to her childhood. She recalls, "I grew up in a nonfiction loving home, and I raised three nonfiction loving children." Although she has written both fiction and nonfiction, Penny takes the greatest satisfaction in presenting the complexity, richness, and beauty of the human realm of experience using nonfiction in a way that is both informative as well as engaging to children and young adults.
Penny grew up in an unusual household. Her mother was a painter and her father was a psychiatrist. Because her father's profession dictated the family's domiciles many of Penny's childhood memories were set on the grounds of state mental hospitals. In fact, when Penny was eleven, her family was the subject of an article in Redbook Magazine that described
"The Strangest Place to Find a Happy Family." She remembers growing up in a "very noisy family" that was always into sports and outdoor activities but also found time to play in a family orchestra. Her own three sons, Jonathan and twins David and Stephen, were only a year apart so "they were noisy too! And always into something--backyard basketball and break-dancing. They sang all the time and even performed in a nightclub in New York City." Those early experiences eventually led son Stephen to a role on Broadway as a performer in Russell Simmon's "Def Poetry Jam."
Despite her unconventional upbringing, Penny took a conventional path for some years. She attended the University of Michigan where she received a BA with distinction in 1966. She completed an M. A T. at Johns Hopkins in 1967 and did postgraduate work at the University of Oklahoma and New York University. She married a Presbyterian minister and spent many years raising their three children as well as serving in and developing community action groups. She served as executive director of the Center for Food Action in Englewood, NJ and was appointed to the New Jersey Commission on Hunger in 1986. Her lifelong commitment to women's issues, human rights, and social justice has shaped the choices of subject matter in her books, including her first nonfiction book for children, Breaking the Chains: The Crusade of Dorothea Lynde Dix and the many others that followed.
In all her works of nonfiction Penny maintains a fierce devotion to the truth, to insure that nothing is made up. Penny explains, " All of my books are based on extensive research. My process is eclectic and never ending. I find material everywhere, including archives, attics, libraries, used bookstores, museums, historic sites, and conversations with all sorts of people including scholars and people with first-hand experience. I build a bibliography, compile a chronology, and take seemingly endless notes. Every project gets its own black file box or file drawer, and eventually its own room, especially when I am doing photo research or taking photographs."
All this research could be deadly dull in the hands of most writers but Penny brings her passion for nonfiction to the art of writing as well as research. She carefully plans the structure of each book, which she compares to the plot in fiction. She explains, "Good nonfiction has structure and substructures, or macro- and microstructures...As I shape the structure I also search for the essence of the story, the emotional insight, the cognitive concept that I want to illuminate. My search is driven by the sound of my voice in my head repeating, 'what's the point Penny? What's the point? Why are you compiling these facts and true stories?' "
Penny's skill as an author allows all of her books to give readers a powerful aesthetic experience with nonfiction as well as inform them in enlightening ways. Her many books belie the belief, held by many teachers and children, that nonfiction is boring. Penny Colman's award winning books are living testament to her conviction that nonfiction is literature, too.