Author and Musician James Lincoln Collier: Keeping Time with the Past

Fast Facts:

Born: New York City, June 27, 1928
Education: Graduated from Hamilton College, Clinton, NY, in 1950
Military service: Korean War, infantry, discharged in 1951
Family: married Carol Burrows in 1952. They had two children: Geoffrey and Andrew. Divorced his first wife and married Ida Karen Potash.
Work: worked as a magazine editor from 1952 to 1958 in New York City; also part-time trombonist at jazz clubs in Greenwich Village during the 1950s. He gave up the editing work and became a freelance writer full-time in 1958 and continues to work occasionally as a jazz musician.
Currently  Lives in: New York City
First Books: Cheers, an adult book, in 1961; Battleground: The United States Army in World War II, a non-fiction children’s book, in 1965; The Teddy Bear Habit; or, How I Became a Winner, a children’s novel, in 1967.
Selected Awards: My Brother Sam Is Dead, Newbery Honor book, ALA Notable Book, Jane Addams Honor Book Award, National Book Award Finalist, Phoenix Award; War Comes to Willy Freeman, Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People; Chipper, Notable Studies Trade Book for Young People; Decision in Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention of 1787, Christopher Award; Jump Ship to Freedom, Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People; The Making of Jazz, American Book Award Finalist.

A Family of Writers

James Lincoln Collier grew up in a family with a strong writing tradition. His father, Edmund, wrote cowboy stories for adults and biographies of western heroes for teenagers and worked as an editor as well. Other relatives wrote for Sports Illustrated and wrote award-winning short stories. A distant My Brother Sam is Deadancestress, Anne Bradstreet, was one of America’s first poets. As a boy, his family moved from Long Island to Connecticut, a setting that would be used for several of his historical novels.

Historical Fiction for Young People

Writing ability was certainly strong in his generation. Indeed, some of his best-regarded work was co-written with his brother, Christopher “Kit” Collier. Christopher is an American history professor and so was able to make sure that their exciting stories were well- aligned with the facts. They wished to make history more accessible and interesting to young readers, and they certainly succeeded. Their first collaboration, My Brother Sam Is Dead, was very well-received. Written in the mid-1970s while America was dealing with the Vietnam War, this novel definitely reflects the time in which it was written. The young narrator sees the evils in both sides of a war—in this case, the American Revolution—and the authors offer no easy answers to the conflict of his spirit. Timothy Meeker’s father is loyal to the British Crown in a Loyalist territory, but that does not help him when he has to venture afield to sell his goods and encounters rebel soldiers. Likewise, when his brother Sam—at first completely afire for the patriotic cause--tries to defend his family’s property, the wheels of even a just war can be quite indiscriminate in whom they grind beneath them.

In addition to its then unique anti-war theme, the book also looked at war from the perspective of very ordinary people.  The boys’ father runs a tavern. Their friends live on farms. Everybody has to do a heavy share of work to get by, and the times they live in are plenty dangerous. Two books followed in this series, also concerning characters who likewise were normal people adapting to a changing world: The Bloody Country, set in the disputed frontier of Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania, and The Winter Hero, when the limits of freedom were tested during Shay’s Rebellion in 1787.

Stories Previously Untold

With the success of those books, the brothers noticed that there was still a part of the population whose stories they wanted to tell but were often overlooked: African-Americans. War Comes to Willy Freeman is the first in the Arabus Family Saga, followed by Jump Ship to Freedom and Who Is Carrie? In War Comes to Willy Freeman, a young, free African-American girl, nicknamed Willy, is left homeless and endangered at the beginning of the American Jump Ship to FreedomRevolution. Having witnessed her father’s death at the hands of the British and separated from her mother, for safety’s sake she pretends to be a boy, manning the oars on their fishing boat to make an escape from the oncoming army. Spirited and smart, Willy first seeks refuge with relatives, but they are ensnared by an unscrupulous New England ship captain who wants to take control of Willy’s life also by putting her back into slavery. Eventually, she makes her way to the famous Fraunces Tavern in New York City where she finds work and continues to search for her mother.

Jump Ship to Freedom picks up the story of Willy’s Arabus family. Having been cheated out of a reward for fighting which should have paid for freedom for his family, young cousin Daniel steals back the notes from his master, Captain Ivers. He is caught, and the captain puts him on a ship bound for the West Indies where he will definitely be put back into slavery and in all likelihood die quickly of overwork and disease in the tropical climate. Although Daniel does escape, he must overcome years of having been told he is worthless—simply because of the color of his skin--in order to become truly free.

Who Is Carrie? finds Daniel hoping to purchase his mother’s freedom with the help of Carrie who is a slave working at the Fraunces Tavern. Carrie does not know her own background—not even her last name. Carrie’s quest to find out about her family takes on more urgency when she is kidnapped and very nearly sold for work overseas. Who Is Carrie? takes place after the war when the Fraunces Tavern is a popular hangout for President Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton as New York City serves as the first capital of the United States.

Challenging Books Challenged

The Colliers’ research brought a reality to the stories that were appreciated by history teachers and students, but some of those details resulted in havingThe Bloody Country the books challenged or banned in school districts. For example, the violence in My Brother Sam Is Dead, though very true to the time period, unnerved adults as did some of the language used as did the situations in which the characters found themselves. In Jump Ship to Freedom, it was Daniel’s choice of words to disparage himself in the beginning of the novel that enraged some—though a major plot point is that he overcomes these negative feelings to become a truly free man. Even so, both books have been frequently challenged.*

Just the Facts

Besides these well-known historical novels, James Lincoln Collier also wrote with his brother Christopher the Drama of American History series which gives historically accurate detail to times past. James continues to write non-fiction, including the You Never Knew biography series for young people which combines striking illustrations with engaging narratives that are well-developed for school reports, complete with timelines, maps, and reproductions from original sources.

A Love for Music

History has been one inspiration for James Lincoln Collier, but another strong passion for his writing is music. A part-time professional jazz musician, James wrote both musical biographies of greats such as Duke Ellington, instructional books for young people, and critical overviews of the music itself, including Jazz, an American Saga.

Reference Sources from Library Databases
These articles are great for reports and may be used for free with your Central Rappahannock Regional Library card from our Articles & Databases page:

"Christopher and James Lincoln Collier." St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers. Gale, 1999. Gale Biography In Context. Web.

"James Lincoln Collier." Authors and Artists for Young Adults. Vol. 13. Detroit: Gale, 1994. Gale Biography In Context. Web.

"James Lincoln Collier." Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults. Gale, 2002. Gale Biography In Context. Web.

Also Used in Preparing This Article:
Sonneborn, Liz. James Lincoln Collier. The Library of Author Biographies. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc. 2006.