UCSC alumna author looks out for kids who can't read

Susan Blackaby is a 1975 graduate of UCSC with a degree in Western Civilization. (Photo by Scott Rappaport)

Susan Blackaby has always kept her eye out for the kid who can't read.

An educational writer for the past 25 years, the UC Santa Cruz alumna has written more than 120 books for children to inspire them to learn how to read.

"I'm always writing for the little kid in the back row who is afraid to raise his hand," says Blackaby.

"I feel for the 4th grade kids who can't read at all-these are the kids who feel defeated by school and are about to slip out of the system."

But Blackaby's body of work includes more than these invaluable early readers.

The Washington Post named her very first picture book, Rembrandt's Hat, as one of the "Top 10 Children's Picture Books of 2002."

That eventually led to a book project writing for actor John Lithgow (The World According to Garp, 3rd Rock from the Sun).

"I was hired a few years ago to write non-fiction readers that spun off of John Lithgow's picture books," Blackaby notes. "I wrote a dozen Lithgowpalooza Readers, including It Stinks to be Extinct!"

Now living happily with her husband and daughter in Portland, Oregon, Blackaby was recently in the SF Bay Area visiting schools to promote her latest book, Cleopatra: Egypt's Last and Greatest Queen.

Just issued by Sterling Publishing, Cleopatra is part of a biography series for young adults that focuses on important women in world history.

"I kept trying to write it like a novel to keep the pulse of the story," says Blackaby.

After graduating from UC Santa Cruz in 1975 with a degree in Western Civilization, Blackaby's career as a writer took off after a chance encounter at one of her first jobs.

"I was just a lowly Xerox girl at Addison-Wesley Publishing Company in Menlo Park," Blackaby explains. "One day, I noticed one of the lessons was supposed to be in Latin roots, but all of the words were in Greek. Someone asked me how I knew that, and I told them I had majored in ancient Greece at UC Santa Cruz. So I was immediately promoted to their editorial team-they gave me my own office and a little red pencil, and I never looked back!"

Blackaby notes that her time as an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz has had a profoundly positive effect on her life and career.

"I think UCSC professors prided themselves on teaching us to think," she observes. "It turns out thinking really pays off.and most people don't do it."

"UCSC just becomes a part of your DNA," Blackaby adds. "It's something that you maybe don't realize until you come back to the campus. It still feels like home-even if you're only here for an afternoon after 10 years. It's a great place."

Blackaby has recently been writing articles for the National Geographic Society's children's magazine, Explorer. She currently has two books in the pipeline that will be published next year; one is a collection of poetry for kids about animal habitats.

But she continues to also look for projects to help non-readers-projects such as her series of books about inline skating, surfing, and extreme sports that only contained words with one syllable. "I wrote a whole book about surfing, but couldn't use the word 'ocean'."

"Those books are for kids who have lost hope," Blackaby says. "Our daughter was a non-reader. And it was so frustrating to try and find her stuff to get a toehold. So it's great to help those kids."