If there are any late 20thC children’s writers in the English-speaking world better than Cynthia Voigt, I haven’t read them.  She is a genius in the same broad category as Joanne Rowling, Alexander McCall Smith (his Bertie) C.S. Lewis (Lion, Witch, Wardrobe), J.R.R. Tolkien (Hobbit) and Katherine Paterson (Gilly Hopkins).

Recently, after a long absence, I re-read Voigt’s 7-volume series about the Tillerman family.  Remembering that each friend who’d borrowed these books from me years ago had been unable to put them down, I devoured them in less than 10 days.

Volume 1, Homecoming, is about the journey taken by four children from Connecticut to Maryland when their mother, Liza, abandons them in a shopping centre parking lot.  She dearly loves them but cannot cope with life after being forsaken by their father and losing her job.

Led by the oldest child, 13-year-old Dicey, James, Maybeth, and Sammy walk to the farm of their maternal grandmother Abigail Tillerman, whom they have never before laid eyes on.   Anywhere that they can find for sleeping is a temporary stopover: parks, big bushes near houses whose owners don’t know they’re there, empty homes, river banks, and the verandas of deserted schools.

With the small amount of cash that Dicey has managed to save, they drink milk and eat basic groceries purchased by her.  Wherever possible, she washes and dries their clothes overnight ahead of the next day’s adventures.  Sometimes drivers on major roads stop to assist them by giving them lifts for short periods.

When the four siblings finally arrive at their Gram’s home in Crisfield, she cannot turn them away, even though she does not want the responsibility of continuing to raise them. A brilliant, loving, inimitable eccentric, Ab has tried hard to adjust to the death of her gratuitously harsh and severe husband and its aftermath. Largely because of him, their three young adult children—John, Samuel (called Bullet), and Liza—leave home permanently.

In Volume 2, DICEY’S SONG, the young walkers settle in with Gram.  Volume 4, THE RUNNER, is propelled by Bullet’s narrative voice.  In the 5th novel, COME A STRANGER, which couldn’t be more different in style and focus, Wilhemina Smiths, a black girl who becomes Dicey’s best female friend, lets us know all about her nearest and dearest, her dreams, and her fondest hopes.

For some readers the most compelling Volume is Number 3, A SOLITARY BLUE, named after a heron and the young male protagonist, Jeff Greene.   Jeff, the son of a professor whose wife runs out on him and their son, is as smart as James Tillerman–but in a different way.  On my paperback cover he is rowing a boat alone.

Jeff spends as much time rowing or kayaking as Dicey spends building a sail boat for herself once the other Tillerman children are able to trap crabs to earn their keep. Water is life-giving to all of the major characters. Their hungers, though often material, are at bottom spiritual.  People cheat them and they survive without bitterness.   As the series progresses, Dicey and Jeff become very close.

James Tillerman, skinny and brown-haired like his older sister, spends most of his waking hours reading: early on, the Bible.  He gets very high grades at any school he can attend.  Blond Sammy races around, getting into interminable fist fights in school playgrounds with any boy who makes insulting remarks about someone in his family.   Despite not being as successful in the classroom as his older brother, he is very cluey.

Maybeth, a brilliant singer as fair-haired as her little brother, and as shy as she is pretty, manages with exemplary courage to go to school despite being grossly underestimated and, therefore, failed and made to stay back a year by inadequate teachers.  An overweight male piano teacher in Crisfield with a proverbial heart of gold does as much as he can to help her to surmount these unmerited difficulties.   

Riveted by Voigt’s wisdom and linguistic skill, I can convey something of her range only by citing a few brief and characteristic passages: 

What they would have done without Dicey, [James] didn’t know. . .[No] matter what had got in their way she had kept on going. . . .It had felt as if the sun was rising up inside of him.

Maybeth playing the piano (Mozart, he thought : the quick melodic symmetry of the music was probably Mozart) . . . The music constructed its design in the air . . . . One look at her face, with the mouth that turned up a little at the ends, ready to be happy, and you knew that Maybeth would never hurt anyone.

Even people—who were pretty much . . . made out of the same stuff to the same basic design—never exactly duplicated one another.

Do you ever wonder {James asks in conversation] about . . . how things look not being the same as how they are?

Susan Reibel Moore is a graduate of Oberlin College, Harvard University , and the University of Sydney. She has been a writer and a teacher for over 50 years.

Dr Susan Moore has been an inveterate reader all her life. Her PhD on Henry James (University of Sydney 1972) was revised and eventually published as a book in the University of Queensland Press Scholars’...