Today is Susan Cooper’s 87th birthday! She is an author, screenwriter, and playwright. She is most known for her young adult fantasy series, The Dark is Rising, an award winning contemporary fantasy series that incorporates Arthurian legends, as well as English, Welsh, and Norse mythology and folklore.
Cooper was born on May 23, 1935 in Buckhinghamshire, England. She attended the University of Oxford, where she graduated from Somerville College with a degree in English. During her time there, she was the first female editor of the undergraduate newspaper, Cherwell. She went on to work as a reporter and journalist at the London Sunday Times, with author Ian Fleming, most known for writing the James Bond novels. Her first novel, Mandrake, was published in 1964 by Hodder & Stoughton. She continued to write, publishing over 30 novels for children and adults, as well as short stories, plays, and screenplays. Her most recent novel, Ghost Hawk, was published in 2014 by Margaret K. McElderry Books.
Cooper’s work was heavily influenced by her childhood. She grew up in a war torn England during World War II. She recalls spending many nights as a child in her family’s bomb shelter, falling asleep to the sound of her mother’s voice telling her stories. Because of the strict curfew after dark, she spent a lot of time indoors, devouring any books she could get her hands on, especially fairy stories. Cooper attended university at a time when C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were teaching at Oxford, and the English curriculum was shaped by the two famous novelists. Although she never knew them personally, she and her classmates learned to “believe in dragons”, thanks to the wild imagination of these two men.
Her fantasy series, The Dark is Rising, especially reflects her childhood, her Welsh and English ancestry, and her time at Oxford. The first novel, Over Sea, Under Stone, follows the three Drew siblings, who discover a map to find an ancient grail in the battle of Light vs. Dark. The titular novel of the series is the second book, which features Will Stanton, an 11 year old boy who is revealed to be the one of the last of the Old Ones, a guardian of the Light, charged with protecting the world from the Dark. The subsequent 3 novels in the 5 book sequence follow these storylines as the world battles for Good vs. Evil. Cooper’s worldview was shaped early by the war, giving her a strong sense of Us vs. Them, which is clearly reflected in these novels. Cooper also draws on the historical surroundings in which she grew up- castles and old forts and Roman roads- to create the mystical setting for Will and his epic adventure.
The Dark is Rising Sequence received numerous awards, including Newberry Medal for the fourth book in the series, The Grey King. Cooper herself also received the 2012 Margaret A. Edwards Award for her “significant and lasting contribution to writing for teens”. While the series has received mostly positive acclaim, it wouldn’t be a post about intellectual freedom if there wasn’t at least one complaint. Around 2015, American Canyon Middle School Library in California attempted to ban the popular series.
It always saddens me to hear about fantasy novels being banned or challenged for reasons like magic or witchcraft. I absolutely love fantasy novels. The world building, the rich imagery, the fantastical characters. I feel as if I’m transported to another world as I immerse myself in these stories. But more than that, I love fantasy because it also inspires me to live my real life like the characters in my books. There is so much to learn from characters like Will Stanton, who is loyal and courageous and kind. Whenever I close a good fantasy novel like The Dark Is Rising, I feel empowered to step back out into this, very often, scary world, and face my own dragons.
Luckily, Cooper feels the same. When asked about why she writes children’s fantasy, she replied, “We write the books we want to write for ourselves, and often we’re writing them for the child we used to be that is still alive inside our heads.”
Happy Birthday, Susan Cooper!
Rebecca holds an MLIS from the University of North Texas and is a former teacher and school library consultant. Though not currently working in a library, she continues to fight against censorship and advocate for intellectual freedom rights, especially for children’s literature. When she’s not wrangling her three children, Rebecca enjoys reading, running, writing, and roaming the world.