February 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Trailblazing Author Lois Duncan Dies at 82


Lois Duncan, author of more than 40 books, died suddenly on June 15 in Bradenton, FL, at the age of 82. Her books, including I Know What You Did Last Summer (1973), Killing Mr. Griffin (1978), and Stranger with My Face (1981, all Little, Brown), helped to create the niche of teen-oriented publishing. 

Her suspense thrillers, several with a paranormal twist, earned her the Margaret A. Edwards Award for a Distinguished Body of Work for Young Adults in 1992. The award is given by the American Library Association’s Youth Adult Library Services Association and sponsored by School Library Journal. “Lois Duncan provides readers a window to a world that houses many different individuals: the strong, the weak, the kind, the evil, the fortunate, the underprivileged, the arrogant, the submissive, the caring, and the indifferent,” read the award citation. The award committee found that “Duncan’s characters face a universal truth—your actions are important and you are responsible for them.”

Her 1966 novel Ransom (Dell) firmly established Duncan as a noted author of teen suspense novels. A story of five teenagers kidnapped by a school bus driver, the book was originally published as Five Were Missing and was a finalist for the 1967 Edgar Award given by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2015, on her 81st, birthday, the organization again honored Duncan with their Grand Master Award. Previous recipients have included Ellery Queen, Daphne du Maurier, Alfred Hitchcock, Graham Greene, and Agatha Christie.

Over the years, Duncan’s books have been the target of censors. Her first book, Debutante Hill (Dodd, Mead, 1958), was initially rejected by the publisher because a 19-year-old character was drinking a beer. It was later published when the beverage was changed to a Coke. Daughters of Eve (Little, Brown, 1979), a story about a group of girls who take on sexism, was banned from Fairfax County (VA) middle school libraries because it “promotes risky behavior and violence and seeks to prejudice young vulnerable minds on several issues.” Two of her titles appeared on ALA’s 100 Banned and Challenged Books between 2000 and 2009Killing Mr. Griffin was number 25 and Daughters of Eve, 51.

Nevertheless, Duncan’s books continue to be staples in libraries. “I could count on Lois Duncan’s books to appeal to so many readers, including reluctant ones,” says Patricia Powell, a retired junior high school librarian from the Columbia (MO) Public Schools. Teri Lesesne, professor of YA lit in the Department of Library Science at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, TX, tweeted, “Her books were devoured by my middle school students and by me.”

In 1989, Duncan’s youngest daughter, Kaitlyn (Kait) Arquette, 18, was murdered in Albuquerque, NM, in a drive-by shooting. The murder had similarities to Don’t Look Behind You (Delacorte, 1989), a book Duncan had recently written. Following the tragedy, she wrote two books about the crime, Who Killed My Daughter?: The True Story of a Mother’s Search for Her Daughter’s Murderer (Delacorte, 1992) and One to the Wolves: On a Trail of a Killer (Planet Ann Rule, 2013).

Several of her books have been adapted for the screen. In 2009, her 1971 book Hotel for Dogs was made into a film starring Emma Roberts. Stephenie Meyer, author of the “Twilight” series who read Duncan’s books in her youth, acquired Down a Dark Hall (Little, Brown, 1974) for her production company Fickle Fish. “I grew up reading and loving Lois Duncan novels,” said Meyer on her website in 2012. “Down a Dark Hall was my favorite of her novels (though it’s a very close race with Summer of Fear and Stranger with My Face), and it gave me some serious nightmares when I was nine.”

Lois Duncan was born on April 28, 1934, in Philadelphia, PA, to Joseph and Lois Steinmetz. She was raised in Sarasota, FL, and sold her first story to a magazine at the age of 13. She was married to Don Arquette for more than 50 years with whom she raised five children. Those wishing to send condolences to the family can address them to:

Donald Arquette
6404 21st Ave. W., ‪#‎M114
Bradenton, FL 43209

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Rocco Staino About Rocco Staino

Rocco Staino @RoccoA is the retired director of the Keefe Library of the North Salem School District in New York. He is now a contributing editor for School Library Journal and also writes for the Huffington Post.