This year saw the death of noteworthy, celebrated people in a variety of fields. This included a trove of writers who authored works that became classic reads or major movies. They include the first black writer to win a Pulitizer Prize for Fiction (James Alan McPherson), a Holocaust survivor (Elie Wiesel), and a futurist who wrote about the worldwide effect of the digital age (Alvin Toffler).
Fictional characters developed by writers who died in 2016 entertained a variety of demographics. They range from the preschool perennial Llama Llama series to the precocious Scout Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The subjects tackled by these writers included teaching in London’s East End (“To Sir, With Love”), childhood trauma (“The Prince of Tides”), immortality (“Tuck Everlasting”), and intrique in a medieval abbey (“The Name of the Rose”).
Here are some of the notable writers who died this year whose works will live on:
Natalie Babbit, 84 – Ohio-born Natalie Babbit had a five-decade-long career as a illustrator and children’s book writer. Her first published book was “The Forty-ninth Magician” in 1966 and her last was “The Moon Over High Street” in 2012. The Newbery Honor winning writer’s most famous novel was “Tuck Everlasting,” published in 1976.
E.R. Braithwaite, 104 – The Guyana-born Eustace Edward Ricardo Braithwaite served as a Royal Air Force pilot during World War II and earned a doctorate in physics from the University of Cambridge. Afterwards, he has trouble finding work due to ethnic discrimination and eventually took a teaching job in the East End of London. He wrote about this in “To Sir, With Love,” which became a film starring Sidney Poitier. Braithwaite later turned to social work, served as the first ambassador for Guyana to the United Nations, taught at New York University and other American colleges. Throughout his diverse career, he wrote several books about his experiences as a black man.
Pat Conroy, 70 – Born into a military family, Pat Conroy suffered violence and abuse from his Marine Corps pilot father. That family history informed many of the books Conroy wrote as an adult living in South Carolina. These include his 1972 work “The Water is Wide,” his 1976 novel “The Great Santini,” 1980’s “The Lords of Discipline,” and his 1986 book, “The Prince of Tides,” all of which became films.
Anna Dewdney, 50 – For the past decade, American preschoolers were entertained by and learned from books by Anna Dewdney. Already successful as a book illustrator, Dewdney turned her practice of imitating animals for her children into the charming, highly successful “Llama Llama” series of books that address life lessons with charm and humor. It is amazing how many things she rhymed with llama, like pajama, mama, grandpa, and drama to address sleep aways, bullying, sharing and other childhood traumas. A New Jersey native, Dewdney also crafted other children’s books during a career cut short by cancer.
Umberto Eco, 84 – Umberto Eco was well known in two fields: as an Italian novel writer and as a professor of semiotics and medieval philosophy. Eco authored dozens of scholarly nonfiction works on medieval times, semiotics, and anthropology. However, it was the seven historical novels he wrote that were worldwide best sellers. His first fiction work, “The Name of the Rose,” dealt with intrigue in a 14th Century Italian Monastery and sold more than 10 million copies in about 30 languages since its publication in 1980. Later well-known works include “Foucault’s Pendulum,” a 1988 book about lost treasure and the Knights Templar,” and “The Prague Cemetery,” a 2010 novel about modern anti-Semitism
Harper Lee, 89 – Nelle Harper Lee wrote the classic novel about justice and race in the Deep South in the 1930s – “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning book was largely drawn from Lee’s childhood in Alabama, where her father was a lawyer who had defended two black men in town. Now required reading in many schools, “Mockingbird” spawned a classic movie starring Gregory Peck. Lee helped her childhood friend Truman Capote (who inspired the character Dill in her book) to research his 1966 bestseller, “In Cold Blood.” Lee had second bestseller last year after the writer’s lawyer found a manuscript in Lee’s safe-deposit box that turned out to chronologically be a sequel to her first book that was actually written first, “Go Set a Watchman.”
James Alan McPherson, 72 – The first black writer to receive a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, author James Alan McPherson wrote several nonfiction books on American culture and anthologies of fictional short stories. Raised in Georgia, he attended Harvard Law School and then earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Iowa. Besides writing, he taught at University of California, Santa Cruz, University of Virginia, and other colleges before joining and eventually directing the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Gloria Naylor, 66 – Raised in Harlem and Queens, Gloria Naylor studied English at Brooklyn College and earned a master’s degree in African American studies at Yale University. Her novels and short story collections drew acclaim for their depiction of black women, which she felt were underrepresented in literature. Her 1982 debut novel, “The Women of Brewster Place,” followed seven black women in a housing project. The novel won the 1983 National Book Award for First Fiction and became a miniseries starring Oprah Winfrey, Cicely Tyson, and Robin Givens.
Alvin Toffler, 87 – Alvin Toffler had a distinguished career as a journalist before he starting researching and writing papers for firms like IBM, Xerox and AT&T. This exposure open his eyes and led to his outlining a future dominated by Information overload in his 1970 blockbuster “Future Shock.” Other works included the highly influential “The Third Wave” in 1980. Toffler’s tomes predicted the rapid rise and influence of the internet, genetic engineering, and consumerism. Conversely, some of the New York-born author’s predictions did not pan out – yet.
Elie Wiesel, 87 – Nobel Peace Prize winner (1986) Elie Wiesel served as a newspaper correspondent, an author, professor of humanities at Boston University, and spearheaded the building of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. His best known work, “Night,” related his experience as a teen trying to survive in the Nazi’s Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. The Romanian born Wiesel spoke regularly on the Holocaust and other human rights issues, like Armenian genocide, apartheid in South Africa, Argentina’s Desaparecidos, Bosnia, and more. He accompanied Oprah Winfrey to Auschwitz and President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Buchenwald.
Written and edited by Dyanne Weiss
CNN: People We’ve Lost in 2016
New York Times: The Woolly Wisdom in the ‘Llama Llama’ Books
Many books by the authors and book jackets about them
Photo of Harper Lee with President George Bush by Eric Draper, public domain
Photo of Elie Wiesel by David Shankbone, Creative Commons license