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reed magazine logoJune 2010


Mutants. Draugrs. Drug lords. Nancy Farmer ’63 writes children’s stories that combine fantastic protagonists, bedeviling bullies, and decidedly old-fashioned themes.

Nancy Coe Farmer ’63 has always had a penchant for roving. Growing up on the Mexican border in Yuma, Arizona, she frequently played hooky, hanging out with “illegals”—the children of illegal immigrants. She and a friend would roam the banks of the Colorado River, skirting hobo camps. Sometimes, they’d explore the ruins of a nearby abandoned prison, before gingerly picking their way back along the river’s shore to avoid quicksand.

Nancy Farmer

Nancy Farmer at her home.

photograph by ariel zambelich

Nancy’s knack for getting herself into—and out of—tight spots has been crucial in writing her award-winning children’s books, filled with incredible imagination, heart-stopping adventure, and amazing characters. The teenage protagonist of The House of Scorpion is a clone who is being raised as spare parts for an aging drug lord. Then there are the Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, a trio of African detectives who gained their superhuman ability to hear, to see, and to feel as a result of a nuclear meltdown. Her villains include a willful dragon, a talking monkey, and an undead spirit known as a draugr.

It’s not hard to figure out how Nancy dreams up her ideas, once you know something about her life.

Born in 1941 in Phoenix, Arizona, to older and often distracted parents, Nancy felt wanderlust early—she repeatedly escaped from her Kiddie Koop (a locking playpen reputedly designed by Buckminster Fuller). When she was eight, her family moved to Yuma to manage a hotel. The town was not exactly a tourist destination: in summer, the temperature soared over 120 degrees and frequent dust storms blackened the sky. Still, she found plenty of opportunity for mischief.

School was a formality; Nancy’s real education took place in the hotel lobby, its library, and the streets of Yuma. “I learned self-reliance at a very early age. My parents expected me to work,” she says. By age nine she was managing the front desk. There she met cowboys, railroad men, truck drivers—staying up until midnight to listen to their stories and play cribbage. She recounts jumping the rooftops along Main Street at night—from the hotel, to the liquor store, to the movie theater where she’d open a trap door to sneak into a show.

Nancy was thrown out of two high schools early on. At a Catholic school in Yuma she got in trouble for putting salt instead of sugar into pies for visiting priests. Her folks sent her to a Presbyterian school in Mt. Pleasant, Utah, to straighten her out. There, “I got punished for telling fortunes… and channeling the spirit of Mary, Queen of Scots, through a candle.” During a snowstorm, she joined students in a riot; they locked the headmistress out and ran wild—unrolling toilet paper, hijacking the Coke machine, and taking off their shirts to wave at the boys’ dormitory from the school’s roof.

reed magazine logoJune 2010