Catherine Reef

   Like all writers, Catherine loves a good story. The past is filled with incredible stories, and these are the ones Catherine likes to tell in her nonfiction books, most of which are works of American history or biography. Ernest Hemingway: A Writer’s Life was a Junior Library Guild selection and a Golden Kite Award nonfiction honor book in 2010. Sigmund Freud: Pioneer of the Mind was the Sydney Taylor Book Award winner for 2001. E. E. Cummings: A Poet’s Life was one of YALSA’s Best Books for Young Adults in 2008. Her interest in African-American history led Catherine to write This Our Dark Country: The American Settlers of Liberia, which was a recommended title for the Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children. This interest also inspired Africans in America, which examines the lasting influence of enslaved Africans on American culture, and Paul Laurence Dunbar: Portrait of a Poet, the life story of a significant contributor to America’s literary heritage. Catherine has also written several reference works that connect today’s readers with people from the past, such as Working in America, which tells the story of laborers in the United States from the time of the Revolutionary War through the present, using hundreds of quotes from the workers themselves. Poverty in America looks at the poor in American history-and society’s attitude toward them-through eyewitness accounts. Catherine says, “When I write I am always learning, and it pleases me to share what I have learned with you, my reader.”

Selected Reviews of Catherine’s Books

The Brontë Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne
Catherine Reef
   When Maria Branwell Brontë died in September of 1821, she is reported to have said, “Oh God, my poor children!” And well she might, for her six children, ranging in age from a few months to six years old, were left in the care of a not particularly paternal clergyman father and an unmarried aunt to grow up in a desperately poor village on the moors of northern England. Aunt Branwell taught the girls to sew when they were of age and Patrick Brontë schooled his only son, Branwell, in Latin and Greek. But the children escaped the parsonage at every opportunity to create their own imaginary worlds upon the moors, developing vigorous imaginations and a passionate love of nature. In 1824, father sent the four oldest girls to a charity school for poor clergyman’s daughters; this turned out to be not only an emotionally and physically abusive situation, but deadly as well. Less than a year later, first the oldest daughter Maria-aged 11-and then the next oldest, Elizabeth–aged 10–were sent home with consumption and soon died. Brontë brought Charlotte and Emily home. Life was never easy for them as young women; they tried their hands at being teachers and governesses but they did not like children and did not really want to work. They wanted to be writers. They continued to send away poems and then novels to a string of publishers, quickly finding that they would get more consideration if they posed as men rather than women. Thus Acton (aka Anne), Currer (aka Charlotte), and Ellis (aka Emily) Bell finally had a book of poems published in 1846 and additional poetry collections and groundbreaking novels followed. They did not live long enough to enjoy literary success, however, for Emily died in 1848 and Anne in 1849. Their brother Branwell also died at this time and Charlotte was left alone with her father and stopped writing. She finally married her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls in 1854, but died less than a year later. The critical reviews of their work at the time were decidedly mixed; it was still very difficult for women to be authors, and even those who were successful still struggled. This is a sympathetic, well-written and well-documented account of these women’s lives and would provide a valuable addition to any school or public library desiring biographical material on these eminent Victorian authors. 2012, Clarion Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Ages 12 up, $18.99. Reviewer: Paula McMillen, Ph.D. (Children’s Literature).

Jane Austen: A Life Revealed
Catherine Reef
   Maryland author Catherine Reef has done a remarkable job of collecting and synthesizing the little that is known about Jane Austen into an intriguing biography. Teens who scorn what they term the whiny, first-person protagonists of contemporary YA fiction embrace Austen’s witty take on early 19th century English society. These readers will relish Reef’s peek at the iconic author who brought forth such delicious classics as Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma. Reef chronicles Austen’s short life (she died in 1817 at the age of 41) and explores important relationships, especially the author’s deep friendship with her sister Cassandra. Reef also examines Austen’s writing process, provides short descriptions of her six novels and opens each chapter with a snippet of her writing, giving a sense of Austen’s pithy voice and style. Period illustrations, paintings and movie stills of the many Hollywood versions of Austen’s books help readers to connect both with the author’s times and with her literary legacy. 2011, Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $18.99. Ages 12 up. Reviewer: Mary Quattlebaum (Children’s Literature).

Ernest Hemingway: A Writer’s Life
Catherine Reef
   The fascinating life and complex personality of Ernest Hemingway (1899 to 1961) unfold through the lucid and intelligent prose and carefully selected photographs and pictures of this book. Reef recounts his life with specific events and shows how those events had an influence on what and how Hemingway chose to write. The reader feels the excitement of battles and bullfights. Reef avoids being judgmental as she places Hemingway within the context of the time period, and presents his interpersonal relationships and his battles with alcoholism and depression. Reef includes an eye-popping quote from the main character in To Have and Have Not and goes on to say that with the publication of that book “Hemingway would achieve the freedom of language he had long sought.” Aspiring young writers and students who are reading and studying Hemingway will gain valuable insight from this thoughtfully written biography. The considerable backmatter attests to the veracity of this biography. There are extensive notes that include the citations for the quotes in each chapter; there is a five-page selected bibliography; a listing of Hemingway’s major works; picture credits; and an index. It is highly recommended. 2009, Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $20.00. Ages 14 up. Reviewer: Sharon Salluzzo (Children’s Literature).

Program Details

Learning from Biography

  • Every biographical subject has experienced personal challenges. If we look at how these people coped and overcame, then we may learn lessons to apply to our own lives. Catherine also explores how writers and other artists have used their creativity to deal with troubling social issues (e.g., Walt Whitman’s poems on the Civil War; Gordon Parks’s photographs of segregation). Questions are welcome. Upper Elementary School and Middle School.

Developing a Portrait through Biography

  • A biography is more than an accumulation of facts. Catherine discusses the art of creating a biography: how the biographer creates a vivid setting, fleshes out the subject, presents the subject’s work (especially pertinent to her biographies of authors and composers), chooses illustrations, and makes other aesthetic decisions. This talk can also be tailored to a particular subject (e.g., Creating a Biographical Portrait of Sigmund Freud). Questions are welcome. Middle School and High School; Adults.

The Art of Writing Nonfiction

  • Catherine discusses the process of writing a work of nonfiction, from research to finished book. She discusses choosing a topic or person as the focal point of the book, working with and selecting primary sources, defining the setting and viewpoint of the book, the importance of accuracy, choosing illustrations, and writing style. Questions are welcome. Upper Elementary, Middle School and High School.

Catherine will conduct up to 4 presentations in a day. She prefers one to two classes at a time for a total of up to 50 students. Presentations last from 40 to 50 minutes. Her presentations are designed for upper elementary, middle school, high school, and adults. She will conduct small workshops or make presentations to larger groups at conferences.

Costs: $500 for a half day (1 or 2 presentations); $750 for full day (maximum of 4 presentations); travel, lodging and other expenses to be paid by the booking organization.

Additional Information

To learn more about Catherine and her publications please visit