Barbara Wersba, Author

Aug. 19, 1932 - Feb. 18, 2018
Barbara Wersba, Aug. 19, 1932 - Feb. 18, 2018

Barbara Wersba, a Sag Harbor resident who was the author of more than two dozen books for young people and the founder of the Bookman Press, died on Sunday at the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, N.J. She was 85.

Ms. Wersba was the only child of a Russian-Jewish father and a Kentucky Baptist mother, Robert Wersba and the former Josephine Quarles. Growing up, she wanted to be a musician, or a dancer, or a poet, thinking that any one of these professions would lift her out of what she believed to be a sad life.

“I grew up in almost total solitude,” she once said. “I thought I was lonely when I was simply a loner — and spent much of my childhood daydreaming, writing poems, and creating dramas for my dolls.”

When she was 11 years old, in answer to a family friend’s inquiry, she impulsively declared her intent to be an actress and soon landed a part in a local play. Though she eventually decided she didn’t actually like acting, she stuck with it because it gave her purpose and helped her not to feel alone.

Ms. Wersba continued acting throughout college and then professionally, until she fell ill in 1960 and was forced into a lengthy recovery. On the advice of a friend, she turned to writing. The result was her first book for children, “The Boy Who Loved the Sea,” which was published in 1961.

Her breakthrough came in 1968, with the publication of “The Dream Watcher,” a novel. She adapted it for the theater when her childhood idol, the actress Eva Le Gallienne, read the book and wished to play the role of the elderly woman in the story. It opened at the White Barn Theatre in Connecticut in 1975.

Two of Ms. Wersba’s most popular novels were “Tunes for a Small Harmonica: A Novel,” released in 1976 and a National Book Award nominee, and “The Carnival of My Mind,” released in 1982.

In addition to her more than two dozen novels for children, teens, and young adults, she reviewed children’s literature for The New York Times, wrote theater and television scripts, and taught writing. She founded the Bookman Press in 1994.

Born in Chicago on Aug. 19, 1932, Ms. Wersba moved with her family to California. After her parents’ divorce, she moved with her mother to New York City, and later to Sag Harbor. 

She will be buried in a family plot at Oakland Cemetery in Sag Harbor tomorrow at 11 a.m.