This four-volume set provides an introduction to biographical and critical information about hundreds of American authors. The scope is expansive, encompassing more than five centuries of writers in a range of genres, including poetry, plays and prose, as well as sometimes-overlooked contemporary memoirists and nonfiction writers and those who write expressly for children and young adults.
Each entry begins with key facts, including birth and death dates and locales and ethnicity (if applicable). The body of each article is divided into three areas: "Works in Biographical and Historical Context," "Works in Literary Context" and "Works in Critical Context." Biographical and historical context includes factual information about the author’s childhood, education, and publication history. The work’s literary context includes personal authorial inspiration, literary influences, as well as recurring themes. The critical context segment delves into both contemporary response and later appreciation of the literary contribution of the writer. Also included in each article are "Responses to Literature," a list of questions for discussion and writing activities related to the author’s work, which will be of help to students framing topics for research papers. Another sidebar lists historical and literary contemporaries with some connection to the author’s themes and literary style, which will help students looking for text-to-life connections for further reading. Another sidebar, "Common human experience," equates the author’s work with other pieces using similar themes, highlighting intertextual relationships. Each article offers a culminating "Further Reading" section with bibliographic citations and additional recommended sources, including vetted websites, making the Contextual Encyclopedia an excellent springboard into more thorough research.
Though the biographical nature of each entry provides the organizational structure for the work, it is also comprehensively indexed by every mentioned literary works as well as by literary awards. The index also organizes writers by more conceptual topics, like African-American dialect. In addition to the complete index, each of the four volumes also includes a glossary of literary terms appearing in the Encyclopedia.
The Contextual Encyclopedia is refreshing in its treatment of popular contemporary authors alongside canonical ones. The range of authors covered is particularly comprehensive, with children’s and young adult authors ranging from Gary Paulsen to R.L. Stine alongside the heavyweights of American literature. Comic book authors, including Will Eisner and Chuck Dixon, are profiled as well. Treatment of bestselling authors, such as James Patterson, Nicholas Sparks and Mitch Albom, enables students to examine authors about whom few print resources might be available. Tom Clancy and Danielle Steel also are given a turn. Even teen favorites Chuck Palahniuk, Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft receive serious treatment. Children’s authors covered range from Dr. Seuss to Laurie Halse Anderson. The scope of the work alone makes it an important update for literary criticism for smaller libraries that do not hold Contemporary Authors. Recommended for high school and public libraries.