Barbara Brooks Wallace, a children’s author who summoned an aura of Victorian mystique in award-winning novels including “Peppermints in the Parlor,” died Nov. 27 at a hospice center in Arlington, Va. She was 95.
The cause was complications from pneumonia, said her son, Jim Wallace.
For decades, Wallace was a favorite of young readers for the enchanting mix of mystery, adventure and misadventure that she brought to her novels.
“I have a clear recollection of how I felt as a child about many things,” Wallace once told an interviewer, reflecting on her capacity to slip into the skin of a youngster. “Christmas, the terror of waking alone at night, having a friend, and an understanding, I believe, of why I felt as I did.”
She wrote a shelf full of books but was perhaps best known for the mystery series that began with “Peppermints in the Parlor” (1980), set in San Francisco at the turn of the 20th century.
The protagonist, Emily, is a young orphan sent to live with a rich aunt and uncle whose home, Sugar Hill Hall, has been overtaken by evil forces and turned into a Dickensian nursing home. Residents tempted by the titular peppermints are shunted off to the Remembrance Room.
Writing in the Horn Book magazine, a children’s librarian, Ann A. Flowers, described “Peppermints” as “an amusing Gothic romp with a shadowy, gaslit atmosphere, moving briskly and sweeping the reader along with it.” The volume, which became an audiobook recorded by actress Angela Lansbury, received a William Allen White award bestowed by Emporia State University in Kansas for excellence in children’s literature.
Wallace continued her mystery series with “The Twin in the Tavern” (1993), “Cousins in the Castle” (1996), “Sparrows in the Scullery” (1997) and “Ghosts in the Gallery” (2000). “The Twin” and “Sparrows” won Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America.
An online biographical sketch of Wallace joked that she “claims never to have lived in a tavern or a castle, or owned a house with a parlor, a scullery, or a gallery,” and that she “simply dwells in a nice little house in Alexandria, Virginia.”
Barbara Frances Brooks – known as Bobbie – was born on Dec. 3, 1922, in Suzhou, China, where her father, a former silent-film actor, had moved to sell lamp oil with the Standard Oil Co. of New York. Her mother, who was Russian, had immigrated to China amid the Russian Revolution and became a nurse.
In China, Wallace attended the Shanghai American School and was traveling with her sister and a teacher when the Japanese invaded in 1937. “Transportation had broken down,” Wallace wrote in a reminiscence published in The Washington Post in 1969. “We didn’t see our parents again until, courtesy of the U.S. Navy, we steamed into Manila harbor.”
Wallace continued her studies in the United States, graduating in 1945 from UCLA. After college, she lived in a boardinghouse in San Francisco that was “euphemistically called a ‘guest house,’ ” she once told a publication of UCLA, “a shabby white-pillared mansion” once reputedly owned by sugar traders and that inspired Sugar Hill Hall.
She married in 1954 and began writing after the birth of her son. Her first work, “Claudia” (1969), focused on a preteen navigating the obstacles of growing up. Wallace produced very nearly a book a year for the next two decades and continued writing into the 2000s.
She ventured into fantasy with books such as “The Barrel in the Basement” (1985), about basement-dwelling elves who show their loyalty to the human upstairs who believes in them, and into picture books with “Argyle” (1987), about a sheep that encounters the peril of fame when he develops a multicolored coat.
Other noted books included “The Trouble With Miss Switch” (1971), which became an animated TV program, and “The Perils of Peppermints” (2003), a sequel to her earlier volume. Wallace also penned a memoir, “Small Footsteps in the Land of the Dragon: Growing Up in China.”
Her husband, Air Force Lt. Col. James Wallace Jr., died in 2005. Besides her son, of Alexandria, survivors include two granddaughters.
Wallace said she didn’t often known how a book would end until she arrived there. She would “sit up late at night writing because I couldn’t wait until the next morning to find out,” she once said, according to the reference guide Contemporary Authors. “Whatever I do write, I know it will always be for children and will always have a happy ending. And that’s the wonderful thing about being a writer – I get to choose!”