After graduating from Hollywood High during World War II, she attended the University of Southern California. There she was a member of the Kappa Delta sorority and graduated in 1947 with a degree in journalism, much to the chagrin of her father who saw newspaper reporters as drinkers. Unable to find a job as a journalist, however, she took a job as an elementary teacher and went to night school to earn her teaching credentials. She met her husband Hershell Nixon, a naval officer and geologist, at college, and they married in 1949. The couple had three daughters, Kathleen, Maureen, Eileen, and a son, Joseph. The family moved to Texas, first to Midland and Corpus Christi, and finally settled in Houston. Nixon began her career as an author in 1964 when, after being turned down by twelve publishers, her first novel, The Mystery of Hurricane Castle, was accepted by the final thirteenth publisher.
Throughout her life, Nixon wrote more than 140 books, some that were published in twenty different languages. Most were her renowned suspense-filled mysteries for children and young adults, but she also wrote historical fiction, nonfiction for adults, Biblical adaptations, and coauthored children’s science books with her husband. Defining herself as half-Californian and half-Texan, many of her novels are set in Texas, including A Deadly Game of Magic (1982), The Stalker (1985), A Candidate for Murder (1990), Shadowmaker (1994), Search for the Shadowman (1996), and Laugh Till You Cry (2004). Nixon was noted for empowering girls and young women. When commenting on her knack for crafting strong heroines, she said: “My girls are all self-sufficient. They may be scared to death, but they make their own decisions and do them. Some get good grades, some don’t. But they’re still smart.” She was also instrumental in getting the Girl Scouts to adopt a writing badge, and she wrote My Baby that was aimed at teenage mothers and is provided for free at hospitals, schools, and churches through the Mental Health Association.
Nixon’s writing earned her much praise. She was the recipient of a record four Edgar Allan Poe awards and was nominated for an additional five from the Mystery Writers of America, an organization for which she also had served as president. The awards were for The Kidnapping of Christina Lattimore (1979), The Seance (1980), The Other Side of Dark (1986) and The Name of the Game Was Murder (1993). Other honors included Two Golden Spur awards from the Western Writers of America, the Texas Institute of Letters award, and numerous state-by-state awards. The Golden Spurs were for her celebrated series, “Orphan Train Adventures,” for which she did original research on an overlooked historical event, the transport of more than 100,000 homeless children from New York City to new homes in the West starting in 1854, turning it into a work of fiction for young readers. But despite her numerous accomplishments, Nixon was most proud of letters she got from young readers saying something to the effect of: “I hated to read. But my teacher gave me one of your mysteries, and I loved it. I'm going to read everything you've ever written.” She also said she could not ask for a better award than a letter from a girl who wrote, “Thank you for the gift of reading.” Nixon, in return, encouraged young writers by publishing a how-to book and memoir on creative writing for elementary students and hosting a website where children could send in their writing that she personally reviewed and gave positive suggestions and feedback.
The woman often referred to as “the grande dame of mystery fiction” died at the age of seventy-six on June 28, 2003, in Houston, due to complications of pancreatic cancer. In an interview shortly before her passing, Nixon said she did not see that times had changed drastically since she was a kid. Whether trying to cope with life during war, or having a crush on a boy, she found teens’ worries were still the same. Forever young at heart, she was able to relate to this core audience, publishing at least one book a year up until her death. Nixon is buried at Memorial Oaks Cemetery in Houston. She was survived by her two sisters, children, and numerous grandchildren. Her son Joseph (Joe) Nixon has been a representative in the Texas House.
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Memorial Oaks Cemetery