Robert Lipsyte was born in New York City in 1938. He seemed perfectly poised to be an author from the moment he was born—both of his parents were teachers. He spent much of his spare time reading and writing, having decided at an early age that he wanted to be a writer. Lipsyte's favorite authors influenced his books, and he has integrated some of their techniques into his own texts. Author Richard Halliburton's books taught Lipsyte that first the author has to live and sweat blood before he can write about it. Another one of Lipsyte's favorites, John Steinbeck, helped instill in Lipsyte a compassion for characters and a sense of place, especially appreciation for nature. Lipsyte was also highly influenced by Holden Caulfield, the principal character of The Catcher in the Rye.
In 1957, Lipsyte graduated from Columbia University and then began a job in the copy room at the New York Times. During the course of his fourteen years there, he wrote a sports column that became internationally syndicated. One of Lipsyte's assignments provided the inspiration for The Contender; he was covering a big fight in Las Vegas when he overheard a boxing manager talk about the stairs to his gym. That image first sparked the idea of Lipsyte's novel. The Contender won the Child Study Children's Book Committee at Bank Street College Award. A few years later he stop pursuing journalism and turned all of his attention to writing novels.
Lipsyte struggled with cancer throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, eventually going into remission with the help of chemotherapy. He resumed writing after that with a sequel to The Contender called The Brave. Lipsyte has written a number of other books for young adults, including nonfiction books about sports and boxing, among other things. In addition, Lipsyte has published a few adult novels and has written some movie and television scripts. In 1991 he began to write a sports column again for the New York Times.
Lipsyte's experience growing up in New York City contributes to the sense of place in his books. The seedy underworld he describes, particularly in The Contender takes from personal experience and the knowledge of what it is like to grow up there. The theme of coming of age is accentuated by the setting, largely because there are a multitude of ways and temptations that could steer a youth in the wrong direction in New York City. These temptations are necessary for a hero to face and conquer, which is perhaps why many of Lipsyte's books take place not only in New York City, but also in the non-glamorous and more dangerous sections within.
Lipsyte's experience in writing about sports is also evident in his books. Often his characters triumph over adversity and become heroes, whether the obstacles are sports-related or otherwise. His writing contains a grittiness that hearkens back to sports such as boxing. Among other events, Lipsyte covered Muhammad Ali's rise to fame and glory, an experience that can be evidenced in not only the boxing aspect of Lipsyte's texts, but in the qualities of the protagonists as well. Lipsyte has won the Margaret A. Edwards Award for a lifetime contribution to young adult writing.