She lit up our lives with a hit that would be her trademark — even after she started writing kids' books

She was the third of Pat and Shirley Boone’s four singing daughters and barely three years beyond what they considered spanking age. But after 21-year-old Debby Boone crooned the title tune from the 1977 feature You Light Up My Life, she shot into the foreground faster than the speed of said light. The single — her first — hit Billboard‘s No. 1 spot on Oct. 15, 1977, and stayed there for 10 weeks, snagged an Oscar for Best Song, scored Boone a Grammy for Best New Artist, and surpassed Elvis’ 1956 ”Don’t Be Cruel” to become the biggest-selling record in 20 years.

”Debby had a special light about her. The Boone Girls had recorded on my label, but I thought she should record solo,” says Mike Curb, president of Curb Records, whose label produced both Boone’s hit and this fall’s reborn version by 15-year-old LeAnn Rimes; the cover debuted last month at No. 1 on Billboard‘s album, country, and contemporary Christian charts.

Yes, Christian. Although ”Light” is generally considered a love ballad, Boone privately interpreted it to be about her relationship with God — which led the press to paint her as squeaky-clean; Playgirl even dubbed her ”America’s No. 1 Virgin.” ”I was never the image,” she says now. ”I wanted to be valued for my talent, my sense of humor, my intelligence. Later, I realized the image served me; it made me a personality.”

That personality (and the hit song) enabled Boone to work consistently for almost two decades: She co-headlined at clubs with her dad, toured in The Sound of Music, appeared on Broadway in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Grease!, won two more Grammys for Christian music, and made two TV movies and two TV variety specials.

Off stage, she produced four kids (Jordan, 17; twins Gabrielle and Dustin, 14; and Tessa, 11) with her husband, 40-year-old artist Gabriel Ferrer, son of Jose Ferrer and Rosemary Clooney. She and Ferrer also collaborate on children’s books: Their fifth, Nightlights, arrives this month from Harvest House.

While Boone now schedules her life ”in between picking up kids and taking them to soccer,” she wants to get back in the studio and record some contemporary pop. Meanwhile, she plans to purchase Rimes’ album You Light Up My Life, even though it makes her feel insecure (”She’s got a great voice!”) and maybe even a little old: ”I thought, ‘Already! They’re covering me already!”’