Friday, July 29, 2011

Outsider Girls: An Interview with Shelley Stoehr

(photos of Stoehr from the 80's, 90's and 00's)

In 1991, Shelley Stoehr, a brilliant woman in her early twenties, had her first novel published by Doubleday. The book, Crosses, gained serious attention for its eye-opening subject matter that dealt with a self-destructive character who cuts herself. This would be the same year that Nirvana released their breakthrough album Nevermind. If I can make a comparison, I'd say that Stoehr's book was to realistic young adult fiction what Nevermind was to rock. It was a reinvention of what came before, a throwback to the 1970's with an edge that spoke to a new generation of disenchanted youth. Both exemplified a new type of punk. In the mainstream it was labeled grunge. Both Cobain, Nirvana's frontman, and Stoehr championed the outsider giving an honest voice to the teen spirit by finding an emotional quality in those previously labeled dirtbags. Stoehr's novels, like Cobain's music, were written with a powerfully intoxicating never-before-seen force that spoke of suicide and bordered on self-destruction. As her character Nancy states, "We considered ourselves seventies punkers, stuck in a conservative eighties world." Her book dealt with a particular type of suburban discontent and boredom felt throughout the country.

(covers from various editions of Crosses)

Crosses
seems as much a rebellion against the conservative 1980's as it is steeped in this time period in which Stoehr herself grew up. In retrospect, her four novels written in the 1990's are symbolic of this time when alternative rock and rebellion meant so much to so many. It was a time before the rise of the internet and the changing culture of the following decade where teens would be glued to electronic devices. For me, her novels heralded in an end of an era for realistic young adult novels that faded away with the death of afterschool specials and angry nihilistic anthems. The type of fiction she was writing would soon lose favor towards a culture that leaned in favor of a fantasy driven, big-budget reality tv-based teen world that applauded Harry Potter and Britney Spears. Yet unlike Kurt Cobain, Stoehr did not burn-out. She continues to write and there is no doubt that her future books and stories will find a place amongst a new generation of readers. This has to do largely in part to the fact that Stoehr writes about young women in a way that few others do. She presents characters and gives a voice to girls that are seldom heard about in today's commodified popular culture.

(Stoehr and friends c. 1985)

Stoehr grew up an avid reader and was aware of young adult fiction even as a teenager. Some of her favorites were the popular writers who helped shape the market for YA fiction throughout the 1970's. These included writers such as Judy Blume, S.E. Hinton and Lois Duncan. While the tragedies that befall Stoehr's "outsider girls" are more extreme than in books by these authors, they also share a striking similarity. Each of these women were published authors, with popular books before they were 30. Stoehr's books introduced new subjects to YA fiction, much like Judy Blume did, with a confessional frankness. Her protagonists, while rebellious, are not always loners and the bonds of friendship amongst rebellion are as strong as in Hinton's books. The horror elements of Duncan's work can also be seen with Stoehr as the readers are left in suspense for her characters often caught in a downward spiral almost beyond their control. The pacing of her books, short chapters and under 200 pages in length, keep them within the oeuvre of the Laurel-Leaf library and her predecessors. Still, Stoehr has something new to say. It is the hard edged nature of her books, stemming from reality, that gives a voice to a new generation and makes her the daughter that Blume, Hinton or even Duncan could never have imagined conceiving. I see her work following in this tradition of strong women writers whose work had a resonance to young readers. Stoehr's four novels were to the 90's what these writers were to the 70's.

(some classic YA fiction)

The strength of Stoehr's work, makes it resilient. Crosses continues to be read by young readers, as do her other books. Three of her books were reprinted by IUniverse in 2003 to fulfill this demand. While the past decade was not a prolific time period for the author, she is writing again. Several of her short stories have appeared in anthologies put out by major publishers. She also has two new novels in the works. Additionally, she maintains a blog of short fiction to give voice to her many female characters at www.outsidergirlswrite.blogspot.com.

Stoehr currently resides with her family in Connecticut. She has worked as a bartender, a street performer, been a modern dance choreographer and teacher, performed with a modern dance troupe and worked as a massage therapist. In addition to being the mother of two, she also occasionally writes for an online newspaper. Her creative writing appears regularly on her blog and she is also working on a children's book in addition to a YA novel.

I wrote to Shelley as a long time admirer of her work and she was kind enough to answer some questions for me.
_________________________

In Crosses your character Nancy states "I didn't think of the replacing booze with water trick on my own, I read it in a book about a teenage alcoholic. That was my hobby, reading books about teens in trouble...I filled in the extra hours before bed with stories about drug addicts, anorexics and alcoholics." I was wondering if this reflected your own personal experiences as a teenager. Did you read a lot of teenage dilemma novels? And if so, which ones were important to you?

I loved to read as a teenager, and loved especially problem novels. As a creative youth probably already feeling stirrings of a mental illness to be discovered in adulthood -- I'm bipolar -- I was especially interested in books about people with mental illnesses. As a teenager, I remember really liking and identifying with Lisa, Bright and Dark. I also remember reading Sybil -- I didn't identify with that one, but I remember it because it was the only book my parents ever forbade me to read, because of the horrible sexual abuse Sybil had suffered. Of course, I read it even more eagerly!

(troubled young women in popular books from the 1970's)

Did these books inspire you in your own writing? Was your writing ever a reaction against these sort of books?

All of my books have been American Library Association "Recommended Book(s) for the Reluctant Young Reader", I think because I identified with and was inspired by the problem novels of my youth. I was very much like Nancy in Crosses -- both a cutter, and a disenfranchised, discontent, suburban teen. I drank and used drugs recreationally, but still did really well in school. In the first draft of Crosses, Nancy was to be Valedictorian, which I was in real life. I was strongly encouraged to remove that from the book because it didn't seem "believable" that a teen who smoked, drank and smoked marijuana could also be valedictorian! Anyway, the only books I ever reacted against were saccharine portrayals of teenagers with no problems... BORING! Crosses was called "A Go Ask Alice for the 1990's", and that was one of my favorite reviews, since the original Go Ask Alice had been one of my favorite novels as a teenager. Still, what I wanted to write was about teenagers who were multi-faceted, or unexpected, such as a drinker/cutter/smoker who was also super smart (Crosses), or a rich, talented kid who becomes a runaway/stripper (Weird on the Outside).

(Stoehr as 1987 valedictorian of Babylon High)

My interest in YA novels came about after I was a teenager. Like most teenagers, the books I read in High School were more "adult" titles. Who were some of the non YA authors that had an impact on you? Is there one book you can name that has a special significance to you?

I loved Stephen King most. Although I've never dabbled in writing horror, I did then, and still do, escape with horror and thrillers. As I mentioned earlier, I remember Sybil significantly because my parents forbade me to read it. I remember when I was in 6th grade, the school librarian punished me for reading "trash" when she caught me reading a book I only remember was called "Hell House." I told her that if she knew it was trash then she must have read it herself!

(2 popular "forbidden books" from Stoehr's youth)

Do you think your knowledge of YA books compelled you to write about different topics that had not been written before? Did this make you want to write more about what some would consider to be "extreme situations". Or did the subject matter of your books just seem natural and honest to you?

This may come off as sounding freaky, but Michael Crichton wrote in his memoir, Travels, that for him, writing was "channeling" characters, and I identified with that. When I write, it feels more like I'm tapping in to a character than creating one. My books are character-driven, so often when I sit down to write, it feels like I'm just writing down someone's story... on a good writing day, when I open myself up and don't try to "do" the writing myself. On a bad day, I try too hard to create, and the writing comes out fake. One of my problems lately has been trying too hard -- I think I've been reading too many books about writing. When I was younger, I never second-guessed myself, or the words that flowed out of me.

I do look for characters that can survive extreme situations. Then I let the characters tell their own story. For example, I'm writing a book now tentatively titled, RealThin. At first, it was called Let Her Cry, and was about a girl struggling to deal with her bipolar mother. What came out was a girl who also has an eating disorder, and not only that, she throws up on camera, videos she uploads to YouTube as her screen personality, RealThin. I had no idea when I started this novel that that was where the character would take me.

In
Crosses 15 year old Nancy cuts, has sex, hitchhikes, drinks, does drugs, shoplifts, nearly gets raped and ends up in a psychiatric hospital. The series of events seem more intense than in the novels that follow. I remember that as a teenager, extreme situations appealed more to me than they do as an adult. Do you think this intensity comes from having written the novel at a young age? Also, do you still believe that presenting these situations in books for teenagers still has relevance?

I know it still has relevance because my fourteen year old nieces just read Crosses and told me it was "the best book everrrrr." I do believe teenagers have a passion for the extreme, for testing to the limits, and books that represent that truth of teenaged life affect today's teenagers as much as the teenagers of my youth. I have received more criticism by teenagers today for Crosses than when it first came out, but most of that criticism comes from Crosses being 20 years old. One teen critic wrote that Crosses was written at a time when teenagers were "just starting to use marijuana" -- LOL!

When did you begin writing
Crosses? Were you studying writing while in college?

Crosses was first a short story I wrote for a writing class. I then wrote the novel and gave it to my writing teacher, Blanche Boyd, who told me it was terrible! I believe she said, "This is not writing." (!!!) I was so mad that I rewrote Crosses that summer, and when I gave it to Ms. Boyd again, she was impressed that I made something out of nothing... then, I submitted Crosses to Delacorte Press's First Young Adult Novel contest. The contest judge told me that she liked the book, but it "had no ending," so I wrote an ending. I still remember the judge saying she was "not sanguine" about a rewrite, but she agreed to read it again. Although I didn't win the contest, Delacorte decided to publish my book! I was a junior at Connecticut College.

What aspects of
Crosses came directly from your own personal experiences? (of course you don't have to answer this if it's too personal) Do you think it was beneficial to be writing about a teenager when you were not far from your teen years?

I was a secret cutter as a teenager, and even into adulthood. Eventually, I entered a twelve-step program, and I haven't cut for several years now. Crosses is the book that is most like my actual life as a teenager. I think more young people should write YA books, but of course, when you're in college studying writing, you always want to write adult books. Problem is, you really don't have the life experience.

I was also curious if you set out to write a YA novel or was this a marketing decision when you (or your agent or publisher) were trying to sell the book. Do you always consider writing for a certain market or do you find that a block to creativity? Or in other words, when you write, do you think about a teen audience? Or are you writing for yourself and others with similar interests? Does this even matter?

I didn't set out to write a YA novel, but once I did, YA was all I wanted to write. At the time Crosses was published, YA was the field where you could be most adventurous as a writer. You could write about anything because YA wasn't expected to make big bucks back then. YA authors weren't dependent on the "bottom line" as adult authors were. That's all changed now, and I believe it has hurt the YA industry. There are less risks taken with subject matter. I still love to write for a teen audience -- my "voice" as they call it is distinctly teenager. I guess I'm very in touch with my inner teenager. Certainly I'm as emotional as one. In fact, I consider myself an "Emo" writer.

I am curious how your work first got published?

I entered Crosses in Delacorte Press's First Young Adult Novel contest. I didn't win, but Delacorte wanted to publish me anyway. The publisher at the time was the same who'd first published S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders, which, btw, was the very first novel to be called "Young Adult".

What was your reaction to the popularity of
Crosses as a young author?

I felt like a rock star! My editor would take me out to fancy lunches in NYC, I got to speak at the NCBTA conference and librarians from all over couldn't wait to talk to me. I felt like I'd found my niche in the world.

Did you have to deal with any of the criticism or controversy directly that a book like
Crosses might bring about?

I remember The Bulletin for the Center of Children's Books hated Crosses, but most everyone else loved it. Crosses was the first ever novel about cutting. I even got favorable reviews from The Village Voice and Sassy magazine.

Did having a popular, published book change your lifestyle at all? Did it provide you with inspiration to continue writing for this age group?

What changed my lifestyle was my urge, almost compulsion to write -- a need I still have to this day. I started writing seriously (nearly every day for at least an hour a day) when I was a teenager, so writing was all I ever thought I'd do, though I did finish college as a dance major... I though writing would support me so I could dance. Turned out that back then, writing YA was not very profitable, though it was intensely rewarding. I've gotten letters from young people who say my book changed, or even saved, their life... doesn't get any more rewarding than that!

Crosses takes place on Long Island in Babylon during the 1980's. I am assuming you also grew up in Babylon during this time period. I grew up on Long Island in the 1990's and recognized some of the locations in the book such as the Sunrise Mall and also some of the musical references like the bands Lisa Lisa and Squeeze that are particular to this time period. I was curious about some of the less direct references to your youth in this setting. What were some things from popular culture that had an effect on you growing up?

I was into alternative music like the Smiths and the Violent Femmes. I loathed the more popular music or what I considered fake alternative, like Depeche Mode. Hanging out at the mall was a huge part of my teenaged years. Everyone was less safety crazy, and it was cool to hang out across the street from school at the designated "smoking island" to smoke. We could leave school during lunch in high school, and getting pizza locally was big. The beach in summer... Robert Moses beach had a bus that departed every hour. The town pool. Hiding out under the bleachers in gym class.

One of my favorite lines from
Crosses is when Katie asks, "What's life without risks?" and Nancy replies "The Suburbs". How was your Long Island of the 1980's different or similar to, say, Degrassi or a John Hughes movie?

Probably closer to Degrassi that John Hughes. When I was a teen, I hated John Hughes, felt it was a cop-out, unrealistic representation of real teenaged life. Everyone had great clothes and the story always tied up neatly. As an outsider girl, I couldn't stand Molly Ringwald, although I did appreciate Ally Sheedy.

Funny thing is, now I have a Breakfast Club tee shirt. I have all the John Hughes movies on DVD, and I've tried to get my daughter to watch them because as bad as I thought they were at the time, I think they're better than any teenaged movies made today. I mean, Lemonade Mouth is so fake, I want to blow chunks. It makes me think there may not be a place for my style of story today.

My fave movie, btw, although it's for younger kids (though I love it as an adult), is Harriet the Spy.

(a selection of books by Shelley Stoeher)

What was the impetus for Weird On The Outside? Did you begin working on this book before Crosses was published?

I was just out of college and trying to make it in NYC. So both Weird on the Outside and Wannabe were inspired by that experience. NYC is tough to make work! Even when I was in my early 20's, it was very expensive. I bartended at a strip club. I learned that stripping was not as it was in movies or books. I met amazing women who were strippers to put themselves through school, support themselves as artists and writers... I wanted to give these fantastic women a voice. More so than with Crosses, Weird on the Outside was a hard sell. No one wanted to believe strippers were not sleazy or else really into sex and money.

Weird On the Outside is a book that works on many levels. On one hand it’s the story of Tracey’s coming-of-age and of becoming an independent woman. On the other hand, it’s a story of taking dangerous risks in order to achieve this goal. Do you see these things as going hand in hand? Is danger and risk an important part of self discovery?

I never thought it out before, but now that you mention it, I guess that I do believe that. Not that it makes it right. Dangerous risks are mostly just dangerous. However, taking risks is a catalyst for growth, and so far as danger goes, well, it can also be a catalyst, provided one learns from it. In my own life, I took way too many dangerous risks: cutting myself too deeply, hitchhiking… later, as an adult, drinking too much and not always knowing how I got home (yikes!). But I’ve come out alive, and with some wisdom that comes from experience.

Your female characters are often very intelligent but do not choose to set out on the paths their parents imagine for them. Would you categorize this as youthful rebellion or something deeper?

Definitely rebellion, although for me, it wasn’t constrained to my youth. I think it’s normal and healthy for young people to rebel. But eventually, one has to grow up some and start doing things for the positive effects it will have on one’s self, rather than simply to negate someone else’s expectations.

Do you imagine that your characters continue to challenge themselves in these ways throughout their lives?

I believe that my characters are strong women in the making, despite some poor choices made in their youth. So yes, I think they will continue to challenge themselves, and learn about themselves. I recently wrote a novel called Somebody’s Daughter, (a short story version of this as yet unpublished novel has been published in the YA anthology, Truth and Dare)… anyway, in Somebody’s Daughter, the main character’s mother is Nancy Keenan – from Crosses, all grown up. Nancy is a writer and a single mother, successful but struggling at the same time. Reminds me of me!

The title
Weird On the Outside seems to describe more than one of your books. Usually your characters express discontent through placing themselves in situations that may prove harmful and have to do with drugs and sexuality. I relate to your characters because they hold nothing back and are honest in expressing themselves. Do you personally believe it is better to be weird on the outside than to be weird on the inside? In Weird On The Outside Tracey never has any serious regrets about stripping which is atypical of the sort of epiphany usually seen in a YA novel. Instead, she learns not to feel shame. I was curious how you relate the physical to mental health. Do you feel that movement such as dancing or exercise is essential to self expression? Can physical awareness and comfort in your body help to combat psychological difficulties?

Wow! Well said! I forgot how in Weird, the important thing is learning not to feel shame, not only with one’s body, but with one’s mental state as well. Tracey was ashamed of being really smart, but she isn’t any more by the end. She’s met people from many different walks of life, and discovered that deep down, we are the same, whether we’re weird or “normal” on the outside.

Did your other work as a massage therapist, dancer or choreographer help to contribute to some of the ideas expressed in
Weird On The Outside? And if so, have these things also contributed to the creation of subsequent works?

Well, I was a dancer and choreographer when I was writing Weird, and I definitely learned a lot about becoming comfortable with my body, which comes through in Weird. Also, I worked with strippers, both as a bartender in a club and I even choreographed a piece for the opening of a club, and a piece on Howard Stern’s TV show… so I learned first hand that people are people, and also that women are powerful.

Do you ever think about what happens to your characters after the books end? For the most part, do you see your characters as survivors and being able to make-it in the adult world.

Yes, they are definitely survivors. As I said in an earlier answer, Nancy from Crosses grows up and becomes a mom and a writer. I am pretty sure the other characters, much like my readers, have grown up to be successful humans – meaning, maybe not rich or famous, but good, strong people.

Personally, your book
Tomorrow Wendy seems very accurately placed in the time the book was written/published (1998). I was 19 when this book was published and not far from your characters in age. The book seems very “90’s” to me in the descriptions of both the fashion and the music specific to this decade. It also seems like this was a sort of transitional time or the end of an era. For example, computers and cell phones are not even mentioned. Do you think it became more difficult for “angsty” books like yours to be published in the YA genre in the following decade?

They’re still being published, it’s just the issues change a little, and the means of expression change. I’m still not good with a lot of texting lingo, but I do have a character in a book I’m writing now who is bulimic, and dons a disguise and throws up on YouTube.

How do you think publishing has changed?

Mainly, there used to be a lot of little publishing companies, and now there are multi-media conglomerates. In YA, you used to be able to take bigger risks and also be more artsy, and more fringe. Now the “bottom line” is stressed more. It pisses me off, but eventually these giant conglomerates are going to fold in on themselves like a black hole, and then the small publishers with vision will rise again. IMHO!

Will realistic, gritty or “emo” books make a comeback in the electronic age?

I definitely believe so. Or at least, I believe there will always be a place for “emo” books, because there will always be an emo movement, even if it’s called something else. On my blog, I call my readers “outsider girls” – they’re not in the mainstream, they’re not the popular girls, but they have something to say.

Will you write about new challenges faced by teens that relate to technology in your new work? Or would you be more comfortable setting your stories in the 80’s or 90’s so that you can draw from your own youthful experiences?

That’s a really good question, and I don’t know. I’m not a dinosaur when it comes to technology, but I don’t have an iPhone either. So far, I’m trying to write about kids who use technology, but its not the main issue for them. But who knows what I’ll be inspired to write next?

Well, I certainly look forward to reading your next projects!
Thank you for taking the time to do this interview.

More info. on Shelley Stoehr can be found online at www.shelleystoehr.com
Photos of the author are courtesy of Shelley Stoehr.

(Shelley Stoehr - December 1982)


NOVELS:

Crosses (Bantam Doubleday Dell/Delacorte Press: 1991, Laurel Leaf: 1993, 1998, iUniverse: 2003) *an ALA Best Book for Young Adults *an ALA Quick Pick *an ALA Recommended Book for Reluctant Young Readers

Tomorrow Wendy
(BDD/Delacorte Press: 1998, iUniverse: 2003)
*an ALA Quick Pick *an ALA Recommended Book for Reluctant Young Readers *A New York Library Best Books for the Teenaged 1998

Wannabe
(BDD/Delacorte Press: 1997)


Weird on the Outside
(BDD/Delacorte Press: 1995, Laurel Leaf: 1996, iUniverse: 2003)
*an ALA Recommended Book for Reluctant Young Readers

SHORT STORIES:

Somebody’s Daughter
(Truth or Dare, edited by Liz Miles, Running Press: May, 2011)


Troll Bumps
(Love and Sex, edited by Michael Cart, Simon & Schuster: Spring, 2001)


The Book
(Lost and Found, edited by M. Jerry and Helen S. Weiss, Tor Books: 2000)

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Henry 3 by Joseph Krumgold


(hardcover and paperback reissue)

Henry 3 is a fascinating book about a boy coming of age on Long Island. It is a perceptively told story from a kid's perspective of life in the suburbs circa the 1960's. It concerns this boy's search for masculinity in a town that is dominated by women. Similar to another Jewish writer, Bruce Jay Friedman and his debut novel Stern (1962), Krumgold's portrayal of Long Island is that of a commuter land where men have disappeared to work unsatisfying jobs in the city. Henry 3 deals with the themes of imagination, innocence, maturity and community in the face of disaster.
Henry 3 is very much a book about an adolescent's search for masculinity in a matriarchy. The book begins with an unusual opening. It is Henry attempting to befriend a bully named Fletch who initially wants nothing more than to beat him up. Henry's intelligence and sympathy towards the bully as outsider only confuses him. Fletch is an outcast in the town mostly because his grandfather's goals are to return the town to the farming community that it once was. This stands in the way of gentrifying and the American suburban dream. Families like Henry 3's represent a threat to an older, simpler time. While Fletch, on the other hand, represents someone without the modern family's constraints. Both of his parents were killed in a sense by progress through dying in an auto wreck. Part of this idealism is a plea to either transform suburbia or leave it behind. It is no doubt , this was a subject close to Krumgold's heart as he himself lived on a New Jersey farm for a number of years.
Henry is an extraordinarily intelligent boy who after moving to the suburbs, begins questioning the status of his father. His dad is in a position of promoting war-related products such as bomb shelters. When he sees his father in his office, acting like a puppet to the command of a boss, he begins to lose respect for him. Henry faces a new dilemma in how to become a man without guidance from a male figure. Fletcher, on the opposite side of things, adopts Henry's mother as his own and the two boys become, in a sense, brothers.
Both the boys are faced with a solution to their dilemma when a more urgent tragedy strikes their community. A hurricane, “Holy Hannah”, hits and Henry's father is forced into community obligation by acting in a heroic manner. This causes Henry guilt about the way he has begun to view his dad. Sacrifices are made on the way to adulthood. In this case, Henry does not truly mature until he has experienced both love and pain.

Henry cares and respects his parents but he also needs and wants to make his own decisions. Like his two other coming-of-age tales, Krumgold takes a modern approach to rewriting the structure of a fairy tale in a modern context. In this case it is the Hero Who IS Given Three Puzzles to Solve. I see the sentiment and setting of Henry 3 as a predecessor to the new wave of Young Adult books that debuted a year later in 1968. It happens to be one of my favorite children's books of all time, and I don't think I'd be too far off in calling it one of the first examples of a new type of popular literature aimed at teenagers.

On Henry 3, one reviewer (Maples) wrote: "Has Mr. Krumgold written a sociological treatise or a story for children? Despite the underlying concern with social issues and moral values, this is a warm and engaging story about a special boy, his friends and, most of all, his parents. . . . Mr. Krumgold's primary concern is with the beauty and humor and sadness of human aspirations and the human condition; consequently his characters, who speak in a spontaneous and wonderfully revealing manner, engross us in a personal and individual way simply as people working out their destinies, rather than as symbols manipulated to demonstrate a theory."

The author Jospeph Krumgold, who is most well known for his award-winning children's books, didn't turn to writing for this audience until mid life. He was born in 1908. His father Henry was a movie house operator and exhibitor and his older brother accompanied the silent films on organ. By the time Krumgold was 12 years old, he decided on a career in film. He wrote a number of screenplays in Hollywood when "talkies" first gained popularity between 1930-1945. An example of one of these films, Lady Behave, can be seen below. His first adult novel, Thanks to Murder, was published in 1935 by the Vanguard Press. Working in the Office of War Information during WW II, Krumgold became interested in traveling and documenting real places and people. This resulted in him producing several movies and directing a handful of documentaries. In 1947 he moved to Israel with his wife Helen Litwin where he was associated with Palestine films. He made 15 films while in Israel including The House In The Desert which won a prize at the Venice Film Festival. His luck with prizes though, was just beginning. When he returned to the United States in 1952, he owned and operated his own production company through 1960. During this time, he lived with his wife and son, Adam, on a 120 acre farm in Hope, New Jersey. His next novel, and his debut book for children, was And Now Miguel, first published in 1953. It was based on the screenplay of a documentary he made with the same title that took place outside of Taos, New Mexico. The Thomas J. Kromwell company commissioned the book and it ended up winning the prestigious Newbery Award.


And Now Miguel would be the first in the series of coming-of-age tales that Krumgold would write. Miguel Chavez lives outside of Taos near the Sandre de Cristo Mountains in New Mexico. He belongs to a shephard family, a tradition begun by his grandfather. Every summer the men take the sheep up into the mountains. Miguel, no longer feeling like a carefree child, becomes determined to prove that he is ready to make his journey. Krumgold tells a year in the life of Miguel in Miguel's own voice. While Miguel is often rewarded in school with stars and grades, no one ever seems to acknowledge his help on the range. For Miguel, this is of more importance. In his attempt to earn the respect of his elders, his journey up into the mountains becomes a rite of passage.

The second book Onion John, which takes place on a New Jersey farm, was published in 1958. Amazingly, Krumgold again won the Newbury for this book in 1960. The story centers on the small town's oddest inhabitant, the eccentric old man named Onion John. Andy Rusch, the 12 year old protagonist, is the only one who seems to understand John. While others in the town, such as Andy's father, want to help John, it turns out that a little help can lead to a lot of trouble. John symbolizes all that is mythical about childhood. His way of life seems impractical to the adult world. Andy understand him because he too is a child. It is only when Andy becomes an adult that he begins to doubt John, ultimately driving him away.

The last book, Henry 3, which has a suburban setting was published in 1967. Because it never won an award, it's the least well known of the three. It's a shame though. To me, it's Krumgold's greatest work. Krumgold only published one additional book, after the ones already mentioned. He passed on in 1980 at the age of 72.

Henry 3 is illustrated throughout by cover artist Alvin Smith, who is one of my favorite illustrators from this time period. His work can also be seen in two other books I enjoyed immensely: Frank Bonham's The Nitty Gritty, and Maia Wojciechowska's Shadow of a Bull. It's interesting to me because both of these books are often misclassified as "children's books" but like Henry 3, they may be more appropriately classic young adult literature. For example, Shadow of a Bull is also about a boy's search for identity and masculinity. And The Nitty Gritty is one of Bonham's best which I wrote about here in a previous entry.
I tried searching for more info. about Alvin Smith, but came across very little. A couple of other book covers I found that he illustrated are below.


Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Let me fall before I fly - The World of Barbara Wersba


In Barbara Wersba's books, her characters fall before they fly. And if there is a bird representative of Wersba, it is the rare and beautiful egret with outstretched wings flying across the Long Island Sound. She is, in my opinion, the most poetic of all living writers for young adults in addition to being one of the most prolific. Her output includes nearly 30 books published since the early 1960's. Each title is worth revisiting. The books are all as good as their clever titles portend. It is Wersba's simplicity combined with strong emotional content, humor and elegance that makes her work stand out. They are also hopeful stories that speak of characters who struggle through life. While these characters are outsiders, Wersba's writing conveys hope for them to manage and survive through means of alternative, fulfilling lifestyles.

Perhaps the one book that relays this theme in its most essential form is George Sand's The Wings of Courage. This was a story that Wersba discovered as a child and carried with her throughout her life. Eventually, she retold the story in her own words in an edition that was published in 1998. The story is about a boy who faces his fears and finds fulfillment against incredible obstacles. It is a story of hope that also has a sense of magic to it. At under 70 pages, this tale has much in common with Wersba's children's books written in the 1960's. But it also reflects Wersba's sentiment that runs through all of her work, including her novels for young adults. Like Clopinet, the once timid boy in The Wings of Courage, her characters are often extremely sensitive only to ultimately realize their potential outside of the expectations that exist within their family unit.

Wersba mentions Sand as far back as 1987 in her novel Fat: A Love Story. This book would be part of a trilogy featuring the character Rita Formica, an overweight aspiring writer. On page 36, Rita imagines herself as George Sand, "that terrific woman who dressed in trousers, smoked cigars and didn't give a damn what anybody thought". Also, like the character of Clopinet in Sand's book, Wersba shows an affection for egrets, by having her characters observe them during an important romantic moment in the book. Additionally, Rita's original object of affection in the story is for a man whose last name is Swann. This all relates back to Sand's story about a boy with a love for studying birds who finds himself through becoming a naturalist.
Wersba, born in 1932, lived in California until age 12 when she moved to New York with her mother when her parents got divorced. She claims that she was unable to relate to her parents and sought out older people to serve as substitutes. She found such people in the theater and began acting at a young age. The theme of an outsider relating to an older person would be one of the prominent themes in her work, most notably in The Dream Watcher, her first novel for young adults. Clopinet, in Sand's book, also has the assistance of an older mentor, before setting out completely on his own.

One of the first plays Wersba saw in New York as a young girl was Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. The production starred Eva La Gallienne, an actress that Wersba was enamored with and proved an inspiration for her in her early career as an actress. Some 40 years later, Eva La Callienne would star in Wersba's play, an adaptation of The Dream Watcher. The themes in The Glass Menagerie would also reflect those in her own work. As for the irony in this situation, Wersba remarks in her 1998 autobiography, "these coincidences, which are not really coincidences at all, have shaped my life entirely. I no longer find them strange, choosing to believe that there is a synchronicity to life, a merging of inner and outer events, that involves us all." Perhaps this sentiment is also reflected in another adult character in her books, Arnold Bromberg, who repetitively states "The Universe Is benevolent". This character with his somewhat impractical leanings, artistic abilities, love for Bach and ambitions for starting new businesses probably most resembles Wersba. Using benevolence as a guiding spirit, the courageous Wersba went from acting to writing, later owned and operated a General Store, opened a writing school for women and started her own small press publishing company.

Strong women run throughout Wersba's work. There are eccentric actresses and girls who appear to be "tomboys". These young women are not your typical beauties and they often dress more like men than like woman as in Tunes for a Small Harmonica or Just Be Gorgeous. She also showcases gay characters and overweight characters in a non-judgemental and charming manner. Many of her characters also portray a love for dogs, which is borrowed from Wersba's own love for animals.

Perhaps it is because I am from Long Island, but the books Wersba wrote while living there in the 1980's are amongst my favorites. Wersba moved to Sag Harbor with her partner, a woman named Zuc, and continued to live there after Zuc's passing. It was in Sag Harbor that Wersba began to foster in a love for nature and wildlife. Her first book that takes place on Long Island, Crazy Vanilla, also has a lot to do with her interest in photography. The Rita Formica stories, set in Sag Harbor, would follow. Her last two books published for teenagers also take place on Eastern Long Island and again are representative of subjects close to the author's heart. Life Is What Happens While You're Making Other Plans is about a boy's crush on an actress and his own personal journey to find a career in the theater. Whistle Me Home focuses on the romantic relationship between two adolescent girls.

Fat: A Love Story has two of Wersba's most likeable characters although this novel is probably one of her most criticized for portraying a romantic relationship between a girl and a man who is twice her age. The story is realistic and told with a theatrical verve which is one of Wersba's trademarks. Rita's narration is both funny and sadly dark. For example, in describing her eating problem, she states "You are familiar, I suppose, with the old cliche that fat peole are jolly? Well, it's true...They are jolly as a mean of avoiding suicide and I was no exception." These extremes of desperation and benevolence make for a romance story that is both tragic and beautiful. While the relationship is unusual, the reader is still convinced and has hope that it does work out for the best.

Wersba's career has been a love affair with books. She not only wrote some of the best books for young people during the 1970's and 1980's, but was also a champion of the format, writing sensitive reviews as a reviewer for The New York Times Book Review. In 1990, her book The Country of the Heart was turned into the film Matters of The Heart. It was one of the last films produced by Martin Tahse, famous for his work on Afterschool Specials.

Wersba also had a close relationship with two important writers near the end of their lives. First, there was Carson McCullers and later it was New Zealand author Janet Frame. Wersba's last published book to date was in 2005, Walter: the Story of a Rat. Her work has been reprinted in numerous paperback editions and has been translated into several languages.

Now, nearly 80, I like to imagine Wersba as she describes Clopinet in her retelling of The Wings of Courage. "...like a migratory bird that follows some inner rule of nature, coming and going with the seasons, listening to the rhythms of life." Or in her own words, from her autobiography, "...a great swan flew over my head on a passage unknown, its wings making a humming sound on the winter air....The Journey continues." As a reader, Wersba's characters give me hope that there is goodness in the world despite obstacles. Through thick and thin, it is the spirit of this writer than resonates and sticks with me. There is a magic to her work, a spirit that sings to me and may give me the courage to break away.