Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Gentlehands by M.E. Kerr

Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack made me want to read more from M.E. Kerr, and there was a parent on amazon complaining about Gentlehands being given to eighth graders in schools. Clearly, this was the book for me.

In the book, a young working-class boy named Buddy has started to date an older girl named Skye who comes to his resort town for the summers. She inhabits a different world from him - she goes to Europe regularly, knows about opera, drives cars most people have never heard of, and has a butler named Peacock. Buddy's dad is a cop, and his parents sneer (perhaps a bit too much) at the "fancy" things Buddy is getting interested in.

In order to impress Skye, Buddy takes her out to see his grandfather, who has a huge house in Montauk. He's only met the grandfather once or twice in his life; even his mom, the guy's own daughter, didn't see him even once until she was an adult. Her mom left her native Germany while she was pregnant.

The grandfather is a refined, cultured man who loves animals, wine and opera. He gives Buddy lots of great advice about finding his confidence and becoming the kind of person he wants to me. For a minute I thought he was going to be one of those assholes - kindly grandpas who set the main character straight about the ways of the world using wisdom from the depression (in older books) or their hippie days (in newer ones).

But since I'd already read the description, I already knew the big twist at the end: that Grandpa was once known as "Gentlehands" and was one of the most enthusiastic young Nazi officers at Auschwitz.

This book has a lot going for it - the relationship between Skye and Buddy is an interesting one (though the hot-and-heavy scene that the angry parent promised me was awfully tame, really), and I was sort of fascinated by the "life on the south shore of Long Island" stuff - people go out "clamming" and kids complain that they like spaghetti and meatballs better than spaghetti and clams. I've never been to Long Island - it's like an entire state that you forget is even there unless you live there, I think. For years I thought it was a very small place, but it has about three times the population of my own home state of Iowa. I look books that work like a window into another sort of life.

With the nazi subplot, though, the book pulls some punches. It would have hit Buddy harder if it had been a grandpa that he'd grown up loving, not one that he'd just started getting close to. And by the time the revelation comes, at which point it seems like the book is just heating up, it's actually nearly over. This book could have stood to be about twice as long, and could have explored a lot more issues - is Grandpa really as different now as he seems? About all we hear from him in response is that "Gentlehands," his old alias, is a complete mystery to him now. There was a bit of notice about people in the neighborhood debating whether they should "live and let live" now that he's old and it was a different world, and that he was "only doing his duty." That didn't go over well, of course, but could it be argued that his real crime was just being brainwashed by Hitler? Did it keep him up at nights now? Was that person he used to be really such a mystery to him now? Frankly I would have liked to have heard more from Grandpa, from the journalist who'd been tracking him down (his sister was one of Grandpa's victims), and from a lot of other people besides Buddy. However, as soon as the truth comes out, Grandpa is gone and the book is just about over.

That said, though, it's a good book and I liked Buddy a lot - I like it when the narrator of a book is a guy who isn't a geek or a variation on that character that Michael Cera always plays. Buddy is a working class kid with sort of obnoxious blue collar parents whose attempts to break away into the world of culture are probably doomed to fail. You saw that kind of narrator a lot more in 1978, when the book was published.

Like many other Kerr titles, you can get this one on Kindle. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack! by M.E. Kerr

For a minute there, I thought I was in for a pretty generic book. We had a male narrator (not so striking in a 1972 book) living in New York (this is pretty standard in 70s YA), where he hangs out in libraries (natch), has a parent who's a writer (as most kids in YA of the day seem to) and there's a cat involved.  1972, though, is early enough that none of this would have been exactly cliche, and the story built around this kid is utterly unique.

Well, maybe not utterly. In Bleak House there's a funny subplot in which Mrs. Jellyby is so busy writing letters and raising funds for her favorite charity (a proposition to send poor Londoners to Borrioboola-ga to cultivate the coffee berry) that she doesn't notice how screwed up her family is. This is the part of this plot that was made into an after-school special in 1979.

The book is a year in the life of Tucker, a recent transplant from Manhattan to Brooklyn Heights (he's always supposed to specify "Brooklyn Heights," not "Brooklyn," which was not cool in 1972). His father just quit a job in fundraising to start a health food store with his wife's brother, an actor who goes by Jingle and is about as reliable as my old station wagon. His mother works writing silly stories for "True Confession" type magazines.

Tucker meets "Dinky" Hocker, an overweight (but not smack-shooting) girl down the street, when she adopts his cat, Nader (named for Ralph). Also at Dinky's house are her cousin, Natalia, who is in and out of mental health facilities (her dad killed himself) and Marcus, a junkie - her mother, Mrs. Hocker, is very much involved in drug rehabilitation programs. So much so that she doesn't seem to notice Dinky's chronic over-eating.

Dinky is mean-spirited and unpleasant for much of the book, coming out of her shell briefly when she starts dating P. John Knight, another son of an ultra-liberal who has rebelled by becoming an ultra-conservative. He looks for excuses to work Joe McCarthy ("one of my heroes") into conversations, sympathizes with Hitler, who he figures at least wasn't some wussy communist of socialist (though somehow modern conservatives have decided that Hitler WAS one of those). Dinky's parents don't like him much at all. No one does, really. For a minute I thought the guy was a little over-the-top as a character, but then I realized that I knew plenty of people who were just like him.

Through the course of a school year or so, Tucker navigates the beginnings of a relationship with Natalia, the rise and fall of his dad and uncle's plans for a health food store, and the endless dramas connected to Dinky and her parents.There were moments early on when I thought this was going to be a standard 70s setup in reverse: you see a lot of books about liberal kids standing up to their conservative parents, and this looked like it was going to be about the kids smacking some sense into the ultra-liberal parents. And it almost was, at times - not that it's actually full of conservative talking points (the overall point of view is, I think, left of center), but, hey, we all know liberals like Mrs. Hocker, right? Like the types who freak out if you say "snowman" instead of "snow person" (P. John is one of these by the end of the book - his viewpoint does a 180 when he goes off to boarding school, but he's still kind of an asshole). Every character is still recognizable today, really, and the shy, stumbling kids all seem remarkably normal (even the ones who are in and out of mental health facilities). Tucker hangs out in libraries, but he's not exactly a bookworm. He doesn't read books all the way through very often, and hangs out in libraries largely for the people-watching, musing at one point that he'll probably be a librarian someday because people in libraries always look really nervous, so no one will notice if he's nervous on the job. I loved that.

Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack! was hugely successful in the 1970s - the copy I have is a from the 9th printing. It even inspired After School Special on TV, though the special moved things to LA, dropped the politics, and dropped Tucker, his family, and Natalia to focus entirely on Dinky.  Perhaps it was the special that killed the book - it seems to have fallen off the radar in the 80s, and, as successful as it was, I had never even heard of it until last week.

But it holds up remarkably well. If anything "dates" it at all, it's that Tucker and co are out wandering the streets unsupervised all the time, and discussing now-archaic library practices like the "pay duplicate" section where you pay a nickel a day to check something out (do they still do that anywhere?). The pop culture references are really sort of ahead of their time - the kids are into Vonnegut, Salinger, and the Little Prince (kids who hang out in libraries still read those), and at one point, while discussing his relationship with Natalia with his mother, Tucker sums it up with a Beatles line: "You ask me if my love will grow, I don't know, I don't know." The narrator refers to this as a line from a "Beatles Classic."  This was 1972 - that song wasn't even three years old then, and probably wasn't even two when the manuscript was written. M.E. Kerr (who is really Marijane Meaker, a pioneer of LGBT fiction) had a sharp eye. The two families at the heart of the book become a sort of metaphor for society at large, but only in a subtle way. There's no point at which Kerr tries to drive home the lesson or antyhing, as Louise Fitzhugh did on Nobody's Family Is Going to Change in the ending scene in which a character calls up another to explain the lesson ("Nobody's family is going to change - we have to change.") (I should re-read that one).

On the surface, there's nothing about this that makes it seem like it would fit into the market today - a male narrator makes it hard enough, and then it's in third person, past tense, rather than the now-standard first person present. That said, it still felt very contemporary and modern to me throughout; at times I almost wanted to compare it to Dyan Sheldon's Planet Janet. Unlike a lot of 70s books, there's not a lot of discussion of sexuality or bodily functions that one would have a harder time getting away with now - just a few sort of vague references, and a fun discussion about whether "ass" is an improper word.

This is a book that deserves to be rediscovered, and a style that deserves to re-emerge. I think it's the sort that'll seem better every time I re-read it. It's not the surprise that Don't Play Dead Until You Have To was for me, but as an example of the "year in the life of a 1970s kid who lives in New York, has a cat, and has a writer for a parent" genre, it's a real standout. Unlike practically every other book on this site, you can get it on kindle. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Dear Bruce Springsteen by Kevin Major

I first read this book in middle school, I think, about eight years after its mid-80s release. Even by then, the concept of a teenager who was really, really into Bruce Springsteen seemed outdated. In the 90s "alternative" era, Springsteen was widely seen as passe. Fist-pumping anthems were  thought of as "superficial." Sometimes I really wonder what we were thinking in the 90s.

But, still, as an obsessive Metallica fan, I understood and sympthatized with Terry's Springsteen obsession. I already knew that I liked Bruce from hearing the Kids Incorporated version of "Thunder Road," and I tended to like what I heard of Bruce on the radio (which wasn't much). This book made me want to learn more about Springsteen, and for that I'll be forever grateful. I now have every album and count Bruce among the finest role models a working artist can have.

Dear Bruce Springsteen is a novel in the form of Terry Blanchard's fan letters to Bruce Springsteen, who, Terry knows, is probably not reading them, since he's busy packing stadiums on his Born in the USA tour, and probably getting sacks of mail. This was an era when teenagers (including his teenybopper sister) were, in fact, likely to be into Springsteen.

His first letter, barely a page long, is probably the longest thing Terry has ever written, and the three Springsteen bios he's read probably make up a significant portion of the total number of books he's ever finished (Bruce himself is said to have read only three books in school, and two of them were Dylan bios; he didn't start being a serious reader until he was an adult). Terry is not one of those kids in books who loves to hang around in libraries, or even the type who reads a lot of comics. He is the kind of guy who probably mostly reads car magazines, says "good" when he means "well," and wouldn't fit in at all in a gathering of male YA leads.

Even though he never really expects a reply (and doesn't get one), something about writing to Bruce makes him open up about his life and himself. Bruce becomes something of an imaginary friend; Terry is acutely aware that his family is pretty much the type Bruce is singing about in "The River" and "Hungry Heart," and that Bruce must have been a bit like him in school to write a song like "No Surrender," but wondering what Bruce would do in any given situation, and how Bruce would respond if he heard about what he was doing, puts a new perspective on things that Terry might not have thought of before.

Terry is a totally real, completely recognizable character that almost never turns up in books: a good-natured working class kid. Too often, narrators of YA books are either juvenile delinquents or geeks. Nothing wrong with those, of course, but not every working class kid is secretly a genius.  Sometimes it seems like every guy in a YA book who isn't a douchey love interest is a quiet brainiac (probably because most of us male YA writers are a bunch of dorks ourselves).  

Terry's neither of these - he lives with his mom, who works double shifts as a nurse to keep them off welfare, and his little sister; his dad took off a year or two before the events of the book. If I had to compare the family to any other, it would be the family in E.T. (which you should re-watch, if you haven't in a while - for a movie with an alien, it's about the most realistic movie of all time). 

So often, when you see a low-income kid from a broken home in a book, his struggles are the meat of the story, as he strives to stay off drugs, stay away from gangs, and get into college. Terry, we get the idea, has no plans to go to college. Just getting out of high school is going to be tough for him, really, and one of the minor conflicts in the book is his struggle to pass math. He's not a bad person or anything - just a normal kid with only a spark of ambition or confidence.

At no point is the book about overcoming adversity - it's just about Terry struggling with finding his own identity and worrying that he's either A: too much like his wannabe musician father, or B: just trying to copy everything Bruce does. Bruce is one of the better role models a person can have, really, but Terry wants to find his own voice as a songwriter and as a person (the one song he tries to write is a shameless Bruce copy, and he knows it). He starts to find his confidence and direction by organizing a charity lip-synch concert to benefit a local family who lost everything in a fire.

Terry's problems are pretty ordinary, really - tracking down his dad and making peace with him, getting through class, trying to meet a girl, scraping together money to buy a guitar, the the occasional arguments with his mom and sister, etc. What's most striking about it is that Terry's voice is so authentic and instantly recognizable. He reminded me of someone my 1980s babysitters might have dated, or who might have been roped into being a group leader at summer recreation. 

If Goodreads had been a thing in 1986, I can just imagine all the "all the references to pop culture will make this seem dated in five years" posts - you see that a lot. This attitude is so pervasive that I very much doubt you could get a version of this out today even if Bruce was replaced with, I don't know, Skrillex (the sheer fact that it's a male narrator, not a romance, and no one gets killed make it a tough sell for today).  And those posts would not be totally incorrect - you can certainly tell that the book takes place in the mid 1980s. But why shouldn't it? It DOES take place in the mid 1980s - all books do not have to take place in some sort of bland "timeless" era.  The story and the characters still hold up, even if the references make it clear that the book doesn't take place last week. That's the REAL reason people say to leave out pop culture stuff from YA books today - because some kids really do get turned off by any book that doesn't seem to take place right that second, and they want the kid in the book to be just like them.

But I just don't feel like we should pander to that sort of sensibility. Twenty-five years on, Dear Bruce Springsteen still makes Terry seem real and alive. Plenty of those characters calculated to seem "just like you and going through all these things the same week you are" never seemed real to begin with.

I've returned to this book many times over the years. I enjoyed it when I knew nothing at all about Springsteen and enjoyed it even more when I had all of the records. It's a story of how pop culture can help you find your way in the world and how it can shape you - a subject I think is far under-valued in today's books. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

"Don't Play Dead Before You Have To."

If you really want to survive you've got to figure out how to con your parents. The best way is to do something dumb such as play Little Leaugue. Boy, do those kids get everything they want! But to do that you've got to work like hell and be ambitious and all that crap. Never could do it myself. But maybe you could. No, I'd rather you didn't. Kids who play Little League grow up real ugly and what's worse they bring out the worst in their parents. 

In 1969 Philip Roth published Portnoy's Complaint, which was all a monologue from Portnoy to his shrink. The next year came Don't Play Dead Before You Have To, which is almost entirely a a transcription of things Byron says to Charlemagne Nordstrom, the genius kid he's babysitting. In the early chapters he's a bit of  Holden Caulfield type - about one step beyond a juvenile delinquent as he helps "Charlie" con his parents into getting a TV, Cokes, and potato chips for the next time he babysits. We hear none of the Charlie's responses, except when Byron says things like "What's that? You want to know what my mom's like? What do you want to know that for?"  As a prose form, it's not 100% successful, but it's an interesting experiment.

The book opens with a quote from Robert F. Kennedy: "In such a fantastic and dangerous world - we will not find answers in old dogmas, by repeating outworn slogans, or fighting on ancient battlefields against fading enemies...we ourselves must change to master change. We must rethink all our old ideas and beliefs before they capture and destroy us."

From there, the book tells the story of how Byron came to the same conclusions as Senator Kennedy. Over the course of three or four years of life, Byron takes a job at an old folks' home talking to geezers and, for all practical purposes, he's turned on, tuned in, and dropping out. By the end he has long hair and a beard and is planning to go on a road trip to find out what's gone wrong in America, starting in New York, which one of the old boozers at the home called "a great combination of a sell-out freak show and an unattended resurrection." This old boozer should have been in The Hold Steady.

Of most interest to me is Mr. Humdinger, a cantankerous old man in the home who was something of a famous novelist in the 1920s, when he was known as a "philosopher of the people." He hasn't written anything in years and sneers at anyone who suggests he does, but on his 89th birthday he requests a local TV station come in so he can grant his first interview in years. To Byron, he says, "God invented man because he likes stories. And he invented dying because he likes his stories to have an ending. And sometimes he likes his stories to be like jokes. Sometimes he likes funny endings."  On TV, when asked by the announcer to "sum up his philosophy"and share some wisdom so that the viewers may "enrich their lives," he launches into a string of old cliches: "A penny saves is a penny earned. A stitch in time saves nine. An apple a day keeps the doctor away." Etc. Then he pauses, says "and don't play dead before you have to," and dies on camera.


Framing the whole book as transcriptions of Byron's sides of a conversation (mostly with Charlie, but a few with his parents, Charlie's parents, a phone operator, and an old person or two) is a prose form that takes some getting used to, and may not have been sustainable beyond the short (131 page) book. I can't imagine it being published today (and, yeah, there's quite a bit of swearing, though Byron stops short of the f bomb - "Swearing is like long hair," he says. "It doesn't mean a damn thing. It's what you're saying, while you're swearing, that matters. Sure. I'll try to stop swearing so damn much." People tend to lump 1970s books about guys who seem sort of like creeps (and narrate the book instead of being a bad boy love interest) in together as "problem novels," but the whole point of this blog is to point out just how interesting - and occasionally literary - those really got.

Something was definitely happening in the world of kid lit in the late 1960s and early 1970s; everyone seemed to have gotten the idea that kids' books and movies could be sort of avant garde. Look at the freaky sequence in A Boy Named Charlie Brown where Schroeder plays the second movement of the Pathetique Sonata. And then contrast it against the sappy Rod McKuen songs from the same movie ("maybe it's a kind of magic / only little boys can do / but seeing charlie smile / can make you stop a while / and just be glad you're you....and we are all a boy named charlie brown.")

Most attempts at being that artsy come across - like the McKuen song above - somewhere between profound and stupid, but even when they flop, they're often at least honorable flops. Don't Play Dead Before You Have To is no flop. It's not as Earth-shaking as some other books about juvenile delinquents who turn into teenage visionaries, but it's pretty neat. Some of Byron's philosophy about life, the world, and everything (which evolves a lot over the course of the book as he "turns on" a bit) are pretty damned fascinating. It begs the question of what Holden Caulfield would be like if he been born late enough to read On the Road and maybe listen to a few Doors albums and have his mind blown.

Far more so than any other book I can think of (except perhaps Suzuki Beane: A Lovable Little Hipster), kids a message that school is for idiots, and you should go get your own education -  find out about the world for yourself and don't take any crap from anyone. It's a very 1970 sort of message for a book to send, and resonated well enough to keep the book in print awhile; my copy is a fifth-printing and has a blurb from the New York Times on the cover, with another blurb from the St Louis Dispatch on the back saying it should be required reading for anyone over thirty.

Mai Wojciechowska won the Newberry Medal five years before this with Shadow of the Bull,  a book about bull fighting that I can only imagine must have been a lot different from this one. Nowadays you would practically HAVE to be a Newberry winner to get anyone to publish a book like this, and the world is poorer for it. Sure, there are PLENTY of books where old people help kids understand the world (often in the form of old hippy grandparents), but they never give advice like what you see here. It seems like the only people advising kids to challenge what came before and question old dogma these days are libertarians and conspiracy theorists.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Rise and Fall of a Teen-age Wacko by Mary Anderson

As a general rule, I would not want to have the word "teen-age" used in one of my titles, unless I was clearly doing it ironically. Like if How to Get Suspended and Influence People had been I Was a Teen-age Smut Peddlar. I kinda like that.

I kinda like this book, too. In a way it sort of comes off as "Anastasia Krupnik lite," but it's funny and I got to liking Laura, the main character, even though she's a self-absorbed, fashion-obsessed nightmare. She also manages to be sort of charming. Though the book is from 1980, in many ways it seems, title and all, like a book from twenty years later. Except for that font on the cover, which calls to mind a novelization of an episode of That Girl or a poster for Contrabulous Fantraption of Professor Horatio Hufnagel. Mary Anderson was better known for mystery books; this is one of her forays into contemporary humor.

Now, is it just me, or did a LOT of kid lit characters seem to live in New York City in the 1970s and 80s?  Laura is one of those. She lives on the upper West side with her parents (a free lance writer and a free lance illustrator - parents are often writers, artists, or actors in these books) and her sister, who is six years old and going on 30. The parents and precocious sibling aren't as artfully drawn as Anastasia Krupnik, but I can't help but wonder if Anastasia would be more like Laura at 16. Sure, in her own books, she's sort of an academic geek in training, but what'll happen when she discovers Cosmo?  Plenty of weird kids become bland teenagers. And Laura's not as bland as she seems early on.

The Rise and Fall of a Teenage Wacko tells the story of one summer in Laura's life - the first third or so takes place during a crummy vacation to the Catskills that reads about like a Brady Bunch re-run (the father says so himself), and the next chunk takes place back in New York, where Laura explores the city while babysitting a British girl for a few chapters, then comically tries to get into a Woody Allen movie and becomes something of an upper west side wacko.

For most of the book I was amused at just how modern it seemed - it didn't have much of the grit or turmoil I'd normally expect from a book about a 16 year old from this era. She muses about sunbathing nude at one point, but that's about as edgy as this gets. It's much more a sitcom plot sort of book, in which Laura gets into comic misadventures. In fact, minus a couple of references to typewriters and the fact that she buys three drinks at Elaine's for only $7.50, I could easily imagine this as being one of those "pink books" about lovestruck girls from 2004.

One thing hit me: there's no love interest. At no point does Laura develop a crush on anyone, lament her lack of a love life, or chase after a guy. Last time I talked with one of my editors to pitch new ideas, her first question for every project was "Is there a love interest?" Certainly I can't imagine it fitting into the market this year in its current form, unless it was written by an a-lister with a built-in following.  But I'd say the same thing about just about all of those books from 2004. Can you imagine the hilarious Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging making a big splash if it had come out in 2009, instead?

Rise and Fall of a Teen-age Wacko is not as wildly creative or funny as the best of the field, but I still got a kick out of it. Of particular interest to me was the section in which Laura and her babysitting charge explore New York; they window shop on Madison Avenue, attend an auction, and wander around the old Morgan mansion. Later she crowds into a bar to see Woody Allen play the clarinet. A girl interested in fashion and "exclusive boutiques" might read it with the same wide-eyed wonder with which I read all those Daniel Pinkwater books about exploring Chicago bohemia.  I particularly liked that she never really learns a lesson - at the end of the summer, Laura is content just to feel nothing.

Mary Anderson wrote nearly 30 books, though her webpage doesn't seem to mention them. Getting concrete info about her is sort of difficult these days, as there are quite a few Mary Andersons out there, more than one of whom seems to write books.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Space Station Seventh Grade by Jerry Spinelli

  Once, riding my bike, I saw a dead crow in the street. I stopped and looked. Cars were going by. Each time a car tire whizzed real close, even though most of the crow was mashed into the street, the end of one wing would kind of flutter in the air.
   It's been really hot here. Everything is snaily.
   I see old ladies grinning. Especially in the supermarkets. And on sundays. After a while it got to me. I tried scowling at one right in her face, just to see what would happen. She just kept grinning away. Someday I'm going to find out what they're all grinning about. 

above: one time and editor politely asked me to send examples of covers I liked when they were working up a cover for my book. I sent this one. "Wow," he said. "That is one ugly cover." I love this kind of cover, though. I wonder what Spinelli thought of the title? I'll bet it wasn't his first choice.
I've been known to say that you can't really do a realistic middle grade book - realistic kids swear, talk about sex, and generally talk and think on a more advanced level than we can count on kids that age to read. Getting particularly literary in middle grade books is pretty rare, as well, especially in a first person book. How profound can you really have a normal thirteen year old be before they stop seeming like a 13 year old? Kids that age rarely speak in rich prose and stunning metaphors.

This is part of why Space Station Seventh Grade, Jerry Spinelli's first book, is so remarkable. I read and enjoyed it in seventh grade (though even a decade or so after it was published, it seemed to take place in a whole different world than the one I knew). I re-read it in college and felt like I'd been hit by lightning. This, more than any other book, drove home the notion that "YA" books could be just as literary as books from any other section.  It's not as well-known as Spinelli's bigger hits, like Maniac Magee or Star Girl, but I do run into others who feel the same way about this one. The book is a revelation. It's literary and occasionally profound, all coming from the mouth of a completely realistic snot-nosed kid. 

  The wood shop teacher gave us a little speech...."You are not boys anymore," he told us. "From now on you are on the road to adulthood. You left your childhood back in grade school. You can kiss it good-bye." He saluted out the window. "You are in Junior High School now. You are...young men."
  Hah! I was a young man for about half an hour in woodshop on Wednesday. Then I had to go to the bathroom. The door didn't say Young Men. It said Boys. As soon as I opened it, a ninth grader took a cigarette out his mouth and said "Watta ya looking at, faggot face?" I walked out. For the rest of wood shop I was sawing wood and having to pee. The more I had to pee, the faster I sawed. Young man, monkey dung. 

I still toss out the phrase "monkey dung" in conversation frequently. I don't think it ended up in any my books that have come out, but it's in a manuscript or two, at least.

With Space Station 7th Grade, which chronicles a year in the life of Jason Herkimer, a seventh grader from about 1979 (the book was published in the early 80s, but Jason doesn't seem to have seen Empire Strikes Back yet), Spinelli not only wrote a book just as "literary" as anything else that will be published this year (for my money), he also wrote perhaps the most realistic 7th grader I've ever read. There are plenty of books where the 7th grade narrator is identifiable or relatable, but Jason is a real kid occupying that age when he's starting to outgrow the things of a child, but still hanging on to a dream of being a major league baseball player. He's kind of a jerk. He still calls his sister "Cootyhead." And, though he has a remarkably diverse bunch of friends, he hasn't worked out a lot of things about race yet. It's the late 1970s, after all. Political correctness was not yet a thing.

For instance, there's the scene where he and his friend discuss pubic hair. They are of the opinion that Italians grow hair earlier than most people (hence their belief that McGuiness, a kid in their gym class, must be Italian). People from near the equator are sometimes born with it, and some Asians never grow any ("ever see a Korean with a beard?") Most of this information is presented as having come from his friend's mother.

Meanwhile, Jason's parents are divorced, and his dad is attempting to convert to Judaism. Jason thinks he's being polite when he asks his dad's Jewish girlfriend questions like "Do you know Marty Renberg?"

One line that particularly sticks in my mind is from after the night he spends with his father and his new girlfriend:

  Late that night, after Barbara Silverstein left, Cootyhead asks her usual question: "You gonna marry her, Daddy?"
  My father took off his shoes. It hit me for the first time since he moved away, his shoes weren't white. He was changing. "Probably," he said. What he didn't do was the usual stuff, like lift Cootyhead up to the ceiling and tickle her and say cutesy things like, "Now what would you do if I said yes?" No. He didn't even look up. He just kept pulling his shoes off and kind of nodded a little and said "Probably" about marrying Barbara Silverstein. Like he would say "baked" if a waitress asks him how he wanted his potato.

And there's no big, comic blow-up. Jason is never really taught the error of his ways (or, if he does, it's in an offhand way, not a big revelation). Because this isn't a book about race or religion - those topics just tend to come up in conversation in the book, just like they do in real life.

Jason is interested in science, dinosaurs, and science fiction, but unlike your average 7th grade-aged male protagonist, he's no geek. Not really. He may have discussions about cryonics and immortality, and dress up as Luke Skywalker for Halloween, but he's just as interested in sports and causing trouble. I probably wouldn't have gotten along with him in school, though we might have had a good time if we actually hung out. One of the great things about fiction is that it can be a window - a look into the life of someone who isn't quite like you. Not every narrator has to be your new best friends (personally, I find it more entertaining to write characters I disagree with). I call it the King of the Hill effect - the ability to make you care about and root for a person you may not be able to stand if you knew them in real life.

To the extent that there's an ongoing plot, the book is about Jason and his attempt to get Debbie Breen to go out with him as he adjusts to seventh grade (in a school system where Junior High runs from 7th grade to 9th).  Along the way he bakes ants into baked goods, pees in a parking lot, kills a raccoon, gets suspended, stinks up the track team, builds a model space station, and talks about life, death, and the universe with his friends. He doesn't have much of an "emotional journey" and doesn't learn many lessons. But the point is not the plot here; about the most profound revelation he has is that Marceline McAllister uses the word "farts." There's no real message, thank God. Just a hell of a "year in the life" story.

Girls are like God. You believe in them but you don't really have much to do with them. 

That Spinelli managed to make this book as literary as he did, while still making Jason's voice absolutely authentic, is nothing short of miraculous. Like a lot of books like this, I understand that Spinelli didn't intend to publish it as a "kids" book, but as an adult novel (not realizing, at the time, that any book with a 13 year old narrator will almost certainly be marketed as a kids book). I can't help but wonder if he hated the title (people didn't interview authors nearly as much back in 1982, so I can't find out).  You notice this a lot, really - you can often tell when someone was writing a "book for kids;" and this reads more like he was trying to write "the great American novel." There's nothing pretentious about that (can we in the YA world please, please stop referring to adult or literary books as "pretentious?") - the book is better for it.  It's also funny as hell.

The book is still in print today, on the strength of Spinelli's consistently great books, but it's hard to imagine it getting published as-is today.  With a seventh grade narrator, it would probably have to be marketed as middle grade, and the chapter entitled "hair" alone is too edgy for modern middle grade (these days, poop jokes are much more acceptable than they used to be, but references to sex are more taboo than they were thirty years ago).  His conversations about race and religion would probably have to go unless he had some big epiphany or his grandfather sat him down and corrected him or something. The language is fairly tame - you get the idea that Jason and his friends swear a lot, but you don't see them in action too much. Words like "turd" and "dick" are tossed off pretty casually here, and "shit" comes up a few times.

Jason Herkimer would be about 45 now. God.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Back Home by Michelle Magorian

"Rusty gazed out the window at all the bombed buildings...and for a moment she felt angry at her parents for sending her away. She had a sense that something very important had happened in England, and she knew she had missed it."

"Peggy listened to the faint chimes of the church bells still ringing. So it was all over, she thought.  Now her husband could be sent home. She had lived for this moment. Now that it had come, she felt absolutely nothing."

Long about 1990 or so, my family gathered around the TV to watch a Disney Channel movie called Back Home, all about a girl returning to England after living in America as a World War 2 evacuee. My parents explained just enough of the background for me to understand what was going on. I remember being pretty well riveted by it. It was not the kind of Disney Channel movie you see today - it was a slow-moving drama in muted colors (I swear, "muted colors" is a whole style of television. If a show is in muted colors, you can pretty well guess what the show is going to be like). 

Years later I came across a copy of the 1984 Michelle Magorian book on which the movie was based and was pretty well knocked on my ass by it.

The movie was, from what I recall, a rather fateful adaptation; all of the lines that I remembered were there. I don't know if it's just that I'm older now, and understand it more, but the emotional impact of reading it as an adult knocked the wind out of me. Like a lot of 1970s/early 80s kid lit, it's a book that works on a sort of gritty realism that isn't really in style to day. But it's the emotional lives of the characters - particularly Peggy, the mother, that make it stand out. 

In 1945, Virginia "Rusty" Dickinson returns to England, where she's lived since she was 7. Now she's 12, and her memories of England are fairly hazy. She's spent the last 5 years with a real bohemian family, and is now an independent, free-spirited girl who is comfortable with being naked in public. It would have been easy, I suppose, to portray her as a sort of Pippi Longstocking/Star Girl sort of character who turns England upside-down. Maybe she imagined herself that way.

But she's returning to an England that is still rigidly class-conscious (they were still nearly 20 years from being liberated by the Beatles). The rationing (one bath a week, etc) is hard enough to get used to, but it's the stuffiness and general sense that everyone should seem miserable at all times that Rusty has trouble with, especially when she's shipped off to typical boarding school of the day. 

Rusty's story is gripping, but what really brings it to life are the side characters, such as Rusty's mother, who only feels numb when the war ends. She's glad it's over, of course, but while her husband has ben away, she's found work volunteering, working as a mechanic, and generally making herself useful in a way that her husband (and especially his old-fashioned mother) would never have allowed. She loved the work she did, the sense of accomplishment and self-reliance she got. There are hints that she had an affair.  When her husband returns, he expects things to go right back to the way they were in 1939, and can't get used to having a wife who seems like she might want to dance, or who can fix cars better than he can. She, in turn, can't stop thinking of her daughter as a seven year old, even though she can see that she's matured (this is described quite explicitly in a scene in which she sees Rusty naked and sees that she has started to grow pubic hair)

What we have here, really, is a very sophisticated portrait of England trying to re-adjust to living in peace time, and how to deal with the rather shocking idea that maybe things shouldn't go back to the way they were. The men went off to save the England they knew, and found that they could never get it back. That some people didn't WANT it back. Magorian took great care to make the adult characters just as real and three-dimensional as the kids, and to point out all of the difficulties everyone is going to have now that the war is won - a story is told that one character's first husband has been found in an Australian hospital after being reported dead before. The character has already remarried. Re-adjusting after a way is never simple, and BACK HOME doesn't pull punches, though it never, ever seems like it's trying to teach anyone anything. There's stuff about puberty, but just because it's the age Rusty is, and leaving it out would have been unrealistic, though the other girls at the boarding school are completely ignorant about sex (one thinks that talking with a boy in your pajamas means that you're going to have a baby).

But there are really no good guys or bad guys here - everyone has an understandable motivation for behaving as they do, even if it's just being a product of their own environment. Even Rusty comes to realize that part of why the other girls look down on her is that something important has happened in England, something that will define her entire generation, and she's missed it. She's never even heard a bomb going off. It's a difference between her and her neighbors that will never be resolved. I think perhaps the book is even a little unfair to the father, who might be suffering from PTSD.

BACK HOME is a work of art - at no point at all does it seem to be "written down" for children, and is a fine example of being one of those books that's only a children's book because the main character is 12 and there isn't any explicit sex (though there is some nudity, a bit of swearing, and some talk of bodily functions. These generally add to the realism). There is no attempt to pander to kids, or even to "bring things down to their level," at all.

The book was fairly popular in its day - enough to inspire a movie, at the very least - and I believe there's a recent edition in print in the UK.

This is one that I think probably COULD still come out today, but it would probably marketed strictly to libraries in the hopes that it would win the Newberry or something - an award like that (or another movie) would probably be about its only chance at making any dent, sales-wise. It would probably also be YA (the words "shitty," "ass," and "pubic," all occur), but not enough of a love story to make it much of a marketable YA these days. It's more realistic (right down to bathroom scenes) than you usually see in middle grade books today, as well as being longer and perhaps a bit more dry. The sheer fact that it's in third person makes it a bit unusual by today's standards, but if it was all from Rusty's point of view, we wouldn't be able to get into the heads of the side characters as well. I often hear that first person, present tense has become di rigeur because it's "more immediate," but I don't buy it. I think it's just the style these days. Books like this make me think third person should make a comeback.