Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Works of Joel L. Schwartz (Or: How Big Should Your Thing Be?)

In 1983, Joel L. Schwartz wrote a book called Upchuck Summer. I remember reading it around 4th grade (1990-91) - I always liked books that took place at summer camp. THis one wasn't as funny as, say, Korman's I Want to Go Home, but the content sure made it memorable: Upchuck Summer actually contained the word "penis" in a scene where the kid talks about having a wet dream. I had never seen that word in print before; I would have guessed it was spelled with a U, not an I.  But Upchuck Summer was a remarkably explicit book. 

 In one other memorable scene from that book, Richie talks about going to a health class in which an anatomically correct model of a rather un-endowed man is displayed, and one kid says "You know what that guy ought to sing? 'I wish I had an Oscar Meyer Wiener….'"

This was a middle grade book, for the record. YA basically did not exist at the time. On the right in the shot above is the sequel, in which all the characters are in 9th grade. It looks very much like a book for third or fourth graders, really. This is something I plan to point out with this blog - just how much more we got away with in middle grade (particularly in terms of realism) before "kid lit" was separated into middle grade and YA. Some of the conversations in this book could barely be in YA nowadays - BN would probably call it a 14+ book.

Schwartz, a psychiatrist, seems to have seen children's books as a good way to bring out messages about surviving adolescence.

I read about all of Schwarzt's books; another in my local library was The Great Spaghetti Showdown, which I remember not liking as much. If I remember right, some kid in it lamented that turning 12 meant "no more using the women's bathroom." I wasn't quite 12, but couldn't imagine any guy I knew using the women's bathroom. Maybe this was an early case of transgender issues in books, but the impression I got at the time that he was just out for thrills.   Nearly 8 years after Upchuck came a more direct sequel, Upchuck Summer's Revenge, which featured Richie and the gang returning to the camp as counselors in training (and a bit less about puberty)

I occasionally noted places in his books where you could tell that there was an adult behind the first person narrator, and the "message" sometimes seemed to trump the story or the voice, but the books generally hold up pretty well.  And they were certainly popular in their time; Upchuck Summer is said to have sold around 150,000 copies. 

Even by 1991, things seem to have changed a bit: the kids are a bit older, and presumably more mature, in Upchuck Summer's Revenge, but that book is remarkably less explicit. 

Looking at it today, Upchuck Summer comes off as a pretty funny book about a totally normal middle schooler, right down to the fact that he's kind of a selfish asshole (in the last third of the book he learns that his attitude is causing most of his problems). Living in the pre-internet world, it makes total sense for him to muse at one point that there really ought to be a book out there with a chart telling how big your thing should be at any given age. You couldn't just look that up World Book

Well, Richie got his wish. A few years after Upchuck Summer, but before Revenge, Schwartz released Will the Nurse Make Me take My Underwear Off, which includes just such a chart. Before we get into it, let's take another look at this cover and try to imagine it on a modern YA shelf:

Sometimes I wish there was a starburst that said "read it and laugh" on MY books - it might have really helped I Kissed a Zombie and I Liked It , with which I had a lot of problems with people not guessing that it was a comedy (let alone a satire).  But they don't go for the hard sell like this as much in YA these days; you still see in middle grade books like Captain Underpants now and then.

(By the way - do not do an image search for the cover if you are easily offended).

Will the Nurse Make Me take My Underwear Off is set up as the diary of a ninth grader, but includes more facts, figures, and statistics than most text books. Eric, the diary writer, goes to anti-drug presentations and writes down everything the cops say. He copies down entire articles about AIDS and includes his sister's whole paper on alcohol. And when he goes to health class and sees a chart about how big one's thing should be at a given age, he copies it down in the diary and helpfully lets us know how HE measures up (just about normal - at erection, he's just over six inches, and hopes it'll grow a bit more).

There's sort of a plot underneath this book, but it's really not so much of a novel as an attempt to write a ninth grade health textbook in the voice of a 9th grader. Every topic you'd expect to see in such a book is covered in great detail, including birth control (he includes his entire health class tests, complete with teacher's corrections), drugs, smoking, personal hygiene, hormones, STDs (with particular emphasis on AIDS), diet and exercise, even menstruation and female masturbation (he copies entire sections of his sister's diary, which conveniently covers these topics). He uses the word "shit" occasionally, usually in reference to his dog. 

It's really quite progressive, when you get down to it - all the birth control stuff would probably make it too controversial today. Schools in "abstinence only" states could conceivably get in trouble for having this book around (though it could also be a sneaky away around laws mandating that all you can tell students about birth control is that it doesn't really work and/or that it will send you to Hell). Being a book from 1987, though, there's barely a mention of homosexuality, except to point out that AIDS isn't just a gay problem. A 2012 version would probably work in a section on that, and probably some things on issues like sexting, cyber-safety, etc. Bullying, too, would probably play a bigger role in a modern edition.

The above cover is from the 1990 edition, so this was still presumably floating around in my library system in the early 90s, when I was in middle school. I'm not sure I would have taken it seriously, though. The inside cover has blurbs from random "teens," and I tended to distrust any publication that actually called people "teens." Even if we WERE "teens," technically, people actually using that word invariably sounded like adults trying to seem cool. 

It's not exactly a gripping read, plot-wise, but you've really got to hand it to Schwartz - writing a health book in narrative form must have been a real puzzle to put together, and Schwartz mostly pulled it off (pun not intended). You particularly have to admire this one for not being shy and giving honest, frank information about topics that even most other "Puberty and You" books tend to dance around.  Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide probably did a better job of presenting helpful coming-of-age advice in narrative form, but it sure never told you how big your thing should be.

There are a few things in Schwartz's books that I don't think I could get away with now:

1. I sure as hell couldn't have a guy wondering about penis size in a middle grade book. You can get away with a lot more poop jokes now than you could 20-30 years ago,  but sex and swearing are out. A few authors might be able to manage to talk their publishers into it, but this kind of realism in middle grade isn't really popular these days.

2. I can't imagine a publisher letting me use the word "upchuck" in a title - especially in YA, where nearly every book (even boy books) NEEDS to be made to appeal to girls these days.

3. Really, Upchuck Summer could probably not exist at all. The characters are really too young to market it as YA successfully, and they're way too worldly for middle grade .  A publisher might try to market it, but I can't imagine it selling 150k copies today, unless maybe it was in the scholastic book fairs (and there's something on every other page that would be a red flag for Scholastic.).

4. I may be mistaken (can't find my copy of Upchuck Summer today), but I think the kids toss off the word "queer" as a casual insult, along with "spaz" and "turkey."

Schwartz hasn't written a kids/ya book in a while, but he's still around, focusing mainly on his work as "the stress less shrink."  His most recent book, Noses are Red, was a nonfiction book for parents about improving their children's sense of humor; he jokes on his webpage that it was 149,971 more copies to sell before it breaks Upchuck Summer's record.

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