Friday, July 18, 2008
Jill Lepore, who chairs the History and Literature Program at Harvard and has a novel due out in December, has written a most extraordinary piece in this week's New Yorker. "The Lion and the Mouse" takes a definitive look at E.B. White's journey with Stuart Little and at the librarian and social forces that sought to thwart the perpetually tidy mouse's very existence. Banned from many libraries, despised by the self-righteous, barred from the Newbery Medal list, Stuart Little nonetheless went on to sell more than four million copies. Fortitude is an essential character in the story here. So is the power of American readers to override the gate-keeping critics.
In her exquisite essay, Lepore also explores a question that haunted me throughout my chairing of the National Book Awards Young People's Literature jury in 2001: What makes a children's book a children's book, especially for stories aimed at the pre-teen and teen set? What, in other words, determines suitability? Young readers have before them an entire world of books—Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dickens, Tolstoy, anything anywhere that sits on any shelf or (now) resides on some virtual post. Why the need for a YA label? Why not just write and sell good books and trust the teens to find them?
In my own work on what will be four novels for young adults and one long short story for an upcoming anthology, I've taken the stance that teens are as smart as and often smarter than adults (at least, as compared with moi, they demonstrate an acutely superior intelligence). Teens are smart, they are discerning, and—trafficking as they do in blog contests and book reviews and often electrifying e-book talk—they are some of the most important readers around. What gets written for and read by teens is being talked about today and will reverberate tomorrow, and so, in my own small way, I have chosen to write about big issues—identity, dying, loss, poverty, and, in the short story, suicide—in language that does not sacrifice itself to some false premise about teen vocabularies.
Today, on the myspace Harperteen blog, I'll be continuing my discussion of an issue I wrestled with earlier this week: brand name novels for girls. In the meantime, I send this calla lily from my garden to bookluver, who embraced HOUSE OF DANCE earlier this week.