When my granddaughter Dalia asked on her recent visit what I wanted to be when I was her age, my initial answer was that I had no clue, but I did confess to a secret desire to be a writer. (At age ten, she can’t imagine anything other than being a graphic designer.) Truth to tell, my writing aspiration probably didn’t surface until my teenage years when I had fallen hard for Dostoevsky, D.H. Lawrence, Dickens, Thomas Hardy and any other writer whose work appeared in a Modern Library edition. My dream did not include writing books for young readers. That genre didn’t exist yet beyond the science fiction of writers like Robert Heinlein or the sports books of John R. Tunis. Of course, there was Alice in Wonderland and the Oz books, but “realistic” fiction for young readers arrived much later with Judy Blume, Norma Klein and a host of other early pioneers who created a space for books in which kids – white kids, that is – could see their own lives represented.
My own love affair with books for young readers began when my daughters graduated from picture books to chapter books. I had never been read to as a child, so having the chance to immerse myself in the read-alouds we did, not just at bedtime but during long car trips and other idle hours on the beach or in a restaurant. They were as much a treat and an education for me as they were for my daughters. I can recall the times when we arrived at our destination on a road trip but wouldn’t/couldn’t exit the car because we were at a critical point in our reading of The Westing Game or The Fire in the Stone.
In my teaching years in grades 5-12, I dedicated myself to building rich, inviting libraries that contained something to satisfy a wide range of tastes. If I was going to expect 30-40 minutes of independent reading time every day it was essential that the library be so well stocked that any fisherman approaching it would come away with a catch. And I had to be familiar with as many of the books in that library as possible so that I could play matchmaker between book and student. “Hey, I know you like to fish with your grandfather. Here’s a book that’s set in a fishing village that you might like.” That provided the cover for me to inhale as much middle grade and Young Adult literature as I could fit into my spare moments and pretend that it was “work.”
At some point during those golden teaching years in Houston, the book editor of the Houston Chronicle invited me to be their middle grade and Young Adult editor. I’ve written about this experience in earlier blog entries, but the short version is that it involved receiving periodic shipments of the reviewers’ copies of books in my age range and selecting one each month for review. For at least a dozen years I lived in a candy land of the latest creations from masters of the genre, from Katherine Patterson to Sharon Draper to Gary Paulsen, names which will be familiar to most teachers and to avid kid readers, if not to the general public.
Oh, how I wanted to write a book for young readers that would move them as these authors moved me and my students! During these years, I religiously protected my summer months for activities that would recharge my batteries for another year of what I hoped would be creative teaching. I own a t-shirt, a gift from my wife, that carries this sly and suggestive message in Italian, which I love to translate for those curious enough to ask: “There are two things that satisfy me most in the world. The second is travel.” So many summers we managed to pool our then meager incomes and head off to Europe with our daughters for unforgettable adventures. And more to the point here, summer was also writing time. During the school year, the unbroken blocks of concentration that are necessary for writing a novel were not to be found, but for many years I used our annual stays in New Hampshire to produce two books for young readers. Most of a third book was written during a month-long residency at Bellagio – the real one, not the Las Vegas knock-off – the Rockefeller Foundation retreat in Italy to which my writer wife was invited. Although I was the faculty spouse in this case, they provided me with the same ideal work conditions and the best food we’ve ever eaten.
As a result, I have two completed YA novels and one that’s probably ¾ done. They all have lived a very peaceful time in my desk drawer for reasons I will explain, but first I want to tell you a bit about them. The first, called The Next Step is set in Brooklyn during the years of the nearly forgotten polio epidemic of the 50s which spread a dark cloud of fear over my growing-up years. Although my main character falls victim to the dreaded disease and must suffer through recovery and rehabilitation. That was not the case for me.I never contracted polio, but imagining that possibility was a way of purging the demons that haunted me for years.
The second book, Danny in Moab, is about a Jewish boy whose family moves from New Jersey to New Hampshire sometime in the 70s where a new job awaits his father. I’m rereading that book right now, and I can say shamelessly that whatever else may be wrong with it, it projects a rich sense of the place for which I have a deep love, and a pretty good understanding of the psychology of a 12 year-old boy uprooted from his familiar environment and translated to a place where he is very much an outsider. You can say nice things about your own work only when decades have passed since it was written so that the umbilical cord that binds author and material has shriveled, enabling the written words to stand on their own weight. On an impulse, I pulled out the Danny book while Dalia was here and asked if I could read the first chapter to her, after which I asked her if she could imagine being interested in such a book. Granted the deck is stacked when a grandparent asks this of a grandchild, but Dalia can be outspoken when she chooses to be, and I sensed some real enthusiasm in her response. So, these books that I thought I had mothballed decades ago are back in play, hence the current rereading I’m engaged in.
I’ll save the story of the third and unfinished book for another time. Instead, let me say a word about why these books have remained in my drawer. I did send each of them out once or twice and received the predictable rejection notes. The truth is that, unlike my wife who takes a professional’s view of being turned down, I’m too thin-skinned. I’ve published four other books about various aspects of education. Somehow, because their content was closer to territory I legitimately inhabit, I was more able to push through the limited rejections I received. But with the books for young readers, I felt I was operating on foreign soil from which I was quick to retreat as soon as I met resistance. We’ll see if that’s changed if and when I decide to slide down that rabbit hole again.
By now the books are somewhat dated in ways I’m not sure I can repair. Who are these kids who don’t have cell phones, don’t play video games and have never heard of tiktok. Then there’s a huge technical problem that derives from their birth date. These manuscripts predate Word and pdfs. They do not exist electronically, a momentary obstacle to sending them out to the twenty-something editors who do not await them eagerly at the other end of the publishing pipeline. It’s a minor bump in the road, one for which there is surely a technological solution, but it’s a reminder that these manuscripts are like alien visitors from another era.
In the meantime, I just going to enjoy rereading these guests from the past. If they wind up back in my drawer, I can at least hold out the hope that one day perhaps Dalia would like to see how the book holds up beyond the first chapter.