But I'm not only concerned with the female characters we are pre- senting to our young people in their books. I'm concerned with fathers too. I'd like to see more books in which fathers take an active role in the lives of their children, not just in playing sports with them, but in a more intimate basic way. Today I feel many more fathers are doing this so it's really a matter—as it is with other issues too--of books catching up to life.
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We are still far behind reality in what we decide to present to children, and this is a pity. I see lists of recommended books for children and adolescents and often these books are almost exclusively fantasy, fairy tales, folk tales. I think I understand The real world frightens many people today. We are living, perhaps even more than in earlier times, in an era of changing values and many people are afraid to deal with these changes in books.
They feel children need and expect fixed values, certainty. I think children are not fooled by false certainty and I think they aren't going to go back to fairy tales either. They need books which confront some of these new things, even if the outcome isn't always the most reassuring. Not that escapist books of any kind don't have a place for children just as they do for adults, but I'd like to see. I chose to become a writer because writing gave me pleasure of a very special kind.
Painting was the only other activity which came close, and until I was in my late teens I wasn't sure which field I would go into, I was never sure I could make an actual profession out of it, and started getting a doctorate in Russian so I could teach and, perhaps write on the side. In a rather uhliberated way I decided I could rely on being supported by my husband and I should take a chance at doing what I most wanted to do. I found it hard doing two things at once—going to graduate school and writing.
Pos- sibly they drew too much on the same energies. For me writing is probably most akin to acting. That is, when I write I feel I am becoming another person and I have the--to me--exciting sensation of transcending my own identity.
When you write, you can be a different age, a different sex. There are virtually no limits to what you can attempt. In 'real life 1 I was and still am to some extent a fairly shy, repressed person. Through my characters I express things that I wouldn't have the courage to outside of my books.
Often I reread my books and am filled with admiration for these outspoken, iconoclastic women, I'm so much more aware in myself of my cringing, insecure side, though at the same time I feel these outspoken characters do stand for a part of me which exists, but doesn't al- ways come to the surface. I had grown up on what I now see as a very shel- tered environment — liberal politically, open to new ideas, etc.
I thought the whole world was like this, or at least even if intellectually I realized it wasn't, I had never met people who thought very differently from me.
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Now, of course, due to the angry and hostile letters my editors or I have received about some of the things I've tried to put into my children's books, I'm aware how different things are in most of the country. There is a very strong repressive tide, I can't tell how much stronger or less strong it is now than it was a few years ago, but there is no doubt it exists, that it does have an influence on sales of books and so on, I still feel, though, that I have to write the kind of books that interest me, and thus far I've felt that there have been enough people, even if they aren't a majority, who believe in the kind of thing I'm trying to do, who say, in effect, keep it up so that I feel just- ified in continuing.
But it is definitely a problem. It's easy to be forthright on behalf of ideas in general, but when it comes to your own books, you feel much more vulnerable. You always wonder if perhaps the book just isn't good, not that it represents ideas which some people find threatening. I feel that in fifty years many of the taboos about sexuality which I think do exist now will have vanished.
The last to go are the ones involving books for younger children. I think that at this moment teenage books are just beginning to break through some of these taboos. Often my books are called 'books for young adults' but really they are for younger children, more like 8 to 12 year olds. They are foisted on teenagers because if the book has a controversial theme, people will ac- cept it more easily for a teenage audience than for a younger one.
An editor, I once heard speak, suggested that libraries should not be separated according to books 37 9 ERLC for children, books for teenagers, books for adults. She felt all books should be mixed together on the same shelves. Possibly this would create some confusion, but I felt her basic idea was sound. When I write a book in which the main character is 11, I don't want that book to be one which only an 11 year old can enjoy. To me it's a book seen through an eleven year old's eyes, but I'd like it to have the complexity and subtly of an adult book.
In short, I see my children's books as being about children, not just for children. I know many writers for children say, in effect — I won't write about this because a child won't be interested in it. One example I've been given is: I won't write about adults because children don't want to read about them. I don! I see most experiences as being ones in which we, adults, children, men and women are all involved and it's this broader interaction which is my concern.
There is the eccentric f antasy. Interviewing Richard Peck, I could avoid all those pitfalls. We were born on opposite sides of the same Central Illinois cornfield; I learned to swim in Dreamland Lake; and we both taught English at one time. We naturally started talking about books and kids. I am still surprised to find books I wrote for pleasure reading now a part of the curriculum.
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What it says is we are reaching out for a curriculum. When it began it bothered me. I thought kids might be trapped in the present forever, but they read everything, and that is as it should be. I believe every student should pass an exam in Latin grammar, but that isn't traditional. It never was that way.
I also believe kids should pass a reading com- prehension exam before they are advanced, but that has never been either. As a teacher I wasn't traditional at all even though my students almost demanded that I be. I wanted them to experiment with writing styles. They wanted to do book reports. Even when they wrote poetry it was post e.
No, I'm more idealistic than traditional. A boy is looking for an adult figure on whom to model himself. Although he and the father have a good relationship, the ashen faced father is not enjoying his life which is mostly work and admits it to' his son. The son is then released to try on many masks. He finds Uncle Miles, an iconoclast, who is th? But I enjoyed dealiu; s with the serious theme in a humorous and a supernatural way. No, an architect, but I couldn't do math. After a long time I learned I could build stories where no math was necessary.
And I am thankful I never had a teacher who encouraged 1 self -expression. My advice to kids interested in this craft would be to read, ob- serve, go to the library. Before you can write, you must un-center yourself. Today I don't keep notebooks of random observations because you would have to contort the structure of a novel to include them. Virtually all the incidents in a novel have to be created to fit action and characterization. The biggest bore in a novelist's life is the one who steps up at a party and says, 'I could write a novel about my life. Now I do, but I didn't at first.
Be he male or be she female, I'm partial to the self-reliant, semi-loner, standing at the edge of the action—observing it with a keen ironic eye. Oh, yes Usually Theme..
After that, I had to decide whether to deal with boys or girls and after that, how to work up a plot full of action to prove the theme. First-person diminishes the distance between writer and reader. I want my voice to sound as if the story is a confidence shared between this reader and a best friend.
Books are good companions in a lonely world. By reading between the lines of letters they write and by asking, when I meet them, what their favorite TV shows are. Because like it or not, TV is the only ex- perience the entire youthful generation has in common. To watch what they watch and try to see it through their eyes is one way of trying to bridge the generation gap.
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We have already defused two formerly taboo words--race and sex, but we haven't begun to explore an even more important sub ject--class. I mean social class. The social structure of a school, whether it be warring street gangs or fraternities and sororities, makes all young people class-conscious and some of them feel like rejects. More novels that ask adolescents to evaluate the class structure they set up for themselves would be very welcome.
It may turn out to be more a book about the young than for the young, but I think it is important because it recognizes that adults—responsible parents and teachers—play a far smaller role in their children's lives than they think.