This article is adapted from the keynote speech author Richard Peck delivered at the Horn Book at Simmons Colloquium, “Engaging Worlds, Real and Imagined,” on October 1, 2011.
Ladies and gentlemen, winners of the Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards, people of the book…
We gather to ask our annual question: “Can there still be books for the young?” Even now, in these darkening days, while Barnes & Noble eats independent booksellers, and Amazon eats Barnes & Noble. New problems to mask the old ones we never solved, since you can still sit out twelve years of school in the “remedial” program not because you’re “learning disabled” but because you aren’t home at night. Can our books still tell their stories in the age of the “digitally reduced attention span”? Can we still reach a generation whose own parents lost eye contact with them long ago? In the full knowledge that there is no app for eye contact…
Oh, yes. The answer is yes because never have the young needed us more. Never has a young generation on their way to adulthood lived this far from adults. Never has a generation needed an adult voice more, if only on the page and well disguised.
I am with you today—with my forthcoming book throbbing in my hand—from the great colloquium and continuum of writers, living and dead. We march in a proud tradition. I am with you this morning because a high-school girl twenty years my junior and 1,500 miles away once wrote a book called The Outsiders. And while New York publishers didn’t know where Tulsa was, they were alert to a vast and overlooked readership soon to be called YAs, “young adults.” Though they weren’t YAs at all. They were PLs—the pubescent literate, a despised minority even then.
I’m with you because a New Jersey housewife wrote a book called Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, bringing down upon her head the wrath of mothers for the signal reason that she was making contact with their daughters just as they were losing it.
And I’m certainly with you this morning because in my early years as a writer, the most important American novel of the second half of the twentieth century broke over all our heads. It was Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War, a novel that after thirty-eight years is as new as the dystopic titles on this year’s lists—because of its stunning portrayal of the peer group leader the young always set up over themselves when adult authority fails them. That book was never newer than now, when the peer group leaders can monitor electronically around the clock their followers and enemies.
Though I could never be Robert Cormier, I knew on the day I finished reading The Chocolate War that writing for the young was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. And so I did. I have been a writer for forty years—and forty books. In fact, I’ve been a writer for forty years, three months, and six days—after seventh period. I was a teacher who was going to have to leave the classroom in order to communicate with the young. I’d have been a teacher unto the end had I been allowed to teach as I’d been taught, but when teachers are more tired at the end of the school day than the students, the wrong people are being educated.
I was an English teacher, of course. What else is there? Because if you cannot use language, it will be used against you. And because I believe in the moral superiority of the semi-colon.
On a June day in the midst of life, I quit my teaching job. I turned in my tenure and my attendance book—which was my first work of fiction—and went home to write or die. And now I stand before you forty years later with my fortieth book in my hand, still working the New England territory, like the third act of Death of a Salesman. The book is called Secrets at Sea. It is my first anthropomorphic novel. I have labored forty years and brought forth a mouse.
Throughout those forty years, there have always been two items on my desk: a manuscript struggling to be born and a book by somebody else. Because nobody but a reader ever became a writer. We write in admiration of better writers than we are. As William Ralph Inge once said, “Originality is undetected plagiarism.” The book on my desk these days is Stuart Little by E. B. White.
It is Stuart Little because I’m looking for a sequel to Secrets at Sea—another story in the voice of a mouse, a rodent viewpoint. Viewpoint is everything: the one voice our stories never need is ours. And so I need all the help I can get, from a writer who’s walked that way himself and got a book out of it still selling briskly sixty-six years later. I can’t tell you exactly what I’m getting out of Stuart Little. Certainly not tips for plot—Stuart Little is episodic in a way my editor would discourage. And the conclusion is inconclusive. And I’m not picking up hints for dealing with the implausibility of an anthropomorphic character. Not from a story in which a mouse is born into a human family and only days later is wearing a hat and carrying a cane and speaking like E. B. White.
No, I’m not getting pointers from Stuart Little—I’m getting companionship from E. B. White, dead these many years. That’s an advantage of our field: we can talk to dead people. And we need to because writing is the loneliest job in the world. Writing is sitting in an empty room trying to make a blank page speak in voices that are not ours. We need to because being a writer is remembering your roots and the rich history of writing for the young.
Speaking of history—Stuart Little was published in 1945, antique times indeed. A world of 10 cent rides up 5th Avenue on double-decker buses. A world when the school day began with a pledge of allegiance to the flag. In 1945, the president of the United States—Franklin Delano Roosevelt—died in the arms of his mistress, Mrs. Rutherfurd, and the entire American press corps thought that the reading—and voting—public would be better off not knowing that. The president was a helpless cripple, too, and we weren’t to know that, either. Not quite “freedom of information” in the current climate of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange; of self-inflicted crotch shots. Or are there still things they aren’t telling us?
In 1945 Stuart Little’s publication set off a ripple of its own. In fact, E. B. White was in trouble from the first line. Here is that famous beginning:
When Mrs. Frederick C. Little’s second son arrived, everybody noticed that he was not much bigger than a mouse. The truth of the matter was, the baby looked very much like a mouse in every way. He was only about two inches high; and he had a mouse’s sharp nose, a mouse’s tail, a mouse’s whiskers, and the pleasant, shy manner of a mouse.
You might think the entire literacy establishment would fall back in admiration of opening lines of this magisterial simplicity, this invitational rhythm. But no. There was concern among some librarians about a woman giving birth to a mouse. Something a little gynecologically unnerving; something a little ob-gyn dodgy. It was 1945. Hitler’s death camps were opened, and the Russians raped Berlin. It was the year of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—the end of the most destructive war in human history, with fifty million dead. But there was some concern in certain circles over Stuart Little. And the book might fare no better today. Let us read on:
Mr. and Mrs. Little named him Stuart, and Mr. Little made him a tiny bed out of four clothespins and a cigarette box.
A cigarette box? The entire world of children’s books is now a strictly smoke-free zone, though the nearest schoolyard to my house isn’t. And there’s more trouble on page 122, in that conversation between Stuart and a girl named Harriet Ames:
Harriet was for fixing the canoe up and going out on the river anyway, but Stuart couldn’t stand that idea.
“It’s no use,” he said bitterly, “it wouldn’t be the same.”
“The same as what?” asked Harriet.
“The same as the way it was going to be, when I was thinking about it yesterday. I’m afraid a woman can’t understand these things.”
But then Margaret Mitchell couldn’t get Gone with the Wind published today. And we don’t live in times of greater intellectual freedom than in 1945. Twenty-five years ago a parent personally removed a book of mine from a high school library. The book was my best, a book called Remembering the Good Times, written to dramatize the classic signs of adolescent suicide. And that parent feared that if her son found out about suicide, he might want to try it.
Two years ago a book of mine called A Season of Gifts, starring my most popular character, Grandma Dowdel, endured an internet attack because in it an old lady pretends that her pumpkin patch is haunted by the ghost of a Kickapoo Indian princess.
No book, no word, is safe, and we are battered by left and right. When the attack comes from the family values right, it provokes outrage. And when the attack issues from the multicultural left, it inspires fear. But then we who write for the young are held to a higher standard, and always were, and regularly by people who never read a word we ever wrote.
And so, why has Stuart Little, this badly dated, politically incorrect book, turned out to be timeless? It’s not for its diction. E. B. White could give a newborn mouse an adult vocabulary because the children of 1945 could hear adult voices. They—we—were getting our language and our rules from adults—the overlapping parent and teacher; the grandparents monitoring the street from the front porch; even the cop on the beat. And now the young who text from the dinner table and sleep with their phones receive their language and their orders from their peer group leaders, people with no more vocabulary than themselves. Ya know? It’s like…they only hear each other.
And so why does Stuart Little live, on and off my desk? He lives because he’s the smallest, youngest, most vulnerable, easily overlooked character in the story, and its hero. He’s the intended reader with pointed ears and a tail tacked on. He’s an engraved invitation to the reader to step into the page and star in the show. And apart from his preposterously articulate voice, he’s not E. B. White. Because a story had better never be the autobiography of the author. A story had far better be the biography of the person the reader would like to be.
Writing is the most uncentering of experiences, and we really have nothing to say until we get ourselves off the page, off the stage, and let our readers become our characters, try them on for size. And so here is the sacred secret of what we do—and we need to share this with the creative writing teacher: a story is always about something that never happened to the author. E. B. White was never a mouse, or a spider. And Beatrix Potter was never a rabbit. J. K. Rowling did not attend Hogwarts. And Gary Paulsen was never dropped down in the wilderness with nothing in his hand but a hatchet. Stephenie Meyer was never bitten by a you-know-what. We write from observation, not experience. From research, not recollection. All fiction is based on research. We don’t write what we know. We write what we can find out. Every book begins in the library in the hope that it will end there.
We create characters who never were, for a readership of people we never were: people born in the twenty-first century whose school days begin not with a pledge of allegiance to the flag but with the message texted from one row of the classroom to another. Allegiance to quite another power.
And what have we—we people in this room—to offer the young their peer group leaders cannot?
Because all books are history books before the ink is dry and the pub date due. And our books may be the only history our readers ever learn, in school and college to come. Because they’re not learning sequential history and how it repeats, and how to recognize the past when it comes round again: the purpose of education. A poll of high school seniors conducted this past year asked them what country we fought in the American Revolution. As many seniors said Spain as said England, and France came a close third. It’s worse than that, as we know, for the permissively reared majority who believe that history began with their births and geography is wherever they are.
And so they need us—and every story we can think of to tell them about how history repeats, in every human heart. Stories set against geographies that invite them into wider worlds—because we never, ever, write about anybody who can move home. Our stories must end with more hope than that.
It’s said that through their literature, the English invented childhood. And so perhaps that’s where our history began…back in the century when booksellers were the publishers. And a bookseller named John Newbery who kept his shop hard by the walls of St. Paul’s Cathedral published Goody Two-Shoes and a Mother Goose collection. And so we began to be—down a lazy river with two boys on a raft, the river and the raft upon which American literature began. We march in a tradition that has survived much. We’ve survived Louisa May Alcott’s tireless attempts to ban Huck Finn. And we’ve survived Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy—that Freudian nightmare in a velvet suit cut from his mother’s skirts (that hurts). And now we’re up against the commercialized cynicism of “SparkNotes,” while in the near distance the text and the tweet bomb the ruins of our language.
But just think of all the places we’ve gone in our unfurling tradition. All the places we’ve taken our young, down all the years and the twists and turns of the yellow brick road. Through The Phantom Tollbooth to The House at Pooh Corner and over the Bridge to Terabithia into Tom’s Midnight Garden. All the engaging worlds—real and imagined. All those places where the wild things are. All those swiftly tilting planets within the covers of books. All the places we’ve been…and all the places we have yet to go. All in order to tell the young the truth—a truth they will hear from no one but us: that if you cannot find yourself on the page very early in life, you will go looking for yourself in all the wrong places.