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The Sand in the Oyster: Looking for YA Lit

The Kerlan. A name invoked in hushed tones by devotees of children’s literature. A sort of heaven where manuscripts of the books we love go to be preserved forever. A collection of 100,000 books, as well as 16,000 files of holographs, typescripts, page proofs, artwork, editorial letters, and other assorted contents of authors’ office closets. Official title: The Kerlan Collection of Children’s Literature, part of the Children’s Literature Research Collections at the University of Minnesota.

Okay, but what’s in it for young adult literature advocates? How much of this mighty collection relates to books for teens, and what can researchers in that genre discover there? Checking out the website and perusing the online catalog, I find that, although the collection’s declared focus is children’s literature, a number of familiar YA writers appear to be represented. I spot some omissions (Avi, Joan Bauer, Virginia Euwer Wolff), and when I use the “Finding Aids” to check the contents of individual author files, I discover that some writers I think of as YA (Richard Peck, Jane Yolen) have donated mostly their children’s titles to the Kerlan. Still, there is enough enticing young adult material in the online catalog to motivate me to book an investigative flight to Minneapolis and plan a visit with the help of the collection’s curator, Karen Hoyle.

The campus of the University of Minnesota is huge. There are miles of square red-brick buildings, the Mississippi River, and one utterly outrageous metal-clad building designed by Frank Gehry. Finding the Kerlan’s offices in the Andersen Library, I am welcomed warmly into the large, well-lighted workroom by curator Hoyle, who emerges from among the congestion of files and book trucks in a sturdy librarian’s work apron. Mozart is playing softly in the background, and staff are working busily at their desks. Hoyle assigns me a locked cupboard to store everything I have brought along — standard security procedure, not so much for the safeguarding of my belongings as for the protection of the rare documents housed here.

Hoyle fills me in on the background of the collection. It was established in the 1940s by University of Minnesota alumnus Dr. Irvin Kerlan, former chief of medical research for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. He collected rare children’s books as a hobby, acquiring the best books published each year along with classics and past Newbery winners. Later he also pursued background material and original manuscripts and organized exhibitions of his collection for libraries and art galleries all over the world. In 1949 he made arrangements with the university to house his collection, and after his death in 1963 a staff was provided to supervise further development of the archive. Karen Hoyle has been the curator since 1967 and has built not only an expanding collection but also an extensive program of exhibits, speakers, awards, loan portfolios for schools, scholarships for researchers, and a very active Kerlan Friends organization.

At Hoyle’s suggestion, I had sorted through the catalog at home and requested the files on twenty-four YA authors, giving preference to those that seemed to have promising amounts of correspondence or corrected early manuscripts. When I am ushered into the glass-enclosed reading room, those files await me — four book trucks stacked with fifty-six file boxes, assembled by library assistant Meredith Gillies, a willing and helpful aide during my stay. It’s clearly too much of a good thing for the three days I have available, but I thank her and happily carry the first box to my table.

The boxes are filled with meticulously indexed folders that contain the manuscripts. My first discovery is a disappointment: many of the files contain only clean final typescripts, or page proofs, nearly identical to the printed book. All those early mistakes and wrong turns that are so revealing of the writing process have been spirited away by the delete key, leaving only the finished work.

However, I persevere and soon hit pay dirt. In the Gary Paulsen boxes I find several partial manuscripts of Caught by the Sea that are rich with the editor’s penciled comments. A close examination of these notes shows that the editor worked with Paulsen’s trademark style to make it even more clipped and direct — sentences are shortened, syntax is simplified. A close look at the editing on another nonfiction Paulsen title, Guts, is also interesting, especially the juicy fact that the original title — which thankfully didn’t survive — was “Eating Eyeballs and Guts.”

I move on to find a treasure: the four-year correspondence between author Chris Lynch and editor Ginee Seo that shaped the remarkable YA novel Inexcusable. This material is just waiting for a dissertation. Seo’s long letters of critical analysis, her questions clarifying characters and motivations, are too good to be hidden away in the archives. And her letters are covered with Lynch’s handwritten reactions and his plans for changes. The whole exchange is an example of the writer/editor partnership at its best.

In occasional files I notice a thread of editorial struggle with those pesky f- and s-words. Several editors wonder if the awkwardness of asking the author to clean up the language is worth the increased likelihood of school use. This evidence of a perennial debate alerts me to a gap in the otherwise excellent access to the collection and one that could form the basis for a future project. Although there is a two-volume book index of authors, titles, editors, and subjects (The Kerlan Collection: Manuscripts and Illustrations), subject access through this and the online checklist is limited to the major topics of the books themselves, not the editorial content of the files. Researchers looking for letters from teens themselves, discussions of age suitability, or specific topics such as censorship must depend on their knowledge of the field to guide them to the most likely author files in which to find that material.

I tear myself away from these fascinating explorations when a young student staffer, Marit McCluske, offers to show me the Kerlan stacks, an archive eighty-two feet underground that the staff calls “the Cavern.” Aptly named, I find, when we descend into the vast, cold concrete space. Here on the lower of two levels the file-crammed stacks soar over fifty feet high, and the upper shelves must be reached by a motorized cherry picker driven by a certified driver, or, in a pinch, a scary climb on a tall metal ladder. Double walls insulate the rooms, in which temperature and humidity are carefully controlled to preserve the files and 100,000 books.

Back in the warm reading room, I plunge into the boxes of files on the making of Lois Lowry’s The Giver. Here I am amused to see her three editors struggling with Lowry’s deliciously ambiguous ending. Again and again they try to spell out to themselves and to one another what it could mean, and again and again they plead for clarification from the author, only to have her persist with her original and utterly right ambiguity almost without change. She even adds a few lines to the last chapter in the final galley so her concluding words will appear in the most effective placement on the printed page. Other notes from the editors and from Lowry to herself focus on moving the writing toward consistency in this imagined world (“delete all references to love”). An additional file of letters documents a particularly naive censorship challenge, in which some parents seemed to think that Lowry was offering the dystopia she had created as an ideal world.

I search further and discover another rich archive in the correspondence generated by Marion Dane Bauer in creating Am I Blue?, her landmark anthology of gay and lesbian short stories. Chatty letters to and from contributors, and also from writers reluctantly turning Bauer down, reveal the evolution of the work from an insider’s point of view. A particularly interesting angle is that the book was originally contracted by Delacorte editor David Gale, who shortly thereafter moved to HarperCollins, whereupon Delacorte editor in chief Craig Virden graciously allowed Bauer to cancel her contract and move to Harper with Gale. And a year after James Cross Giblin, Bauer’s usual editor at Clarion, had turned down the book because he felt it wouldn’t sell, the files show him submitting a short story for the anthology. There are also many letters from gay and lesbian teens thanking Bauer for the support her book gave them.

For the first two days I have the whole reading room to myself, although there are volunteers from Kerlan Friends working away at indexing and filing to make the collection more accessible. But on the third day a young woman and her retired librarian mother join me, having come simply to enjoy the glories of the Kerlan. They sit at the next table wearing the obligatory white gloves required for turning the pages of the collection’s most impressive holding: the original India ink drawings by Wanda Gàg for Millions of Cats. Visitors, graduate students, classes, and scholars who come to use the collection are listed in the Kerlan newsletter, and there seems to be a steady stream of them, if not a rushing river; the staff also fields brief reference questions over the phone or through e-mail.

In the files for Nancy Garden’s The Year They Burned the Books, I encounter the inevitable difficulty of researching original manuscripts. Both the manuscript and editor Margaret Ferguson’s letters to Garden are interspersed with many small paragraphs in tiny blue script, but in a maddeningly illegible hand. My curiosity outweighs my frustration, though, and I uncover cryptic notes like “instructions to self,” lists of which characters are sitting in which classes at a given time, and monologues by those characters, evidently written just for practice.

But the archive for Harry Mazer’s The Last Mission is a satisfying feast. Here I find pages and pages of notes containing the author’s memories of the World War II bombing raid and plane crash that was the basis for the novel, detailed drawings and notes for a cover that was never used, and several stream-of-consciousness musings on the theme of war. “What is my conviction about this book?” he asks himself. Equally fascinating is the correspondence between Mazer and other veterans that followed the publication of his story in the 8th Air Force News. One former flyer writes, breathtakingly, “Our plane was directly in back of yours. We saw you go down.”

My time is up. I reluctantly close the last file box, hoping fervently that the Kerlan will come to be a final resting place for more and more YA manuscripts (the messier the better) and that many more students and scholars will flock to this literary nirvana to document the movement and meaning of young adult literature.

From the January/February 2007 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

About Patty Campbell

Patty Campbell, a longtime young adult literature specialist, is the author of Robert Cormier: Daring to Disturb the Universe (Delacorte, 2006).

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