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And Still the Story — The Zena Sutherland Lecture

The day approaches when the speaker who has the honor of this podium will not remember Zena Sutherland personally, but the writers of my generation knew her, and like every writer since, I have a career that owes her a debt. For all of us who write for the young and the half-grown; for all of us who believe that picture-book illustration had better not be second-rate art; for all of us who believe that childhood is a jungle, not a garden; for all of us who believe the story still stands because fiction can be truer than fact, Zena Sutherland remains both godmother and midwife, with her neat cuffs turned back and plenty of hot water on the boil.

It still matters to us here in the twenty-first century that the great revolution in books for the young, the great turning-away from the parochial sanctimony of before, the great revolution of the young themselves, coincided with the high noon of Zena’s career. She was a university faculty member, but her field was “children’s literature,” and so she flew beneath the radar of the “political correctionists.” In fact, she embodied Robert Conquest’s famous axiom that “everyone is a reactionary about subjects he understands.”

With a cool asperity, she believed that the young deserve a well-crafted story — and that they could take it. That the narrative is a structure strong and supple enough to tell the traditional tale while tumbling taboos. That sentimentality is the enemy of both literature and politics. That you can pity the young or prepare them for the world, but you cannot do both.

When Robert Cormier spoke from this podium, he recalled that when she arranged to meet him at Midway Airport, Zena sang down the phone, “Be down to get you in a taxi, honey.” Cormier wrote the signal young adult novel of the second half of the American twentieth century, The Chocolate War, a novel that will be read a century hence because it finds the pivotal moment in all our American history, that time — somewhere in the 1970s — when the balance tipped, and power passed from adults to the young. That time after which teachers had to defer to their students in order to keep their jobs. Cormier captured the epiphanic moment that Lord Byron called “fate changing horses.” It was 1973. President Nixon abolished the military draft, thus removing the last adult constraint upon the young, and adolescence turned back upon itself. Since nobody but a reader ever became a writer, Cormier’s work was an American echo of a foreign novel that broke over our generation when we were young, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, a novel from 1954 that seemed to be about little British schoolboys beached on a distant desert island but was, in fact, a fearful metaphor of the tribal world the young will create in the absence of adult authority, the society the young conduct in a parent-free universe. The Chocolate War was a riveting portrait of the peer-group leadership the young set up over themselves when adult authority fails them. Because the end was realistically grim — PW called the book “anti-Catholic” — the guardians of the young and their books were dismayed. But Zena Sutherland wasn’t, and Cormier credited her with saving a book that has since become a benchmark. Because in these thirty-some years since, every digital advance, every blue-tooth breakthrough, and  every text message sent from the back of a classroom has only strengthened the hold peer groups have upon the young. There was a time in living memory when parents feared a phone call from school, and now the school fears a phone call from the parent — in an era where children fear only each other.

* * *

For me, being born was like coming into a play at intermission. When I could make sense of the babble of voices around me, they were all adults recalling how much better life was before I got there. I was born at the nadir of the market crash with all the world in ruins and my dad back in overalls. But if I stood up in my little bed with the sides, I could just about reach over to open the top drawer of his dresser. In that top drawer were treasures: a red Shriner’s fez with black tassel and bejeweled scimitar, a fringed white silk evening scarf that was going nowhere now, and, by far the best, a blue-black Lugar pistol my dad had taken off a dead German in World War I. But the party was over.

I was the antithesis of the permissively reared child. I thought life had stopped with my birth. It was a world of world-weary elders who had known better days. But a lot of fiction comes from “shabby gentility” — Eudora Welty built a whole world upon it. The brick street that was my world was called Dennis Ave., in Decatur, Illinois. It was a leafy byway becalmed by the Great Depression, a landscape of old folks on porch swings, monitoring the street, of hectic Halloweens and firefly summer evenings.

My mother — who never reminisced — read to me before I could read for myself, and so I wanted to be a writer before I could read. And what my mother read was the literature of the past. One day my aunt came into the room and said, “What are you reading to him?”

Through the Looking-Glass,” my mother said.

“What’s it about?” my aunt asked.

“I wish I knew,” my mother said.

And I was hooked right there. I had assumed my mother knew everything, but these pages had depths she hadn’t plumbed. I wanted in the game right then. I still do.

I learned vocabulary from these stories and from a childhood spent under tables and behind doors — trying to decode adults, because in those days adults ruled the world. In truth, my favorite stories weren’t the ones Mother read to me; my favorite stories were the ones adults were telling each other and then stopped when a kid came into the room. I found you learned the most when nobody knew you were there — the key to a writing career.

When I could trail my dad to his work, I lurked, all ears, near the paperboys who rolled their newspapers in his filling station. They were adult-size — but better — and I learned a rich, robust vocabulary from them that I had just sense enough not to take home and show Mother. From the paperboys, I learned vocabulary, viewpoint, and the bare beginnings of discretion. (Or, as we call it, editing.)

I grew up in a wider world, outnumbered by the elderly and their pithy yarns. I listened to the old men who hung out on the pump island of my dad’s filling station as they recalled riding “the great wheel,” history’s first Ferris wheel, at the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. A lifetime later, when I was an old man myself, I wrote a novel called Fair Weather. (Not because I’d been to the fair, but because I hadn’t!) If the elders who crowded my coming-of-age had conspired to make me a writer of historical fiction, they couldn’t have done better. But I took a long detour. Most people have to be something else on their ways to a writing career — I had to be a teacher of English. Writing was my first dream, but teaching was my first love, and though it ended in tears, it brought me here.

* * *

I’d begun teaching in the brilliant sunset of the American Public School System. Then — somewhere in the late 1960s, between one semester and the next — the authority of the American family collapsed and took the school system with it. When historical eras end, they end quickly. A lot of us soldiered on until
the revolution cornered us in our classrooms. Our suddenly shaggy students turned the sullen eyes of strangers upon us. We turned to Joan Didion. In the faculty lounge, we passed around her essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and saw our students in her words:

These were children who grew up cut loose from the web of cousins and great-aunts and family doctors and lifelong neighbors who had traditionally suggested and enforced the society’s values…They are less in rebellion against the society than ignorant of it.

And since Joan Didion was one of us—tart-tongued—she also wrote:

As it happens I am still committed to the idea that the ability to think for one’s self depends upon one’s mastery of the language, and I am not optimistic about children who will settle for saying, to indicate  that their mother and father do not live together, that they come from “a broken home.” (We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, 2007)

But everything was broken by then, and the young marched away from learning in search of stronger leaders than they would permit parents and teachers to be. And now the people of that generation are the tenured faculty and the parents. We wondered what kind of parents they would be, and now we know.

But revolutions always create new literatures — as well as fewer freedoms than before — and that one created the young adult novel. Robert Cormier wrote The Chocolate War, and I quit my job. But then, the only way you can write is by the light of the bridges burning behind you.

After all these years, I still think of my book chapters as the length and shape of class periods. And both jobs — teaching and writing — are meant to make something coherent happen within the strict limitations of time. A class period is an arbitrary shape with a bell ringing at either end of it. So is a novel.

It was teaching that gave me the principal theme of all my writing, teaching in an age of elective learning for the permissively theme, I will tell you. You learn the most from the experience you’d have avoided if you could. Nobody learns much from an elective course. My principal theme eventually led me — all unknowing — to the character who was to change my life and my career: Grandma Dowdel. She has no first name. No one would dare use it. She is a woman who looms so large it took two books (A Long Way from Chicago and A Year Down Yonder) to encompass her. Grandma Dowdel and the letters she receives teach me once again how hungry are the young for stronger adults than they can find in their lives.

* * *

The YA novel in its first flowering was almost by definition a contemporary novel on an issue unearthed or created by the “Great Revolution.” And I’d just left the classroom, my head ringing with issues in my students’ lives that had never arisen in mine. Fiction runs hard to keep pace with its readers’ lives, but no generation of writers had to run harder in pursuit of a young readership who kept finding new ways to keep their elders and the future at bay. And still contemporary life — every shot that rang out — gave us new subject matter. I woke up one brilliant September morning in 2001 in New York to see the shape of my own life: a Pearl Harbor at either end of it. When we writers could get our acts on the road again, I, for one, went off on school visits with new purpose. Now that we learned again that geography is no defense against history, I went forth to see how the teaching of history was being revised in the light of this hard-won lesson. What classroom change had the signal event of our times wrought? After all, it was history repeating itself: once again, we were at the mercy of suicide bombers as in the kamikaze Pacific theater of WWII; once again, we were faced by an ideology that demands world domination as in those forty Cold War years; once again rose the ashen specter of anti-Semitism. But as far as I could see, the collapse of the World Trade Center towers hadn’t made a dent in the curriculum. And what can I do about that? I can only spend the rest of my career in writing fiction with period settings, hoping to bootleg a little history to a generation who aren’t learning much at school. Of course, all novels are historical novels before the ink is dry, and that goes double when your readers can’t remember the twentieth century.

But another necessary contribution of the narrative is about how history repeats. How even your most secret sorrow is shared by people long before your time, far from where you are, on and off the page. And once we were at war again, my mind went back to WWII. Those were my grade-school years, a red-white-and-blue boyhood of saving stamps, victory gardens, bond rallies, ration books, scrap drives, Rosie the Riveter, meatless Tuesdays, loose lips, and the black velvet of nights during air raid drills. It seemed the place to try to take young readers for whom the present war is only the distant thunder of adults disagreeing.

But someone else always has to give me a push. In a visit to a Texas school, I encountered a seventh-grade English teacher who was studying WWII entirely through the pages of YA novels: Goodnight, Mr. Tom, Under the Blood-Red Sun, Number the Stars, Summer of My German Soldier, and Jerry Spinelli’s splendid Milkweed. These are novels written right at readers who come to seventh grade knowing no more about WWII than Game Boy Nazis. People who have never asked grandparents about their war. These are novels to make the point that in wartime being young is not a neutral country.

Before you can invite the young into the past, you have to find the parallels, history repeating. And anyone who thinks that everybody was on the same page about WWII wasn’t there. There were people with family in Germany, Italy, Japan. There were WWI veterans who believed they’d been betrayed. I knew one well. When I entered my second-grade classroom in 1941 as a seven-year-old and saw the portrait of FDR on the wall above the chalkboard — by the flag! — I went white with horror. His name couldn’t be mentioned at home. Still, we all went to war, and it was the last war when parents and their children fought on the same side. And so it was time to write On the Wings of Heroes about a homefront boyhood, about a boy who’s wearing my knickers and who’s riding my bike. But he isn’t me, because he never is. In the shape of the story, he has to grow up more quickly than I did to provide some role-modeling for a young generation who are growing up so much more slowly than I did.

I am a writer because I didn’t come from a “child-centered home” and so I could hear the voices of those who’d come before me, for a story is only as strong as its voice. And I’m a writer because my mother read to me before I could read for myself, and a story depends upon the rhythms of spoken speech. And I’m a writer because my grade-school teachers did not read aloud to me — we did vocabulary drill so we could read for ourselves.

I conclude with a quiet master of the form, Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Last year she broke a long silence to recall her childhood of being read to before she went to school — as she says, of “Uncle Wiggly at bedtime.” “Now,” Harper Lee writes, “75 years later in an abundant society where people have laptops, cellphones, iPods, and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books.” And so do we all — plod along with books. A nation is only as strong as the stories it tells its young.


 

Richard Peck lives with an electric typewriter in New York City. He delivered the Zena Sutherland Lecture, from which this article is adapted, on May 4, 2007, in Chicago. From the November/December 2007 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Richard Peck About Richard Peck

Richard Peck’s latest book is Secrets at Sea (Dial), illustrated by Kelly Murphy.

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