Disturbing the Universe: Books That Broke the Rules

Betsy Hearne and I have been colleagues for forty years, including working together for a decade at The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books. Below, we discuss some landmark rule breakers from our collective memory. —R.S.

ROGER SUTTON: So here we are: two longtime reviewers remembering books that broke the rules, whether aesthetically, politically, in terms of subject matter, or anything else.

BETSY HEARNE: The first thing that occurred to me is that no book is an island. Books evolve in kind of a conversation with one another over decades. Let’s talk about the six decades between 1960 and 2020, because that was the period when children’s book publishing exploded. It had been expanding, but it really blew the roof off then. Certainly, 1963 was a watershed.

RS: Was that when Where the Wild Things Are came out?

BH: 1963, Where the Wild Things Are. 1964, Harriet the Spy. 1965, Jazz Country. All controversial rule breakers, but regarded so differently. Where the Wild Things Are was reviewed and given awards. Harriet the Spy was roundly rejected by libraries and ALA recommendations, but survived. Nat Hentoff’s Jazz Country did not survive; it’s long out of print. One of the characters is an African American jazz musician who gets attacked by the police and injured. It was really startling at the time to see police depicted as racist bad guys.

RS: Today we have many books about Black kids experiencing police brutality; it’s practically a subgenre of young adult literature. But a white person, a Nat Hentoff, couldn’t tell that story today.

BH: There are a lot of questions about whose story, and whose rules are being broken. I’m thinking of when Julius Lester, who was African American, adapted the Uncle Remus stories, and June Jordan, who was also African American, wrote a New York Times book review in which she slammed him for resurrecting the tales because of their racist stereotypes.

RS: That’s funny, because when I think of June Jordan, I think of her own truly iconoclastic novel His Own Where (1971), which was Romeo and Juliet told in what I think would have been called at the time “Black English,” but was really her own linguistic creation. It was like nothing else being published then.

BH: Right. It also addressed teenage and adult crossover audiences in ways that later became much more common. For example, Shizuko’s Daughter (1993) by Kyoko Mori, about a girl who finds her mother dead by suicide. Or Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief (2006).

RS: Those books showed us where YA was headed next. The audience got older — high school instead of middle school. The books got more sophisticated. But I sometimes want to shake young YA writers, because they’ll say, “They didn’t have young adult when I was young…” when, as you point out, it goes way back. Nat Hentoff. S. E. Hinton.

BH: Paul Zindel. He introduced the idea of two different viewpoints, the alternating narrative (The Pigman, 1968). Later we began to have several narrators or narrative formats, as in Avi’s Nothing but the Truth (1992) and E. L. Konigsburg’s The View from Saturday (1996), which put the onus on readers to decide what the real story is, because every character has a different take on it. That was really a new development, as was the unreliable narrator in books like Brock Cole’s The Facts Speak for Themselves (1997).

RS: How do we know a rule breaker when we see one?

BH: To recognize a rule breaker, you have to know the traditions that have been broken. I’m thinking about Penelope Lively, who was very traditional in the difference between her children’s and adult books. Both sets of books addressed the presence of the past in our lives. But her fiction technique in children’s books involves supernatural manifestations and ghostly characters or time-travel plots, while her adult novels use a psychological layering of recollection, flashback, and shifting viewpoints. Her stories project children’s experience as a spectrum and adults’ as a kaleidoscope. Children are literally haunted, and adults are figuratively haunted. But during that period, there is an increase in psychological probing in children’s books, and an increase in fragmented narrative strategies. The young reader has to figure out what’s happening.

RS: My master’s thesis was about happy endings in young adult novels; except for some real outliers like Robert Cormier, those books were pretty tidy in the 1970s. Sympathetic kid has a problem, or her friend has a problem, we learn about the problem, and then the problem is at least on the way to being addressed by the end of the book. But that’s not true in young adult literature these days.

BH: Yeah, I’m back to my idea of a conversation — that you can’t have the present without the past. In Julia Cunningham’s Dorp Dead (1965) someone says to the main character, “You’re a real disturbance to us all,” and that’s a key point in this story of an orphan who’s facing violence at the hands of a ­terrible villain. In 1974 Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War was published, with its famous quote: “Do I dare disturb the universe?” That question of young protagonists being a “disturbance” is key to both books, a decade apart. There are so many rule breakers that reflect sociocultural change and pave the way for literary change. Would we have Walter Mosley’s 47 (2005), without Julius Lester’s To Be a Slave (1968)? Would we have Gudrun Pausewang’s 1992 The Final Journey without Milton Meltzer’s 1976 Never to Forget? Did the surrealism of Virginia Hamilton’s M.C. Higgins, the Great in 1974 affect the climate for Louis Sachar’s Holes in 1998? Some of those rule ­breakers led to later trends.

RS: But some of them didn’t. Dorp Dead was this weird experimental novel. We didn’t see a rush of other novels like that, but as you’re suggesting, it did bring into the genre of children’s books a new possibility that could be picked up on decades later, consciously or unconsciously. I also think of some of those Brit books the Horn Book loved, such as Alan Garner’s Red Shift. Brilliant but un-succeeded. Still, they do let writers and editors think, “If that could be published…” Um, I don’t know if I like where this is headed!

BH: You and me both. But look at the 1960s and the darkness that era introduced, which continued through His Dark Materials and beyond. It’s like the era opened up a window to the night that was not present in children’s books before that.

RS: If we start in 1960, going forward to today, do you see a pretty consistent opening up of subject and technique in children’s writing or illustration?

BH: Yes. Take the subject of child abuse. I’m thinking of The Girl Who Lived on the Ferris Wheel (1979) by Louise Moeri, which featured not just an abusive mother but a mother who planned to kill her daughter. There had certainly been child neglect and cruel characters in historical children’s literature, but this idea of horrific parental or family abuse had not appeared before that in children’s books.

Also, aesthetically (my favorite), there was a folk- and fairy-tale shift. We’d had fairy tales and folklore mostly presented with a kind of reverence, solemnity — this is ancient tradition. And then suddenly we were seeing all these gender benders and satires and hero-villain reversals, as in Donna Jo Napoli’s The Magic Circle (1993).

RS: Or all the Stinky Cheeses.

BH: Yes, that was the next one out of my mouth! Those were aesthetic shifts. They were a shift in not just attitude, but treatment throughout the aesthetics of the book.

RS: It’s interesting to me that today, it’s really hard to find traditional tellings of “Goldilocks,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” whatever. They just aren’t being published the way that they used to. The parodies are still among us, and the odd twists. But I think back to when you and I worked together, when there was a picture-book boom. Writers and publishers and artists were raiding all corners of the globe for “Cinderella” variations, generally lushly illustrated and expensively produced. That seems to be largely gone. But maybe that’s cyclical.

BH: I think it’s all about cycles, personally, but I’ve lived a long time, Roger. We’re talking about darkness and serious stuff, but I also think about humor, for instance, as introduced into nonfiction. It’s Perfectly Normal (1994) by Robie Harris, which is a comic presentation of sexuality through Michael Emberley’s cheerful pictures and the narrative’s light tone. Or So You Want to Be President? (2000) by Judith St. George, which treats a political subject playfully. That reminds me of Jean Fritz’s biography series, beginning with George Washington’s Breakfast (1969), which introduced humor where there used to be reverence. There was a change in mindset: this can be fun.

On the other hand, a rule maker may become a rule breaker, such as Russell Freedman with all of his carefully researched nonfiction and photobiographies. He introduced new rules. The older nonfiction often didn’t feature any research, references, or range of viewpoints on a subject. He broke the rules in a nonconfrontational, noncontroversial way, and that set a whole tone for children’s nonfiction for decades.

RS: And here’s where critics got into the rule changing, too: you demanding source notes for folktales and Hazel Rochman at Booklist demanding notes and sources for nonfiction. But there we see a further shift. I think about Elizabeth Partridge and Marc Aronson and Steve Sheinkin, people actually doing original primary-source research for children’s nonfiction, when in the past it would have been secondary sources.

BH: Right, exactly.

RS: Back to fiction, a funny thing just occurred to me. George (2015) by Alex Gino broke the rules as one of the first books about a transgender child, and written for fourth graders. But it made me remember Konigsburg’s 1968 novel (George), with its rule-breaking parentheses in the title! Very different books, the Konigsburg more aesthetically experimental, but both novels are all about individual identity.

BH: There’s that conversation again. Even though authors may not read each other’s books, there’s a kind of aesthetic and cultural comment that carries over. There’s a set of expectations that changes, and somehow that is an interactive process, maybe not directly between two writers, but in a cultural or aesthetic sensibility, a social ­atmosphere.

RS: I think you’re absolutely right, and also that it’s impossible to trace. It’s like every book is a different drop of water, and the water changes every time a new book comes out.

BH: At the same time, I do think that authors encourage each other, directly or indirectly. Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends (1974) was such a rule breaker and so controversial in so many ways and so wildly popular at the same time that it encouraged poets like Jack Prelutsky and publishers who saw how successful Sidewalk was to take some risks on more irreverent books and poetry collections. That kind of poetry thrived.

RS: And will always have its detractors! We’ve been having a lot of discussion recently about Dr. Seuss, who was wildly anarchic and inventive in The Cat in the Hat (1957) but is now being judged for his work outside of children’s books, namely creating anti-Japanese propaganda during World War II, and what Phil Nel says is the inherent ­racism of the Cat himself, firmly rooted in the minstrelsy tradition. The criteria for how we evaluate things have also changed quite a bit.

BH: And it keeps coming and going. Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day (1962), in the beginning, was seen as a huge breakthrough book. Then it began to be criticized for the mammy figure of the mother. That book, depicting an African American child, was by a white author. Same with Paula Fox’s Slave Dancer (1973) — a masterpiece, according to some, but to others a racist depiction of enslavement. And at that point, African Americans were saying, Where are our books by our people? It’s interesting to watch the effect that has had on the economics of publishing.

RS: Sure. I think the runaway ­success of Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give (2017) is opening doors to a lot of ­stories that wouldn’t have been ­published before it.

BH: And economics is a huge deal. The 1960s in children’s books weren’t all about aesthetic or moral change, they were also about LBJ’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which got a ton of money into libraries. That created new allowances for publishing in just the same way that we had new allowances in cultural and aesthetic standards in 1960s books. It allowed people to take chances.

RS: I think the biggest game changer in my twenty-four years at The Horn Book remains Harry Potter. Because although in and of themselves they’re pretty conventional domestic fantasy novels, the way they changed the market for children’s books affects absolutely everything now in children’s publishing, mostly because they said the consumer market is for everybody. Hardcover children’s books weren’t going to be confined to the institutional market; they could make a lot of money in the retail market. So everyone’s expectations changed — got bigger — and I think in some ways that made it more difficult for the experimental kinds of books, because they just weren’t going to get the same kind of readership that was now being expected.

BH: Yeah, and that was part of a new wave of corporateness. It capstoned a situation where children’s book publishing was taken over by a very few super-rich companies that wanted to make a lot of money, to get bestselling authors and pop culture figures involved in making children’s books. This irritated me, because there had been such a rich tradition of fantasy writing in children’s books that had been moderately successful, but this just changed the picture. Where was the awareness of Susan Cooper or Lloyd Alexander or Diana Wynne Jones, who had preceded J. K. Rowling and were just as good, or better?

RS: …and who had written what, in their era, were considered successful popular books. They weren’t niche books. They were huge. But the pool was smaller.

BH: And that corporate takeover, or the idea that children’s books should make really big money, as in adult books and bestsellers — that was a goal even before Harry Potter. But Harry came along in the time of media explosion.

We have to think about movies here, that interaction between readers and moviegoers, and the whole arena of popular culture.

RS: The relationship between children’s books and nonprint children’s culture is completely different now. It’s not the cheap Grosset & Dunlap stuff we used to get. It’s established writers now writing franchise books in sync with superhero movies based on trademarked franchised characters. It’s characters in YA novels talking about the television shows they like. Pop TV and superhero movies have always been with us. What’s different now is that the reaction of children’s book publishing to mass media is to embrace it, not to offer an alternative, which I think had been the goal before.

BH: So these well-known writers turning their hand to pop culture — are they being forced into a mold, or are they choosing to do this, do you think?

RS: Oh, I think they’re choosing to do it — if Twitter is any indication, they’re honored to do it, and they have a lot of liberty. New writers come with an embrace of popular culture. They come with seeing television as an art form. I’m not saying it isn’t. But I’m saying that the influence on their writing comes from this multimedia explosion of things from video, from computers, etc.

BH: Social media.

RS: On Twitter and Facebook, the discussion about children’s books involves a completely different cast of characters than it did even thirty years ago. You have authors, readers, adult fans, librarians, teachers, kids, and teens, all on this level plane of discussion. Except for the odd ALA lunch, we didn’t talk much to authors about their books twenty years ago.

BH: I do think that our discussion about rule-breaking books is really a critic’s issue. My experience is that children who break the rules are often too busy breaking them to read rule-breaking books. And for children who do like to read, every book changes them and their landscape of literature. They don’t know or care or even recognize books that break the rules. It’s the critics that are defining what a rule breaker is. And that’s usually about allowances. What’s been allowed? What’s been published, reviewed, awarded, bought, talked about on social media? Gatekeepers now allow new and different things.

RS: And what “we allow” is largely irrelevant anyway! Review journals are merely part of a community of readers now. We’re another voice in a spectrum of voices.

BH: Flexibility is crucial. In Choosing Books for Children (1981), which I wrote for parents, I said, over and over: find out what your child likes. Find out what they’ll read. And then make sure that they have access to it. I don’t know exactly when the shift began, but I do think there was one, to a more informal approach at selection.

RS: The whole country loosened up in the 1960s, so it was bound to happen sooner or later. But social media has also changed that, because it’s so easy now to get tons of opinions on books that haven’t even been published yet. It’s not just Kirkus that has the early word on books. Lots of people do, and they’re discussing books online with each other.

BH: The broader the community, the better! Inclusive exposure in the media can enrich professional expertise. Though we’ve had a lot of practice, Roger, we aren’t the only ones who like to argue over books — and sometimes even agree.

From the May/June 2020 Horn Book Magazine Special Issue: Breaking the Rules.


Roger Sutton and Betsy Hearne

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. Betsy Hearne is professor emerita in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; a former director of the Center for Children’s Books there; and an author of books for both children and adults.

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Susan Golden

I loved this conversation. I became a children's librarian in 1974 and many of these book were meat and drink to me. Glad to be reminded of some I've forgotten (like Dorp Dead) and to have favorite acknowledged. I don't know how many times I recommended Wynne Jones, Alexander, Cooper who thought fantasy was new with Harry Potter. Another new thing was that we started to see realistic, even stark children's books from Germany and Scandinavia. I think that was another shift. Thank you!

Posted : May 12, 2020 02:07



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