Tuesday, May 27, 2008

My Favorite Writer

People often ask me who my favorite writer is.

I’ve had the same answer ever since the day DINKY HOCKER SHOOTS SMACK! turned up at my branch library in the spring of 1973:

M.E. Kerr.

I remember the first time I read DINKY HOCKER, laughing hysterically yet deeply touched by its honesty and humanity. As soon as I read the last line of the novel, I immediately turned to the first page and began reading it all over again. From that point on, I knew I couldn’t wait for each new Kerr book to be received by my local library; instead, I had to get each one at the bookstore as soon as it was published, though money was scarce and buying even one or two hardcovers a year was something of a luxury. LIttle did I know, during those early years, that “M.E. Kerr” was just one of several pseudonyms that the author (real name Marijane Meaker) had employed during an already long and distinguished writing career.

Think about your own favorite writer, and the often agonizingly-long wait between the publication of each new novel. Then imagine suddenly learning that your author has written, oh, twenty or thirty other books you never knew about under names as varied as Vin Packer, Ann Aldrich, Marijane Meaker, and M.J. Meaker. What a miracle! This was long before you could buy books on the internet...long before the internet itself...so I spent many years on a wonderful treasure hunt, traveling hither and yon to a variety of dusty old bookstores trying to track down all these new/old books.

In 1990, another pseudonym was introduced: Mary James, who wrote intermediate grade novels.

I love all of Marijane Meaker’s books -- but the Kerr young adult novels remain my very favorites.

To celebrate the author’s birthday, today’s blog is a retrospective of all the M.E. Kerr books, from DINKY HOCKER SHOOTS SMACK! to last year’s SOMEONE LIKE SUMMER.

Published in the fall of 1972, DINKY HOCKER SHOOTS SMACK! announced a major new voice in young adult fiction.The novel is hysterically funny, yet the dramatic climax packs a real emotional wallop. I was lucky enough to see the typewritten copy of this manuscript at the Kerlan Library in Minnesota and was shocked by how few edits were made in the book. I remember that editor Ursula Nordstrom made one suggestion about toning down the description of a character’s clothing and another suggesting a line in the book would quickly become dated but, other than that, the typewritten manuscript was pretty much word-for-word what you will read in the finished volume. Still in print and still popular, DINKY HOCKER SHOOTS SMACK! seems to me an almost timeless novel.

1973’s IF I LOVE YOU, AM I TRAPPED FOREVER? was the first book M.E. Kerr wrote in the first person and nearly every Kerr book since then has employed that perspective. In this sophisticated novel, by turns wryly funny and melancholy, high schooler Alan Bennet learns some hard lessons about the vagaries of love. The last scene is a knockout.

THE SON OF SOMEONE FAMOUS (1974) employs a dual first-person perspective in relating the story of a famous son living incognito in a small town and his down-to-earth classmate Brenda Belle Blossom. There are some especially funny scenes in this one.

Based on the author’s own experiences attending an Episcopal boarding school in Virginia, IS THAT YOU, MISS BLUE? (1975) is among my very favorite novels. A large cast of characters, described with both scathing wit and deep sympathy, make this perhaps the most haunting of all the author’s stories.

How special was it to get TWO M.E. Kerr novels in 1975? LOVE IS A MISSING PERSON tackles issues of wealth, race, and romance in Seaville, New York -- the setting for many of Kerr’s best books. This subtley-written book should not be dismissed. I didn’t realize how good it was until I read it couple times.

Relationships between the haves and the have-nots are a consistent theme in Kerr’s books. Another dual first-person narrative, I’LL LOVE YOU WHEN YOU'RE MORE LIKE ME (1977) is a fun summer romance. This was the last time the author used the word “love” in the title of one of her books; she discovered it was scaring off male readers!

Because it is used so frequently in schools, GENTLEHANDS (1978) is among the author’s most popular and best-loved novels. The story begins as a summer romance, but soon takes on deeper significance when the protagonist's grandfather is revealed to have a Nazi past. GENTLEHANDS raises powerful moral questions but provides no easy answers for the reader. A stunner.

Only M.E. Kerr could pull off a funny and romantic novel featuring a pair of dwarves as narrators! LITTLE LITTLE (1981) was, according to the author, a very difficult novel to write, but most will agree this eccentric and pithy novel is a success.

In WHAT I REALLY THINK OF YOU (1982) Kerr once again tackles a tough subject, religion in today's media-savvy society, with characteristic humor and humanity. One of her lesser-known books, it deserves recognition and redisovery.

Something totally different, ME ME ME ME ME : NOT A NOVEL (1983)features stories from the author’s youth in Auburn, New York, and is "must read" for any M.E. Kerr fan.

The romance between a middle-class German-American teenager and the daughter of a wealthy Jewish comedian would seem doomed, but narrator Henry has a few tricks up in his sleeve in this comic novel. M.E. Kerr always hoped they’d make a movie of this one starring the late comedian Alan King.

In 1985, Kerr published I STAY NEAR YOU : ONE STORY IN THREE, a volume that spans three generations from World War Two to the mid-1980s. Readers who like short stories will be enjoy the connections between these three interrelated tales.

NIGHT KITES (1986) has a unique place in literature as the first novel -- for young people OR adults -- to feature a gay male (the narrator's older brother) living with AIDS. At the time Ms. Kerr wrote this book, she deliberately included many topical, contemporary references because she assumed a cure for the disease would soon be found and the book would have a limited shelf life. Twenty-two years later, the book remains in print.

M.E. Kerr began her first and only series with FELL (1987), the fascinating story of a high schooler who enters a private school under false pretenses, joins a secret club, and solves a crime. The mysteries continued in FELL BACK (1989) and FELL DOWN (1991.) Many fans wish Kerr would write “just one more” Fell book.

Operation Desert Storm, as the first Gulf War was called, is the focus of LINGER (1993), an intense story given new immediacy and resonance due to the continued military action in Iraq today.

The author broke new ground with DELIVER US FROM EVIE (1994), setting her novel in rural Missouri (where she once attended college) and featuring a title character whose identity is as impossible to restrain as the powerful river that eventually floods the family farm. I’m only sorry that the Printz Award for young adult books did not exist when this book was published; surely it (and many of the other Kerr novels before it) would have been recognized for its excellence.

Another groundbreaker, “HELLO,” I LIED (1997) features a mansion, a reclusive rock star and an urbane teenager surprised by the unforseen possibilities of the human heart. Despite its awful cover, this is a mature, sophisticated, and unforgettable book.

The above list of titles proves M.E. Kerr knows a thing or a two about writing, and she explains her craft in the nonfiction volume BLOOD ON THE FOREHEAD : WHAT I KNOW ABOUT WRITING (1998). The author’s writing tips are accompanied by examples from her novels and short stories. ...Speaking of which, I hope that a smart publisher someday gathers up the short fiction Ms. Kerr has contributed to various anthologies and publishes a collected volume of her short stories.

A good, old-fashioned novel peopled with interesting characters, WHAT BECAME OF HER (2000) is a story about past misdeeds impacting the present. And a doll with his own passport. Strangely, the most eccentric aspects of this story were based on real events. Even the doll was real.

Most of the author’s work has been contemporary, so many readers were surprised by SLAP YOUR SIDES (2001), a World War Two novel about a Quaker family whose oldest son opts to be a conscientious objector rather than serve in the military. Those who liked the WWII elements in I STAY NEAR YOU and ME ME ME ME ME will particularly enjoy this thought-provoking full-scale novel about that era.

During the 1990s, Marijane Meaker wrote several novels for younger readers under the name Mary James. SNAKES DON’T MISS THEIR MOTHERS (2003) was the first Kerr novel also written for that younger age group, a talking-animal story dedicated to the Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons, where the author has done volunteer work.

Marijane Meaker revisits her childhood home of Auburn, New York in YOUR EYES IN STARS (2006), an historical novel concerning the friendship between two girls, one a visitor from Germany, in the months leading up to the Second World War. How could I not love this book? She dedicated it to me!

Kerr always seems to be on the cutting edge of any issue and her most recent novel, SOMEONE LIKE SUMMER (2007) was published exactly at the moment when the topic of immigration was on the front page of every newspaper. This love story between a small town girl and a Colombian immigrant is written with ease and grace. The pages fly past in this thought-provoking modern take on a summer romance.

That brings us up to today and I have to admit that I’m just as anxious for a new M.E. Kerr book in 2008 as I was back in 1973.

She’s still my favorite author, but in recent years she also become a friend.

I'm reminded of the final lines of CHARLOTTE’S WEB: “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”

So is Marijane Meaker.

Happy Birthday Marijane!


Anonymous said...

At this point I'm going to have to ask: Where on earth do you find all these cover images? Do you scan them in personally? Because as far as I can ascertain, unless there is a fabled site containing any and all magnificent book jackets of the past, you have to be the one putting these online yourself, yes? Kudos!

Peter D. Sieruta said...

Hi Fuse #8,

Yes, I scan almost all my own images in the blog. I was lucky with the M.E. Kerr entry because I had already scanned those covers into my LibraryThing account so didn't have to do them all over again. I found the LINGER picture elsewhere and used it, but now I'm sorry I did because it looks inferior compared to most fo the others. Thanks as always for your interest. After reading your blog today, I added Hesse's BROOKLYN BRIDGE to my reading list! Peter