Friday, July 25, 2008

Paula's Last Laugh

Paula Danziger was once quoted as saying that if she weren't a writer she'd like to be a stand-up comic. This probably won't surprise anyone who has read her riotously funny children's and young-adult books.

I discovered Paula Danziger in the summer of 1974, when she published her first novel, THE CAT ATE MY GYMSUIT. I could tell from the title that the book would be funny...but when I turned to the first page I was stunned by the raw intensity of the opening lines: "I hate my father. I hate school. I hate being fat. I hate the principal because he wanted to fire Ms. Finney, my English teacher." This story of Marcy Lewis's life-changing ninth-grade year covers some rough emotional terrain -- especially in its depiction of a parent's emotional abuse -- and though the protagonist emerges somewhat empowered, Marcy never loses her realistic edge of anger, stating on the final page that "I still hate my father." THE CAT ATE MY GYMSUIT became an immediate bestseller and announced Paula Danziger as a major new voice in children's books. Subsequent novels such as THE PISTACHIO PRESCRIPTION (1978), CAN YOU SUE YOUR PARENTS FOR MALPRACTICE? (1979), and THE DIVORCE EXPRESS (1982) continued to merge painful topics (abuse, divorced parents, negative self-image) with humor and confirmed Marcy's statement in GYMSUIT that "middle-class kids have problems too."

Paula Danziger's blending of humor and melancholy seemed to extend to her own life as well. In her book PRESENTING PAULA DANZIGER, Kathleen Krull writes of seeing the author give a speech in 1983. After noting that Ms. Danziger was one of the best speakers she'd ever heard, she adds, "She also struck me as possibly in need of therapy, or maybe more therapy. Her anger was towering, almost out of control. She seemed a troubled soul, full of compassion for others but only unhappiness with herself and a disturbing honesty about it."

They say that every great comedian is deeply sad inside and Paula Danziger, who not only wished she was a stand-up comic but also gave her characters the same last names as famous comedians -- Lewis (for Jerry), Allen (for Woody). Brooks (for Mel) -- certainly seemed to fit that bill.

Happily, Krull also tells of visiting Danziger nearly ten years later and finding the author "much becalmed since our last meeting, just as funny but not nearly so angry and unhappy. The years had made a positive difference."

I would contend that this change was also reflected in her novels, which over time became less intense and edgy. She wrote a science fiction romp (THIS PLACE HAS NO ATMOSPHERE, 1986), took her characters on scavenger hunts in New York (REMEMBER ME TO HAROLD SQUARE, 1987) and England (THAMES DOESN'T RHYME WITH JAMES, 1994), and wrote the "Matthew Martin" and "Amber Brown" series for younger readers. Which isn't to say that she ignored tough topics in her later books (for example, the protagonist loses a much-loved uncle in UNITED TATES OF AMERICA, 2002), just that their treatment was much less emotionally naked than in earlier volumes.

I never met Paula Danziger, but I've heard a lot about her over the years. A fixture on the lecture circuit both here and abroad (she even had a children's book segment on a BBC television show), she was known as a flamboyant, larger-than-life presence with an obsession for sequins, rhinestones, purple tennis shoes, and funny hats. Some found her personality overwhelming, but nearly everyone spoke of her with great affection and warmth.

When Paula Danziger died in 2004, I was dismayed to realize that I didn't have a single one of her titles in my collection. She may not have been the most acclaimed children's author of the twentieth-century (some critics found her work slight) but, with millions of books sold in over fifty countries, she was certainly one of the most popular. So in her memory I tracked down a signed copy of REMEMBER ME TO HAROLD SQUARE.

I'm especially fond of this book for its New York setting and I love that my copy demonstrates, in mirror-image inscriptions, Ms. Danziger's ability to write in reverse which was, reportedly, the result of a brain injury she received in a car accident.

About a week after her death, the following paid obituary -- which Danziger had prepared some time in advance -- appeared in the New York Times:

"Paula Danziger, beloved children's book writer, would like to inform you that she isn't avoiding your calls, she passed away on July 8, 2004."

Like any good comedian, Paula Danziger knew the value of a good exit line -- and, true to form, she left us laughing.


Saints and Spinners said...

Fuse #8 sent me here. That obituary makes me laugh and feel teary at the same time. I was fortunate enough to meet her when I worked at the Donnell Central Children's Room. She was so much fun to listen to, and she was game to sign anything we presented--bookmarks, other people's books-- anything!

LucyHK said...

I was lucky enough to meet Paula in Ireland in around 1990 (aged 12). I was a HUGE fan at the time and was utterly entranced by her. Sure enough she signed all my books for me, including my all time favourite Harold Square.
Those books ended up in storage, and flooding last year caused water damage to one of the containers. Of the things that were destroyed there was nothing very valauable or sentimental, but it still makes me sad to think of that book - I loved it so much. Ah well, still have the happy memory of reading (and re-reading!) it, and of meeting her. And I'm realising a big dream and moving to NYC next month - I think it was she who started a love affair with the city in the first place :)

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