Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Short Love Letters to the Writers of My Childhood

Dear Madeleine L'Engle: Thank you for writing Many Waters, and making sure that, when I was eleven, it was on the market with this cover. That cover, which reminded me in all right ways of a certain Mr. J.T. Thomas, was one of the most wonderful pieces of proto-sex fantasy I could ever wish for. Thank you for writing A Wrinkle In Time: despite the Jesus-y parts, which I had blocked out of my memory entirely, the book is still a really weird, fun example of science fiction for children, written as though kids are capable of grasping both scientific and metaphysical concepts. I'll never forget that image of Charles Wallace, his eyes pinwheeled into nothingness, berating his sister. It rivals 1984 for utter annihilatory creepiness.

Dear R.L. Stine: You scared the ever-loving shit out of me with Goosebumps #14, The Werewolf of Fever Swamp. My bedroom was in the basement, and my bunk bed was right in line with the ground-level windows, which meant that I spent the better part of two years waiting for werewolves to burst into my bedroom and eat me.

Dear Ann M. Martin: Bless your heart for making chapters two and three of every Baby-Sitters Club book totally skippable. Thanks for giving us Jessie, the eleven-year-old Black ballerina, and Matt Braddock, the deaf baby-sittee, and Danielle, who had cancer, and Stacey, with the diabetes. Even though these characters were as one-dimensional as paper dolls, and often defined by their differences, at least they weren't automatically punished for them. Even network TV is still playing catch-up on that front.

Dear Paula Danziger: Thank you for writing confused, angry teen characters whose anger and confusion wasn't the sum total of who they were. Parents—adults in general—are sort of fumbling around in the dark most of the time, so thank you for making your families fallible, because I learned through you that families can fall apart in more ways than just with the Dead Parent trope. Finally, thumbs up for setting This Place Has No Atmosphere on the moon, because that is a deeply silly place to set YA fiction and that makes it perfect.

Robert O'Brien: Thank you for writing both Z for Zachariah and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIHM. These are both deeply weird, deeply science-driven books that I haven't read in ages, but I think about often and fondly. The cover for Z for Zachariah, in particular, is one that has stuck with me for more than two decades.

Dear Nancy Farmer: I know that a white woman setting a book in a futuristic Africa wasn't ever going to be completely the right thing, even if you did actually live and work in Mozambique. But in The Eye, The Ear and The Arm, you knew enough to treat Zimbabwe like a specific place, with its own history and culture, instead of just one panoramic view of AFRICA: PLACE OF OTHERS. It was thrilling for me to read about a place that wasn't another Sweet Valley knock-off, and Black characters who weren't marked by their blackness.

Dear Judy Blume: You are the gold standard of writing for girl children, even if my own personal experience of reading you was 80% confusion over what a sanitary belt was, and 20% skepticism over Getting One's Period as the defining moment of my teen life. So, uh, thanks?

Dear Francine Pascal: Thank you for never once explaining what the fuck a "lavaliere" necklace was, or why it was so important to have a heart-shaped face. Thanks, also, for playing into that uptight bitch/flighty bitch duality that women are assigned to. Thanks for making the smart kids ugly, too. That was great. Oh, wait: your books were soaps for teens, and they taught me that having a perfect body or money meant you could be an asshole. So thanks for nothing.

Gordon Korman: Thank you for making laugh so hard at Son of Interflux that, when I tried to read a chapter aloud to my young sister in the waiting of the dentist's office, I slid off the black leather couch and onto the floor in hysterical glee. The receptionist peered at me, and my sister, who was laughing in that helpless "I don't know what we're laughing at!" kind of way, and then pointedly ignored us. Also, your insights into Teen Dude Brain were highly valued on my end.

E.L. Konigsburg: Thank you one million times for From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Claudia Kincaid is a bad-ass bitch who is afraid of nothing except not knowing. She is fierce, determined, swoony, romantic, particular, and grim. She is a girl who is very much a girl—that is, a female character that can't be rewritten as male—but a human being first and foremost. Her adventures in the Met spawned a lovely shot in The Royal Tenenbaums, and ten million arty runaway fantasies. Your book is a puzzle, a love letter to learning, and a sly poke at well-behaved children. It is a perfect map of young adulthood, of being a girl, and learning about yourself. So, yes: thank you.

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