Collection HighlightsResearchShowcaseRelated SitesAbout Us  
de Grummond
Children's Literature Collection
 
 

Books for the Readers of the 21st Century by Richard Peck

The Ezra Jack Keats Lecture, March 24, 2000

We gather today as an obscure splinter group of people who love the literature written for children, and the children who read it. We are thus natural historians because every work of fiction becomes historical fiction the instant the ink is dry, even books called 1984 and The Giver. But we are futurists too, by nature and need, because we want to make contact with the citizens, the taxpayers, the parents of the 21st century: those young people in our classrooms and libraries and story hours -- those young people at our knees and those beginning to loom over us who will be here after we are gone.


We believe in our hearts a truth their teachers are no longer allowed to impose upon them: that only readers have futures -- that if you cannot use language, it will be used against you -- that if you cannot read appreciatively, write coherently, speak persuasively, and listen skeptically, you will find a way to fail at whatever you want.

We gather in the name of Ezra Jack Keats who bestrode the mid-20th century, an artist who gave us new ways of looking at picture books even as he was giving children, in The Snowy Day, new ways of looking at the world. We gather in gratitude to Ezra Jack Keats and to his steadfast friends, Lillie and Martin Pope, whose foundation and faithfulness fortify that important bastion of children's literature and its history, the de Grummond Collection.

The speaker who occupies this podium sixteen years from now will mark the centenary of Ezra Jack Keats's birth -- his hundredth birthday -- because time marches on, a reminder of how brief are our moments with the young on their ways to the world. We stand today, dazzled in the dawn of a new century, wracking our brains for books that will ready young readers for the challenges to come. In our classrooms and our libraries we see the future more clearly than we care to in a time when childhood has become adolescence and adolescence has become less a preparation for adulthood than a consolidation of gains already achieved, power already accumulated.

We see in the unfettered peergrouping of our students a fearful 21st century of ghettos and gated communities already formed. We see it in schools divided between the "Gifted" program and the "Special Ed" remedial with an unfallen Berlin wall between. We see it in communities once united by a public school system, now divided between schools public and private. And we hope in our hearts that books can make a difference somehow, to those who can read them.

We know a thing or two about the future because we are living in ours. We know what books have meant to us, how they were there for us at moments when no one else was. We know how many times we've had to use words -- language -- to negotiate personal survival. We are aware of how people are known, and judged, by the language they use. Best of all, we've learned a truth we love to share: that in a book -- and only there -- you can go anywhere and be anybody.

You can even go back to the last time the century turned, the year after Horatio Alger died, the year when E. B. White was one year old. A hundred years ago, a bestseller in the shops was a book by a Chicago man already being called the first successful attempt to create fantasy out of purely American materials. It's a story about a scarecrow who wants a brain, a tinman who wants a heart, a lion who wants courage, and a plucky girl from Kansas, following the yellow brick road to the Emerald City. The book became a series, of course.

A hundred years later, readers of twenty-seven-plus languages devour four books about a plucky British boy who goes off to Hogwarts School. It's a distinctly British school, very traditional, that mandates a school uniform as all American schools ought to. Though not necessarily the same uniform:

Three sets of plain work robes (black), one pointed hat (black) for day wear....

Please note that all pupils' clothes should carry name tags. . . .

Emerald City of a sort.

On this slender evidence, a century has hardly seemed to intervene, yet a century has, and we mine every minute of it in search of meaning and direction. We can't know where we are going until we remember who we've been. There's a history for everything, and we need to know ours. After all, the young readers and nonreaders before us now remember no decade before the 1990's, even if they are in high school. They are people with no more history than that, and while they may well be sexually active, they remember no president before Clinton. These people need roots.

Most of the young now grow up suburban, in places without sidewalks, let alone old secrets -- let alone a social contract, because families move to the suburbs not to confront life's problems, but to avoid them. In these unfurling subdivisions they create communities that practice age segregation, though language and narrative are the gifts of the elders. Moreover, our young now are a generation who no longer have to write thank-you notes for gifts from grandparents, and so they rob themselves of their own histories and are once again at the mercy of each other. Indeed, you and I may well be the oldest people they know, a sobering thought if you're still writing your thesis. Of course we want to be their elders, particularly if they don't have anybody else, or if they can be out on a school night and are thus no longer members of their own families. We want to represent the elders whose stories we heard when we were young long ago in an earlier century. We want to be links in that chain.

There is, of course, a down side to being thought historical, to being old in the country of the young. As I know to my sorrow, when you write a book in which the Titanic sinks, in the fullness of time you will be asked if you were on it. As I learned not long ago, if you cite Mark Twain as your favorite writer, you will be asked if you knew him personally.

Yet the very fact that in school and college the young no longer learn sequential history -- and how it repeats --only spurs us on. The act of writing is the quest for roots, and we write by the light of all the books we ever read, or were read to us when we were very small. Though it doesn't seem to be emphasized in the "creative writing workshop," nobody but a reader ever became a writer. Only very new and unpublished writers believe they can re-invent the wheel unaided. You have to read a thousand books before you can write one.

As we mine the America of a century ago, we see already dealt a hand we're still playing out. A hundred years ago today there was a book already long on the backlist that's still being called the first real American novel, and still being condemned by people who never read it. It's about a boy who is no longer quite a child if he ever was one. He's an attention-deficit-disordered, at -risk, sociologically challenged, differently abled, special needs, Ritalin-ready boy, whose single parent is a homeless substance-abuser. A boy who today would be playing a guidance counselor like a violin, a boy named Huckleberry Finn.

It's significant to some of us that the first real American novel would now be marketed as a "Young Adult" title, scrambling for a paperback sale and book club rights and dodging the politically correct and trying to get along without a review from The New York Times. A bestseller in the shops a hundred years ago was Kipling's Stalky and Co., a book that deconstructed the school story and laid forever the ghost of Tom Brown's schooldays.

Like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Stalky and Co. cut through the cloying sentimentality that still tempts us. They made a useful point, these two books, long before our time: you can sentimentalize the young and pity them their problems and excuse them everything, or you can create them live on the page -- but you cannot do both.

In 1900 Rudyard Kipling's fellow country-woman, E. Nesbit, had just published The Story of the Treasure Seekers, still pleasingly astringent today. And she was heading for the magic realism of The Phoenix and the Carpet and Five Children and It. Meanwhile, standing in the wings of the brand new century, and behind a barn in Indianapolis, was Penrod, waiting for Booth Tarkington to give him life. Publishing trends are never quite as new as they seem, or as they are advertised, very much because nobody but a reader ever became a writer. The novel revises itself for every new generation. Books provide the continuity that real life withholds, and new books are old books in disguise.

But then the terrible 1960's befell us. Powerful, very commercial forces sought to break our bonds with our traditions and to divide the generations. Sometime around the second semester of the 1968/69 school year the authority of the American family collapsed among all classes of people, and took the school system with it. And a whole new literature seemed to come whistling out of nowhere -- and not by coincidence.

A first sighting was in New Jersey where a housewife was writing Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret, arguably the first successful attempt in human history to give honest aid and comfort to girls embarking upon the physical and emotional ordeal of puberty. A generation later Judy Blume still takes heat from book-burning mothers, her crime being that she is making contact with their daughters just as they are losing it.

In nearly the same season a fifteen-year-old girl in Tulsa was writing The Outsiders. S. E. Hinton was a watchful girl who noticed that her high school was divided for eternity into two groups, the over-praised and the overlooked. Today we would call them the gifted and the remedial. She called them the "Socs" and the "Greasers." Cannily, S. E. Hinton chose to write from the viewpoint of the Greasers, the black-leather underclass boys slumping to school only to make contact with one another, as their grandsons still do. Wiser than all her tribe, S. E. Hinton understood that young readers will identify most compassionately with the kind of people they wouldn't sit next to in class. Clearly, she'd read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

S. E. Hinton wrote an outrageously melodramatic group portrait of the gang as surrogate family. All our stories are family stories, or the search for family. Since her book depicted a gang as a family freed of parents, the world of young readers beat a path to her door.

The Outsiders became one of the most widely-read novels in the history of print. It lit up the sky. In the afterglow a chemistry teacher in Staten Island, New York, named Paul Zindel wrote The Pigman, a quiet story about a girl and a boy and an old man that asked some necessary questions about personal responsibility, questions parents ought to have asked.

Something new was in the wind, a revolutionary sub-literature for a revolutionary era. As the young turned tribal, books began to examine and question their tribal rites, never more effectively than Will Hobbs would one day do in a book called Downriver. As the young marched away from parents and teachers in search of more punitive leaders, we writers quietly followed where no parent dared tread.

The trend was heralded as unexampled. Yet all of us behind these books had, arguably, all read the same five novels that appeared in the middle of the century: Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Carson McCullers's The Member of the Wedding, John Knowles's A Separate Peace, William Golding's The Lord of the Flies, and the big one, J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. Those were the novels the writers of my generation read when we were young and impressionable, and they left their mark. They were originally written for adult readers, and so they were easier to write. But they did a revolutionary thing; they took their young protagonists as seriously as if they were adult protagonists. They gave us ideas. We began to hear voices.

The young adult novel came to pass. It was an innovation economically dependent upon the paperback book. It's a heaven-sent compensation that the technology of the paperback coincided exactly with the technology of television. Of course we weren't writing for "YAs" at all. Young adults are people making their own livings, and beds, We were writing for people on another planet. We were writing for the "PLs," the pubescent literate, a suddenly menaced minority within their own generation as the illiterate began to swarm into seventh grade, thinking that they'd whipped the system.

All fiction is about private life. Suddenly at the start of the 1970's young people of sixteen and thirteen and ten had more private life than their own parents, and freedoms that bewildered them, and choices to make their elders had never had to confront. And the most daunting choice became: Do I want to learn to read or don't I?

I was a teacher at that time when schools lost forever their only two legitimate functions: the teaching of non-elective literacy, and delayed gratification. In a panic, we devised the mini-course to accommodate the unstretched attention span, and grade inflation to flatter those we couldn't control, and social promotion to move along those we feared. Our school halls filled up with guidance counselors, and then we learned those people had serious personal problems of their own.

Young adult books were born at that moment, in the hope that they might win the pubescent to reading at just the age at which we'd traditionally lost most people to reading, in far better days than those, or these. We wrote to provide companionship at the point in their young lives when even previously responsible parents have stopped attending PTA meetings.

We soon learned that books for young readers are held to a higher standard than books for adults, or television for anybody. The idea that a book could be admired for its craft or appreciated for its validity was lost from the first in the crossfire of school politics and multiculturalism, and a scorching censorship from political left and right that was to become a firestorm by the end of the century.

But in fact a novel was just what the young needed. It provided a traditional structure while they were deconstructing their homes and schools. For some who wrote back to us, our books were the last safe place on earth. The wisest among them recognized our books as better friends than they had, or were. Each of our novels is the story of a step -- how one young character takes a single step nearer maturity, and always independently because nobody ever grows up in a group. How useful these books about achieving characters in a time of social promotion.

Our stories were useful metaphors young readers were invited to try on for size, apart from their timely topics -- and not everybody wanted to go ask Alice -- our books were useful because like all novels they dramatized life's chief lesson, that in the long run you will be held responsible for the consequences of your actions. A novel by its nature doesn't celebrate someone who can merely walk away, or expects to be taken care of. A novel isn't an elective course you can drop if it threatens to challenge you.

Even when their tones may be gentle or comic or fantastic, novels are the biographies of survivors. How useful these books because puberty and adolescence are not problem-solving times of life. They are blame-shifting times of life. In adolescence, it's always somebody else's fault: the teacher with an unreasoned grudge against me, the bad company I fell into, and like a mantra -- mother.

But our books suggested otherwise. We wrote a literature of role-models, action figures who by implication questioned the readers about their own lives. We provided alternatives your peer group leader never told you you had. We even provided linguistic role models in young narrators who could speak the length of a book without saying either "like" or "you know. "

And our master work lay yet ahead. In 1975 Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War went through three paperback printings, raising all our boats. The Chocolate War will be read a hundred years from now because it chronicles the pivotal moment in all American history, that time when the balance tipped and power passed from adults to children, that time after which, teachers had to defer to their students in order to keep their jobs. The Chocolate War is a stirring portrait of the peergroup leader the young set up over themselves when adult authority at home and school fails them.

Young adult books reached down to embrace elementary school, influencing the style and content of chapter books, resulting in Louis Sachar's There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom, Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia, Marc Talbert's Dead Birds Singing -- required readings for anyone pursuing an elementary teaching credential.

But we never quite made it to the high school. With rare and precious exceptions, high-school teachers thought books they'd never read were beneath their consideration. High-school librarians continue to grow severe in reminding us they are there for research, not light reading.

This is a lost opportunity because some of our strongest novels are on the coming of age theme, of taking that necessary step out of adolescence and into adulthood, even now, when maturing itself has become an elective. Books like Robin Brancato's Winning, Chris Crutcher's Running Loose, Terry Davis's Vision Quest, Rob Thomas's Rats Saw God need older readers, and older readers need them.

But the sad truth is that the only reading really being done in the upper high-school years now is in the "Advanced Placement" and college-prep classes, discussing a full menu of "classics" that look good to parents because they are thought to look good to colleges.

A century of loss and gain -- and battered by technology. It has been the century of the projected image and the glowing screen. The last time the century turned, it was the nickelodeon, running one-reelers to immigrant audiences who could follow a wordless story. At the other end of the century, two soul-dead teenagers videotape their planning session as they prepare to murder their schoolmates in a suburban Colorado school. We know they validated themselves on camera before they acted, or could act; we saw it on television.

But we wouldn't be Americans if we didn't harbor the hope that technology could somehow save our bacon. As the century ebbed, we were being assured by many a slick salesman that the electronic library, the computerized classroom, the mighty microchip would transform education as we know it, would even convert the child who doesn't want to learn, could even trick a child into learning -- and even rewriting.

And a generation of librarians and teachers trooped off to many a weary computer clinic, trying to become Charlottes in somebody's worldwide web.

But if children could learn more from screens and machines than they can from living elders with books in their hands, it would all have happened forty years ago with something called "audio-visual aids." And time marches on. The nickelodeon becomes the picture show, and the picture show becomes a TV set with rabbit ears. The ears become a satellite dish that goes digital and becomes the computer, producing the video game -- the pornography of the pre-pubescent, a violent virtual reality that eliminates the parent who paid for it.

Having known Mark Twain, I remember it all.

American children's book publishing enters a new century, enjoying a golden age. American illustrators and authors now present the most varied and vivid range of books the world has ever known, books that recognize young readers at every age, from every background and tradition. They are books that challenge and reassure and invite. American juveniles publishing would now be the wonder of the world, if the world were interested in what its children read. And those who claimed that minority children didn't read because there were no books to reflect them should be standing in silent awe now, and reading the 2000 John Newbery medal winner, Christopher Paul Curtis's Bud, Not Buddy.

But our schools enter the 21st century on their knees, helpless to remedy what they already know, that despite dedication, innovation, good books, and monies spent, schools have gone about as far as they can go without calling parents to account.

In the great living laboratory of the last fifty years, American families have been on the move, from city to suburb, from suburb to exurb, from public school to private school to Christian academy, turning this country upside down in search of a school environment that will take complete responsibility for their children. But it turns out that the kind of people who think it takes a village to raise a child have higher standards for the village than they have for themselves.

The great story of the last third of the American century is the tribalizing of the young as they turned to each other for the reassuring framework of rigid rules they couldn't find in the permissive home, the single-parent home, the welfare home. It is this chocolate war world that called forth a serious literature for the young, books on the great American theme, coming of age, books with the timeless message that in the long run, you will be held responsible for the consequences of your actions.

I come recently from a school visit where a teacher was telling me about a seventh-grade student. "I have worked hard to gain his trust and his respect," the teacher said. In schools that prepare for the future, surely after seven years it is the student who should be working hard to win and earn the trust and respect of the teacher. But that is not our way, and there is no movement in that direction. That compassionate teacher, though, and that confused, calculating child may be the two allegorical faces we turn toward an uncharted century stretching, unknowable, ahead, giving us new stories to tell, raising questions that only novels can ask.

But one there was whose career and life ended with the century itself. His was a creation of the technology, the distribution, the angst of the 20th century. After fifty years, we come to the end of the career of Charles Schulz, and so attention must be paid. Somehow a beagle sitting atop a dog house, thinking he is the Red Baron was the most successful of all in bringing us together. In 1985 Umberto Eco wrote of Charlie and Franklin, Linus and Lucy, Pigpen and Peppermint Patty:

The poetry of these children arises from the fact that
we find in them all the problems, all the sufferings, of adults.

Who could ask for more?

The stories that endure lower the barrier between generations. Stories are not there to lock children in place, or to preserve an innocence they don't even have, or to tell them lies. Stories throw wide the gates because childhood is not a garden, it's a jungle. The stories that work blaze a path through that jungle and shine a light at the end. But they don't deny it is a jungle. And a jungle is where the wild things are.

We gather as an obscure splinter group of people who know that being young today is harder than anything that happened to us. We gather in the knowledge that we may just be the only people in their communities to tell them the truth, that in real life, there is no "Gifted" program, that in real life, the "Remedial" program is called "Welfare."

We gather as people who want to put the right book in the right hand as another new generation moves so quickly past us on their ways to the world. We gather as people who believe that

A story is a doorway
That opens on a wider place;
A story is a mirror
To reflect the reader's face.
A story is a question
You hadn't thought to ponder;
A story is a pathway
Inviting you to wander.

A story is a window,
A story is a key,
A story is a lighthouse
Beaming out to sea.

A story's a beginning,
A story is an end,
And in the story's middle
You might just find a friend.

 

Contact:
The de Grummond Children's Literature Collection
Box 5148
Hattiesburg, MS 39406
(601) 266-4349
Comments and Questions

This page created by Instructional Media Unit Webteam and maintained by de Grummond Collection.
Office of Technology Resources
The University of Southern Mississippi
http://www.lib.usm.edu/~degrum/ | Last updated .
AA/EOE/ADAI