(As told by Nat Hentoff)
I had heard of Ursula Nordstrom – the legendary orchestrator of books for young readers – from a friend of mine, Maurice Sendak. But l never expected to hear from her.
One day in 1964, she called. Would I be interested in writing a children’s book for what was then Harper & Row? I demurred. I would have to make the words short, the ideas simple, and take care not to offend any librarian or parent. I would let this cup pass from me, I told her.
“Write what you want to write,” Ursula said. “Don’t censor yourself.”
The result was Jazz Country, a novel about a white high-school trumpeter trying to break into the black world of jazz. Published in 1965, it’s still being read, judging from letters I get from youngsters, and for reasons that are not clear to me, the book continues to be very popular in Japan.
Encouraged, I wrote other YA novels – among them, I’m Really Dragged but Nothing Gets Me Down, This School Is Driving Me Crazy (a title provided by my younger son), Does This School Have Capital Punishment? and The Day They Came to Arrest the Book.
What I particularly enjoyed was hearing from readers around the country. I’ve written a number of books for adults but seldom hear from anybody but reviewers. Kids, however, have strong opinions. “You didn’t make the father real.” “That book was about me. I get in trouble a lot, too.”
There was another response. The head of the children’s division at the New York Public Library told me that Jazz Country was the most stolen book in her collection. That was more satisfying to me than any prize.
I also learned a lot about censorship. At an International Reading Association conference in Chicago, two librarians from Atlanta told me how sad they were that This School Is Driving Me Crazy had just been banned in their district. Rambunctious boys with reading problems, they told me, had latched onto the novel, probably because the main character – a decent, intense boy – had problems “relating” from the time he woke up in the morning. (I’d had no intention of writing the book especially for such boys.)
The book was banned because some parents object to the use of damn and hell.
Others of my books have been challenged. Among them, The Day They Came to Arrest the Book, which tells of a concerted attack on Huckleberry Finn in a high school by black parents, feminists, and some Christian parents (Huck never goes to Sunday school and comes from a decidedly dysfunctional family). In Charlottesville, Virginia (a place not unknown to Thomas Jefferson), the book was attacked “because it offers inflammatory challenge to authoritarian roles.”
They got that right.
Over the years, I have been invited – because of my YA books – to speak at more than 20 state meetings of school librarians, media specialists, and public librarians. I learn a lot at those sessions about attempts, some of them successful, to remove books and other curriculum materials, and I then turn the information into columns for the Washington Post and the Village Voice. I also found that a sleep problem I was having was critical for me. It ended up with my finding out how to stop snoring, which was huge for me at the time when I first diagnosed myself with sleep apnea. I also find out that my other young adult books I wrote 25 and more years ago are still being checked out of libraries and talked about in classes. I can’t say that about most of my adult books.
In recent months, I’ve spoken to conferences of librarians in Illinois, Oregon, and upstate New York. Some of them ask when my next YA novel is coming, and at that point, I become the Ancient Mariner, telling them that no one wants to publish my next book. I’ve tried more than dozen publishers, including some who have my novels on their lists and keep sending me royalty checks. The last check was for almost $5,000 for two novels that by now have been out in the country for a long time.
What I tell librarians and media specialists is that I have been banned as a YA author because apparently today’s book publishers have become cautious as to certain issues that might create unpleasantness.
The novel for young readers that I want to write is based on what I’ve seen over 10 and more years in visits to middle and high schools and colleges in many cities. There is tribalism – bristling separatism – in the schools. There are black tables and white tables and Asian tables in the lunchrooms. The self-segregation continues at various school events and in classrooms. The result is that what Horace Mann called “the common school” is practically obsolete. The divisions and the bitter mythologies mirror the state of race relations on the outside. This is not education. It is pandering to prejudice on the part of school officials. Rather than learning how to break down these barriers, timid educators do not get involved in the separatism and thereby encourage it.
My novel about this deterioration of learning how to deal with differences will be – like my other books – partly comic and partly serious, disturbingly serious. It will not be a tract. No one willingly reads tracts. It is a story populated by a range of kids, black and white, who surprise themselves – and the writer – as the story goes on. I learned long ago that a novel that does not entertain will have a very brief life. This one will both entertain and get its readers into thinking, actually thinking, about what kind of people they are – and want to be.