Phyllis Reynolds Naylor 1933–
Phyllis Reynolds Naylor 1933–INTRODUCTION
American novelist, essayist, nonfiction writer, and author of picture books, easy readers, juvenile novels and short stories, and young adult novels.
The following entry presents an overview of Naylor's career through 2007. For further information on her life and career, see CLR, Volume 17.
With their realistic depictions of childhood and adolescent situations, Naylor's children's books—particularly her ongoing "Alice" series of young adult novels—have earned her strong sales, considerable critical consideration, and numerous censorship challenges. Frequently ranked among the most challenged children's authors by the American Library Association (ALA), Naylor utilizes her texts to present candid examinations of the sorts of social issues and concerns that are important to her large body of adolescent female readers. Her "Alice" books deal with such potentially charged subjects as sex, body issues, racism, and homosexuality, and the rest of her oeuvre often addresses similarly sensitive topics—she examines mental illness in The Keeper (1986), crib death and a crisis of faith in A String of Chances (1982), and difficult moral choices in Shiloh (1991), a work which won the 1992 Newbery Medal. Her body of work, however, also includes the comic mysteries of the "Bessledorf" series, the supernatural tales of her "Witch" trilogies, and a broad range of other stories.
Naylor was born on January 4, 1933, in Anderson, Indiana, to Eugene and Lura Reynolds. She was raised during the Great Depression, and money was tight for the Reynolds family. Her father, a traveling salesman, was forced to move the family on a regular basis. As a child, she often spent summers with both sets of grandparents, her father's parents having settled in Maryland and her maternal grandparents located in Iowa. Her parents came from strong conservative religious backgrounds, born of their own rural, farm-raised childhoods. As a result, Naylor was actively involved in the church, partaking in revival meetings and, by the time she was in her teens, writing for the church paper. Her love of writing extended to school, where her skills were regularly praised by teachers and she was asked to pen works for special occasions. With her writings regularly appearing in the church's school bulletin, an emboldened Naylor began sending her works to a variety of youth-based publications, including Highlights, Seventeen, and Jack and Jill, though none were accepted for publication. Later in her life, she would find success in this format with a weekly column, started in the church bulletin and told from the perspective of a fifteen-year-old boy, that would eventually run in church magazines for nearly twenty-five years. Having lived in Joliet, Illinois, since the seventh grade, she left home after high school to marry a man seven years her senior who was pursuing his Ph.D. After her graduation from Joliet Junior College in 1953, Naylor moved to Chicago with her husband, finding employment as a clinical secretary in a university hospital and then as a third-grade teacher. Tragically, her husband began to show symptoms of severe mental illness—ultimately diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia—after only a few years of marriage. Taking her husband to a hospital near her paternal grandparents in Maryland, she found work as a typist at the Board of Education's psychology office in Rockville before moving over to a position with the Montgomery County Education Association. It became increasingly clear, unfortunately, that her husband was unlikely to recover, and she reluctantly began divorce proceedings, which allowed her to marry speech pathologist Rex Naylor. After successfully getting approval to have her first husband declared "incurable"—the only means through she could gain a legal divorce at the time and an experience she recounted in Crazy Love: An Autobiographical Account of Marriage and Madness (1977)—she married Naylor on May 26, 1960, with whom she had two children, Jeffrey and Michael. Initially inspired to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology after gaining a B.A. in psychology from American University in 1963, Naylor soon realized that she wished to become a writer instead. Initially focusing upon articles and stories for church magazines, her first book, a collection of her published writings called The Galloping Goat and Other Stories was released in 1965, followed two years later by her first original children's book, What the Gulls Were Singing (1967), a simple story of lessons learned on a beach holiday. In the intervening years, Naylor has released over a hundred children's books, with her "Alice" series sparking both controversy and a large fan base since its inception in 1985. In 1988 she worked with her mother to produce Maudie in the Middle, a story based upon her mother's memories from the turn of the century. In addition to her Newbery Award for Shiloh, Naylor has received many awards and accolades throughout her career, including an Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Night Cry (1984), a Notable Children's Book in the Field of Social Studies citation for The Dark of the Tunnel (1985), and an ALA Notable Book citation and an IRA Children's Choice citation for The Agony of Alice (1985), among many others. Several of Naylor's books have been named selections of the Literary and Junior Literary Guilds and the Weekly Reader Book Club; she has also received numerous several state and child-selected awards (twenty-six for Shiloh alone).
Naylor has featured single-parent families in a number of her juvenile novels. The protagonists of Ice (1995) and Being Danny's Dog (1995) both have absent father, and, in perhaps the author's best known series, the main character in the "Alice" books is a girl coping with adolescence after her mother's death. The first book in the series, The Agony of Alice, recounts the travails of a young girl forced to move to a new home in Silver Spring, Maryland. Living with her widowed father, Ben, and her older brother, Lester—who is about seven years older—Alice McKinley lacks female role models at home. The story covers a year of Alice's life, following her through sixth grade. All of the subsequent "Alice" books have adopted a similarly uniform, though slightly altered format, capturing three months of Alice's life in each installment. Following the second and third "Alice" volumes, Alice in Rapture, Sort Of (1989) and Reluctantly Alice (1991), Naylor has released a new "Alice" book in the spring of every year since—Almost Alice is scheduled for release in 2008. Now over twenty years into the series, Alice is a junior in high school and, together with her friends, she is engaging in such adolescent milestones as experiencing their first jobs, boyfriends, and developing sexuality. Alice has encountered a number of lighter, funnier moments in her teenage years, including the marriage of her father to her new step-mom Sylvia, her first crush and—later boyfriend—Patrick, and watching her brother juggle various relationships. However, these events are wrapped in the narrative thread of a girl forced to occasionally confront difficult episodes rarely broached in many adolescent works, as when a close friend discloses a life-threatening illness, the discovery that a classmate is a lesbian, or when one of her best friends, Pamela, loses her virginity. Naylor has stated that she intends to carry the "Alice" series through the protagonist's eighteenth year. She has also started a series of prequels to the "Alice" books, beginning with 2002's Starting with Alice which shows readers what Alice was like in third grade.
In a different vein is Naylor's "Bessledorf" series, which centers on a young boy, Bernie Magruder, whose father manages the Bessledorf Hotel in Middleburg, Indiana. The hotel is the scene of many humorous mysteries; for instance, the second book in the series, The Bodies in the Bessledorf Hotel (1986), deals with corpses that unexpectedly appear and disappear at the hostelry. Naylor entered the Gothic realm in her two "Witch" trilogies, beginning with Witch's Sister (1975) and The Witch's Eye (1990), respectively, about a young girl who suspects others of witchcraft. Another venture by Naylor into the supernatural was the "York" trilogy—Shadows on the Wall (1980), Faces in the Water (1981), and Footprints at the Window (1981)—concerning a young man whose travels through time help him come to terms with his fears about a disease than runs in his family. Naylor has additionally received numerous awards and substantial acclaim for her more serious, issue-oriented works. In The Keeper, an adolescent boy tries to live a normal life while grappling with his father's mental illness. Naylor's inspiration for the book came after she had published Crazy Love: An Autobiographical Account of Marriage and Madness, dealing with her first husband's schizophrenia and its effect on their relationship. Naylor has explored a variety of other difficult issues in her juvenile and young adult novels, such as A String of Chances, which focuses on a young girl, daughter of a fundamentalist minister, who finds her faith shaken after a cousin's baby dies.
Moral questions are at the center of Shiloh, for which Naylor received the John Newbery Medal, one of the most prestigious American awards in children's literature. Marty, a young West Virginia boy, takes in a dog that has run away from an abusive master. Believing the animal's safety warrants its theft, Marty hides the small animal in a pen where it is discovered and mauled by a much larger German shepherd. Nearly killed and left lame as a result of the attack, Marty is left to wonder over the result of his actions, most of which have occurred without his father's knowledge or approval. Further, his inclusion of his reluctant mother in his plot adds stress to her marriage once her culpability is exposed. Later, when Marty spies Shiloh's abusive owner, Judd, poaching deer out of season, he blackmails the man into selling the dog, a proposition which worries the boy given his new responsibility for allowing the illegal slaughter of deer which he might have stopped if not for the deal. When Marty presents himself at Judd's farm to pay off his debt of twenty hours of labor in exchange for the beagle, Judd reneges, but the boy works the hours anyway hoping to develop a positive relationship with Judd and to show his own moral growth. Appraising the boy, Judd eventually rewards his efforts by presenting Marty with Shiloh and his blessing. Naylor also penned two follow-ups to Shiloh—Shiloh Season (1996) and Saving Shiloh (1997). The latter tale features the reformation of Shiloh's original abusive owner. Naylor's other works have exhibited great variety, from the comedy of Beetles, Lightly Toasted (1987), about a boy who comes up with insect-based recipes in an effort to win a contest, to the nostalgia of Maudie in the Middle, concerning an early-twentieth-century girl, a middle child, seeking to distinguish herself in her family. The latter was inspired by the experiences of Naylor's mother, Lura Schield Reynolds, who is credited as co-author of the book.
While Shiloh has remained as Naylor's most critically acclaimed work to date, in popular circles, she is best known for her "Alice" series, a line of young adult novels that has attracted both a fervent fan base and small group of virulent critics who have tried to have the books removed from school libraries. Though the "Alice" series has sold over a half-million copies to date, it has also been collectively ranked as the ALA's fourteenth most challenged title for the 1990s and was ranked as high as second in 1999. Discussing the people bringing the censorship challenges against the "Alice" books, ALA member Pat Scales has suggested, "I don't think they read the books. If they read the books, they would see it as the whole adolescent experience." Kitty Flynn has lauded the series, arguing that, "Alice functions rather as a moral compass for readers—her measured and thoughtful explorations of differences among people unobtrusively promote tolerance and acceptance, broadening the books' audience." In her review of Alice on Her Way (2005), Paula Rohrlick has claimed that both Naylor and Alice "are wonderful guides to the confusing maze of adolescence; frank, thoughtful, and caring." While some reviewers have debated whether Naylor's occasionally explicit depictions of sexuality and other social issues in the "Alice" books are appropriate for her adolescent readers, the vast majority of critics have applauded the series' honestly, authenticity, and gentle authorial hand. In addition to its Newbery Medal, Shiloh has won widespread critical approval since its first publication. Leona Fisher has complimented the novel as a story that "manipulates us mercilessly: no amount of critical sophistication can extricate us from the magical web of tactile and emotional feeling. Like an imitative linguistic version of a tumble in the grass with a new puppy—a total sensual experience—the novel insinuates its way into most readers' hearts and heads by means of these delicious descriptions, and refuses to let go as it meticulously records Marty's successive emotional responses to the crises surrounding Shiloh."
Jennifer Jean, the Cross-Eyed Queen [illustrations by Harold K. Lamson] (picture book) 1967
The New Schoolmaster [illustrations by Mamoru Funai] (picture book) 1967
A New Year's Surprise [illustrations by Jack Endewelt] (picture book) 1967
Meet Murdock [illustrations by Gioia Fiammenghi] (picture book) 1969
The Boy with the Helium Head [illustrations by Kay Chorao] (picture book) 1982
Old Sadie and the Christmas Bear [illustrations by Patricia Montgomery] (picture book) 1984
The Baby, the Bed, and the Rose [illustrations by Mary Szilagyi] (picture book) 1987
Keeping a Christmas Secret [illustrations by Lena Shiffman] (picture book) 1989
King of the Playground [illustrations by Nola Langner Malone] (picture book) 1991
Ducks Disappearing [illustrations by Tony Maddox] (picture book) 1997
"I Can't Take You Anywhere" [illustrations by Jef Kaminsky] (picture book) 1997
Sweet Strawberries [illustrations by Rosalind Charney Kaye] (picture book) 1999
Please Do Feed the Bears [illustrations by Ana López Escrivá] (picture book) 2002
To Shake a Shadow (juvenile novel) 1967
What the Gulls Were Singing [illustrations by Jack Smith] (juvenile novel) 1967
When Rivers Meet [illustrations by Allan Eitzen] (juvenile novel) 1968
To Make a Wee Moon [illustrations by Beth and Joe Krush] (juvenile novel) 1969
Making It Happen (juvenile novel) 1970
Wrestle the Mountain (juvenile novel) 1971
No Easy Circle (juvenile novel) 1972
To Walk the Sky Path (juvenile novel) 1973
Walking through the Dark (juvenile novel) 1976
How Lazy Can You Get? [illustrations by Alan Daniel] (juvenile novel) 1979
Eddie, Incorporated [illustrations by Blanche Sims] (juvenile novel) 1980
All Because I'm Older [illustrations by Leslie Morrill] (juvenile novel) 1981
A String of Chances (juvenile novel) 1982
The Solomon System (juvenile novel) 1983
Night Cry (juvenile novel) 1984
The Dark of the Tunnel (juvenile novel) 1985
The Keeper (juvenile novel) 1986
Beetles, Lightly Toasted (juvenile novel) 1987
The Year of the Gopher (juvenile novel) 1987
Maudie in the Middle [with Lura Schield Reynolds; illustrations by Judith Gwyn Brown] (juvenile novel) 1988
One of the Third Grade Thonkers [illustrations by Walter Gaffney-Kessell] (juvenile novel) 1988
Send No Blessings (juvenile novel) 1990
Josie's Troubles [illustrations by Shelley Matheis] (juvenile novel) 1992
The Grand Escape [illustrations by Alan Daniel] (juvenile novel) 1993
The Fear Place (juvenile novel) 1994
Being Danny's Dog (juvenile novel) 1995
Ice (juvenile novel) 1995
The Healing of Texas Jake [illustrations by Alan Daniel] (juvenile novel) 1997
Danny's Desert Rats (juvenile novel) 1998
Sang Spell (juvenile novel) 1998
Walker's Crossing (juvenile novel) 1999
Carlotta's Kittens and the Club of Mysteries [illustrations by Alan Daniel] (juvenile novel) 2000
Jade Green: A Ghost Story (juvenile novel) 2000
The Great Chicken Debacle (juvenile novel) 2001
Blizzard's Wake (juvenile novel) 2002
Polo's Mother [illustrations by Alan Daniel] (juvenile novel) 2005
Roxie and the Hooligans [illustrations by Alexandra Boiger] (juvenile novel) 2006
Witch's Sister [illustrations by Gail Owens] (juvenile novel) 1975
Witch Water [illustrations by Gail Owens] (juvenile novel) 1977
The Witch Herself [illustrations by Gale Owens] (juvenile novel) 1978
The Witch's Eye [illustrations by Joe Burleson] (juvenile novel) 1990
Witch Weed [illustrations by Joe Burleson] (juvenile novel) 1991
The Witch Returns [illustrations by Joe Burleson] (juvenile novel) 1992
Shadows on the Wall (juvenile novel) 1980
Faces in the Water (juvenile novel) 1981
Footprints at the Window (juvenile novel) 1981
The Mad Gasser of Bessledorf Street (juvenile novel) 1983
The Bodies in the Bessledorf Hotel (juvenile novel) 1986
Bernie and the Bessledorf Ghost (juvenile novel) 1990
The Face in the Bessledorf Funeral Parlor (juvenile novel) 1993
The Bomb in the Bessledorf Bus Depot (juvenile novel) 1996
The Treasure of Bessledorf Hill (juvenile novel) 1997
Peril in the Bessledorf Parachute Factory (juvenile novel) 1999
Bernie Magruder and the Case of the Big Stink (juvenile novel) 2001
Bernie Magruder and the Bats in the Belfry (juvenile novel) 2003
The Agony of Alice (young adult novel) 1985
Alice in Rapture, Sort Of (young adult novel) 1989
Reluctantly Alice (young adult novel) 1991
All but Alice (young adult novel) 1992
Alice in April (young adult novel) 1993
Alice In-Between (young adult novel) 1994
Alice the Brave (young adult novel) 1995
Alice in Lace (young adult novel) 1996
Outrageously Alice (young adult novel) 1997
Achingly Alice (young adult novel) 1998
Alice on the Outside (young adult novel) 1999
The Grooming of Alice (young adult novel) 2000
Alice Alone (young adult novel) 2001
Simply Alice (young adult novel) 2002
Starting with Alice (young adult novel) 2002
Alice in Blunderland (young adult novel) 2003
Patiently Alice (young adult novel) 2003
Including Alice (young adult novel) 2004
Lovingly Alice (young adult novel) 2004
Alice on Her Way (young adult novel) 2005
Alice in the Know (young adult novel) 2006
Dangerously Alice (young adult novel) 2007
Almost Alice (young adult novel) 2008
Shiloh (juvenile novel) 1991
Shiloh Season (juvenile novel) 1996
Saving Shiloh (juvenile novel) 1997
"Boys and Girls" Series
The Boys Start the War (juvenile novel) 1993
The Girls Get Even (juvenile novel) 1993
Boys Against Girls (juvenile novel) 1994
The Girls' Revenge (juvenile novel) 1998
A Traitor among the Boys (juvenile novel) 1999
A Spy among the Girls (juvenile novel) 2000
The Boys Return (juvenile novel) 2001
The Girls Take Over (juvenile novel) 2002
Boys in Control (juvenile novel) 2003
Girls Rule! (juvenile novel) 2004
Boys Rock! (juvenile novel) 2005
Who Won the War? (juvenile novel) 2006
"Simply Sarah" Series
Anyone Can Eat Squid! [illustrations by Marcy Ramsey] (easy reader) 2005
Cuckoo Feathers [illustrations by Marcy Ramsey] (easy reader) 2006
Patches and Scratches [illustrations by Marcy Ramsey] (easy reader) 2007
Eating Enchiladas [illustrations by Marcy Ramsey] (easy reader) 2008
Juvenile Short Stories
The Galloping Goat and Other Stories [illustrations by Robert L. Jefferson] (juvenile short stories) 1965
Grasshoppers in the Soup: Short Stories for Teenagers [illustrations by Elsa Bailey] (juvenile short stories) 1965
Knee-Deep in Ice Cream and Other Stories (juvenile short stories) 1967
The Dark Side of the Moon [illustrations by Joseph Papin] (juvenile short stories) 1969
The Private I and Other Stories [illustrations by Elsa Bailey] (juvenile short stories) 1969
Ships in the Night (juvenile short stories) 1971
A Change in the Wind (juvenile short stories) 1980
Never Born a Hero (juvenile short stories) 1982
A Triangle Has Four Sides (juvenile short stories) 1984
How to Find Your Wonderful Someone, How to Keep Him/Her if You Do, How to Survive if You Don't (juvenile nonfiction) 1971
An Amish Family [illustrations by George Armstrong] (juvenile nonfiction) 1974
Getting Along in Your Family [illustrations by Rick Cooley] (juvenile nonfiction) 1976
How I Came to Be a Writer (juvenile nonfiction) 1978
Getting Along with Your Friends [illustrations by Rick Cooley] (juvenile nonfiction) 1980
Getting Along with Your Teachers [illustrations by Rick Cooley] (juvenile nonfiction) 1981
Fiction and Nonfiction for Adults
Crazy Love: An Autobiographical Account of Marriage and Madness (nonfiction) 1977
In Small Doses (essays) 1979
Revelations (novel) 1979
Unexpected Pleasures (novel) 1986
The Craft of Writing the Novel (nonfiction) 1989
After (novel) 2003
Phyllis Reynolds Naylor and Elizabeth Devereaux (interview date 30 September 2002)
SOURCE: Naylor, Phyllis Reynolds, and Elizabeth Devereaux. "An Appetite for Alice." Publishers Weekly 249, no. 39 (30 September 2002): 26-7.
[In the following interview, Naylor discusses the publication history of and her future plans for her "Alice" series of young adult novels.]
Alice McKinley may be having the longest adolescence on record. She entered sixth grade 17 years ago, but she finished ninth grade only last spring. The heroine of 15 books by Newbery Medalist Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, Alice is even more popular today than when she first appeared, in The Agony of Alice (S&S, 1985). More than half a million copies of the Alice books are in print and, with a prequel series debuting this fall and a new design sprucing up all the titles, it seems as if the audience for Alice just continues to expand.
Why do readers and critics love Alice, and how does Naylor—who writes as many as four books a year in addition to her Alice novels—keep the Alice books fresh?
The story of Alice's evolution offers clues. Naylor told PW she originally set out to write about a girl in search of a role model. Like most girls, the author in her youth viewed grown women as potential role models, especially because her own mother was self-effacing. "Much as I loved my mother," the author said with what appears to be characteristic candor, "I didn't see her as a person I wanted to be." Alice's need to search is more obvious than was Naylor's, because Alice's mother has died, well before the series opens. Naylor gave Alice a brother who is eight years older, along with a down-to-earth, sensitive dad, and in the motherless household she saw opportunity for poignancy—and humor. Who is Alice to talk to about matters of burning importance—in other words, sex, with its infinite hold on adolescent curiosity—if not these two men?
The chemistry worked. Naylor had not intended to start a series with The Agony of Alice, but the novel garnered reviews ending with lines like "fans will want to see Alice's next adventures" and kids began writing to Naylor with questions about Alice. "I figured I had to have a series," she said cheerfully.
Naylor slowed down Alice's development to accommodate a series approach. Where Agony spans an academic year, subsequent Alice titles cover only three months each. Naylor plans to write 28 books in all, following Alice through high school; in the series finale, Alice will go from age 18 to age 60.
Despite the entreaties of Alice fans for more frequent installments, Naylor is bringing out one Alice title per year, in the spring. But enthusiasts—who include adult women along with young readers—will be gratified to know that Naylor has already written the ending. "I consider where I am in life," said Naylor, who was born in 1933. "I still have 14 [Alice] books left, and who knows what will happen in the next 14 years? The readers want so passionately to know who Alice marries and whether she has kids, and so on, that I wrote the last book. It's in a firesafe box with a letter to my sons, saying that if anything happens to me, would they please have Atheneum publish it."
Having settled Alice's future, Naylor has also pinned down Alice's pre-Agony past. With the publication of Starting with Alice (S&S/Atheneum, Sept.), Naylor backs up Alice to age eight, in the first of three planned prequels. "Librarians kept saying, ‘Girls are going on and on about Alice, and their little sisters want to read it, too,’" Naylor said. So she tailored a story line and writing style for younger readers, and chose third grade as the new starting point for Alice and her audience, "because kids aren't reading that well before third grade." Each prequel will cover one year; the next two are scheduled to appear in September 2003 and September 2004.
Naylor's commitment to readers extends unusually far. As she recalls, Rick Richter, then president of Simon & Schuster's children's division, suggested that a separate Alice section be built on the house's Web site (www.SimonSaysKids.com). The site goes beyond the expected FAQs, jacket covers and author statements—on it, Naylor writes friendly general letters, answers e-mails and solicits input from readers (e.g., she recently asked them to describe their jobs and volunteer work, with the stated purpose of finding ways for Alice and her friends to spend their school vacations). Naylor estimates that she receives 40 letters a day via the Web site, and she spends an hour a day replying to them.
Alice devotees have become a resource for Naylor. "If I can't remember a detail [from a previous book]," she said, "I post a question, and there's usually a reply within 24 hours." Alice fans take turns supplying a trivia quiz for the site (Naylor admits she usually misses a couple of the 12 questions).
Among the comments Naylor consistently hears from readers is "Alice is so real" or "This is my life." JoAnn Fruchtman, owner of The Children's Bookstore in Baltimore, can testify to that. Customers regularly patrol her store for new Alice releases; among them are one mother and daughter who have made a tradition of reading the Alice books (and no others) aloud to each other. "Alice has become a part of [readers'] lives, almost an institution," Fruchtman said. "The books are very realistic, and the humor is a big part of it." She thinks Naylor's healthy, informative approach to girls' questions is "psychologically a good thing."
Alice in the Flesh
But the frankness that attracts readers can dismay some adults, and the Alice series ranks seventh on the American Library Association's list of the most-challenged books of 2001 ("Schools in Webb City, Mo., ban three books on sexual development," read an Aug. 18, 2002, headline in the St. Louis [Mo.] Post-Dispatch, referring to Alice titles).
Pat Scales, director of library services at the South Carolina Governor School for the Arts and Humanities and a member of the ALA's committee on intellectual freedom, believes that would-be censors often react to isolated passages, usually dealing with sexual curiosity. "I don't think they read the books. If they read the books, they would see it as the whole adolescent experience," she offered. "[In the books] you really do watch a girl come of age, and that's what appeals to the kids. It's parents who don't want to face the fact that a young girl is thinking about [sex]. These are people who probably would have objected to [Judy Blume's] Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret."
About two years ago, Lee Wade, v-p and creative director of S&S Children's Publishing, decided that the up-to-date content of the books needed an up-to-date presentation to match, and she had the series redesigned. It wasn't the first time—"It's incredible how many times people have tried to repackage Alice," Wade said. She and art director Debbie Sfetsios decided on a photographic approach to the jackets. "We felt it would be fresher and might help girls relate to her better."
To find their Alice, they combed modeling agencies and looked at about 30 girls. "But when [the girl we chose] walked into our office," Wade said, "everyone knew that she was Alice. It was even more than how she looked. She had this enthusiasm and vitality." They struck it lucky on the prequel covers as well: they saw only three models before finding a young "Alice" who matched the older "Alice's" appearance and sparkle.
Earlier this year, Wade and her colleagues were ready to shoot images for forthcoming titles for the regular series (and to redo the most recent installment, Simply Alice, after readers complained the girl on the cover looked too young). The problem they encountered was easily overcome: in the intervening two years, the original model had stopped working, but she happily came out of retirement to incarnate Alice again. She's read the series—and she's a fan.
Perhaps readers love Alice because the author so clearly loves her as well. "I didn't have a daughter," said Naylor, who has two adult sons. But when, in preparation for an Alice novel, she registered for the parental portion of a church-sponsored sex education program for high school seniors, she listed Alice as her child. "These novels are a way for me to bring up a daughter," she explained. And maybe, she added, her motherly regard for Alice helps explain why she has already written the last book. "I want to see her grow up, too."
Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (essay date January-February 2006)
SOURCE: Naylor, Phyllis Reynolds. "To Be Continued…." Horn Book Magazine 82, no. 1 (January-February 2006): 41-4.
[In the following essay, Naylor discusses her motivations behind the creation and continuance of her various series of young adult novels.]
I never cared much for series books. The Bobbsey Twins and their toy shop or Nancy Drew and her hidden staircase could never compete with Huck and Jim on a raft.
Around 1982, however, Atheneum invited me to write a mystery series. I was afraid I'd be confined to formula writing, and would have to conjure up a dead body for each book. But Jean Karl, my editor, said, "Do whatever you like."
I planned my series around a hotel in a small Indiana town, and each book begins, "The Bessledorf Hotel was at 600 Bessledorf Street between the bus depot and the funeral parlor. Officer Feeney said that some folks came into town on one side of the hotel and exited on the other."
The stories, a mixture of humor and mystery, are centered on Bernie Magruder and his zany family, who run the hotel, with Bernie's loquacious father intoning such homilies as, "So let's not go off half-cocked with our heads in our hands, but keep our wits about us and our muzzles loaded." I submitted a new book every few years, and the series was eventually renamed the Bernie Magruder mystery books.
My first Alice book, The Agony of Alice, was written as a one-and-only. I just wanted to write about a motherless girl looking for a role model who finds it not in the most beautiful teacher at school, the one she had hoped to get, but in the homeliest. Then the letters began to come in from readers wanting more, and reviewers said things like, "Alice's fans will await her further adventures."
But it was several years before I decided on a series. I wanted Alice to be older in every book so the reader could see her grow and change. Jean was enthusiastic, but a bookseller warned against it. "You'll lose your readership base," she said, "and librarians won't know where to shelve the books." I figured that if it was a choice between losing my readership base or losing my mind over a perpetual sixth-grade sitcom, I'd risk the readers, and began writing one book a year, three books for every year of Alice's life.
I owe a great deal to my readers who use the Alice website to point out mistakes, suggest new titles, and urge new plot twists. They ask such personal questions as "Is it normal to have hair growing under only one armpit?" or "Dear Mrs. Naylor: Is it true that you don't have legs?" Evidently not even my assurance that I was hiking in Glacier National Park last summer dispels their worry that I may one day be too old to write and they will never know whether Alice marries Patrick, Liz remains a virgin, Lester finishes grad school…. If it wasn't that I also deal with prejudice, injustice, gay issues, religion, human sexuality, and other aspects of living, I'd think I was writing a soap opera.
But I, too, worried about letting my readers down should I die prematurely, and so, with eight more books to go, I have actually already written the last one, and it sits in a fireproof box in my office with a letter to our sons saying, Send this on to Atheneum before you do another thing!
When Michelle Poploff of Delacorte asked if I would start a new series for middle-grade readers, I said I would do it only if I could think of some universal theme. Then as I waited for a gym to fill up while speaking at a school, I heard one teacher yell to his class, "If you don't quiet down, I'm going to seat you boy-girl-boy-girl." Instantly a hush fell over the gym.
I knew then that I'd found my theme, and began writing the boys-versus-girls books, The Boys Start the War, The Girls Get Even, etc. The series focuses on a houseful of boys (the Hatfords) in West Virginia, who attempt to drive out a houseful of girls (the Malloys) who have temporarily taken over the home of their best friends, away for a year. There are twelve books in all, one for each of those exuberant months, and guess who's saddest when the girls move back to Ohio?
One of the most difficult things about writing a series in which there are many characters is consistency. The Alice books take the protagonist from eight years of age to eighteen, and the final book leapfrogs through the years eighteen to sixty. As in any life, characters move in and out, new ones are added, and how could an author remember all this stuff—Pamela's birthday, Ben's car, Lester's girlfriends, the dentist's name, the living room furniture?
Letters arrived weekly, delightedly pointing out mistakes: "In The Agony of Alice, Elizabeth has pierced ears, but in the next book she doesn't," they tell me. Characters go from blond to brunette, and Alice herself has three different birth dates. The mistakes were rapidly escalating, and though they seemed to increase the books' popularity—readers take such pleasure in discovering mistakes!—they were a copyeditor's nightmare.
Then my new editor at Atheneum, Caitlyn Dlouhy, who took over the series after the very sad death of Jean Karl, came up with a solution: they would hire someone to carefully reread all the Alice books and compile a bible. It would be divided into categories and subcategories, complete with index and page numbers. It would list all of Alice's friends, teachers, personality traits, physical descriptions, education, boyfriends, gifts received, and embarrassments, and then do the same for every major character. I never start a new book without this bible by my side, even though the first six pages of the ninety-one-page volume are titled "series inconsistencies."
A more serious problem in writing a series where the protagonist matures and changes is that the author tends to see each book as part of a continuum rather than a separate story. Most lives do not revolve around huge events that change our course but rather a series of smaller experiences that accrue meaning over time. Yet each Alice book deserves its own beginning, middle, and end.
After Shiloh was written, I vowed it would never become a series. I did not want to go into a bookstore and see Shiloh at the Beach and Shiloh Goes to the Moon. But readers' letters haunted me. Their rage against Judd Travers was palpable: "Have Marty's dad buy a gun and shoot Judd through the eye or the brain." "Have his truck roll off a cliff and burn him up."
I didn't want to leave them with all that rage. I wanted children to understand that there are reasons why people behave as they do. And after I started Shiloh Season to help explain Judd, I knew there would have to be one final book to convince Marty, as well as readers, that Judd would never again hurt his pet. And the way to do this would be to have Judd risk his own life to save the dog. Saving Shiloh completed the trilogy.
I'm currently working on only two series—eight more books of the Alice series and a six-part Simply Sarah series for Margery Cuyler at Marshall Cavendish, this for a younger set, about a little girl who wants to be anything but ordinary. Among the rules I give myself when writing a series are that I have to be truly enthusiastic about the project, I don't do more than one book per series per year, and I never write two books in the same series back to back.
The joy comes from hearing from kids who are hooked—from their pleading, cajoling, even threatening letters, begging for more than one book per year. ("If you just finished the manuscript, why can't we buy it now?") But there are too many single books clamoring for my attention, tugging at my clothes, whining in my ear. And it's always the child who robs you of sleep whom you will tend to next.
Caroline Jones (essay date spring 2005)
SOURCE: Jones, Caroline. "For Adults Only?: Searching for Subjectivity in Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Alice Series." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 30, no. 1 (spring 2005): 16-31.
[In the following essay, Jones studies Naylor's exploration of sexual issues in her "Alice" series, noting how the author's frank depictions of adolescent sexuality has earned her the ire of several critics and raised questions about the appropriateness of her works for young readers.]
The election, in 1980, of social and political conservative Ronald Reagan to the presidency of the United States signified a change in the societal mores of sexual leniency of the 1970s. Alarmed not just by that leniency, but also by the increasing incidents of AIDS, social and religious conservatives, as well as many liberals and moderates (including flower children of the Sixties who were by now settling down and having children of their own), sought a middle ground from which to confront a future laden with potentially devastating consequences to sexual behavior than their own ever had been. Extreme social conservatives looked longingly back to the moralities espoused by the patriarchal value system of the 1950s, a system which, according to John D'Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, "had never fully died" (345). Discussions of sexual desire radically diminished in sex education classrooms, though they thrived among teens themselves (Rollin 289). D'Emilio and Freedman characterize the renewed purity movement thus:
Reacting to the gains of both feminism and gay liberation, and distressed by the visibility of the erotic in American culture, sexual conservatives sought the restoration of "traditional" values. In its rhetoric, this contemporary breed of purity advocates echoed its predecessors by attributing to sex the power to corrupt, even to weaken fatally, American society…. It plunged directly into politics, as religious fundamentalists joined forces with political conservatives to make the Republican party the vehicle for a powerful moral crusade.
Sex education courses taught students about anatomy and failed to address sexuality in any terms beyond the reproductive, and discussions of contraception were limited. Judith Levine describes the hallmark Reagan-era legislation on federally funded sex education, the 1981 Adolescent Family Life Act (AFLA), as determined to
stop teen sex by deploying nothing more than propaganda. AFLA would fund school and community programs "to promote self-discipline and other prudent approaches" to adolescent sex…. For young people's sexual autonomy and safety [the new law] was a great blow.
As Levine recognizes, policies such as AFLA gravely underestimated the power of young adults' emotions, desires, curiosity, and senses of self-determination.
Of course, politics and school administrations operate on a very different level from the media and culture received and enacted by preteens and teenagers. Their movies, television, music, and magazines all offered very different, very open depictions of sexuality. Cultural rebellions in teen identity—particularly clothing, music, film, and dance—were reminiscent of the 1950s, with teens challenging their parents' values and sensibilities with their own perceptions of and responses to the world1.
Into these social and political scenarios enters Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's series about Alice McKinley, introduced in 1985 with The Agony of Alice. The series, begun in the eighties, but more fully developed in the nineties, embraces the values of sexual knowledge and autonomy of the 1970s, acknowledges the renewed sexual conservatism of the 1980s, and epitomizes their uneasy coexistence in the 1990s. While the social ideologies underlying her aAlice books reinforce approved societal norms of behavior for girls and young women, Naylor raises questions of female sexual desire more overtly and explicitly than most authors writing for her audience (primarily girls aged 9-14). The individual books and the series as a whole are rich with conflicting impulses and tensions. While she maintains some very traditional assumptions and paradigms about sex (particularly that it remain between two consenting adults, generally supposed to be of opposite genders and married), Naylor is also quite progressive and forward thinking about girls and their sexual subjectivity. She condones what Levine calls "clean sex," that is, "the sex that occurs in committed, preferably legally sanctioned, age-of-majority, heterosexual, reproductive relationships," only occasionally addressing Levine's "[d]irty sex [which] is all the rest" (9). In keeping with the sensibilities about clean sex, particularly the "age-of-majority" component thereof, Naylor has created a pre-adolescent and adolescent female protagonist who has, along with an ongoing quest for her own identity, a general curiosity about and interest in sex and the female body, but who, for the majority of the series, has relatively few sexual impulses of her own, and only a limited desire to explore beyond library research, occasionally talking with friends and questioning older relatives, both female and male2.
Alice is eleven years old in the first book, which documents her sixth-grade year, just after her family has moved to Silver Spring, Maryland. Her mother died when she was four, and now she lives with her father, Ben, and her brother, Lester, who is seven years older than she. She has two best friends, both her age: Pamela is blonde, physically well-developed, and precociously sexual. Elizabeth is brunette, beautiful, and resistant to sexual knowledge and experience. Alice (strawberry blonde, cute, and curious) is, as she puts it, "somewhere in between Elizabeth and Pamela—not as fast as Pamela, but not as uncomfortable as Elizabeth" ([Alice in Rapture, Sort Of ] 132). All three of them, it almost goes without saying, are attractive girls, but each in a different way from the others, though all conform to basic societal standards of prettiness. Throughout the series, Alice also has an off-again-on-again boyfriend, Patrick, whom she admires for his lack of self-consciousness and practical ability to deal with the world. His interest in her gives her an entrée into the sixth grade "in" group, and helps her to feel like less of an outsider.
The series attracts a predominantly female readership, increasingly so as Alice gets older, as evidenced by the gendered direction of the publisher's comments on the back jacket of Simply Alice (2002): "Read what real girls have to say about Alice!" Throughout the series, Alice's task is one of self-discovery and self-creation in the face of a culture that does not necessarily value adolescent girls as individuals. Her body, her thoughts, and her questions about sex are integral to her quest for self-determination, though they are far from the whole of it. Donna Haraway reminds us that "[p]art of women's struggle against patriarchy has been to insist on being named independently of fathers" (86), a very tricky thing for Alice, who has no older female in her immediate family. Naylor, with some notable exceptions, tends to fall into traditionally patriarchal ideologies. Alice's Aunt Sally, her mother's older sister, lives in Chicago and functions as a traditionally conventional, though long-distance, model of feminine behavior. Sally's daughter (Alice's cousin), Carol, who is in her early twenties and has been married and divorced, offers a more contemporary model of womanhood, one who has sexual experience and is willing to talk about it, at least to a certain point (her current sex life remains undisclosed). Lester and Ben each have several girlfriends, though like Carol's, their sex lives remain cloaked in mystery. Alice scrutinizes these women, and imagines them, to varying degrees, as role models, possible sisters, and even as potential mothers. Alice searches for female role models, gradually coming to realize that no one woman (except, of course, her absent and thus idealized mother) will ever be able to provide for her everything she hopes, and that her ultimate challenge is defining herself by her own standards—not another woman's, nor yet society's.
As of June 2004, Naylor had published eighteen Alice books: the first in 1985, the second in 1989, one annually from 1991 through 2001, two each in 2002 and 2003, and one (with one more projected) in 20043. Naylor wrote The Agony of Alice (1985) as a single novel, but a sequel followed four years later, and with the second sequel a year after that it became clear that the Alice books were, indeed, a series. In accordance with the unique publishing demands of series fiction, Naylor started slowing Alice's progression through her life in each book (one might say to capitalize on a very lucrative and ever-expanding market): rather than one book per year of Alice's life, we now have at least three—one for each semester of the school year, and one for each summer. The Alice series is something of a cottage industry, with reissues of every title with uniform covers, a website, and a firmly established fan base. In fact, fans give Naylor her best PR: Erin (a "real girl") says, "I have read your Alice books ever since 5th grade (I'm in 10th grade now) and ever since the first one I read I can't stop reading them!" (Simply Alice dj).4 While the dust jacket copy for Alice Alone (2001) reads, "Everyone's talking about Alice" and uses excerpts from reviews from prestigious journals such as Kirkus Reviews, Horn Book, and ALA Booklist, Atheneum recognizes the power of the peer as much more effective than "expert" testimony at bringing in new readers, and quickly exploits it. As we saw, the dust jacket copy for Simply Alice (2002) states, "Read what real girls have to say about Alice!" and quotes the responses of six girls to various Alice books. Both jackets urge readers to "Be sure to visit the Alice Fan Club online," helpfully providing the web address. Between the experts and the real girls, Atheneum cleverly exploits their two major markets: adults who want "quality" books their daughters (or granddaughters or nieces or young friends) will read, and the girls themselves, with spending money at the ready.
Atheneum, in invoking the praise of both the establishment (thus almost thwarting the subversive nature of the books) and the readership, also use would-be censors' efforts to curtail the books' availability instead to promote the series: publishers know that challenges sell more books than they censor. Critics and readers alike praise the issues that arouse censors' ire: sex, bodies, and self-exploration, the first two of which are the reasons given for a vast majority of challenges even today. Lucy Rollin reminds us that the 1980s were a time of especially vigorous censorship: "attempts to censor teen reading escalated considerably in the Eighties" (301), a point which we can safely extend to include pre-teen reading as well. Judy Blume's Margaret (Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret ) yearns to menstruate and exercises so that her breasts will grow; Tony (Then Again, Maybe I Won't ) secretly watches his friend's sixteen-year-old sister undress every night; and Deenie (Deenie ) experiences pleasure and finds comfort through masturbation. Upon their initial publication, all of these novels broke new ground in mainstream children's and teen fiction with their frank discussions of sexual issues, opening doors for authors like Naylor. The first few Alice books did not make censorship headlines5 because, in the first two books at least, Naylor works safely within the Blume tradition that made it all right, or at least somewhat acceptable, to address sexual issues for this audience.6 In the first three books, Alice gets her period, acknowledges her growing breasts, and kisses a boy (Agony ); gets a boyfriend and compares her body with the girls at school (Rapture ); and wonders about her brother's and father's relationships (Reluctantly Alice )—nothing new or alarming to titillate the censors. Like Blume's treatment of similar issues, Naylor couches them in the broader context of Alice's life: her transition to a new town and a new school, her relationships with friends (both girls and boys), and her search for a mother figure.
It is not until Alice becomes more curious about, and interested in, her changing body and her awakening sexual feelings that the books attracted censors' attention. And yet, ironically, as the series progressed through Alice's twelfth through fourteenth years (from Reluctantly Alice through Simply Alice ), Naylor's presentations of family and romantic relationships, as well as of sex and the body, shifted gently but steadily to the right from their original locus left of center, until the prevailing ideology in these books is that sex occurs only within traditional, heterosexual marriage—though she does not go to the extremes of Levine's "clean sex," as sex between married people does not necessarily have to be for procreation7. These twelve books at the center of the Alice series mirror traditional early adolescent assumptions about their lives and their sexuality: one will grow up, fall in love, get married, have sex, and have babies, in that order. In the two most recent books (Patiently Alice and Including Alice ), Naylor complicates the perceptions that Alice and her friends have held about sex, perhaps prompting the rise of the series to number one on the ALA's most challenged list for 2003. But about the majority of Naylor's books, censors seem to disregard what she says about sex and sexuality, fretting instead over the fact that she addresses these issues at all, especially in such graphic terminology, and from the perspective of such young women.
Rollin makes explicit the connection between censorship and adult fear of children's sexual knowledge:
Challengers seemed to believe that what kids read about, they were sure to do—that they knew nothing about sex and were not interested in it until they read about it in books. This attitude has persisted throughout the century, and while it stems at times from a sincere attempt to instruct and encourage the young in positive ways, it more often represents a deep fear of the power, sexual and otherwise, of the young.
Challenges to the Alice series bear out Rollin's observations on censorship, partially due to Naylor's continuing engagement of controversial subject matter and her series' expanding readership. Because Alice was initially in the sixth grade, the earliest readers of the first few books were girls in the nine- to twelve-year-old range, a demographic the series seems to have retained, while expanding to include those earlier readers as they grow older—much as the Harry Potter series has done. And as the readers grow older, so does Alice, though more slowly. This "growing" of Alice seemed fine with parents and literary watchdogs until Naylor started crossing lines regarding Alice's physical and emotional development, getting fairly graphic not simply with abstract discussions of "sexual intercourse," but with more minute concerns about how it feels to have sex, what sexual desire feels like, and what her womanly parts really look like (these last two of which she discovers).
In The Grooming of Alice (2000), Naylor offers an interesting and provocative anatomy lesson through a seminar titled "For Girls Only" in which the girls (at age 14) learn common sense lessons about nutrition, appearance, and sex. After a nurse has shown them drawings of naked boys, she switches the poster to one of naked girls, acknowledging the girls' discomfort at being confronted with "‘parts of female bodies you just don't see without making a special effort. From the time they are babies, boys can examine themselves and look at each other and see immediately what they've got’" (165); Alice reflects on the truth of her statement: "How could I see what I looked like without almost standing on my head?" (165). The nurse then points out and names each of the parts of the female genital region, explaining that all women are different and that those differences are normal. As unexpected as this description of vaginas, vulvas, and clitorises might be, Naylor's coup de grace is the assignment the girls leave with: "‘sometime, when you're alone in your room or the bathroom, when you know you won't be disturbed, I want you to take a hand mirror and examine yourselves’" (168). This blatant affirmation of physical, sexual self-exploration, this strong step into self-knowledge and awareness, has proven the most troubling aspect of Naylor's series for censors—it was the year this book was published that the series made the ALA's top ten most challenged book list. After the seminar, Alice tells her father and brother about the assignment when she gets home (assuring readers that there is nothing shameful or wrong about examining one's own body), then hunts down her mother's old hand mirror, "wondering if Mom had ever used [it] for self-inspection," and positions herself on her bed to explore:
It took a little adjusting and probing to see anything, but sure enough, there was my labia majora and, peeking out from between the lips, the labia minora. I pulled the lips apart and found the little pea-sized clitoris, so sensitive I could hardly touch it. I found my vagina all right, and maybe the hymen, and of course I recognized my anus, though I'm sure I never saw it before. What a weird feeling to think you were being introduced to parts of yourself you'd had for fourteen years and never yet laid eyes on.
While Alice may rush out to look at herself, her exploration stops with the visual—she touches herself only in order to see better; she does not explore herself with any other senses—not what her skin feels like in that area, nor what it feels like when she touches her clitoris (beyond its extreme sensitivity); neither does Naylor take this opportunity to reference or build upon certain discussions from Achingly Alice (Grooming 's immediate predecessor) regarding vaginal wetness and masturbation. Exploring desire, or sensuality, is, in this context, a non-issue.
This assignment offers Alice and her friends what Karin Martin calls "cognitive knowledge," that is, "learned, rational thinking, abstracted from experience" (21) as well as the prospect of what Martin calls "subjective knowledge … practical, material knowledge from experience, knowledge that usually has emotion behind it" (21). Such subjective knowledge of one's body is, I suggest, vitally important to sexual subjectivity, which is in turn crucial to a strong sense of "agency and thus of self-esteem" for adolescent girls and young women (Martin 10). There are, of course, no hard and fast rules about human development or about desire; the only person who can say when she or he is ready to explore any given idea, feeling, or practice is the individual in question. Thus I hesitate to set forth a mandate that Alice or her read- ers "ought to be" or "should be" interested in exploring their own bodies or their own sexual desire by any certain age. What I will say is that there are, undoubtedly, many girls of twelve, thirteen, fourteen, older, and even younger, who are, in fact, interested in these things, who have sexual feelings and want to explore what to do with them. On the question of sexual desire, Naylor exercises her common safety measure of vagueness and ambiguity for several reasons. She needs to continue to use caution with her subject matter so that her publishers will continue not just to publish her work, but also to publicize it and profit from it. More importantly, perhaps, she continues to write Alice as Everygirl, and if she risks imposing too much active desire, or too little interest in desire, she risks writing Alice outside that realm of commonality, thus losing that sense of kinship her readers seem to value so highly.
With the fairly frank inclusion of practical sexual curiosity, if not desire (despite the approval and complicity of most of the adult characters), throughout the series and especially in The Grooming of Alice, a great many conservative parents and watchdog groups began challenging the books. In 2000, the Alice series was third on the American Library Association's most frequently challenged list, right behind J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series and Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War. Reasons given for the challenges are "sexual content and being unsuited to age group"; in 2001, the series was down to seventh on the list, for "being sexually explicit, using offensive language and being unsuited to age group" (ALA online 2002), but in 2002 the series was second on the list (ALA online 2003) and in 2003 it hit number one, topping Harry Potter, and other notables such as Go Ask Alice and Robert Cormier (ALA online 2004). No one in the books curses beyond an occasional "damn" or mention of hell—the "offensive language" in question is undoubtedly the anatomical terminology. Appendix One sets forth some of the issues that incite censors by looking at the Library of Congress categorizations used by libraries in determining how books will be catalogued by topic and subject matter. Local and school libraries use these categories to determine where each book will be shelved, thus a book classified as "juvenile" in one library might be shelved as "young adult" in another. Books tend to be catalogued as juvenile and shelved in the children's section as long as they limit themselves to uncontroversial topics like "Family life," "Schools," and the classic "Single-parent families," all of which run through the Alice titles from the earliest to the most recent. Interestingly, issues like "Conduct of Life," "Decision-making," and "Identity" are the earliest causes for caution, issues which give the child protagonists agency in their own self-determination. The fourth book (in which Alice is twelve), All But Alice (1992), mentions both "Conduct of Life" and "Interpersonal Relations," which merits it a double library categorization as both juvenile and young adult, as do the eighth and ninth books (in which Alice is thirteen), Alice in Lace and Outrageously Alice, the former for (presumably) "Decision-making" and the latter for "Identity." Notably, the J classification drops with the provocatively titled Achingly Alice, in which Alice, aged almost fourteen, first feels and describes sexual desire (48-9); in which Elizabeth has, and describes in detail to Alice and Pamela, a pelvic exam (59-64); and in which the topic of masturbation is introduced (61-2). As Appendix One demonstrates, sexual issues comprise only some of the topics troubling censors about this series. Some are peripherally related and could lead to sexual topics (interpersonal relations, body image), while others are issues of subjectivity and agency, and the autonomy that accompanies self-definition and self-awareness: Conduct of Life, Decision-making, Identity, Self-perception, Self-esteem.
Book nine, Outrageously Alice (1997), offers a particularly strong portrait of Alice exercising all of the aforementioned life skills as she tries on persona after persona, thinking that surely one of them will lead to her true identity. Naylor sets up the themes of the book with the following reflection:
Part of me wanted things to go on forever just like that—hugs and kisses and holding hands on the sidewalk at night—the other part wanted to do something wild, like walk out of a bathroom in a ‘Jungle Fever’ teddy. Could I ever imagine myself doing that? Right now, the answer was no.
Is this what my life would be like, then? Feeling too scared to be outrageous and too ordinary if I didn't?
After attending a lingerie shower for Crystal Harkins (one of Lester's ex-girl-friends), at which the participants take a "Test Your Sensuality" quiz8 (on which, of course, thirteen-year-old Alice scores the lowest of everyone present), Alice feels childish and disgusted with herself. She is mortified at her inexperience, and frightened at the idea that she will be inexperienced (and thus ordinary) forever, as well as at the thought of exchanging her inexperience for experience. She feels that in order not to be ordinary, she must be outrageous, and, predictably, she makes herself ri- diculous as well as outrageous. Her primary effort to stand out and have people notice her takes the form of finding a signature color (green, to match her eyes) and taking it to excess, first with make-up and ultimately with colored hair gel. However, in order for Alice to fully understand how ridiculous her actions are, first in her attempts to change her "look," and, more seriously, in her attempt to locate her subjectivity in something as superficial as a look or an image, she must see herself through another's lens, objectified.
In the course of this book, Alice joins the camera club, and through that plot device Naylor allows Alice to see herself through others' eyes. Her new friend Sam gives Alice a photo he took of her soon after she embarked on her green eye shadow and mascara look; Naylor has Alice describe the print, then take a long look at herself:
two girls side by side, but one of them, with strawberry blond hair, had two huge greenish eye sockets…. That couldn't be me! I couldn't look that awful! …
For a long time I stared at myself in the mirror. And when I got home, I threw out all the green eye shadow and liner. At school the next day, no one seemed to miss them.
"Hey, you look really nice today," Patrick told me.
"Thanks," I said.
Obviously, locating one's subjectivity in one's "look" is not agency at all, but reinforcement of the self as object—in doing this, she wants people to notice her physical presence—but Alice, as all teenagers do, ought to be able to engage with and explore different ways of presenting herself; she ought to be able to make different fashion statements, she needs to have a choice, even if she chooses "wrongly." Alice is seeking her identity, but she cannot really see herself—not in the mirror, not in her friends or family, most of whom seem nonplussed about her new look—until the photograph. She has to see herself as an object, an artifact, in order to become aware of herself as a subject. After seeing herself more objectively, Alice throws away the green makeup and returns to her less-spectacular, more-ordinary—yet somehow truer—self.
As Alice learns more about herself and about claiming personal agency, one would expect that she would thus become better equipped to claim sexual agency and understand herself as a sexual subject rather than a sexualized object. Of course, being a fictional construct, this claiming remains at the mercy of her author, and likely her author's publisher, despite what readers might anticipate. Naylor takes steps toward asserting that claim on Alice's (and Pamela and Elizabeth's) behalf in Achingly Alice (1998), which immediately follows Outrageously Alice. In this installment of the series, Alice and Patrick begin to explore new, more physical, facets of their own relationship; and prim, repressed Elizabeth becomes obsessed with what she considers her own disgusting feminine odors. Elizabeth's concern leads to a visit to the gynecologist, who treats her for a yeast infection and discusses with her various causes of vaginal wetness. Elizabeth reports: "‘He said sometimes you have a discharge because you have a slight infection, and other times it's just a hormonal thing—that … that you get wet because you're sexually excited, and that was normal.’ ‘See, I was right! You get the hots!’ said Pamela" (61). Elizabeth continues, telling them that the doctor also revealed that "‘some girls touch themselves down there, and that's normal…. That can make you wet, but masturbation can't hurt you,’" to which Alice inwardly comments, "I'd heard the word [masturbation] and was pretty sure I knew what it meant, but what I couldn't believe was that Elizabeth had said it. Did Elizabeth touch herself down there, too? I wondered. There were some things even we didn't ask each other" (Achingly 62).
Achingly Alice breaks new ground for Alice and her readers as Naylor first embarks not just on a more detailed discussion of female biology, including yeast infections and the various causes of vaginal wetness, but also in her broaching the dark terrain of feminine desire. In 1976, Hélène Cixous described male (and thus mainstream) perceptions of female consciousness and being in terms of darkness: "Dark is dangerous," she begins; "You can't see anything in the dark, you're afraid. Don't move, you might fall. Most of all, don't go into the forest. And so we have internalized this horror of the dark" (282). She continues, moving through such imagery from the negative into the positive, from symbolic to actual:
[The Dark Continent] is still unexplored only because we've been made to believe that it was too dark to be explorable…. We've been turned away from our bodies, shamefully taught to ignore them, to strike them with that stupid sexual modesty; we've been made victims of the old fool's game: each one will love the other sex.
Cixous, writing in the mid-1970s, was calling on women to identify themselves as subjects, as writers, as sexual agents; urging them to find their own voices, not to be content with the silences and darkness imposed on them from outside themselves. Fifteen years later, in "Situated Knowledges," Donna Haraway, speaking of trends in biology studies, says:
The biological female peopling current biological behavioural accounts has almost no passive properties left. She is structuring and active in every respect; the ‘body’ is an agent, not a resource. Difference is theorized biologically as situational, not intrinsic, at every level from gene to foraging pattern, thereby fundamentally changing the biological politics of the body.
Haraway expands upon Cixous's call for agency, further rejecting old notions of the female as biologically passive and weak. Naylor has heard and heeded these calls for agency on many levels: Alice is not a quiet or passive character; she questions others as well as herself, she questions the world, she acts on those things she wishes to change. Yet in matters of desire and of sexual agency, Alice and her friends remain only quiet voices whispering in the darkness; they are female; they are children. Traditionally, children and females are thought of as having no sexual desire—the world is uncomfortable with their sexual desire; thus these characters' sexual passivity reflects the conflict doubtless felt by the author and her publisher about what concessions must be made in order to express certain previously "unacceptable" or "inappropriate" ideas.
Pleasure is rarely a societally-sanctioned reason for sexual activity. Levine laments the omission of pleasure from most sex education curricula, citing loan Rappaport, a sex ed teacher for middle-school girls "at a Manhattan private school," who recognized the overwhelmingly cautionary nature of their sex ed curricula after student reviews of the course identified the primary message as "Basically, like, Don't have sex." Rappaport realized: "We say masturbation is normal and they shouldn't be ashamed or worried about it. And yes, we do discourage intercourse. But we never, ever talk about masturbation as pleasure or any other ways of having sexual pleasure" (Levine 131). Levine tells us that "[t]he week after that revealing review, Rappaport gave her sixth-grade girls an assignment: ‘Go home and find your clitorises’ (132), an assignment remarkably similar to the nurse's assignment in The Grooming of Alice, though with radically different intentions. The fictional assignment will offer the girls Karin Martin's "cognitive knowledge" about their bodies, as well as the prospect of Martin's "subjective knowledge." Rappaport's actual assignment, not to name their parts but "to find [their] clitorises," offers not simply the prospect of subjective self-knowledge, but its likelihood.
Alice, at age thirteen (two years older than Rappaport's students), first feels and describes sexual desire in the aptly titled Achingly Alice. One afternoon, when he and Alice have his house to themselves, Patrick offers to give her a drum lesson. In the midst of a drum duet, Alice realizes that
Patrick didn't exactly have his mind on drumming, either, because I noticed after a bit that he wasn't playing anymore. He had his hands on my waist, instead, and his lips were against the back of my neck. He was slowly running his hands up and down the sides of my rib cage, and I felt a whoosh! go through my body—like everything was drawing up tight, and my nerve endings were tingling.
"Ummm, Patrick," I said, leaning back against his chest, and this time he bent his head and I turned mine so that we were kissing sideways, full on the mouth, and I felt another whoosh!
I lay back in Patrick's arms, and he kissed me again. One of his hands rested on my chest, and although he wasn't touching my breasts, I think I wanted him to. Then we heard the front door open and his mom's footsteps on the floor above.
While Alice undoubtedly enjoys this experience with Patrick, she also feels helpless and frightened by the power of her own desire; for one thing, her use of the phrase "I think" to describe her own desire—she is unsure of what she wants, if she would like him to touch her breasts—and she is not given the chance to find out. Or perhaps she is unsure simply about admitting to her own desire, that foreign and dark and somehow forbidden territory. As she walks home, she reflects on the experience: "I have to admit I'm glad [his mom] came home when she did, though, because I'm not really truly sure where I would have stopped if she hadn't. I was having feelings I hadn't felt before—terrific feelings that I wanted to feel again" (50). With this cautionary lesson, Naylor plays directly into what Levine terms "[o]ur crudest and oldest fear about letting out too much sexual information … that it will lead kids to ‘try this at home’ as soon as they are able—a sort of user's manual or propaganda, a model of sexual knowledge" (8). As I mentioned earlier, Lucy Rollin also notes an explicit connection between adults' fear and teens' sexual knowledge (301-2). While Naylor may overtly seek to undermine and repudiate this fear, such cautionary passages in which teens rely on adult intervention to govern their experience indicate that she is not immune to that fear's effects. Naylor stops short of giving Alice and Patrick the freedom to kiss a little longer, to experience both touching and being touched, and then to make their own decision to stop—or to go on (though this latter option is not likely for Alice without lengthy consultation with Pamela and Elizabeth).
Especially in Outrageously, Achingly, and Grooming, Naylor begins to empower Alice as an agent in the construction of her own identity, but even in discussions of masturbation—a safe, healthy, and consequence-free way to learn about one's own body and one's own desire—Naylor stops short of allowing Alice to become an active sexual agent, an explorer of her own desire. Remember, as Alice examines herself in the hand mirror, she can "hardly touch" her clitoris (Grooming 174). There may be, however, a loophole in this logic, an admission through omission: recall Alice's inner question to herself about masturbation in Achingly Alice : "Did Elizabeth touch herself down there, too?" (Achingly 62). The problematic word here is "too." What does it modify? The "some girls [who] touch themselves down there," or Alice herself? Textual evidence would more likely indicate the former, because Alice has never discussed masturbation with her friends or her adult mentors, nor has she mentioned it in her internal narrative for the reader. We find more subtle clues in Alice on the Outside (1999), which comes between Achingly Alice and The Grooming of Alice. When Alice asks her cousin Carol what sexual intercourse feels like for a woman (24), Carol uses the term "come" for orgasm, and Alice asks for an explanation. Carol explains: "‘An orgasm. A climax. A peak of excitement. If you've ever masturbated, you already know what it feels like’" (25). Instead of responding to Carol's cop-out (essentially, "you'll know it when you feel it"), Alice moves on, asking another question ("‘So how is real life different from the movies?’"). This shift of topic might overtly signal that Alice chooses not to inquire further about orgasm because she is not interested, or perhaps because she is embarrassed (though that seems unlikely, given her curiosity and candor up to this point); but it might also covertly signal that she does not need to pursue that line of questioning because she has experienced orgasm, and her initial question is one of terminology rather than sensation. It more likely indicates that the author has taken that discussion as far as she is willing to go in that context. As she demonstrates throughout the series, Naylor is a master of studied ambiguity, seeking, perhaps, to indirectly raise questions about sexual desire and agency, thus allowing readers to come to the questions themselves while avoiding further censorious outcry.
Even in her most recent (and most daring) books, Patiently and Including, Naylor displaces questions of desire from Alice onto Pamela, Elizabeth, and Gwen. In Patiently, the girls are assistant counselors at a camp for underprivileged children, and Alice decides (contrary to the vast majority of summer fiction) that she does not want a summer romance: "I wanted a time-out from wondering what guys were thinking abut me, from fussing with my hair, using mouthwash in case a guy was going to kiss me. I would like one summer of just being friends with people. Smiling at guys and feeling a certain electric charge, but no blinking lights, no bells, no whistles" (45). And while Elizabeth and Gwen find boyfriends9 and Pamela flirts with many boys, a summer of building friendships is exactly what Alice accomplishes. When she returns from camp, she is caught up in preparations for her father's wedding and Sylvia's imminent arrival in their household, a preoccupation which continues through Including. Even after the wedding, Alice spends relatively little time worrying about boys, though she thinks about Patrick and a few new boys. But the desire to be part of a couple and interest in exploring her sexuality play secondary roles to finding her place in her changing family.
Ultimately, Naylor's ideology tells her readers that sexual interest and desire, within certain acceptable parameters, is healthy and good. Beyond those parameters, however, the territory is questionable, almost unexplorable, as Cixous initially describes the Dark Continent of female being. Naylor mentions and does not condemn non-heterosexual, non-marital, non-age-of-majority relationships, but when Alice and her friends discuss their own impending sexual relationships, it is always in the context of a marriage to a man. Naylor tells us that masturbation is normal (Achingly 62) and that people who are gay have a right to be that way and even to express affection for one another (Outside ), but such expressions are marked by stereotypical ideas and language, calling them out as Other than the norm. Naylor leads into introducing her token lesbian character, Lori Haynes, with a discussion of her physicality (tall, with a "nice shape" but "not much bosom" [Outside 92]), and Alice's comment that "I caught Lori look- ing at me" (92). Naylor's ambiguous tendencies call into question Lori's intent—does she really just "feel different" and want to see "how [she] measure[s] up to other girls" (92) as Alice maintains, or do these seemingly innocuous peeks mask some sinister illicit desire? When Lori invites Alice to spend the night, Alice's father cautions her (as he has not done before) to "‘call me if you ever feel uncomfortable somewhere’" (95). After Lori comes out to Alice, gently hitting on her in the process, a pass which Alice handles with sensitivity and poise, Naylor diminishes the connection between the girls by turning Lori into a stereotypical dyke-type lesbian—realizing she was somehow "different" at age six, interested in boys' toys more than girls', not liking lacy, ruffly dresses—the character is in danger of becoming a token and losing her status as an integral component to the series and to Alice's life10.
Judith Levine cites our culture's expectation that children be blank, naïve, and desireless. Such expectations are behind the challenges to the Alice series in which the lead characters are neither naïve nor desireless. Alice wants to know and understand herself and her friends; she wants to know about sex and love and relationships; and, especially from the age of thirteen, she experiences desire. The only saving grace for societal watchdogs is that while she enjoys feeling desire, she also fears and defers it. As Levine tells us in her introduction, "from the first sex ed class on, children were drilled in the rigors of abstinence, the ‘refusal skills’ to defend themselves against their peers' pressing desires, and their own" (xxiv). Additionally, Levine points out that, especially for girls and young women, "fearing the consequences of arousal [pregnancy, disease] is not the same as not wanting to be touched" (136).11
Naylor's characters are young and just beginning to explore their bodies, to discover their own desire, navigating that terrain slowly and cautiously. That journey of discovery is not limited to the body: Alice, Pamela, and Elizabeth each seek their own agency, finding ways to separate themselves from parents, teachers, and even one another. While Naylor may not overtly affirm or encourage sexual desire or exploration for her characters (or, implicitly, for her readers), neither does she condemn such desire or exploration. Through older mentors and authority figures, Naylor presents sexual information in a carefully neutral manner, while never judging sexual impulses, desires, or responses as abnormal or wrong. As her protagonists learn more about their own physicality, they come to understand sexual desire as part of growing up—a part that carries responsibility as well as excitement and even pleasure. Alice's own experience of desire is conflicted—it marks her maturity, it offers possibilities for exploration and intimacy, yet it reminds her that the older she gets, the more complicated her life will become. All three protagonists come to realize that relationships—sexual, romantic, and otherwise—present innumerable complexities, that no one lives happily ever after, and more importantly, that such an end may not be desirable. They embrace desire and they postpone it; they long for it as exotic even as they dread it as unknown. With fear and desire playing off each other in societal ideologies of love, sex, and relationships, it is no wonder that even as Naylor cannot fully give rein to Alice's curiosity, she acknowledges and has begun to explore her character's desire for self-exploration and her desire for desire itself.
1. See Lucy Rollin's Twentieth-Century Teen Culture by the Decades for more detail on the types of sexual and social rebellion in which teens of the 1980s were engaging. Rollin cites statistics that indicate that teens were having sex more frequently in the 1980s than in previous decades, despite, or perhaps because of, the political and social conservatism about sex among more vocal activists. Because teens were not learning the skills with which to think about, discuss, or make the emotional or physical decisions about their sex lives, sexual activity among teens increased, almost by default. Rollin notes, "losing one's virginity seemed to be an increasingly public index to maturity, at least among teen girls and boys who quizzed each other about it" (289). Incidents of teen pregnancy were also increasing, a trend arguably related to the decrease in funding for comprehensive sex education programs, and to the Reagan administration's "‘just say no’ to sex as well as drugs" policy (291). Rollin notes that eighties teens were aware of AIDS and the dangers associated with unprotected sex, and that, to a certain degree (especially among white, middle-class teens), these dangers encouraged safer sexual practices, including, but not limited to, abstinence (Rollin 274).
2. As Alice and her friends grow up, however, Naylor allows them increasing freedom to behave as actual teenagers might: in book 16, Patiently Alice (2003), one of her friends allows a boy to touch her breast, and she learns that another has actually had sexual intercourse. In that book and the next (Including Alice ), however, Alice remains apart from romantic liaisons and any resultant sexual impulses: Naylor instead focuses on Alice's family life—her father has just remarried, Alice is between boyfriends, and does not even date. This uncharacteristic abstinence from social involvement reinforces the validity and importance of getting to know oneself.
3. In August, 2002, Naylor published a second Alice book for the year, Starting with Alice. It purports to be the first of three prequels, introducing to her readers Alice at age eight. Alice in Blunderland (2003) picks up with Alice at age nine.
4. The copy on the back of the dust jacket of book fourteen, Simply Alice, is comprised of comments about the books and emails and letters to the author from readers. The language about "real girls" is the publisher's.
5. Ironically, while The Agony of Alice went largely unnoticed after its publication, it was challenged in a Fairfax County, Virginia school in 1999. The Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom reported the largely unsuccessful challenge in its March 2000 issue, noting that while its classroom use will be limited to "small discussion groups for girls only … [b]oth the school and the district review committee recommended the book be kept in the library," and the district superintendent "recommended school librarians not deny access to the book" (62).
6. Judy Blume is still one of the most frequently challenged authors writing today, so I use the term "acceptable" here to indicate the response of most mainstream readers.
7. When alluding to sex between two unmarried consenting adults (particularly Lester, but also Ben and his eventual fiancée, Sylvia) what Naylor does not say is more potent than what she does say. In an e-mail Naylor told me "[m]ost of my readers are well aware that Lester is probably having sexual relationships with the women he dates," but in the texts Alice does not draw conclusions, and Lester neither admits to nor denies any specific act.
8. This quiz is drawn from an actual sensuality quiz offered by companies like Undercover Wear Inc. and Just for Play at "sex toy Tupperware-type parties" in the early 1980s (Petersen 377). Petersen cites questions abut greeting one's mate nude, having sex outdoors, and uses for whipped cream, all of which Naylor uses (Achingly 20-1).
9. Elizabeth, the most traditionally conservative of the friends, yet also the one struggling most with her own identity, actually allows a boy to touch and kiss her breasts (146).
10. Fortunately, Lori does not fall out of the series after making her initial appearance. She finds a girlfriend, and they remain part of the web of Alice's wider circle of friends.
11. In a response to a reader on her website, Naylor comments about sex that "It's too bad that something that can be so pleasurable can also have so many bad consequences if a couple isn't mature enough to handle them" ("Alice—Fan Mail").
American Library Association. Banned Books Week: Celebrate Your Freedom to Read, September 21-28, 2002. 22 Apr. 2002 <http://www.ala.org/bbooks/challeng.html>.
———. Banned Books Week: Celebrate Your Freedom to Read, September 20-27, 2003. "The Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2002." 22 Oct. 2003 <http://www.ala.org/Content/NavigationMenu/Our_Association/Offices/Intellectual_Freedom3/Banned_Books_Week/Challenged_and_BannedBooks.htm>
———. Challenged and Banned Books: The Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2003. 21 June 2004. <http://www.ala.org/ala/oif/bannedbooksweek/challengedbanned/challengedbanned.htm>.
Blume, Judy. Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. 1970. New York: Yearling, 1986.
———. Deenie. 1973. New York: Dell, 1981.
———. Then Again, Maybe I Won't. New York: Macmillan, 1971.
Cixous, Hélène. "The Laugh of the Medusa." Trans, Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen. The SIGNS Reader: Women, Gender, and Scholarship. Ed. Elizabeth Abel and Emily K. Abel. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1983. 279-97.
D'Emilio, John, and Estelle B. Freedman. Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America. 2nd ed. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1997.
Haraway, Donna J. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Levine, Judith. Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2002.
Martin, Karin A. Puberty, Sexuality, and the Self: Girls and Boys at Adolescence. New York: Routledge, 1996.
Naylor, Phyllis Reynolds. Achingly Alice. 1998. New York: Aladdin, 1999.
———. The Agony of Alice. 1985. New York: Simon & Schuster (Aladdin), 1997.
———. "Alice—Fan Mail" 16 April 2003. Simon & Schuster. 10 June 2003. <http://www.simonsays.com/subs/qaap.cfm?areaid-510&userid-4>
———. Alice Alone. New York: Atheneum, 2001.
———. Alice in Blunderland. New York: Atheneum, 2003.
———. Alice in Lace. New York: Atheneum, 1996.
———. Alice in Rapture, Sort Of. 1989. New York: Aladdin, 1999.
———. Alice In-Between. 1994. New York: Yearling, 1995.
———. Alice on the Outside. 1999. New York: Aladdin, 2000.
———. All But Alice. New York: Atheneum, 1992.
———. E mail to the author. 2 September 2003.
———. Including Alice. New York: Atheneum, 2004.
———. Lovingly Alice. New York: Atheneum, 2004.
———. Outrageously Alice. 1997. New York: Aladdin, 1998.
———. Patiently Alice. New York: Atheneum, 2003.
———. Reluctantly Alice. 1991. New York: Aladdin, 2000.
———. Simply Alice. New York: Atheneum, 2002.
———. Starting with Alice. New York: Atheneum, 2002.
———. The Grooming of Alice. 2000. New York: Aladdin, 2001.
Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom 49.2 (March 2000): 62.
Petersen, James R. The Century of Sex: Playboy's History of the Sexual Revolution, 1900-1999. New York: Grove, 1999.
Rollin, Lucy. Twentieth-Century Teen Culture by the Decades: A Reference Guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood P, 1999.
Kitty Flynn (essay date September-October 2007)
SOURCE: Flynn, Kitty. "Everygirl: Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Alice." Horn Book Magazine 83, no. 5 (September-October 2007): 463-67.
[In the following essay, Flynn explores the widespread appeal of Naylor's Alice McKinley—the protagonist of her "Alice" series of young adult novels—to regular adolescent girls, commenting that, "Naylor trusts that girls can handle factual information about sex and their bodies; her readers, in turn, trust her and her books to provide them with the proper tools to successfully chart their own courses through life."]
Life, as far as I could see, was going to be a sort of obstacle course, with detours, yield signs, stop signs, and cautions.
—Alice in Lace
For over twenty years, Alice McKinley, the protagonist of Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's twenty-plus book series, has been a trusted friend and guide to legions of girl readers. Starting with The Agony of Alice in 1985, Alice has been navigating life's obstacle course from sixth grade through high school (in 2007's Dangerously Alice, she's a junior). Focusing on Alice's social, sexual, and emotional development, Naylor takes advantage of the popular series format to let the narratives mature along with her heroine. While Alice's interests and problems change realistically along the way, she always offers honest and authentic observations about family and friends, school and boys, body image and self-perception, sexuality and values.
That's not to say Alice has all the answers. She'd be the first to admit she doesn't, and that's a big part of what makes her such a likable and easy-to-relate-to character. Where her best friends, Pamela and Elizabeth, are firmly entrenched in their positions (thrill-seeking risk taker and naive good Catholic girl, respectively), Alice doesn't approach life with ready solutions, sending girls a reassuring message that it's okay not to know everything. She's not shy about asking questions—which is a good thing, as some of her misconceptions (about, for example, bathroom etiquette on one's wedding night) are pretty funny. Realistically imperfect, Alice makes mistakes and faces the consequences, modeling how to survive life's inevitable embarrassments and errors of judgment.
Each book takes place over a few months, typically a school semester or summer vacation, mirroring the rhythm of readers' lives. Alice leads a middle-class existence in suburban Maryland with her widowed father, Ben, and her twenty-something brother, Lester (until, later in the series, Alice's stepmother joins the family—adding a whole new dynamic). Alice doesn't remember much about her mother, who died when she was in kindergarten, but she's acutely aware of her mother's absence. Not having a mother prompts Alice to consciously study the women around her—her teachers, her cousin and aunt in Chicago, her brother's and father's girlfriends, her friends' mothers, her father's co-workers—as a measure of her own identity and for a better understanding of what her future might look like. Alice often turns to her father and brother for answers to her many frank questions, lending a valuable (to Alice and her readers) older-male perspective to the mix.
Oh, and about those questions—one of the series's hallmarks is straightforward, non-threatening information about sex and sexuality, which speaks to girls' normal curiosity and evolves naturally as Alice grows more aware of herself as "a sexual being." At twelve, for example, Alice ponders the logistics of French kissing: "You probably had to start planning it early in the morning and be careful what you ate all day so your mouth wouldn't taste like onions or anything." By eighth grade, her questions are more advanced, as when she bravely asks her divorced cousin, "Carol, what does intercourse really, really feel like for a woman?" Alice's father and (more reluctantly) her brother field the bulk of her forthright questions with respect and humor—often at the dinner table. This family openness is obviously idealized, but it's an ideal to strive for. The message is clear: if Alice can talk to her father over roast chicken about "three things that can cause wetness down there," then for you, the reader, talking with a trusted adult about a sensitive topic might not seem quite as terrifying. And for some (probably many) readers, Alice gives voice to what they can't.
Alice is extremely curious about her brother's and father's love/sex lives, but what of her own experiences with boys? True to her character, Alice falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. She isn't as experienced as some of her friends (which suits her just fine) but has a bit more experience than others (and only when she feels ready). She starts dating Patrick in sixth grade ("I saw Patrick smiling and I smiled back; and after that, I guess, we were going together"); they're a couple, more or less, until ninth grade, when she suffers that rite of passage known as first heartbreak. While Alice speaks openly about her own emergent sexuality, her primary role is emphasizing for readers the characteristics of a healthy and safe romantic relationship: "I was eager, I'll admit, for whatever came next. But I was going to be choosy. It wouldn't be lying sideways, with my bra yanked up like a rape scene." It falls to her peers, not Alice, to exhibit promiscuous or self-destructive behavior and to suffer the ensuing consequences.
That's not all the characters are up to, of course. Yes, sex gets a lot of attention in the books, and Alice probably has more explicit questions than the average girl. It's all in the service of providing readers with balanced, nonjudgmental information to aid them in making their own decisions. Naylor takes on plenty of other less-sexy but no-less-practical issues to widen her characters' experiences, often using a school setting for this purpose. In Alice on Her Way, for example, a health-class unit called Critical Choices has Alice and the gang practicing some adult decision-making (planning a wedding, buying a car, dealing with an unplanned pregnancy). In Alice on the Outside, "Consciousness-Raising Week" teaches the whole school about the power of groups and leaves Alice with a deeper understanding of prejudice.
Alice's wide-ranging friendships, too, provide her with plenty of opportunities to puzzle out her own reactions to various issues and for Naylor to examine ideas and actions other than her protagonist's. Alice functions rather as a moral compass for readers—her measured and thoughtful explorations of differences among people unobtrusively promote tolerance and acceptance, broadening the books' audience. When Alice discovers that a new friend is gay, for example, her instinct is to not react: "My first thought was not to call Dad and ask him to come and get me. It wasn't to pull away from her, either, although I did remove my hand from hers and put it in my lap. I just wanted to sit there and listen to how she felt." She isn't afraid to take a stand, either. Later, when the same friend is being publicly harassed at school, Alice acts without hesitating. She bravely stands up for the girl, risking ridicule—or worse. Alice appeals to the best in her readers.
Are the books too message-y? Naylor obviously has an agenda, though judging from the volume of enthusiastic (and unedited) fan mail posted on www.alicemckinley.com, her message is warmly and eagerly received by her audience: "i seriously CANT wait for my dangerously alice book to come in. i am SOOOO excited! i love you phyllis!!!!!!! thank you!!!!!!!" As the e-mails make clear, Alice means a lot to readers; they see each book as an opportunity to catch up on the life of a familiar, well-loved character and her friends. But it's not just that. Girls are drawn to the series because of Naylor's realistic portrayals of issues that matter to them. And outside of the books, Naylor herself has become a confidant and advisor to many, many readers. The website allows the conversation between author and reader to continue, with Naylor posting refreshingly candid responses to fans' sometimes intensely personal letters. And just as in the books, she tells it like it is: "You have a good question here, so CALL HIM AND ASK!!!"
Sharing shelf space with the many girl-focused series about princesses, queen bee cliques, and Hollywood starlets, the Alice books are, by comparison, much more down-to-earth and a whole lot more substantial. Escaping into the black-and-white world of prom queens and promiscuous nannies is easy; what's hard is acclimating to the ordinary, unpredictable world—and that's where Alice comes in. Unlike other series that follow a girl from childhood to adulthood (the Little House books, for example, or Anne of Green Gables), Naylor's books are expressly concerned with the contemporary trials and tribulations of growing up. Reading about Alice's experiences with bullying, prejudice, peer pressure, and boyfriends—to name just a few topics—is a rehearsal of sorts for modern-day real life. Alice makes a similar point when reflecting on her summer reading list: "Most of the girls in the books were older than I am, and it was like reading the diaries of older sisters, knowing that if they could get through the problems in their lives, I could get through mine." That's the key to her appeal: even though the details of Alice's life may be different from theirs, girls see themselves in her efforts to make sense of herself and the world.
At their heart, these books are encouraging lessons in developing and maintaining all kinds of healthy relationships: with family, with friends, with boyfriends or girlfriends, and, most importantly, with oneself. While adolescent-girl issues inform the stories, Alice's relationships at different stages of her life are the focus of each novel. The Horn Book review of Alice in Rapture, Sort Of aptly (if a bit clinically) called the series a "novelized handbook on adolescence." That's accurate, but it doesn't give the whole picture. Alice is a fully realized character, and Naylor knows how to tell a compelling story that, while always true to her young protagonist, doesn't read like a manual. Naylor trusts that girls can handle factual information about sex and their bodies; her readers, in turn, trust her and her books to provide them with the proper tools to successfully chart their own courses through life.
Kathie Cerrra (review date January-February 1992)
SOURCE: Cerrra, Kathie. Review of Shiloh, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. Five Owls 6, no. 3 (January-February 1992): 62-3.
Among the many fine qualities of [Shiloh, ] this novel for the middle grades is the multilevel conflict that drives the plot. Marty Preston, eleven years old, lives a good but frugal life with his family in the hills of West Virginia. He has always wanted a dog, but the family could never afford to feed one. The seeds of the outer conflict emerge early in the story, when Marty comes upon a beagle in the woods. The dog is owned and mistreated by a cruel neighbor, Judd, who keeps beagles for hunting. Although Marty's father makes Marty return the dog to Judd, the beagle seeks out Marty a second time. Marty decides secretly to keep the dog, naming him Shiloh. The outer conflict hinges around Marty's efforts to keep Shiloh hidden, fed, and cared for without the knowledge of his family or of Judd. The inner conflict, which heightens suspense, centers around the several aspects of Marty's moral dilemma. Marty feels guilty about lying to his kind and loving parents, yet he knows that his father would make him return Shiloh to the rightful owner. He ponders whether keeping a dog that belongs to someone else is justified when the owner mistreats the dog. As the story unfolds, aspects of the outer conflict change. But it is Marty's love for Shiloh that continues to inform his actions.
If, as John Gardner tells us in The Art of Fiction, vivid detail is the life blood of fiction, then Shiloh teems with life. It is the detail in Marty's first-person narrative that allows the reader to share his experience and feeling. Marty tells us what it feels like to first hold the squirming Shiloh, and he tells us how it feels to lie to his loving parents. We know Marty's perceptions through vivid sensory detail, and we participate in his inner life of thought and feeling.
The style of this book convincingly reflects regional speech and is spare and inviting. The child who begins to read Shiloh may feel compelled to continue reading, drawn by Marty's straightforward, present-tense account of the challenges before him. The young reader will be amply rewarded, for there are no pat answers here. Marty's hard work and courage and honesty bring about the resolution of the inner and outer conflicts that he faces.
Claudia Mills (essay date 1999)
SOURCE: Mills, Claudia. "The Structure of the Moral Dilemma in Shiloh." Children's Literature 27 (1999): 185-97.
[In the following essay, Mills suggests that Naylor's Shiloh offers young readers the opportunity to digest complex philosophical and moral questions through its accessible and engaging narrative.]
Children's literature has long had the role of providing moral instruction and shaping moral development.1 Some notable children's books, however, go beyond the task of transmitting and inculcating accepted values to portray children engaged in a process of real moral reflection that can itself transcend and challenge our shared values. Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Newbery-winning novel Shiloh is remarkable for its recognition of certain fundamental ambiguities and limitations in the morality we share. The moral dilemma that eleven-year-old Marty Preston faces in the novel is extraordinarily complex, raising challenges both to how we reason about our obligations to members of the moral community and to how we define the scope of that community. The latter may occasion the novel's most significant philosophical triumph in its illumination of how we fail to apply even our most central and unambiguous moral principles to children and to animals.
In "real life," children struggle with sometimes extraordinary seriousness to develop into full-fledged moral agents. In The Moral Life of Children (1968) and The Moral Intelligence of Children (1997), Robert Coles provides moving case studies of children trying to sort through their moral obligations against a background of their parents' beliefs, their religious beliefs, and the transmitted beliefs of their culture. Children also seem to have a natural curiosity about the philosophical dimensions of their lives, as shown by Gareth Matthews's depictions of his successful attempts to engage children in philosophical dialogue (1980). I want to suggest that this capacity for philosophical perplexity, turned toward the moral seriousness of our lives, makes Shiloh a wonderful vehicle for engaging children in sophisticated moral reflection, for the questions Shiloh raises are ones that the professional philosophy literature itself has been struggling to answer.
The Generation of Moral Dilemmas
Is there always a right answer to the question "What should I do?" Many of us are tempted by the view that even if it may be difficult to determine what we should do in a given situation, there is indeed a correct answer. The task of moral theory, then, is to array the totality of our correct moral judgments into one systematized framework, providing an explanation and justification of how they fit together into one unified whole. The two leading secular moral theories developed since the eighteenth century are consequentialism (identified in its utilitarian form with Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill) and deontology (identified with Immanuel Kant). According to consequentialism, the right act in any given situation is the act that produces the best consequences, usually understood in terms of the welfare of all those affected by the act. (Important for our purposes is that utilitarian consequentialists such as Bentham historically have defended the extension of moral considerability to all sentient creatures, including nonhuman animals, so that in evaluating actions we must look at their implications for both human and animal welfare.) On deontological (obligation-based) moral theories, the right thing to do is established by invoking moral obligations grounded in some way other than by appeal to consequences. For example, according to Kant, we must act only on maxims (principles) that can be consistently universalized and only with respect for other persons as ends in themselves.
A number of philosophers, however, have asked whether there is indeed always a right answer to the question "What should I do?" They suggest that we may sometimes face real moral dilemmas, which all the resources of moral theory are inadequate to resolve. A moral dilemma is more than merely a difficult moral choice. According to one recent definition, a "moral dilemma is a situation in which an agent S morally ought to do A and morally ought to do B but cannot do both, either because B is just not-doing-A or because some contingent feature of the world prevents doing both" (Gowans 3). Here the world presents us not with a merely difficult choice between a right action and a wrong action but with an impossible choice between two simultaneously required but mutually incompatible right actions, or, viewed otherwise, between two wrong actions, since whichever action one chooses, one will leave undone at least one other action equally obligatory from a moral point of view.
Apparent moral dilemmas tend to arise when consequentialism and deontology point in different directions in some problematic cases—when the best consequences can be produced (or disastrous consequences averted) only by violating some important moral principle (for example, by breaking a promise or telling a lie). Defenders of consequentialism or deontology usually reply to such challenges by insisting that the apparent moral dilemma dissolves when the underlying issues are looked at more carefully and filtered through the "correct" moral theory.
One may also argue in response to such problem cases, however, that no theory is adequate to the task of matching the complex nature of moral reality. Thomas Nagel, for example, in "The Fragmentation of Value," writes that we recognize the legitimate claims of so many diverse types of value that basic and irreducible conflict among them is "ubiquitous" (Nagel 180). Nor can we find a way out of moral conflict by relying on any simple priority rules that would tell us which kind of value to weight more heavily when two different kinds of value conflict, for the absoluteness of such priority rules is simply absurd: "It is absurd to hold that obligations can never outweigh rights, or that utility, however large, can never outweigh obligation" (177).
I argue in what follows that Shiloh offers an example of a moral dilemma that simultaneously affirms and undermines both the deontological and consequentialist strands of our ordinary morality. There is no one clear solution to Marty's dilemma available, either to Marty in the course of the story or to the reader in retrospective reflection after reading. The result of the moral inquiry in Shiloh is not moral despair, however, nor an abandonment of the attempt to live a morally serious life, but ultimate moral triumph.2
Consequences and Moral Obligation in Shiloh
The dilemma Marty Preston faces in Shiloh at first glance fits into the familiar framework of consequentialism pitted against deontological respect for moral duty.3 Marty discovers a dog who is being abused by his owner, Judd Travers, and names the dog Shiloh. When Shiloh runs away from Judd to Marty, Marty decides to hide Shiloh from Judd and from his own family. On one side, we see the concern for welfare characteristic of consequentialism; we see concern for the suffering and happiness of one sentient creature. On the other side, we see respect for familiar moral duties not to lie, steal and break promises. So Marty faces the question whether it is permissible to violate these other moral duties in order to produce the morally desirable outcome of saving Shiloh.
Presented in this way, most readers would be initially sympathetic to the consequentialist argument—that Shiloh's welfare outweighs the moral prohibitions against lying, promise-breaking, and stealing. Marty himself at points characterizes his decision in these terms, disregarding the moral standing of the prohibitions in favor of concern for Shiloh. "A lie don't seem a lie anymore when it's meant to save a dog, and right and wrong's all mixed up in my head" (70).
But in Naylor's sensitive treatment of these issues, complexity quickly emerges to temper our first pro-consequentialist response. Consequentialism judges acts by their consequences, and the consequences to Shiloh of Marty's hiding him turn out to be worse than the consequences of leaving him with Judd: a neighbor's vicious German shepherd leaps into the pen Marty built to hide Shiloh, leaving him severely injured and, even after he ultimately recovers, permanently lame. Marty reflects on this afterward: "Worst of all, I'd brought Shiloh here to keep him from being hurt, and what that German shepherd done to him was probably worse than anything Judd Travers would have brought himself to do, short of shootin' him, anyways" (96-97). Judd Travers says the same thing when he discovers what has happened: "Look what you done to my dog! … I sure never caused him an injury like this one. Wouldn't never have happened if you'd brought him back like I told you" (111). Marty closes his eyes: "Nothin' I can say to that" (111).4
Moreover, consequentialism insists that the right action is determined not by assessing the consequences to any one party but by looking at the consequences to all those affected by the act, extending out as far in time as one can reasonably foresee. Marty's dilemma is sharpened toward the end of the novel when consequentialist considerations, even understood only in terms of animal welfare, begin to extend more widely. Marty comes across Judd shooting a deer out of season; he decides to bargain with Judd not to report him, in exchange for Judd's promise to sell him Shiloh. But this means that future deer will now be in danger from Judd's careless blood-thirstiness, which Marty himself recognizes: "I'm so glad to be gettin' Shiloh, I can hardly think straight. But I'm thinkin' straight enough as I help drag that doe to Judd's to know that by lettin' him get away with this, I'm putting other deer in danger. He kill this one out of season, he'll figure maybe he can kill some more. To save Shiloh, I'm making it harder for deer" (125-26).
Likewise, as she decreases the attractions of the consequentialist solution, Naylor also increases the attractions of the deontologically based obligations that Marty must violate. These are not presented as items on some arbitrary and unmotivated list of commandments to be obeyed blindly. Instead, respect for moral obligation, in the world of Shiloh, both reveals and shapes moral character. We see Judd Travers for what he is not only through his cruelty to animals but also through his cheating Mr. Wallace at the corner store (22), through his breaking the antipoaching law, and through his breaking his promise at the end of the book to sell Shiloh to Marty. Marty begins to feel his own character warp as he continues his ever-escalating series of lies to protect Shiloh: "Funny how one lie leads to another and before you know it your whole life can be a lie" (60). Outer adherence to truth-telling and to promise-keeping can be a sign of inner integrity.
Moral duties are also situated within a larger social fabric. They are justified because of how they structure our interactions with others. Lies and broken promises lead to a loss of trust, to a rending of the fabric that binds together families and communities.5 It is for this reason that Marty's mother doesn't want to lie to Marty's father about her discovery of Shiloh: "I never kept a secret from your dad in the fourteen years we've been married…. He ever finds out about this dog and knows I knew but didn't tell him, how could he trust me? If I keep this one secret from him, he'll think maybe there are more" (83). She does keep Marty's secret, though, with the result of a subsequent strain in the marriage. And Marty experiences at first hand the loss of his father's trust when his father asks him,
"… What else you keeping from me?"
"How do I know that's not another lie?"
"'Cause it's not."
"You saying so don't make it true."
Thus, the reader is left rooting for Shiloh and hoping that Marty will be able to save him, but realizing that the costs of Marty's trying to do so are genuine—costs that do not evaporate with correct theoretical understanding of the situation.
Perhaps highlighting the contrast between philosophy and literature more generally, Shiloh ends up offering a profoundly antitheoretical response to the moral theorist, for moral theory is largely useless in resolving Marty's dilemma. Instead, what turns out to matter is a heightened sense of moral particularity.6 Marty's father twice challenges him as to why he is so concerned to save Shiloh when there are thousands of other equally mistreated animals whose welfare—on a strictly consequentialist view—should matter just as much as Shiloh's: "If this dog's mistreated, he's only about one out of fifty thousand animals that is" (24); "You think Judd Travers is the only one around here hard-hearted toward his animals? … Open up your eyes, Marty. Open your eyes!" (94). But Marty rejects this insistence that he be able to generalize his concern for Shiloh to a concern for all mistreated animals. It is perhaps the most troubling sign of Judd's moral blindness that he does not see the particularity of his animals, signaled by his refusal to name them: "Never name any of my dogs. Dogs one, two, three, and four is all…. ‘Git,’ ‘Scram,’ ‘Out,’ and ‘Dammit’: that's my dogs' names" (35). Dogs for Judd are interchangeable units: "Lose one, I'll buy another" (35). It is when Marty names Shiloh as a distinct individual that he acquires his particular and personal obligation toward him. Marty is not trying to save the world but to save Shiloh—though perhaps saving him is the first step toward saving the world. Moral judgment proceeds case by case, and it is never easy.
Persons versus Animals
While Shiloh lays bare some of the complexities at the heart of ordinary morality, both affirming and challenging our consequentialist and deontological commitments, it also offers a crusading challenge to ordinary morality in the questions it raises about our treatment of those who are not fully members of the moral community—particularly nonhuman animals but also to a certain extent children.
At three different points in the novel, Marty compares animals to children: it has been a familiar tactic in the history of moral philosophy to try to extend moral consideration to some hitherto excluded group by stressing its relevant similarity to some included group. "What if [Shiloh] was a child? … If some kid was shaking like this dog is shaking, you wouldn't feel no pull for keeping an eye on him?" (24). To this his father replies simply, "This here's dog, not a child, and it's not our dog" (25). The other two points of comparison, however, raise questions about whether we fail as a society in protecting children just as we fail to protect animals. When Marty tells Judd, "I figure a dog's the same as a kid. You don't treat a kid right, he'll run off first chance he gets, too" (64), Judd responds with stories of how he was abused as a child by his father and still "turned out." Marty asks, "Turned out how?" The answer is clear: turned out to be himself an abuser. Finally, when Marty, desperate for some solution to his struggle to keep Shiloh, debates reporting Judd to the authorities for animal abuse, he thinks to himself, "Tyler County hasn't hardly got the money to investigate reports of children being kicked, Dad says, much less dogs" (113), highlighting the lack of value we, as a society, place on the welfare of both.7
Just as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn more than a century earlier challenged existing notions of African Americans as property, capable of being bought and sold, so Shiloh raises parallel questions about our treatment of animals as property.8 But whereas the character Huck shares the racist assumptions of his culture, Marty is an animal rights advocate from the first page of the novel, where he shows his squeamishness about eating the rabbit his father shot that day. Although he is not a vegetarian (and the issue of eating meat is never raised at any point in the novel), he is personally opposed to hunting, telling the reader that he shoots only at tin cans: "Never shoot at anything moving, though. Never had the slightest wish" (12).
Marty extends his concern for animals to the farthest fringes of animal creation, explicitly defending the rights of even insects and snakes. He is uncomfortable when his little sisters capture lightning bugs: "Seeing those bugs in a jar reminds me of Shiloh all chained up at Judd's, a prisoner as sure as those bugs" (31). He tells his sisters, "They'll die if you keep 'em in a jar" (32). Later, after having pretended to his sisters that he has seen a snake nearby in order to keep them from finding Shiloh's hideout, he responds to Dara Lynn's cry, "Kill it! Git your gun and blow its head off," with "Even snakes got the right to live" (62).
Throughout, Marty's parents insist to Marty that Shiloh is Judd Travers's property and that it is none of Marty's business how Judd chooses to treat him: "If it's Travers's dog, it's no mind of ours how he treats it" (24); "Judd Travers has the right to name his dog anything he likes or nothing at all. And you've got to get it through your mind that it's his dog, not yours, and put your mind to other things" (37); "You've got to go by the law. The law says that a man that pays money for a dog owns that dog" (94). In contrast, Marty claims that it is love, not money, that should establish the relation of belonging. When his mother points out to him yet again, "This dog don't belong to you," Marty shoots back, "Mine more than Judd's! … He only paid money for him. I'm the one who loves him" (82).
Marty is ultimately able to save Shiloh when he accidentally stumbles upon Judd in the act of killing a deer out of season; he can now blackmail Judd into agreeing to sell Shiloh to him in exchange for his promise not to report Judd (out-of-season killings carry with them a $200 fine). Although this point is not highlighted in the novel, it is clear that our societal and legal concern for animals extends only so far as establishing when they may be killed, not whether. It is a crime to kill a deer out of season; it is no crime to kill a deer in season. Although somewhat more protected by anticruelty laws, domestic animals in a sense lack even this much protection:
"What if a man shoots a dog?" I ask.
Dad looks over at me. "Dogs aren't ever in season, Marty. You know that."
"But what if a man shoots one, anyway?"
"That would be up to the sheriff to decide what to do, I guess."
Shiloh does not try to settle the question of how much weight we should give to animal rights or interests or how these should be weighed against human interests when the two conflict. But in a novel that is extraordinarily sensitive to moral ambiguity, the moral considerability of animals emerges as a point beyond doubt or question. Through Naylor's skill as a novelist, the reader comes to care about Shiloh as deeply as Marty does and so to reject the premise that morality should be indifferent to how animals are treated.
Morality, Law, Culture, Religion
Most moral theories begin by trying to separate out, within the realm of the normative, that which is distinctively moral or ethical from action-guiding prescriptions based on law, culture, or religion. What we morally ought to do is not identical with what we legally ought to do, or with what most people in our culture usually do, for both law and culture could be wrong, as history showed us in Nazi Germany. Nor can what we morally ought to do be identified simply with what our religion tells us to do, for that will ground a legitimate ethical prescription only if we have some independent reason for accepting religious authority—and often we accept religious authority only because we think God is good, as shown by our independent moral evaluation of his commands.
In Shiloh we find Marty trying to separate what is right from what is legally, culturally, and religiously required. But even as Marty draws these familiar distinctions, in the end he finds that all four domains—morality, law, culture, religion—are in his world inextricably woven together.
Marty repeatedly challenges the authority of a law that would allow a man to own and mistreat an animal as Judd mistreats Shiloh. "What kind of a law is it, Ma, that lets a man mistreat his dog?" (82). When his father tells him that if he objects to the law, he should obey it while he works to change it, Marty asks, "What if there isn't time, Dad? Shiloh could be dead by the time somebody looked into the way Judd treats his dogs" (94). The law is neither infallibly correct in the line it draws between permitted and proscribed behavior nor able successfully to deter the behavior it proscribes.
Marty's world in Shiloh is the world of a close-knit rural Appalachian community with its own clearly defined code of conduct, to which Marty makes frequent reference in the novel. The code consists chiefly in neighborliness within boundaries set by an ethic of each minding his own business. When Marty's lies lead others in the community to think that his family has come on hard times, people pitch in to help with donations of food. Even Judd Travers stops to give Marty a ride into town. But the central organizing principle of the ethic of Friendly, West Virginia, is that "folks keep to their own business…. In Tyler County that's important. Way it's always been, anyhow" (23). This means that Marty would cause a serious rupture in the community should he decide to take Judd to court for animal abuse: "Around here it's serious business when you got a quarrel with your neighbor and you got to carry it as far as the law. Folks ain't that fond of Judd, and most of 'em likes my dad, but when it comes to taking a man's property I figure they'll side with Judd" (117). But Marty challenges this ethic, at least inwardly: "Dad wouldn't report Judd even if he saw him shoot a doe out of season, because that's the way it's always been around here. That don't necessarily make it right, of course …" (130). Marty finds himself wondering, too, about "whose business it is when someone breaks the law. Wonder if Dad wouldn't never tell on Judd no matter what he done. Bet he would. There's got to be times that what one person does is everybody's business" (132-33).
Marty's own moral code is also steeped in religion. One does not sin, according to Marty's deeply devout mother, because one does not want to be "separated forever from God's love." Thus, when Marty eats his sister's chocolate Easter rabbit and later lies about it, his mother tells him, "Dara Lynn don't know who ate the ear off her candy rabbit and I don't know who did it, but Jesus knows. And right this minute Jesus is looking down with the saddest eyes on the person who ate that chocolate" (56). The memory of this episode leads Marty to offer his own prayer on what he should do in his dilemma over Shiloh: "‘Jesus,’ I whisper finally, ‘which you want me to do? Be one hundred percent honest and carry that dog back to Judd so that one of your creatures can be kicked and starved all over again, or keep him here and fatten him up to glorify your creation?’" (57). Marty answers this question himself: "If Jesus is anything like the story cards from Sunday school make him out to be, he ain't the kind to want a thin, little beagle to be hurt" (57).
But later Marty distances himself from a religiously based resolution to his problem. In a passage that strikingly parallels Huck Finn's famous declaration—if he has to go to hell for helping Jim to escape, "All right, then, I'll go to hell" (272)—Marty reflects on whether he'll go to hell for the lies he tells to save Shiloh: "I don't feel good about the lies I tell Dara Lynn or David or his ma. But I don't feel exactly bad, neither. If what Grandma Preston told me once about heaven and hell is true, and liars go to hell, then I guess that's where I'm headed. But she also told me that only people are allowed in heaven, not animals. And if I was to go to heaven and look down to see Shiloh left below, head on his paws, I'd run away from heaven sure" (73).
Yet even as Marty separates the question of what is right for him to do from the question of what is legally, culturally, and religiously required, in the course of Shiloh, law, culture, and religion play an essential role in arriving at the solution to the novel's central moral dilemma.
Marty is able to force Judd to make the agreement to sell Shiloh only by threatening to report him to the legal authorities for poaching. Marty retains his allegiance to law generally, even if he wishes that the law could go farther than it does toward the protection of animals or, for that matter, children. The law against poaching exists to protect pregnant and nursing does, to protect some kind of natural balance. And it is the sanctions attaching to violation of this law that allow Marty to negotiate his final bargain with Judd. In a world where men are not always good, law, with its attendant sanctions, is an important tool for ensuring moral compliance.
But it is one thing for Judd to make the agreement; it is another thing for him to keep it, and to keep it over the long term. The sanctions attending law—legal condemnation and punishment—cannot guarantee compliance with what the law requires. Marty knows that if he cannot win Judd over as a friend, Shiloh will be forever vulnerable to an "accident": "I don't want to make him mad. No use having a winner and loser, or the bad feelings would just go on. Don't want to have to worry about Shiloh when he's running loose and I'm in school. Don't want to feel that Judd's so sore at me he'll think up any excuse at all to run his truck over my dog" (140). In order to ensure enduring compliance, Marty must cultivate a continuing relationship with Judd as a neighbor, as a member of the moral community, rather than shunning and ostracizing him as a moral outcast. Marty comes to understand and even to pity Judd as he puts in his promised twenty hours' worth of work on Judd's property. Even though at one point he says of Judd, "I hate him more than the devil" (134), the novel is remarkable in its ultimate unwillingness to demonize its villain. Judd's moral failings, however grievous, are placed in a human context; we understand why Judd is the way he is, and we find ourselves rooting not for his damnation but for his redemption.
Finally, the novel concludes with a return to what I see as implicitly a religiously based morality. Halfway through Marty's promised twenty hours of work, Judd sneers that he is working for nothing, that their written agreement is worthless because it was signed without a witness. When Marty asks his parents that evening, "What's a witness?" his mother responds with the religious rather than the legal sense of the word: "Somebody who knows the Lord Jesus and don't mind tellin' about it" (138). His father supplies the legal sense: "Somebody who sees something happen and signs that it's true" (138). Marty decides that all he can do, in the face of Judd's renunciation of their contract, is to continue to follow through on it himself: "You and me made a bargain, … and I aim to keep my part of it" (139). He tells himself, "I got no choice. All I can do is stick to my side of the deal and see what happens. All in the world I can do" (140). The resolution of the stand-off comes when Marty, in essence, stands witness, in his mother's religious sense of the term, for an ethic of love, crystallized in his love for Shiloh. When Judd asks Marty, "What you going to do with that dog once he's yours?" the answer is just "Love him" (142). This answer finds a comfortable home in the novel's explicit invocation of one particular love-based ethic—Christianity.
At the end of Shiloh the moral ambiguity that has characterized Marty's dilemma throughout has been resolved into a desperate kind of moral certainty. Earlier, when Marty's father tells him, "I want you to do what's right," Marty shoots back at him the question, "What's right?" And for once in Marty's eleven years, "I think I have my dad stumped" (94). But the resolution of Marty's dilemma comes when, in the end, he witnesses for what is right in the face of Judd's refusal to do what is right. Here deontology and consequentialism at last come together. Marty does what he has to do to produce the consequence of saving Shiloh, and he does it not by telling a lie or breaking a promise but by keeping his word and living up to his half of a covenant, by continuing to stand by what he believes to be right.
How is this to be determined if not by appeal to any particular moral theory? Naylor shows Marty doing what Nagel argues that we must do, in the absence of any other alternative—we must rely on our best judgment: "I contend that there can be good judgment without total justification, either explicit or implicit" (180). This judgment is, for Nagel, an Aristotelian-style practical wisdom "which reveals itself over time in individual decisions rather than in the enunciation of general principles. It will not always yield a solution…. But in many cases it can be relied on to take up the slack that remains beyond the limits of rational argument" (180). In the novel's final paragraph, Marty reports that he has learned that "nothing is as simple as you guess—not right or wrong, not Judd Travers, not even me or this dog I got here" (144). But although right and wrong are seldom simple, in the end we can witness to the right as we see the right, a right identified with great difficulty and no guarantees, through attention to moral par- ticularity, through a willingness to take seriously the diverse claims of law, culture, and love. Indeed, in the end, as Marty says, it is all that we can do.
1. See, e.g., Ann Scott MacLeod's fascinating discussion in A Moral Tale, as well as many of the works reprinted in From Instruction to Delight, edited by Patricia Demers and Gordon Moyles.
2. In thinking about the relation between moral dilemmas and moral seriousness, I am indebted to my colleague Ann Davis's "Moral Dilemmas."
3. As is common among philosophers, I use duty and obligation interchangeably.
4. It should be noted here that a reasonable consequentialism will need to judge acts not by their actual consequences but by their expected consequences, since it seems unfair and unreasonable to hold agents responsible for outcomes that they could not have foreseen. But here we can say that Marty should have had reason to doubt that his hiding Shiloh in this way would lead to an optimal outcome.
5. For a discussion of the fundamental moral significance of trust, see Annette C. Baier, "Trust and Antitrust."
6. In this Naylor may be giving voice to what some feminist writers have called "an ethics of care," which values concreteness rather than abstraction and particularized others rather than generalized others. See, for example, Nell Noddings, Caring.
7. As an interesting historical aside, a reviewer of this essay notes that it was the founding of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals that heightened awareness of the abuse of children and led to various legal protections for them.
8. I do not mean here to be equating Shiloh with Jim in any other sense than that both are perceived as property, for Jim is clearly a moral agent in a way that Shiloh of course is not.
Baier, Annette C. "Trust and Antitrust." In Moral Prejudices: Essays on Ethics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994.
Coles, Robert. The Moral Intelligence of Children. New York: Random House, 1997.
———. The Moral Life of Children. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968.
Davis, Ann. "Moral Dilemmas: Introductory Remarks." 1995 Typescript.
Demers, Patricia, and Gordon Moyles, eds. From Instruction to Delight. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Glover, Jonathan, ed. Utilitarianism and Its Critics. New York: Macmillan, 1990.
Gowans, Christopher W., ed. Moral Dilemmas. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Kant, Immanuel. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. 1785. Trans. James W. Ellington. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981.
MacLeod, Ann Scott. A Moral Tale: Children's Fiction and American Culture 1820-1860. Hamden, Conn.: Archon. 1975.
Matthews, Gareth. Philosophy and the Young Child. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980.
Nagel, Thomas. "The Fragmentation of Value." In Moral Dilemmas. Ed. Christopher W. Gowans. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Naylor, Phyllis Reynolds. Shiloh. New York: Atheneum, 1991.
Noddings, Nell. Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. 1884. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1948.
Leona W. Fisher (essay date spring 2003)
SOURCE: Fisher, Leona W. "‘I'm Thinking How Nothing Is as Simple as You Guess’: Narration in Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Shiloh." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 28, no. 1 (spring 2003): 17-25.
[In the following essay, Fisher argues that Shiloh's narrative strength is derived from its usage of an internal narrative dialogue spoken entirely in the present tense.]
"I liked this book—and I usually hate dog stories! I don't even like dogs!" complained several of my students in a recent college class. "Well," I proposed, "why don't we try to find out why? What are the book's special, even unique, characteristics that enable such a positive response, even from twenty-year-old skeptics like yourselves?"
This analysis grows out of that attempt, which has taken me in various narratological directions. The more I explored the book's persuasiveness, alone and with my students, the more I concluded that this book stands virtually alone in its bravery: culturally (although written by a suburbanite, it is set in the West Virginia hills), ideologically (it sets up virtually insoluble ethical dilemmas, which it refuses to solve easily, and certainly not in a formulaic way), linguistically (like many contemporary African-American books for children, it incorporates dialect not only into its dialogue but into its narrative and provides no grammatical correctives) and, most important, narratologically. The story is experienced, told, "filtered," and analyzed by eleven-year-old Marty Preston—without benefit of authorial intervention, or even the interaction of an addressee.1 With no overt or extended narrative frame (such as, "Now I will tell you a story," "Once upon a time," or "Last year") and very little subsequent spatial or temporal "double consciousness" for the reader's benefit, Marty simply launches into his story by specifying a concrete day and event: "The day Shiloh come" (11).2
For those of you not familiar with this extraordinary tale, Shiloh is a dog, and his "coming" changes Marty's—and the other Prestons'—life forever. The terrified beagle has been beaten and abused by his owner, Judd Travers, and he finds refuge in the protective, loving arms of the smitten Marty, who learns to lie and scheme and rationalize (and even to subvert his community's value systems) in the process of discovering a plan to keep the dog. In the process, Marty offers many pre-adolescent observations for the first time, not the least of which is this: "You once get a dog to look at you the way Shiloh looked at me, you don't forget it" (32)—an insight many readers seem to have difficulty forgetting as well.
But what produces this effect so unequivocally and particularly in a story that might easily fall into the clichés of the "boy and his dog" convention? How does the author avoid the obvious pitfalls of sentimentality, condescension, "cuteness," or even anthropomorphism that have characterized so many animal tales for middle readers? The answer, I believe, is simple: through the outrageous and brilliant use of a technique seldom used in fiction for any age group: the sustained internal monologue presented almost exclusively in the present tense.3
The selection of the angle-of-vision from which a story is told may be the clue to the effectiveness of children's "classic" stories from Alice in Wonderland through Tom Sawyer, the Little House books, Charlotte's Web, to the Great Brain books, The Chocolate War, Harriet the Spy, and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Whether, as in Barbara Wall's formulation, these books are told in the "Single Address" (addressed to the child alone) or "Double Address" (addressed alternately to the child and the adult) of the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries, or in the supposedly more sophisticated "Dual Address" (addressed to the child and the adult simultaneously) of the last one hundred years, each of them presents an appropriate point of view and voice which establish a desired rhetorical relationship and intimacy—with many readers across time and space. No "classic" text, however, has attempted a plausible retelling of a story from the perspective of the very moment in which it is happening.4 The conventions of written narrative tell us, after all, that the past tense is the present (with "had," the past perfect, to signify the actual past, and "would" as the predictive future, bringing the story up to the time of the telling). In third-person focalized accounts, only in the moments where, for example, the youthful Laura's point of view conflicts with the current author Laura Ingalls Wilder's adult perspective, does the sense of dual time and consciousness complicate our response; in first-person tales like Jim Hawkins' account of his adventures in Treasure Island, the discrepancy between past time (when life-threatening danger and adventure prevailed) and present (when Jim is speaking, obviously having survived all the ordeals) may actually simplify our response and relieve some of our anxiety about Jim's safety, at least on a first reading.
In her other books, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor has demonstrated a varied and sophisticated awareness of point of view and the ways in which narrative perspective can carry a message. For example, in the "Alice" books (The Agony of Alice ; Reluctantly Alice ; Achingly Alice, among others), motherless Alice functions as an "I" narrator recounting the recent past and remembering a time even earlier; her "agony" is mitigated by both her "‘gift for words!’" and our knowledge that she has survived each crisis (Agony 77). In The Solomon System, the markers of time become even more crucial, as the first-person narrator, thirteen-year-old Ted, experiences the excruciating pain of his parents' imminent separation: "I don't know when it was I started not liking dinnertime at our house. The last couple years, anyway" (4). Since Ted's narrative is spoken in the past tense, we know that he has lived through the upheaval and will continue to be able to adjust. In her third-person focalized narratives, Naylor shows a similar sensitivity to mood and verisimilitude. In Night Cry, the thirteen-year-old Ellen serves as both the physical perspective and the conceptual guide to her family and situation in northeastern Mississippi: "She wanted to get outside her own skin, to be a part of something larger than herself" (15). In a world of dialect and mystery, Ellen's consciousness is appropriately filtered through the Standard English third-person, which uses the narrative voice to reveal Ellen's precociousness and separation from her narrow world. Similarly, in The Keeper, Nick's point of view "filters" (Seymour Chatman's term) the third-person narrative as he gradually comes to understand the nature and gravity of his father's progressive mental illness. Finally, in The Fear Place the internal monologue is used in conjunction with third-person focalized narrative to reveal Doug's interspersed consciousness or interior monologue. Each of these adolescent narrators (or narrative filters) finds him- or herself out of synch with the environment, and the narrative choices ably reveal that discrepancy and the child's growing self-awareness.
Shiloh achieves yet another level of complexity because of its exclusive use of Marty's interior monologue and exterior descriptions, all rendered primarily in the present tense. Thus, community values, adult behavior, and physical acts are all presented as if they are taking place in the current moment, simultaneously with Marty's interior crisis, his emotional and ethical pain, and his psychological and moral interpretations; only reported dialogue serves to counter the exclusivity of his linguistic point of view—and, even then, so-called objectivity is an illusion since he is the only reporter. Nonetheless, like Roderick McGillis I would tend to argue that there are really no obvious "unreliable narrators in fiction for children" (30)—especially if one excludes literary fairy tales, which may have become iconic children's texts but were written for adults. Like the content of the story itself, then, Marty's narration may thus be seen as a subversive act against the prevailing manners and mores of his culture, the stylistic method itself revealing its ideological intention. As Marty puts it, "Way we're raised around here, children don't talk back to grown folks. Don't hardly talk much at all, in fact. Learn to listen, keep your mouth shut, let the grown folks do the talking" (121). In this book, Naylor lets Marty do the talking, at least to himself—as well as a considerable amount of talking back. And we are definitely supposed to believe him, to take his side.
How risky, how dangerous is this present tense method? What is at stake and how do the qualities of this narration answer the possible objections, both ideological and narratological? What special effects are produced by this approach to an eleven-year-old's mind and experiences? In relation to these questions, I will discuss three "problem" areas related to first-person, present tense narrative: (1) the challenge of writing effective physical or cultural description ("panorama") under these limitations; (2) the difficulty in establishing authenticity or reliability of a focalizing character; and (3) the potential heavy-handedness resulting from the physical and emotional immediacy. I hope to demonstrate textually the ways in which the novel both answers these concerns and avoids what John Stephens has called the principle problem of focalization in children's texts that "children are encouraged to situate themselves inside the text by identifying with a principal character" (4) and therefore not only become the "subjects" of the narrative, but are "subjected" to the text's covert ideology (48). In arguing instead for the development of an "alienated subject position" (67), Stephens disagrees with Aidan Chambers (and most elementary teachers, apparently) that the ideal reader position is one of identification with the protagonist-focalizer. Stephens wants the developing reader to learn to resist a traditional text's portrayal of the protagonist's subject position—that is, to become, in Judith Fetterley's by-now classic phrase, a "resisting reader." In his argument, Stephens seems to be privileging both the encouragement of children to "read against the grain" (Eagleton) and the writing of narratively postmodern texts, those with "overtly inscribed indeterminacies" (Stephens 70). But what does one do with a protagonist who is himself "alienated" and resistant, if irresistible?
My contention is that Shiloh does not need to be read with skepticism because it offers both an attractive "subject position" in young Marty (to which both children and adults can attach themselves, as in Wall's "Dual Address") and a sufficiently unresolved series of ethical dilemmas to satisfy even the most determined deconstructionist. Since skepticism and irresolution are built into the very content of Marty's behavior, one can hardly conclude that he and we are "subjected" to any conservative moral systems or Ideological State Apparatuses. As Marty asserts near the end, in a kind of metacritical commentary on the book's project: "I'm thinking how nothing is as simple as you guess—not right or wrong, not Judd Travers, not even me or this dog I got here" (144). Not even the book itself.5
The first problem to be addressed in a present-tense account is that of "description" itself: that aspect of discourse that narratologists regard as the "panoramic" aspect of story-telling. For the purposes of my discussion here, this problem of description must also include the literal or perceptual point of view (Chatman 151)—that is, the angle of vision from which events are perceived. One cannot easily summarize vast amounts of action or scenery or even emotional response while still maintaining the record of accurate present experience: "now I'm living through this week" sounds neither plausible nor elegant; there is literally no "time" in which to stand back and contemplate the scenery or physical space, or to summarize the events of days or weeks, let alone to record all of one's feelings. Only when the Prestons are waiting for Shiloh to recover after his attack by another dog does Marty "report" or describe the family's state of mind over several days: "The one good thing about it now is that the whole family loves Shiloh and we can talk about him out loud, but there's not one thing we can do. Three more days and we have to give him up" (114) and "Slowly the minutes and hours of Friday tick by, then it's Saturday, and our last day with Shiloh" (115) and "I got a sadness inside me growing so big I feel I'm about to bust. That night I sleep a little bit, wake a bit, sleep a bit, wake some more. About dawn, however, I know what I got to do" (116). Much that might help to construct the mood or tone must be subordinated to either the present action or the character's feelings ("I'm about to bust"), with the risk of spatial awkwardness or omission of detail. Even movement across a landscape has to be truncated in order to maintain verisimilitude. This is obviously a central dilemma for an involved character-focalizer who is also the narrator speaking in present tense: there is simply no possibility of distance between "seeing" and "telling."6
Shiloh partially solves this dilemma by offering a compacted time-frame, bounded by the past-tense opening ("The day Shiloh come") and closing ("I saved Shiloh and opened my eyes some. Now that ain't bad for eleven."). The intense events of the plot in fact take place over only a few weeks of the summer so that no panoramic sweep is necessary to the action and the reader's attention can stay intensely focused on the dilemma. Further, the judicious use of selected genuinely "past" or retrospective narratives helps Naylor establish a rich context and expanded character portrayal: for example, the time Marty saw Judd cheat Mr. Wallace at the cash register (22), the time a year ago when he "come across a dead dog … up on the ridge" (38), the time he ate one of Dara Lynn's chocolate rabbit's ears and lied about it (55-56). The interspersed use of the past perfect "had" to indicate the recent past (a few minutes or hours before) and the occasional "that night" also help construct a slightly expanded temporal scene—beyond the moment in which Marty is speaking. There are also a half-dozen or so points (besides the opening and conclusion) when Marty actually shifts into various forms of the past tense, stopping the narrative flow momentarily and achieving a sense of emphasis, distance, or reflectiveness (italic emphases added):
"Just hush up, Dara Lynn," I say, which I had no business saying. I didn't want to talk to anyone, that's all.
I sit down in his [Shiloh's] pen with him, and he crawls all over me, licking my face. If he'd been a cat, he would have purred, he was that glad to see me.
What I didn't expect was that at three-thirty, before Dad come [sic: read "came"] home, here's Doc Murphy's car chugging up the lane, and he's got Shiloh in the backseat.
It's the first time in my life I ever felt anything like sorry for Judd Travers. If you weighed it on a postal scale, would hardly move the needle at all, but I suppose there was a fraction of an ounce of sorry for him somewhere inside me. When I thought on all the things I'd done with my own dad and how Judd could only remember hunting, well, that was pretty pitiful for a lifetime.
I look at Judd and take the collar. I don't know how we done it, but somehow we learned to get along.
Each of these past-tense examples is a turning point in the story (successively, Marty's new sense of separateness from his family, his delight in the dog he is hiding, Doc Murphy's returning of the injured Shiloh, Marty's understanding of Judd's background and their relationship) and the past-tense verbs announce the awareness or insight in a marked and overt way by moving the reader outside the immediate tension of the present tense. Breadth is therefore achieved without a loose sense of summary or overview; the perceptual point of view has subtly become Chat- man's figurative or conceptual perspective (151). In other words, Marty carries not only the responsibility for seeing and hearing, but also for feeling and reflecting.
In terms of geography and culture, Marty also shares a panoramic view of his mountain home by means of occasional topographical details or cultural generalizations, expanding the narrow point of view and obsession of the narrator and helping the reader assimilate Marty's world and worldview (italic emphases added):
It's a slow river. You walk beside it, you figure it's not even moving. If you stop, though, you can see leaves and things going along. Now and then a fish jumps—big fish. Bass, I think.
Maybe Mr. Wallace is doing more talking than I figured. He wouldn't come right out and tell folks I was in his store buying cheap food, but he might just pass it along that the Preston family's in hard times, and suddenly food starts appearing. That's the way it is here.
One way you look at it, it's my duty to report a killed doe. The way folks up here look at it, though, that's snitching.
Each of these methods both relieves the intensity of the present dilemma and expands the story's scope, "naturalizing" and contextualizing the potential artificiality of the present-tense account; the reader is drawn into the particularities of the Prestons' rural Appalachian world. Again, these extensions of Marty's point of view encompass both the perceptual perspective and the conceptual; we are wholly inside his world, past, present, and future, seeing it with his eyes and consciousness as he reveals that he sees his environment clearly and is beginning to understand it: seeing and telling are as close to identical, simultaneous acts as is possible in a complex narrative speech act.
The second problem with a present-tense narrative is slightly more complex, since it involves the issue not of setting or cultural description but of authenticity and credibility of character: is it plausible for an eleven-year-old narrator, operating apparently only in the scope of the present moment, to achieve the depth of psychological understanding and ethical insight that he does—and so quickly? Apparently without the benefit of even six-months' distance on his experiences, let alone the reflection that might have come with ten years' retrospection, can Marty Preston be considered an authentic portrayal?7
In this case, the novel's narrative ambiguity may actually save Marty's reliability for us: given children's propensity for telling stories in a continuous present ("He goes," "He says," "We're walking down the road"), which parents are very fond of correcting, and the book's refusal to situate the story-telling occasion definitively in any of the conventions of the oral or written tale (according to the conventions of oral story-telling), it remains unclear whether Marty's account is taking place as we experience it or being relived for the sake of a vaguely implied reader (or even for his own rethinking of it); he is neither telling "us" the story on the porch as we sip our iced teas, nor is he writing in a diary or letter. Except for the occasional use of the general address "you" (as in "Did you ever notice how the more a little kid tries not to tell a secret, the sooner it gets out?" ), the cultural generalizations mentioned above, and the odd revelation that the Prestons' T.V. "only has two channels" (17) (a fact which Marty presumably would not have to tell himself), the book does not, as I have pointed out, construct an addressee. Nor does it seem to require our active response or engagement: Marty's emotional and moral dilemmas are so self-consciously and perceptively expressed that he supplies all the analysis we seem to require. Whether this is a current account or a retrospective one, then, hardly seems to matter to the issue of authenticity; there are no markers to indicate a long passage of time between experience and retelling, and, as one becomes emotionally involved in the story, there is no temptation to distance oneself long enough even to speculate about the time of the telling: "The day Shiloh come" pulls us in and "Now that ain't bad for eleven" reaffirms our response and releases us—whether we are eleven or fifty-two.
Marty may seem implausibly sensitive for a youngster. But Naylor has carefully placed him at that threshold age, when everything seems immediately crisis-ridden, ethical dilemmas take on monumental proportions, and the earlier knee jerk disobedience of childhood seems suddenly trivial. The vexing challenges of emerging sexuality and "adult" problems are only beginning to be sensed at age eleven; hence the experiences that form the nexus of development at this stage have the luxury of being all-consuming: how to challenge adult authority; what to do about emerging awareness of adult injustice or hypocrisy; where to place one's youthful idealism in the scheme of adult institutions (like religion, community values, arbitrary family rules).8 As Ma incorrectly but nonetheless insightfully concludes of Marty's moodiness, "‘Just being eleven, I guess…. Eleven's a moody age. Was for me, anyways’" (60). Although her interpretation of Marty's behavior is incomplete, she is right about the characteristics of his developmental stage.
Despite Marty's working-class background, grammatical errors, and intermittent use of dialect (never overused or caricatured, and interspersed with Standard English), he reveals himself to be ambitious (he wants to be a veterinarian), ethically thoughtful, and psychologically insightful. He knows how to "read" himself and others, how to examine a moral dilemma (even if he cannot solve it), and when to act despite being unable to justify his actions conventionally. He is logically far ahead of his environment and his years, as well as possessing the child's freedom to operate in a (temporarily) subversive space. In response to Judd Travers' complaint that Shiloh keeps running away from Judd, for example, Marty asserts boldly, if solipsistically: "‘You got to treat a dog good if you want him to stick around’…. ‘I figure a dog's the same as a kid. You don't treat a kid right, he'll run off first chance he gets, too’" (64). Recognizing that he has been "bold as brass," Marty nevertheless pushes his luck and responds even more disrespectfully to Judd's "‘Pa took the belt to me—I turned out, didn't I?’" with: "‘Turned out how? The boldness in my chest is growing, taking up all the air’" (64). Marty knows—and expresses his knowledge—that there is a direct link between treatment and outcome, between environment and results. Whether or not this reported response has the benefit of hindsight in the telling, the feeling in Marty's chest is heartfelt—and believable, perhaps particularly because the focalizing protagonist is eleven; time to reflect might even have interfered with the reliability of his narrative version of events.
Feeling, unrestrained by the exigencies of law or religion, also forms the basis of Marty's subtle recording of mood and attitude. He explains, for instance, why he no longer feels so attached to his friend David: "Funny thing is, you've got yourself a dog, you sometimes feel like you don't need anyone else. Nobody else loves you as much as a dog. Except your ma, maybe" (78). He also interprets Shiloh's behavior in ways that suggest both intuitive understanding and careful observation: "It's not natural, I know, to keep an animal so quiet. But he's happy-quiet, not scared-quiet. I know that much" (79).
Naylor has also constructed Marty (in a long tradition of credible child-protagonists) to be an outsider to his culture's (in this case, working-class) values.9 In the opening scene, he immediately defines himself as a pacifist and protector of animals when his Dad reports at the dinner table that he has "‘shot [the rabbit they are eating] … in the neck.’" Marty reports: "Somehow I wish he hadn't said that. ‘Did it die right off?’ I ask, knowing I can't eat at all unless it had" (11). Like Fern in Charlotte's Web, he tries to argue the analogy between animal and child in reference to Shiloh, but less successfully than she, since her father owns Wilbur and can choose to listen to her logic: "‘What if it was a child?’ I ask him, getting too smart for my own good. ‘If some kid was shaking like this dog is shaking, you wouldn't feel no pull for keeping an eye on him?’" (Naylor, Shiloh 24). Later, Dara Lynn says about the snake Marty has invented to keep her away from Shiloh, "‘Kill it! … Git your gun and blow its head off!’ ‘You been watchin' too much stuff on TV, Dara Lynn,’ I tell her. ‘Even snakes got the right to live.’ I'm thinking how if I ever become a vet's helper, I got to take care of pet snakes, too" (62). Still later, as the book climaxes and Marty blackmails Judd into selling him Shiloh, Marty is torn between his loyalty to the dog and his recognition that other deer may be destroyed because he has not reported Judd's violation of the law: "He kill this one out of season, he'll figure maybe he can kill some more. To save Shiloh, I'm making it harder for deer" (126). His love for Shiloh is part of a larger, animal rights impulse, although, perhaps like most of us, he chooses the domestic love over the grander principle.
Marty's sensitivity of course extends to himself: the discrepancy between his ideals and his actions, particularly around the issue of lying: "before you know it, your whole life can be a lie" (60). Like Huck Finn (the precursor to so many children and their dilemmas) before him, though, he also knows how to resist the cultural constructions of religion that he has been taught and to take the attendant risks: "I don't feel good about the lies I tell Dara Lynn or David or his ma. But don't feel exactly bad, neither. If what Grandma Preston told me once about heaven and hell is true, and liars go to hell, then I guess that's where I'm headed. But she also told me that only people are allowed in heaven, not animals. And if I was to go to heaven and look down to see Shiloh left below, head on his paws, I'd run away from heaven sure" (73). Willing to hazard eternal damnation, like Huck as he rescues Jim, Marty both reports his anxieties honestly and reveals the superiority of his emotional logic: heaven wouldn't be heaven without his beloved dog, so it's worth lying, risking hell, to save him.
The present tense could also present Naylor with a further difficulty: how to include Chatman's third element of point-of-view, the transferred or displaced perspective (that is, elements of perception or knowledge of which the author wants the reader to be aware but that do not exist in the particular context, namely, elements of consciousness unknown by the focalizer) that could easily be included in third-person focalized accounts or retrospective first-person ones (Chatman 152). Yet she manages this construction as well (similar to William Faulkner's frequently repeated, "Not thinking … not knowing"), for Marty tells us what the present-tense experience doesn't hold, as well as what it does: "I don't let my mind go any further; don't dwell on what Judd would want for Shiloh, or even whether he'd sell. Especially don't ask myself how I'm supposed to get the money" (28). And again: "I don't have time to think how I had promised Judd if I ever saw Shiloh loose again, I'd bring him back. Don't even think what I'm going to tell Dad" (41). While the rigidly-conceived present could not contain what it does not, the inclusive temporality of this first-person account can stretch to include Marty's not-thoughts, so that the reader (of course depending on her or his age) has the advantage of continuing to worry about the conflicts that Marty will not (yet) admit into direct or sustained consciousness. What makes this plausible, workable, is that this is not genuine transferred perspective in Chatman's sense because Marty is hyperconscious enough to recognize and tell us what he is repressing—that is, Judd's possible response, the issue of money, the guilt he feels about hiding this from his parents, and so on. Because the author does not have the luxury of displacement (and superiority) available to third-person narrators who know more than their character-focalizers, this device in Shiloh becomes a particularly effective psychological expression of Marty's barely repressed unconscious—bringing us even closer to the narrator-focalizer.
Hence, even without the distance of several months or years, perhaps even because of the absence of such distance, Marty gives the reader good reasons to trust that both his reasoning and his emotions are honest and true. Furthermore, he reveals that the relatively free space and time of the present moment enable him to "see" more clearly than the grown-ups, who are caught up in the demands of earning a living, maintaining peaceful community relations, and upholding rigid traditional values—requirements that he accurately sees as sometimes at odds with one another. The temporal blurring and intense immediacy of childhood—with its extensions and contractions of literal clock-time—thus work to the advantage of Marty-as-narrator-focalizer and Marty-as-subject.
The last challenge for this present-tense form of narration may seem less a difficulty than an immediate advantage, but I would like first to express it as a potential flaw: the emotional and physical immediacy of the experience may be seen as excessive, heavy-handed, claustrophobic. As Perry Nodelman claims of the first-person unmediated, nonironic account of Blume's narrator in Are You There God? It's Me. Margaret, "someone who reads Are You There God? with knowledge of the strategies required to read more sophisticated fictions may well see Margaret as a self-pitying and self-indulgent brat," even though "Blume probably wanted her readers to see Margaret's point of view as the correct one" (70). Although Blume's book is recounted in the past tense except for Margaret's interspersed diary excerpts, its versions of reality remain entirely particular to the age of the self-absorbed protagonist—one of the reasons that Blume has been criticized for her narrative strategies as well as her child-centered morality.
First of all, however, Marty is a much more attractive protagonist than Margaret: he is complex, idealistic, and not focused entirely on himself. In fact, he is even, sometimes, wrong—and admits it. Indeed, his primary motive and driving desire, in both the plot and the narrative, can be defined as the welfare of an oppressed minority—even at the expense of his own physical safety and ethical integrity; Marty is not afraid of danger. Second, far from sentimentalizing or glorifying the quest to save Shiloh, his account simply immerses itself in the immediacy of the total experience. Precisely because the journey is not over, the goal not reached, there is no opportunity for self-aggrandizement or revisionist self-justification. Finally, and perhaps most importantly (although John Stephens would surely disagree): there is so little distance between Marty's reported emotional responses, his physical descriptions of contact with Shiloh, and ourselves that we have almost no maneuvering room—for imposed irony, critical reservation, amused detachment, arrogant superiority. Very little is possible but the "surrender of self to the text" (Stephens 49)—and this symbiosis provides a potentially irresistible reading experience.10
It also helps this process of identification with Marty that, although he has grown up in a rigidly defined environment with very precise rules to absorb and live by, he seems remarkably unrepressed. Perhaps because he has had the security of love and family, he seems very free to express compassion and to record his own emotions. The reader seldom needs to guess what Marty is feeling, nor is he governed by gender restrictions against crying or getting "mad"—itself an element of resistance to gender ideology of which Stephens and other children's literature critics would approve.11 Marty frequently describes his emotions in visceral terms, but also examines and interprets them, and uses them to motivate himself (italics added to reveal emotional self-awareness):
And then I feel my heart squeeze up the way he stops smiling, sticks his tail between his legs again and slinks off.
You once get a dog to look at you the way Shiloh looked at me, you don't forget it.
… my heart starts to pound. I'm thinking of closing my eyes tight in case the dog's around. If I see his eyes looking at me, they'll just drive me crazy.
My stomach hurts for Shiloh…. I'm so mad I can't see.
Don't know if Shiloh's gettin' more human or I'm getting to be more dog. If Jesus ever comes back to earth again, I'm thinking, he'll come as a dog, because there isn't anything as humble or patient or loving or loyal as the dog I have in my arms right now.
It's hard to say how I feel after she leaves. Glad, in a way, that somebody knows: that I don't have to carry this whole secret on my head alone. But more scared than glad.
He's dead, I know it! I'm screaming inside. Then I feel his body sort of shiver, and his mouth's moving just a little, like he's trying to get his tongue out to lick my hand. And I'm bent over there in the beam of Dad's flashlight, bawling, and I don't even care.
And sometimes, when I get mad, it clears my head….
I'm pushing my luck, I know….
My heart starts pounding again. Thumpity, thump. Thumpity, thump [italics in original]. There's still time, I'm thinking. Shiloh's still alive, and I ain't licked yet.
I get lonely sometimes up at our house, but today I want to be with that loneliness…. You get a dog on your mind, it seems to fill up the whole space.
But today I'm not mad, I'm serious.
I got a sadness inside me growing so big I feel I'm about to bust.
You make a deal with Judd Travers and you're only eleven years old, you take what you can get. But all I'm thinking is dog.
(125) ["dog" italicized in original]
So, of course, are most of Naylor's readers "thinking … dog," as the tension and suspense build to almost unbearable intensity. But the passages that most grip us are probably not these in which Marty focuses on his own passions, torments, and joys, but the ones in which he meticulously records the physical and emotional bond between himself and Shiloh. The following sequence perhaps best illustrates the enduring connection established between these two; with minimal theorizing Marty simply reports the experience of joyful play as it happens:
This time Shiloh's on his feet waiting for me, tail going like a windshield wiper, fast speed. A soft yip of pure joy cuts off quick when I say "Shhh!" but as soon as I'm in the pen, Shiloh's leaping up almost shoulder high to lick my cheek, nuzzling my hands, my things. He gulps down the biscuit I give him. Wants more, I can tell, but he don't bark. Seems to know he's safe only as long as he's quiet. I tie the rope to his collar….
To get in and out of Shiloh's pen, I got to unfasten the piece of wire that holds the fencing against the trunk of the pine, then move the fencing aside long enough to slip out. Shiloh lets me go through first, he follows, and then we're both together, like a six-legged animal, pounding along up the path, legs bumping, Shiloh leaping up to lick my hand. I let go of the rope and let Shiloh run free for a while. If he goes ahead even a few steps, he stops and looks back to see if I'm coming; if he stops to sniff a tree or bush and I go on by, his feet pound double time to catch up.
Just out of the woods on the other side of the hill, there's a meadow, and I slump down in the grass to rest. Shiloh's all over me, licking my face sloppy wet. I giggle and roll over on my stomach, covering my head and neck with my arms. Shiloh whines and nudges his nose under my shoulder, working to roll me over. I laugh and turn on my back, pulling Shiloh down onto my chest, and for a while we both lay [sic] there, panting, enjoying the sunshine, belonging to each other.
Just short of the erotic, glorying in its own physicality, this description pulls us into the joy and transcendence of the experience as no retrospective account could do. (A way to check my assertion would be to rewrite the passage using past tense, then reading each version aloud.) This is not about victimization or suffering; it is about requited love, pure pleasure in the other's company, consummation—unshaded by future gloom or ongoing struggles. In some ways, indeed, the sequence is extradiegetic, that is, standing outside the narrative storytelling or diegesis, as a song-and-dance number would function in a musical.12 It is a passage that could only be effectively written in the present tense.
Whatever we may feel about dogs, therefore (see my students' responses in the opening of this paper), this one attaches himself to us as surely as he does to Marty's surprised Ma: "Ma just sighs then and starts stroking Shiloh's head. Shiloh wiggles a few inches closer to her on his belly, rests his nose against her thigh, tail going whick, whack, whick, whack" (italics in the original, 82-83). Time stops for Ma as, for a few moments, she blocks out the dangerous dilemma and simply loves the dog.
One could argue, I suppose, that the book manipulates us mercilessly: no amount of critical sophistication can extricate us from its magical web of tactile and emotional feeling. Like an imitative linguistic version of a tumble in the grass with a new puppy—a total sensual experience—the novel insinuates its way into most readers' hearts and heads by means of these delicious descriptions, and refuses to let go as it meticulously records Marty's successive emotional responses to the crises surrounding Shiloh. Just as the novel rethinks "place" as "dog"—Shiloh standing for both—so its narrative strategy, whatever we think of its excesses or manipulations, rethinks "narrative" as "dog." Without making Shiloh speak or think or otherwise behave like a human, Naylor succeeds in expressing point of view through the present-tense record of the boy who loves him. Ultimately, this is a new form of narrative strategy: desire, love, and relationship as linguistic act. It may be the closest we will ever get to a narrative hug.13
1.Shiloh Season, the immediate successor to Shiloh in the Marty trilogy, also does not construct an explicit addressee (or narratee), although it does seek to fill the reader in on the details of the earlier book in a tone that suggests oral storytelling: "Well, let me tell it the way it was" (1). In contrast, the third book of the trilogy, Saving Shiloh, constructs a naive or ignorant reader as a direct addressee. Catching us up on what has previously taken place, Marty also wants to situate himself and his community: "Next to Christmas, I guess, Halloween is big in West Virginia—out where we live, anyway, which is the little community of Shiloh, up the winding road from Friendly there on the Ohio River…. To get to our house, you go through this place called Little—you'll know it by the church" (1-2). Further: "Out where we live, the houses are little, but the land is big" (19). Because such references are largely absent from the first book, it is impossible to "name" the narrative form as oral storytelling, while the second and third do partake of this form (see second endnote).
2. The form "come" is of course dialect for "came," hence technically past tense in form, though not in substance because the past tense is not sustained even for a moment (as it probably would be in a conventional story-telling situation). Shiloh Season begins similarly: "After Shiloh come to live with us, two things happened" (1), while Saving Shiloh opens: "There's one last thing to say about Shiloh before the story's over" (1). One could argue, I suppose, that the second and third books more overtly declare their use of the story-telling mode because they summarize and extend the events of the previous books and thus establish a relationship with an implied addressee.
While losing the ambiguity of Shiloh's narrative form may not completely break the mood or intimacy I am attempting to establish therein, I do wish to suggest that the anxiety and identification many readers feel with Marty could (at least in part) be the result of the "incomplete" form of story-telling—one which is unfinished and unresolved for the narrator-focalizer until the end and thus increases the reader's potential involvement in the process.
3. Naylor was present at the panel at which an earlier version of this paper was read; she seemed pleased with the paper, said she had learned a new word ("narratology"), and told me and the audience, with a twinkle in her eye, that she wrote the story in present tense because "that was the way my grandmother told stories" (7 June 1996, ChLA Conference, Charlotte, North Carolina). While I believe her version of the story's origins, I have searched in vain for other examples of this technique used in so "pure" a form, particularly without the overt presence of a constructed addressee.
One of my readers for this journal expressed some skepticism about my generalization about the rarity, indeed uniqueness, of this present-tense technique, suggesting that such a mode is very common among oral storytellers. I would, of course, agree with that point, but I would also insist that the method is seldom used in any fiction, let alone children's texts. As s/he also named the Canadian writer Carol Matas as someone who utilizes first-person, present tense, I checked the dates for Matas' work and discovered, for example, that Lisa's War, a moving Holocaust narrative set in Denmark, was produced in 1987, four years before Naylor's Shiloh; Matas's After the War (1996) is also written in present tense. Both are YA narratives, however, and they also utilize numerous extended flashbacks ("I remember I was dreaming about a bee" [Lisa's War 1]), while Naylor's book does not. Also, while adult avant garde and postmodern experimental fiction occasionally does use present tense (See, for example, Jean Rhys' Good Morning, Midnight ), this method has been rare, if not unheard of, in children's and adults' books alike—and for many of the reasons that I attempt to demonstrate in this essay.
Another children's writer who used present tense before Naylor, at least in one text, is William Sleator, in The Duplicate (1988), a bizarre science fiction fantasy in which the protagonist finds a machine that will clone him; the tension in this novel is almost unbearable because of the present tense, especially when a third, extremely violent clone appears and threatens the life of both the protagonist and his girlfriend.
There are other occasional examples of this technique in children's books, for example in Wendelin Van Draanen's Sammy Keyes mystery series. The short prologues (of one page or more) for these engaging first-person, present-tense accounts are in the past tense, however, and there are rather frequent lapses into the past tense on the first-person narrator-focalizer's part. These books are nonetheless remarkable representations of a child's attempts to tell an exciting story with the immediacy of the present-tense form.
4. See the previous endnote for examples of more contemporary experiments with this narrative form, though none, I would argue, so consistent as Naylor's.
5. In her essay originally written for the same panel (above), Claudia Mills argues that Shiloh ultimately works out a very complex and child-centered version of Christian morality—but only after it has laid "bare some of the complexities at the heart of ordinary morality" (190). As we will see, although we did not discuss our papers before participating in the panel, this philosophical view is complementary to the narrative analysis I am developing here, even though I see Marty's ultimate decisions as more problematic than she does. The difference between our perspectives might be that she would see the outcome as solved by the Christian position, while I would view the conclusion as more indeterminate, if informed by that same "love."
6. But, as Andrea Schwenke Wyile aptly points out in "Expanding the View of First-Person Narration," "When the narrator is also the focalizer, there is less awareness of limitation because the narrator is not measured against a more experienced self…. In [what she calls] immediate-engaging-first-person narration the narrating agent and the focalizer are the same ‘person.’ Thus, first-person narration can be an intimately engaging and insightful form because the focalizer is restricted" (188-89). In other words, she sees the theoretical and practical advantages of this type of narration as well as its limitations.
7. Again, Wyile's theories and terminology are helpful here; her term for the problem is "reliability": "While distant-engaging and distancing narration [the other two forms she names of first-person narration] usually reveal whether readers' trust in the narrator was well founded or misguided, immediate-engaging narration usually does not reveal the soundness of readers' judgments" ("Expanding" 194).
8. All of these "institutions" can be seen as related or identical to Louis Althusser's "Ideological State Apparatuses," with their covert methods of interpellating children into identity and "naturalizing" social survival.
9. In this case, it would be possible to see Naylor's (and implicitly, Marty's) counter-values as elitist and middle-class, since they include pacifist and perhaps even vegetarian tendencies, but these are certainly countered by Marty's pragmatic survival ethic at the time he "sacrifices" the deer in favor of saving Shiloh.
10. It is always possible, of course, to resist the text (including Marty, Shiloh, dog stories in general) entirely, but I am attempting here to trace a reading process based on the book's rhetoric and narrative strategies that would make that resistance difficult. I thank both an anonymous reader and Mike Cadden for pointing out that my earlier version of this essay generalized the reader too inclusively.
11. See, for example, Jody Norton, who might read Marty as a "transchild," as my graduate students have recently pointed out (Fall 2002, "Theory of Children's Literature," Georgetown University).
12. While I prefer to think of this eroticized playtime as extradiegetic, Mike Cadden sees it more as a "time out" or "a matter of duration shift, a time stretch for ecstasy." I agree that it is not so much outside the movement of plot as it is a fulfillment of Marty's (and arguably, Shiloh's) quest, hence a different manipulation of time from that in the rest of the novel.
13. While I do not use "hug" in the same way that Roderick McGillis defines "embrace," I was pleased to discover his essay "The Embrace: Narrative Voice and Children's Books" some time after I wrote several earlier versions of this piece. In this article, he asserts that "children's narratives do not differ from narratives for adults in technique, but that the voice that speaks from a children's book seeks to draw the child reader in by gaining her trust, by embracing her" (24). This latter voice, he seeks to show, "is reliable, friendly, confiding, non-alienating, reassuring, trustworthy. We are invited to share an intimacy, an experience, a secret, or a joke" (32). While I might not agree that all children's narrators share this voice, Marty's (and implicitly, Naylor's) certainly corresponds to this description. For a very different point of view on narrative voices in children's texts, one need only turn to Jacqueline Rose and, by extension, J. M. Barrie.
Althusser, Louis. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus (Notes towards an Investigation)." Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. Intro. Fredric Jameson. 1971. Rpt. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001. 85-127.
Chatman, Seymour. Coming to Terms: The Rhetoric of Narrative in Fiction and Film. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990.
Eagleton, Terry. Against the Grain: Essays 1975-1985. London: Verso, 1986.
Fetterley, Judith. The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1978.
Genette, Gerard. Narrative Discourse Revisited. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca, New York: Cornell UP, 1988.
Matas, Carol. After the War. New York: Aladdin, 1996.
———. Lisa's War. New York: Scholastic, 1987.
McGillis, Roderick. "The Embrace: Narrative Voice and Children's Books." Canadian Children's Literature 63 (1991): 24-40.
Mills, Claudia. "The Structure of the Moral Dilemma in Shiloh." Children's Literature 27 (1999): 185-97.
Naylor, Phyllis Reynolds. Achingly Alice. New York: Atheneum, 1998.
———. The Agony of Alice. New York: Atheneum, 1985.
———. The Fear Place. New York: Atheneum, 1994.
———. The Keeper. New York: Atheneum, 1986.
———. Night Cry. New York: Atheneum, 1984.
———. Reluctantly Alice. New York: Atheneum, 1991.
———. Saving Shiloh. New York: Atheneum, 1997.
———. Shiloh. New York: Atheneum, 1991.
———. Shiloh Season. New York: Atheneum, 1996.
———. The Solomon System. New York: Atheneum, 1983.
Nodelman, Perry. The Pleasures of Children's Literature. 1st ed. New York: Longman, 1992.
Norton, Jody. "Transchildren and the Discipline of Children's Literature." The Lion and the Unicorn 23 (1999): 415-36.
Rhys, Jean. Good Morning, Midnight. New York: Vintage, 1974.
Rose, Jacqueline. The Case of Peter Pan, or, The Impossibility of Children's Fiction. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1984.
Sleator, William. The Duplicate. New York: Puffin/Penguin, 1988.
Stephens, John. Language and Ideology in Children's Fiction. London: Longman, 1992.
Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Ed. Thomas Cooley. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 1999.
Van Draanen, Wendelin. Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief. New York: Knopf, 1998.
———. Sammy Keyes and the Skeleton Man. New York: Knopf, 1998.
Wall, Barbara. The Narrator's Voice. New York: St. Martin's, 1991.
White, E. B. Charlotte's Web. New York: Harper, 1952.
Wyile, Andrea Schwenke. "Expanding the View of First-Person Narration." Children's Literature in Education 30 (1999): 185-202.
———. "First-Person Engaging Narration in the Picture Book: Verbal and Pictorial Variations." Children's Literature in Education 32 (2001): 191-202.
JADE GREEN: A GHOST STORY (2000)
James Blasingame (review date March 2003)
SOURCE: Blasingame, James. Review of Jade Green: A Ghost Story, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. Journal of Adolescence and Adult Literacy 46, no. 6 (March 2003): 529-30.
When 15-year-old newly orphaned Judith Sparrow asks the carriage driver if her Uncle Geoffrey's house is haunted [in Jade Green ], she is only kidding, but she soon suspects that all is not well in the huge house occupied by her uncle and his cook/housekeeper, Mrs. Emma Hastings. Soon after the death of her mother, Judith travels from Ohio to the town of Whispers, South Carolina, to live with her uncle, the only relative who would take her in. Their plan is that she will help Emma Hastings with a few minor tasks and start a new life. Her uncle is a wealthy and generous man, and Judith is grateful for being given a home although somewhat troubled by his strange requirement: Under no circumstances is anyone to bring anything of the color green over the threshold into his house.
Conflicts soon materialize, however, all of which seem to revolve around Cousin Charles, Uncle Geoffrey's only child. Charles is a scoundrel and reviled by the townspeople, but his father continues to treat him with dignity, inviting him to dinner every evening, even though Charles's nightly debaucheries require that he live downtown. After several unpleasant encounters with Charles, Judith begins to fear that the death of the previous assistant housekeeper, a young woman named Jade Green, may have been at the hands of her unscrupulous cousin. When Uncle Geoffrey changes his will to leave a major portion of his wealth to Judith, she also fears that she may share Jade's fate.
Charles is not the only frightening thing that frequents the huge old house on the South Carolina coast. When Judith hears strange sounds, she first imagines that mice must be active at night, but piano playing, footsteps, and gruesome apparitions soon convince her otherwise. In order to save herself, Judith will have to solve the mystery of Jade Green's death.
Readers who enjoy a good ghost story will love this one, especially if they require a truly horrific supernatural being. The author teases us at first with events that could have natural explanations until the point when there is no doubt that the house has a visitor from beyond the grave. Readers who like a good revenge story will also enjoy Naylor's creation as it accelerates toward a very satisfying conclusion.
The issues of sexual predation and even murder are a part of the conflict, although Judith escapes Jade's fate. Charles's criminal intent is undeniable, but specifics prior to Judith's arrival are mostly implied such that no graphic representations of sexual violence are present. The novel would probably not be appropriate for readers below middle school, and readers in high school will find it milder than most PG-13 movies.
ALICE ON HER WAY (2005)
Paula Rohrlick (review date November 2006)
SOURCE: Rohrlick, Paula. Review of Alice on Her Way, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. Kliatt 40, no. 6 (November 2006): 22.
Alice is an old friend to many readers now (there are more than 20 titles in this series) and [Alice on Her Way, ] this latest episode of her funny, poignant ad- ventures growing up will be eagerly welcomed. In this volume, it's the winter term of Alice's sophomore year. She is about to turn 16, and she can't wait to get her driver's license; her long-suffering brother Lester is trying to teach her how to drive. Alice is now contending with braces, and with a new boyfriend who is romantic but needy. When her father signs her up for a class in sexuality at their church, she is initially horrified, but discovers she has a lot to learn about relationships. A class trip to New York City offers the opportunity for sneaking out on an unsupervised, after-hours tour of the town; all ends well for Alice, but her friend Pamela gets intimate with an older boy on the trip (she gives him oral sex, we learn) and then is distraught when he dumps her. Pamela is also wrestling with her relationship with her estranged mother; another subplot deals with Alice's friend Faith and Faith's abusive boyfriend. The life lessons come fast and thick here, but they slide down smoothly, thanks to the compelling characters and realistic situations. Naylor, the author of more than 100 books (including the Newbery Award-winning Shiloh ), and Alice are wonderful guides to the confusing maze of adolescence; frank, thoughtful, and caring.
ALICE IN THE KNOW (2006)
Kitty Flynn (review date July-August 2006)
SOURCE: Flynn, Kitty. Review of Alice in the Know, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. Horn Book Magazine 82, no. 4 (July-August 2006): 448.
This twenty-first book in the long-running series [Alice in the Know ] follows Alice and friends through the summer before their junior year of high school. Alice looks forward to hanging out with the gang at Mark Stedmeister's pool, working at a department store in the mall (her first non-Melody Inn job), and getting to know her older brother Lester's girlfriend ("a woman of color," as Alice refers to her). The summer holds some unexpected surprises—both good (a trip to the ocean with best friends Liz and Pamela; planning a surprise birthday party for Lester; learning about her late mother's wild side) and bad (the realities of working in retail; the humiliation of being tricked into revealing personal sexual information online; a friend's leukemia diagnosis). As Alice's fans have come to expect, Naylor handles her protagonist's observations about friends, family, and relationships realistically and honestly. Alice's thoughtful musings on such issues as race and sexuality are naturally integrated in the narrative and in keeping with her character. Summer's end brings changes, but one thing remains the same: Alice continues to face life's ups and downs with humor and grace.
ROXIE AND THE HOOLIGANS (2006)
Publishers Weekly (review date 20 February 2006)
SOURCE: Review of Roxie and the Hooligans, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, illustrated by Alexandra Boiger. Publishers Weekly 253, no. 8 (20 February 2006): 156-57.
As Naylor's (Shiloh ) sprightly caper [Roxie and the Hooligans ] opens, Roxie Warbler and her parents receive a prestigious visitor: her Uncle Dangerfoot. The man has traveled the world with the renowned adventurer and author of Lord Thistlebottom's Book of Pitfalls and How to Survive Them. Nine-year-old Roxie has almost memorized its contents, which describe perilous scenarios and (after repeating the admonition, "Do not panic!") provide helpful survival tips. The heroine wishes she could be as brave as Lord Thistlebottom; the thing that frightens her most: Public School #37, "where Helvetia's Hooligans seemed to have chosen Roxie to be their Victim of the Year." Those four classmates tease Roxie mercilessly about her oversize ears. One day, as she tries to dodge the gravel they are throwing at her ("Do not panic, she remembered. To avoid gunfire, run in a zigzag line"), Roxie tumbles into a dumpster—as do the bullies. The story takes a wacky turn when the dumpster winds up on a flatbed truck, which unloads its contents onto a barge that dumps the refuse—and the kids—mid-ocean. By repeatedly recalling Thistlebottom's wryly stated counsel, putting her ears to good use, and never panicking, Roxie ensures a dramatic rescue. Boiger's (While Mama Had a Quick Little Chat) humorous caricatures of the bad guys, combined with Naylor's snappy writing, tongue-in-cheek humor and resourceful, endearingly earnest heroine will keep readers highly entertained. Ages 7-10.
WHO WON THE WAR? (2006)
Rebecca Sheridan (review date September 2006)
SOURCE: Sheridan, Rebecca. Review of Who Won the War?, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. School Library Journal 52, no. 9 (September 2006): 214.
Gr. 4-7—The battle began when the Malloy girls moved from Ohio to West Virginia for a year, staying in a house across the river from the Hatford boys [in Who Won the War? ]. In this final volume of the series, a power failure in Ohio causes the girls to remain in Buckman longer than expected, and they move in with the Hatfords. Rivalry, silliness, and pranks occur during the big underwear switcheroo, the invasion of the ladybugs, and the frying of eggs on the sidewalk. When the girls and boys secretly explore an abandoned coal mine on a double-dare, they become witnesses to an explosion caused by a stranger and ultimately aid the police in solving the mystery. The characters are well developed through their dialogue, actions, and relationships with one another. Fans of the earlier books will want to read this engaging novel to decide for themselves who really wins the war.
DANGEROUSLY ALICE (2007)
Kitty Flynn (review date July-August 2007)
SOURCE: Flynn, Kitty. Review of Dangerously Alice, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. Horn Book Magazine 83, no. 4 (July-August 2007): 400.
"Dry as Dust"? "Miss Goody Two-shoes"?? Sixteen-year-old Alice McKinley knows she shouldn't care what the popular clique labels her … but is there any truth to what the junior-class Mean Girls say? In this twenty-second book in the ongoing series [Dangerously Alice ], Alice tries to shake up her reputation and learns some valuable lessons about who she is—and isn't. Emotions run high throughout the novel, faithful to the behavior of hormone-driven teens. There's the thrilling and unexpected attention from a smooth-talking senior—though her friends are a bit surprised: "Isn't he sort of … you know … fast?" Surprising herself a bit, too, Alice hopes to find out (and she does—though she puts on the brakes when he pulls out a condom). The tensions brewing between Alice and her stepmother, Sylvia, come to a head midway through the novel, leading to a rash decision and an inadvertent invasion of her parents' privacy that Alice instantly and shamefully regrets. Alice flirts with a number of risks in this installment, allowing Naylor to make the point that growing up involves taking chances, but that with increased independence comes responsibility for your decisions.
Baskin, Barbara H., and Karen H. Harris. Review of Jennifer Jean, the Cross-Eyed Queen, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, illustrated by Harold K. Lamson. In Notes from a Different Drummer: A Guide to Juvenile Fiction Portraying the Handicapped, p. 251. New York, N.Y.: R. R. Bowker, 1977.
Praises Jennifer Jean, the Cross-Eyed Queen for its "feisty, determined little heroine."
Bucher, Katherine J., and M. Lee Manning. "Growing Up with the Alice Series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor." In Censored Books II: Critical Viewpoints, 1985-2000, edited by Nicholas J. Karolides, pp. 11-17. Lanham, Md.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2002.
Explores the controversial nature of and frank topics discussed in Naylor's "Alice" series.
Naylor, Phyllis Reynolds. "Phyllis Reynolds Naylor." In Speaking for Ourselves, Too: More Autobiographical Sketches by Notable Authors of Books for Young Adults, compiled and edited by Donald R. Gallo, pp. 146-47. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, 1993.
Naylor discusses her personal history and writing career.
Stover, Lois Thomas. Presenting Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, New York, N.Y.: Twayne Publishers, 1997, 187 p.
Book-length critical examination of Naylor's canon.
Additional coverage of Naylor's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 4, 29; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vols. 7, 8; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 17; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 8, 24, 59, 121; Junior DISCovering Authors; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults Supplement, Ed. 1; St. James Guide to Children's Writers, Vol. 5; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Something about the Author, Vols. 12, 66, 102, 152; Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Vol. 10; Something about the Author—Essays, Vol. 152; and Writers for Young Adults.