Adolescent fiction comes of age

LINDA CAHILL April 21 1986

Adolescent fiction comes of age

LINDA CAHILL April 21 1986

Adolescent fiction comes of age


Growing up lonely in Winnipeg, a Métis girl named Beatrice Culleton found school to be an alienating experience. She dropped out of grade 12 in 1966, at 17. Although she enjoyed reading, she was unable to find books in her school library that dealt with the realities of her life. But her son and daughter, William, 18, and Deborah, 13, have more options. In 1983, Pemmican Publications published their mother’s April Raintree, a frank novel about two Métis sisters living in white society. And a surprised Culleton found herself among a little-known but successful band of Canadian writers working in a growing market: young

adult fiction. Said Culleton: “I wrote the book for adults—because of a rape scene and swearing—but then I found nine-yearold kids who never read before were reading it.”

Culleton’s unexpectedly successful launch parallels the sudden rise of a market for teen-oriented literature. Young adult books, usually overlooked by reviewers and adult readers alike, are characterized by clear and simple writing, a length of about 150 to 200 pages and a retail price of less than $15 in hardcover, appealing teenage heroes or heroines and often upbeat endings. In Canada, where a successful novel is one that sells from 3,000 to 5,000 copies, many writers of young adult books routinely sell two or three times as many. Culleton’s April Raintree sold 15,000 copies, mainly by word of mouth, in British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Toronto-born Gordon Korman, 22, whose first book was published when he was only 12, is an international publishing sensation: his 10 humorous high school novels have sold more than one million copies. Edmonton’s Monica Hughes is working on her 21st book and has been translated into nine languages, including Japanese and Russian. And last week no fewer than 32 Canadian children’s publishers attended the leading international children’s publishing trade fair in Bolo-

gna, Italy, to promote their products.

Only a generation ago fiction aimed at 11to 18-year-olds was nearly nonexistent. The library shelf of young adult Canadian fiction consisted of Maria Chapdelaine, Anne of Green Gables and little else. Then, in 1974 the publication of poet Dennis Lee’s popular nonsense verse Alligator Pie started parents looking for other Canadian children’s books. An

industry was born—and it evolved as its readers grew. Katherine Lowinger, director of the Toronto-based Children’s Book Centre, which promotes domestic children’s authors, notes a sevenfold increase in the number of children’s and young adults’ titles that she receives each year. The volume has grown from about 35 new books a decade ago to more than 250 annually now. Said Lowinger: “We have had an increase in quality as well as quantity. The subject matter can be anything from humor to the personal agony of an April Raintree. It is all legitimate.” Meanwhile, film-makers have discovered the treasure trove of stories in young adult fiction. The trend began in the United States when producers used

the teen fiction of S.E. Hinton to make such youth-market films as Tex, Rumble Fish and The Outsiders. In Canada, the scale of production has been smaller but the results just as successful. Two years ago Toronto’s Atlantis Films produced a half-hour television drama series for the CBC based on short stories about adolescence, and won an Oscar for one episode. Among the series’ sources were a sharply

sketched, often humorous book, You Can Pick Me Up at Peggy's Cove, by Ottawa’s Brian Doyle, and Home from Far, a psychologically rich tale by ; Guelph, Ont., author Jean Little. All together, Atlantis has sold more than a score of television movies aimed at the youth market in 15 countries, including Britain, France, West Germany and Malaysia.

But the increasing visibility of young adult writing has placed the form under growing scrutiny. One of Doyle’s novels, Hey Dad!, was pulled from library shelves on St. Joseph Island near Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., because some local school officials objected to a scene in which a father and daughter discuss whether the word “shit” is acceptable in conversa-

tion. And when Doyle gave a public reading from his novel You Can Pick Me Up At Peggy's Cove in Charlottetown, one woman complained to him because one of his characters exhibited signs of flatulence. “Anne of Green Gables,” she told him tartly, “would never have done that.”

For Newfoundland author Kevin Major, the price of literary candor is even higher. His first novel, Hold Fast—about an orphaned boy forced to leave his Newfoundland outport home to live with his uncle—has won four book awards, including the book of the year award from the association of Canadian Children’s Librarians. But Major has had public readings of his later books cancelled and authorities have removed them from school libraries because of his characters’ tangy language and the sexual aspects of his plots.

Major says he doubts that his latest books will find their way into schools, except in senior high school grades, because of the language. And while writers for the teen market sell many books directly through bookstores, school libraries and inclusion in school curricula can form an important part of a writer’s income. Said one of Major’s publishers, John Pearce of Irwin Publishing Inc.: “He might be able to sell more to the Newfoundland board of education if he took the four-letter words out, but we publish our authors the way they want to be published.”

Many of the most successful young adult authors, including Major, Doyle and Alberta’s Marilyn Halvorson, are themselves teachers—which may account for their special insight into what their readers want. Ottawa high school student Teresa Beauchesne, 17, found Doyle’s most recent novel, Angel Square, in her school library, read it and quickly looked up two of his other books. Beauchesne said that she particularly enjoyed reading about a setting with which she was familiar. She added: “He has a very appealing style, especially for younger kids. In one scene I remember laughing out loud. That doesn’t happen very often.”

When Doyle tried to publish his first novel in 1977, his manuscript was repeatedly rejected. But the next year a small Toronto-based publisher, Groundwood Books, took a chance on Hey Dad!, his story of a father’s journey across Canada with his young daughter. Since then Doyle has sold 50,000 copies of his books. Last November bad weather stalled his reading tour of the Northwest Territories at the town of Coppermine. When Elizabeth Lamb, the librarian in Fort Simpson, his next stop, realized he might not arrive, she successfully canvassed the town for money to hire a personal

charter plane. Said Doyle: “My reception was an unforgettable experience. I was billeted everywhere.”

Still, Doyle has recognition problems. Beauchesne had never heard of him until her English teacher recommended his books. Although Beauchesne reads such Canadian authors as Farley Mowat and Mordecai Richler and had enjoyed two of Hughes’s works, she was unaware that Hughes was Canadian.

Said Beauchesne:

“Very few Canadian authors are really publicized.”

At the same time, books labelled “young adult” are unlikely to penetrate the larger adult market or gain serious treatment from book reviewers. Said school library consultant Joan McGrath of Toronto: “Good adult books will always find their way into kids’ hands, but that does not always

work the other way around.” Newfoundland’s Major added that young adult books are often reviewed as a package even when they have little shared subject matter. Said Major: “A lot of my books that fall into that category have interest beyond teenage readers.”

Major is a pioneer in his field. The book which proved eight years ago that there was a market for contemporary young adult fiction in Canada was his Hold Fast. It used local dialect and slang to convey the thoughts and lives of adolescents with a freshness that startled readers and publishers alike.

That same year, Patsy Aldana—then president of the Association of Canadian Publishers—launched Groundwood Books and began looking for authors. She heard about Doyle’s unpublished novel and asked him to I send her a copy. Commenting on Hey Dad!, Aldana said: “One of Brian’s real gifts is he gets the voice of a child accurately. Because they were not children’s publishers, people here did not realize that there is a lot of writing of that kind in the United States. And Doyle does it better.” In its first year, Groundwood published Doyle and two picture books for younger children. Since then its catalogue has grown to 35 titles, all Canadian.

Scholastic-TAB, a U.S.-owned firm with offices in Toronto, traditionally concentrated on educational books. Then, in 1978 it took a gamble and published ~ a first novel by 12o year-old Korman: This ç Can't he Happening at “ Macdonald Hall. Korman became one of the firm’s bestselling writers. It also publishes books by Dorothy Joan Harris, author of Don't Call Me Sugarbaby!, a book about a teen afflicted with diabetes, and Bernice Thurman Hunter, who has writ-

ten three warm, nostalgic memoirs of life in the Depression. Such authors have turned Scholastic into Canada’s largest children’s publisher, with 188 titles in its catalogue.

Irwin is another major publisher in the field. In 1980 it joined the Alberta government in sponsoring a contest for young adult fiction. Edmonton writer Hughes, who had already successfully published her youth-oriented science fiction in Britain, submitted her first major realistic novel, Hunter in the Dark. The powerful story of a teenage boy who discovers that he has leukemia and goes into the woods to ponder his condition and come to terms with it, Hunter won a publishing contract. Now 60, Hughes writes one or two novels a year. A slight, dimpled woman, she says she plans to alternate realistic novels for Canadian publishers with her main interest, science fiction, for the international market.

Two years ago the New York-based Atheneum Publishers released her most recent science fiction novel, Devil on My Back. It depicts a future world with a rigid caste system, in which the slaves, the only group not plugged into the society’s central computer, are the only ones free enough to reject it. Meanwhile, Irwin is publishing Hughes’s latest realistic novel, Blaine’s Way, a story about a rural Ontario farm boy growing up in the Depression and dreaming of escaping to a bigger world. Lying about his age, he joins the Canadian army—and is catapulted into adulthood at Dieppe.

Canadian books for young people are

beginning to command international attention. Halvorson’s first book, Cowboys Don’t Cry, has since been translated into Swedish, Danish and German. As well, it has penetrated the U.S. market, while Atlantis Films has just bought the option to turn it into a drama. Meanwhile, Jean Little has been translated into French, German,

Danish, Dutch, Japanese—and braille.

Most internationally successful authors of adolescent fiction locate their characters in Canadian settings. With a few exceptions—Korman, who now lives in New York and sets his stories in U.S. classrooms, is one—they gamble that their works have enough appeal to cross borders. And their publishers say they have less difficulty interesting foreign buyers in teen fiction than in adult fiction authors. Declared Pearce: “It is terribly easy to sell young adult work around the world. Adolescence is universal. In adult novels the culture often takes over.” Michelle Poploff, senior editor of books for young readers at New York’s Dell Publishing Co.—which publishes Major and Halvorson for the U.S. market—says: “The books are full of accurate references to the problems and anxieties which our readers can readily identify with. Their writing is superb.”

Canadian authors who deal with such universal themes as sexual and social adjustment reach international audiences fairly regularly. Those who choose to focus instead on political issues run the risk of restricting themselves to the domestic market. Canadian teen fiction includes a subgroup of books dealing with labor strife—including Marsha Hewitt’s and Claire Mackay’s 1981 book One Proud Summer, about a 1946 Quebec textile strike. Such books have few U.S. counterparts, said Lowinger: “That labor focus is unique to Canada, seeing the child as part of an economic world.”

U.S. publishers were in fact reluctant to pick up rights for Doyle’s Angel Square, with its teen hero scrambling for part-time work in Lower Town Ottawa. Although Doyle is widely regarded as one of the best teen fiction writers in Canada, he says that U.S. publishers dismissed his books with their realistic working-class settings as “too Canadian.” Then, last month he won a contract with a division of Macmillan Publishing Co., which plans to bring out Angel Square in the United States next fall.

What enables Doyle’s writing to cross borders is the fact that the settings he evokes never dominate the real concerns of his books—the emotional and psychological struggles of teenagers to find their place in the world. A generation ago the young Métis Beatrice Culleton could not find an author to help explain her painfully isolated world. Now, Canadian children are growing up in a landscape that a new band of writers is trying to help them explore.