Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, oracle for teenagehood, says goodbye to ‘Alice’
By Monica Hesse,
The author whose works have been banned more than any other writer this past decade — more, even, than witchy J.K. Rowling — lives in a Methodist retirement community in Gaithersburg and makes dreamy blueberry muffins.
“Butter?” Phyllis Reynolds Naylor offers, putting a fresh stick on a small saucer. “Tea?”
The books in question are the “Alice” series, which, over the course of nearly 30 years and 30 titles, has dealt with menstruation, masturbation and the maturation, physical and emotional, of an average girl growing up in Silver Spring. These are white-knuckle topics for parents, which helps explain how Naylor has landed on the American Library Association’s top 10 list of banned books so many times.
On this morning, she settles into the kitchen table — her formal dining room has been converted into a writing space — and considers why some people oppose her books. “I think the fear is that the child is going to come to them and ask them questions that feel too personal,” she speculates. “It’s not that their child’s not ready. It’s that they’re not ready. I’ve had a lot of lot of letters from people saying, ‘Oh, my daughter doesn’t even know about that,’ and I can only think, ha-ha.”
She received one letter that opened with “HOW DARE YOU?” The mom explained that she’d been planning, on her daughter’s 11th birthday, to sit down with the Bible and explain how sex was part of God’s plan to populate the Earth. Instead, her 10-year-old had checked out “Lovingly Alice,” in which the protagonist figures out how babies are made.
“I was telling this to Judy Blume,” says Naylor. “And she said I should have asked the mom, ‘What were you waiting for? Why is 11 the magic number?’ ”
Why is Naylor, a grandmother from Indiana, an oracle for teenagehood — the creator of the painfully normal and blissfully awkward Alice McKinley? What will the fans do now that it’s all coming to an end? Katniss Everdeen’s bow and arrow are all well and good, but sometimes you just want a heroine whose current problem is heartbreak and a tragic haircut. You know?
* * *
Naylor is 80, with gray curly hair, crinkly eyes and a warm-flannel voice. She is wildly prolific, having written 140 books, and is best known for the “Shiloh” trilogy — the first in the series won a Newbery in 1991 — about a boy and his beagle. But since 1985, six months of every year have been dedicated to the trials and humiliations of Alice, a motherless girl raised by an unflappable dad and brother.
In “The Agony of Alice,” she’s a sixth-grader longing for a beautiful teacher to befriend her. In “Alice in Rapture, Sort Of,” she’s entering seventh grade, wondering whether there is an earthly embarrassment greater than a boy stealing your new push-up bra. In “Alice Alone,” “Simply Alice,” “Patiently Alice” and “Including Alice,” she goes to high school, gets a stepmom, accidentally invites a group of prostitutes to Thanksgiving and suffers through the outrageous indignities of daily life.
And now, after books that have spanned Alice’s life from ages 8 to 18, the final Alice McKinley book will be released Tuesday. Naylor will kick off her farewell tour with a Tuesday evening reading at the Takoma Park Library. Finis, Alice-lovers. Prepare your Kleenex.
“Now I’ll Tell You Everything” follows Alice all the way to her 60th birthday, moving through college at the University of Maryland, relationships, jobs, children. Does she end up with Patrick, the on-off boyfriend whose hormonal pawing gave helicopter parents periodic aneurysms over the years? What becomes of prudish Elizabeth and saucy Pamela, of Mr. McKinley’s music shop, which was based on the real Dale Music Co. on Georgia Avenue?
“I don’t even know how many wedding gowns are in that book,” says Naylor, since she tried to wrap up even minor characters’ story lines over the course of 500 pages. “I finally asked a neighbor who is very into fashion if she would design all of the wedding gowns,” because Naylor couldn’t keep track of them all.
With the publication of “Now I’ll Tell You Everything,” Naylor will also release an online version of the Alice Bible, which she and her publisher first created to keep track of the ever-expanding Alice-verse: classmates, ear piercings, vacations, kisses.
Naylor’s universe is not Alice’s universe, no matter how much readers would like it to be. Some of the inspiration through the years has been personal — Alice tripping on the stairs at school and wetting her pants in ninth grade? It happened to Naylor’s mother in 1914 — but Naylor grew up in Indiana, not Maryland, moving east only as an adult.
Her first husband suffered from paranoid schizophrenia; she was seeking treatment for him at a mental hospital in Rockville. Their relationship later became the basis for her memoir “Crazy Love,” and they eventually divorced. Naylor met her second husband through church. She and Rex were married more than 50 years and had two sons.
No daughters. Just Alice. “The fact that Phyllis could write a series in which her main character went from childhood to adulthood over time — and in each book was fully realized at that particular stage of her life — shows her depth and talent as a writer,” says Edie Ching, a children’s literature specialist and instructor at the University of Maryland.
Most long-running protagonists — say, Nancy Drew — remain frozen in time. The “Baby-Sitters Club” series contains 130-odd books, but the characters never graduate from middle school.
But Alice McKinley grows up, four months every book, her issues gaining more complexity with each passing birthday. Some 2.5 million copies are in circulation, the early half of the series shelved in the children’s section, and the later books in the young adults’ department. A generation of kids grew up with Alice; a generation returned to the books long after they’d aged out of them to see what happened to her. The books are really — and here, we will slip out of our authorial voice and into a fanatic’s gush — they’re really quite extraordinary.
Harry Potter grows up — that’s a popular character who ages through a series. But that’s seven books, not 28. And “even J.K. Rowling,” Ching says, “doesn’t have Harry deal with wet dreams.”
* * *
On a rainy recent Saturday afternoon, Naylor gave a reading at the National Book Festival on the Mall. It was supposed to focus on “Now I’ll Tell You Everything,” but it was really a reminiscence of Alice, a series Naylor was inspired to write after seeing a Catholic holy card depicting “The Agonies of St. Agnes” and wondering, instead, about the tribulations of normal girls.
The afternoon was also an unintentional mashup of the old guard and the new. The author slotted immediately after Naylor was Veronica Roth, the 25-year-old writer of the hugely popular “Divergent” trilogy, who sold the first book in the series while still a college student. The folding chairs under the tent were packed, but only some of the audience members were Naylor’s fans; others had arrived an hour early for Roth just to make sure they got seats.
“Divergent” is a case study in modern young adult fiction, set in a dystopian future and starring Tris, a butt-kicking teenage protagonist who possesses rare and special talents. It’s in the same genre as the “Mortal Instruments” series (demon hunter Clary) and the “Hunger Games” (warrior Katniss) — a renaissance of female empowerment, in which all female characters must be not only strong, but practically superhuman.
Set against this terrain, the Alice McKinley books come across as almost old-fashioned. Quaint.
The Alice McKinley discussion quickly turns into a dissertation about modern parenting. Do all of these superhuman heroines set up a world in which being “typical” is an insult?
“I always wanted to write about an ordinary girl,” Naylor says in the interview at her house. “Alice has no special talents.” She can’t sing, she’s not the prettiest, or the smartest, or the friendliest, or the strongest. “I always saw her very much as a homebody.”
Over the years, fans would write Naylor with suggestions: Give Alice a dog, a car, diabetes, an abortion. Send her to a desert island, have her grow up to be a movie star. Naylor always resisted the glamorous ideas.
“I just kept asking, ‘What Would Alice Do?’ Sometimes I felt like wearing a bracelet — WWAD. She didn’t always do what I wanted her to do,” but Naylor knew she had to be true to the personality she had created, book after book and year after year.
“She has always been more prolific than I, something I admire, and very disciplined (I am less so),” Lois Lowry, a two-time Newbery medalist and longtime friend of Naylor’s, said via e-mail. “I remember she stayed at my home in Boston once. . . . I think she was there for a speaking engagement . . . and early in the morning I looked out an upstairs window and there was Phyllis, out in my back yard, with a yellow legal pad . . . working.”
And here, fans will wilt with glee at this tidy piece of wish fulfillment: that two beloved childhood authors really are friends, that there really might be a mythic circle of wise older women, which also includes Judy Blume, which also includes Katherine Paterson.
“Some years ago, Phyllis and I talked about the possibility of jointly writing a book in which Alice and Anastasia meet,” writes Lowry. Anastasia is, of course, Lowry’s own beloved character Anastasia Krupnik, and as all girls know, you are either an Alice girl or an Anastasia girl.
But they didn’t meet, and it’s just as well, because how could it have lived up to expectations?
* * *
“You’re probably going to ask if I’m sad the series is ending,” Naylor says, back at her kitchen table.
Of course we were.
The end of the Alice series is the end of the longest-running professional relationship of Naylor’s life, and she is a bit sad about it. But she’s also looking forward to the free time, which will allow for new creations of new characters, dealing with the new problems of this decade.
Like: “I hate cellphones. I hate what they’ve done to fiction. Think about it — every time you want a child to be in a dangerous or scary situation, and have to work it out for himself, there’s that damn cellphone.” She is forced to come up with endless workarounds: The cellphone was forgotten, is out of batteries, has no reception. “I’m working on a book set in a cave now, and I’m just so delighted.”
It’s not really over for Alice, though. The fan mail will continue to pour in, probably for years after “Now I’ll Tell You Everything” is released.
New fans, old embarrassments, the eternal agony of childhood.
Naylor will appear at the Takoma Park Library, 101 Philadelphia Ave., at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.