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?
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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.