Tuesday, January 29

Altogether, One at a Time


by E. L. Konigsburg
illustrations by Gail E. Haley, Mercer Mayer, Gary Parker and Laurel Schindelman
Atheneum 1971

I would have hated this book as a kid. I would never have picked it up. I would have started the first story and felt alienated by the language of it, an almost disjointed voice. I would have jumped around and looked at the illustrations for the stories and would have walked away, never to give the book a second chance.

In this collection of four stories we see kids being kids, and not always nice ones. A boy invites an odd (read: dyslexic) kid to his sleepover party at his mother's urging and comes to hate that boy more because his best friend actually likes the kid; Another boy who spends his time with his grandmother when his parents are away shows his insensitivity when a cloud-covered meteor shower triggers sorrowful regret in his elder that he doesn't immediately comprehend; A girl in fat camp is shown how to achieve her inner beauty with the aide of a counselor who is in fact a ghost; A mother tells her daughter of what it was like being bused to school and how in dealing with the prejudice she encountered began to see herself as an artist.

I find Kongsburg voice to be very stilted in these stories even as an adult but like where they go and that I'm not always sure where she's headed. The clues were all there in the fat camp story and yet I missed that it was a ghost story until the very end. Actually I began to think there was something supernatural when she kept talking about this treasure trapped inside a blob of plastic -- I thought it might have been her heart -- but by the time things started to reveal themselves it was over. The thing is, as an adult I think these stories are great for opening up young reader's minds to question behavior and the morality of what is right and wrong. I an also see an adult trying to convince a skeptical kid to read these stories and watching them squirm just as I would have when I was in my middle school years.

This question of audience is coming up more and more for me lately. In a recent workshop we referred to there being a problem with gatekeepers, the adults in publishing who make the decisions and have to be appeased before the writing can even reach it's target audience. It came up because we were reviewing a story that contained what some felt were inappropriate images and ideas that others felt would have been happily accepted by kids. If the adult gatekeepers are pre-censoring stories because they are afraid of the possible backlash or wish to impose their own moral thinking onto a story, that's a bad thing for writers. In some ways what I liked about these Konigsburg stories was the exact moral ambiguity that I saw others actively attempt to shut down. We have come dangerously close to the edge totalitarianism when one side takes the moral high ground and the other side shrugs it off.

I may come back to these stories in a few days and see if my feelings still hold. At least I can say they make me want to reread them.

Interesting note on the cover shown here: This is the most recent edition available from Aladdin back in 1998. What's curious is that on my first edition copy the illustrations on the cover are the same except for that one on the bottom of the girl in the golden braids. On the original cover they use the mirror of that illustration that shows the story's protagonist, a black girl. Did the folks at the Aladdin imprint think it would smack of tokenism to keep the black protagonist on the cover, or were they trying not to scare off too many potential white customers? The collection is due to be reissued sometime this year as I understand it, here's hoping they're going back to the original cover.
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