Author: Bird, Elizabeth
Date published: March 1, 2010
If the Newbery Medal-winning Dear Mr. Henshaw were to be reissued today, would Beverly Cleary be encouraged to update it-to have Leigh Botts write his letter on a computer, by e-mail? Or could he just remain at his desk, pencil in hand?
It's not unusual for a publisher to update the jacket of a popular children's book so as to keep it fresh. That's an easy decision. The difficulty comes when a choice is made to update the text itself. I saw no better evidence of this than when I had my children's book group read Judy Blume's It's Not the End of the World. While reading it, the kids were entranced, entirely unaware of its 1972 publication date. They later told me that the only hints they had of the date came when they read about the prices of meals and food. Otherwise, the book was as fresh and fascinating as the day it was published. So under what circumstances is it right to make changes to a book's text to keep it current? It is a question many authors wrestle with. If they place within their stories elements that will date, does that mean their books won't be pertinent and relatable to kids ten or fifteen years down the road? Is it possible for such books to stand the test of time? More than anything, the answer depends on the writing itself, and whether or not the story lends itself to updating or works better as a still-pertinent document of its time.
In the 1980s, author Ellen Emerson White penned the three-book series The Presidents Daughter, White House Autumn, and Long Live the Queen. When White wrote a fourth book in the same series in 2007 (Long May She Reign) and Feiwel and Friends set about republishing the previous three, White decided that some elements in the earlier books would have to be changed. "A lot of it was the obvious things - computers, cell phones, the Internet, and so on," says White. "But it was also specific things, like characters drinking Tab, wearing Tretorns, watching Hill Street Blues, and so forth. I was a beginning writer, so I had no concept at the time of the degree to which specificity can actually hasten the process of dating a book."
Placing time-sensitive elements in contemporary works of children's fiction may lead to problems. Not that this is necessarily a new concern. Every contemporary children's novel - even fantasy or historical fiction - is by definition a product of its time. Writers will always have datable details in their contemporary fiction, but it sometimes takes decades before anyone notices. Book jackets are usually the most obvious archaic element, and a simple repackaging on a publisher's part can do away with that little problem easily enough. In terms of the books coming out now, when a kid in even the near future reads a book where someone plugs in an iPod or checks a BlackBerry, how will that affect their reading experience if these brands no longer exist?
This question came up when I gave the right kids the wrong book. When my book group voted to read the aforementioned Its Not the End of the World, I got confused and instead ordered copies of a different Blume title, Just As Long As We're Together. Although it has a later publication date (1987) than Lu Not the End of the World, Just As Long As We're Together dates itself right from the start. One book club member immediately latched onto a long opening section that describes a bedroom festooned with pictures, including one of Richard Gere. Said she, "What does hunky mean?"
Blume's enduring popularity (due to her writing and themes, but helped in no small part by her continually updated book jackets) is worth considering when one thinks about updating old elements in children's fiction. Most of her books feel contemporary and still sell to their intended authence (case in point: the immortal Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing) . She also sheds light on the notion of whether or not an author has the right (or even the desire) to change outdated elements in past novels. Though most of her books remain unchanged, alterations were made to Are You There, Godi In Me, Margaret (1970). Menstrual belts were turned into tampons, and fans weighed in. The changes in this case made a great deal of sense because Blume's book instructs about menstruation even as it entertains. For her part, Blume responded to the critics of her changes in an interview with the Boston Phoenix. "No one uses belts any more. Half the mothers haven't used them. [Contemporary readers] have to go to their grandmothers."
Outdated menstrual equipment is one thing, but what about technology, slang, and other products of a particular time? Ellen White's changes to her President's Daughter series didn't touch the plot or the characters, but they did make the book less of a historical document. And when that happens, die-hard fans often raise their voices in protest. When I asked White if she received any objections from readers regarding these changes, the response was unexpected. "I did get a few complaints - mostly about the main character no longer drinking Tab. The fact that it's not available anymore didn't seem to enter into the equation."
Not that there's anything especially wrong with a novel rooting itself in a specific moment in time, particularly when the author integrates new technology into the text seamlessly. Books can also ignore that the latest technology exists at all, as Jeanne Birds all's novels about the Penderwicks do, and place a story in an indefinable time period. (Though that really only works if the book is a novel such as Birdsall's with throwback elements to it, conjuring up the feel of Elizabeth Enright and the like.) Other authors take the risk and incorporate contemporary details into their stories.
Some of the books of 2009 like to have it both ways. They include modern technological details but select those day-to-day necessities that will probably stick around for a long period of time. Any Which Wallhy Laurel Snyder is a fantasy that feels like the second coming of Edward Eager, but her contemporary kids still bike about with cell phones in their pockets. The cell phones haven't any name brands, however, nor does Snyder dwell on their operation, so the book may not date particularly quickly. Similarly, Operation Redwood by S. Terrell French hinges entirely on the discovery, deletion, and recovery of an important e-mail. But since the e-mail provider is not named, again you are left with a book that uses technology and yet won't age too quickly.
It's when a book starts highlighting particular online sites that things start to get tricky. The Boy in the Dress by David Walliams includes a scene of the now- common after-school activity of watching funny YouTube videos. There is no way to predict whether or not YouTube will disappear or change significantly in the next few years, but generally speaking, mentioning specific websites is a good way to mark the book for a future rewrite or, unrevised, quaintness. On the other hand, kids really do watch YouTube for fun, and making up a faux name (UTo ob, perhaps?) would be silly.
My favorite example of a recent book integrating technology and social networking sites into its core is Nova Ren Sumas Dani Noir. Relying on everything from poor cell-phone reception to silly ringtones to the social niceties that surround friending and de-friending someone on Facebook, Suma comes across as one of those authors not only comfortable with mentioning contemporary electronic elements but also with incorporating them actively within the plot. However, if Facebook goes the way of, say, AOL, will the book continue to have the same resonance?
Of course, the flip side of this is when the book embraces current technology so fully that its text is presented in a faux electronic format that will likely someday vanish. Novels like ttyl by Lauren Myracle that rely almost completely on text messaging are the most obvious examples. Jennifer Holm's Middle School Ls Worse than Meatloaf: A Year Told Through Stuff, a book composed of the ephemera of everyday life (instant messages, doodles, autographs on casts, etc.), is another. Such books may not age gracefully, but that doesn't mean they don't speak persuasively when they first come out.
With this in mind, some books will become period pieces, while others continue to feel contemporary and new. Beverly Cleary's Henry Huggins books and her Beezus and Ramona series are excellent examples of this. Both series have been recently republished not only with new covers but also with new interior illustrations by Tracy Dockray Henry Huggins was first published in 1950 and now feels like a charming example of 1950s nostalgia. Ramona the Pest, on the other hand, published in 1968, has managed to stay fresh and current rather than feeling like a product of its time.
Looking at the most recent Newbery winners, books with contemporary settings don't indulge in much new technology. Rules by Cynthia Lord, for example, has a visit to a video store that may, in the age of Netflix, go the way of the record store, but it's hardly glaring. The most recent technology in Ingrid Law's Savvy appears to be the hot pink Bible- to ting bus. Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book takes place in a timeless world at odds with its own author's frequent Twitter posts, and Susan Patron's The Higher Power of Lucky hasn't so much as a cell-phone tower in sight. It seems to me that if award-winning novels for children set in the present are rare, those that make realistic use of current technology are rarer still.
If the classic novels of the past were written by their authors today, I don't believe it would make much of a difference. If Harriet the Spy were published today, Ms. Welsch would still garner new fans, whether writing her observations in a notebook or laptop (and despite the made- for- television movie, slated for the Disney Channel in 2010, that envisions Harriet as a teenaged blogger). And sure, the kids in The Chocolate War might use Kindles, but readers would still pay more attention to the story's dark undercurrents than its electronic details. Technology dates, true, but keeping it out of books entirely makes very little sense if its inclusion will advance the plot in a satisfactory way. If authors want their books to be pertinent to future readers, they should simply make sure that they don't go too crazy with specific references to elements that will become dated in a month or two.
Raise your Tab to that.
Elizabeth Bird is a senior children's librarian at New York Public Library's Children's Center at 42nd Street. Her blog, A Fuse #8 Production, is hosted at www.school libraryjournal.com, and she is the author of Children's Literature Gems: Choosing and Using Them in Your Library Career.