Books: Authors of Young-Adult Books Look at Themselves

March 28, 1990 8 min read

The following excerpts are a sampling of the essays by 87 writers collected in Speaking for Ourselves: Autobiographical Sketches by Notable Authors of Books for Young Adults, compiled and edited by Donald R. Gallo:

Stella Pevsner

Children sometimes ask if I wanted to be a writer when I was young. Occasionally, I’ll say, “No, I really wanted to be a tap dancer.” Or sometimes, “No, an actress.” Or, “a singer.”

I believed any of these vocations would provide a direct route to joy, satisfaction, and fame beyond measure. ...

Eventually, I realized that the performing arts could survive without me, to their probable benefit. Anyway, I was going to be an artist. I thought.

It wasn’t until high school that I took an interest in writing, and that was because one of the teachers asked me to write a humor column for the school magazine. I told him I didn’t know how, so he loaned me a book of essays by Thurber and others, and said, “Go to it.”

I did, and it was great, but it never occurred to me that some day I could be a writer. No one actually wrote for a living. No one that I or anyone in my hometown of Lincoln, Ill., knew. Writers either lived somewhere else in luxurious villas or were dead, like Shakespeare.

During all those growing-up years, I read. I read when I was supposed to be dusting the living room; I read when I was supposed to be paying attention in class; I read walking back and forth from school.

Reading was a way of living other lives. It was compensation for being born in one time period, in one place, with one family. Books let me roam everywhere, experience the improbable, become confidante of many. ...

After my first [book] was published in 1968, I did another and another. It opened up a whole new, great kind of world. I can live an adult life and yet keep in touch with childhood. And there, I’ve led many lives.

Copyright 1990 by Stella Pevsner.

Robert Newton Peck

Better known as Rob. ... Raised on a Vermont farm; attended a one-room school; dropped out of high school; served overseas in World War II as a machine-gunner, 88th Infantry; has commendation from General Mark Clark.

Author of 46 books, 100 poems, 35 songs (words and music), creator of 3 TV specials, winner of the Mark Twain Award, ragtime piano player, stand-up comic, lousy dancer, enthusiastic yet untalented athlete, habitual show-off.

Loves kids, reveres teachers but abhors unions, has never used a four-letter word in 46 books yet does use them on a golf course.

Rob is 6 feet 4 inches tall, weighs 200 pounds, gave up tobacco, drinks scotch and soda, shoots pool, plays poker, can windsurf and jet-ski, is an expert snow skier, and is afraid to skydive. ...

Was class president at Cornell Law School and flunked out with the lowest scholastic average ever recorded in Ithaca, N.Y.

Now owns publishing company, Peck Press. Loves to do a gig at conferences of writers, teachers, librarians. Imagines that hell is an endless awards banquet. Avoids doctors, lawyers, clergymen, judges, politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists, and high-school principals who are former football coaches. ...

R.N.P. is a cornball, flag-waving, redneck patriot who loves America and respects the thinking of Americans who do hard physical work. He writes about them, folks who stand in dirt and look up at rainbows.

Copyright 1990 by Robert Newton Peck.

Virginia Hamilton

I grew up with four older brothers and sisters on a small farm in Yellow Springs, Ohio, a village that had been a station on the Underground Railroad and was the home of descendants of fugitive slaves. My mother, in fact, was the oldest daughter of a fugitive slave. ...

Being the “baby” of the family, I was given the freedom to discover whatever there was to find. My most important discovery was the rich storytelling abilities of my relatives. ...

When they weren’t working in the fields, they filled the air with stories and gossip and tall tales. And when they couldn’t remember the details of real events, they substituted their own imaginative fictions. They thus created and recreated who they were and where they had come from and what they hoped to be.

So it is perfectly natural that telling stories and retelling folktales is what I do best. And although I write realistic fiction--as I have done in M.C. Higgins, the Great and A White Romance--there is a great deal of fantasy and folklore in what I write--as there is, for example, in the Justice cycle as well as in The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl.

Race, too, is an important element in my books, though I don’t sit down at my typewriter determined to write a black story. It just happens that I know black people better that I know any other kind of people because I am black and I am comfortable writing about the people I know best.

But more than anything, I write about emotions and themes which are common to all people: family unity, friendships, the importance of individual freedom, and the influence of our past heritage on the present. My aim is to always tell a good story. ...

Copyright 1990 by Virginia Hamilton.

Judy Blume

I had a very active fantasy life as a child. In my fantasy life, I could do or be anything I wanted. I loved making up stories inside my head. I never told anyone about them, though. I thought if I did, I would be considered weird.

In high school, I thought seriously about studying acting. My father encouraged me, as always, but my mother’s wishes were far more practical and acceptable for the mid-1950’s.

By the time I left for college, I had decided she was probably right. I would study education instead, find a husband, settle down, and have babies. I did exactly that. And without very many second thoughts.

I can’t say exactly when or why I decided to write. It was just something that happened, perhaps out of desperation, for something was missing from my life--that creative intensity I needed in order to thrive. I loved my children but somewhere along the way I had lost myself.

Once I began to write, at age 27, I was determined to write the kinds of books that weren’t there for me when I was growing up. Books about real life and real feelings. I think I wrote about young people because at the time it seemed to me that everything was possible at 12, and at 27 it was not.

Many ideas come from my own life. In Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, I wrote about my feelings and concerns when I was in 6th grade; in Tiger Eyes, my father’s sudden death; in Smart Women, falling in love again at 40.

But even though a basic idea may come from real life, the telling comes from the imagination. I never know what’s going to happen when I begin to write a book. The pleasure for me is in finding out.

Copyright 1990 by Judy Blume.

Robert Cormier

Sitting at my typewriter, I have lived many lives--I have been Jerry Renault refusing to sell those chocolates and Kate Forrester trying to start that hostaged bus and Adam Farmer pedaling his bicycle toward an unknown destination. I have both laughed and wept while sitting here.

It astonishes some people when they learn that I still live in my hometown of Leominster, Mass., three miles away from the house in which I was born. I attended local schools, worked after school in local stores, selling shoes and jerking sodas. ...

When I speak to students about writing, I hold myself up as an example of that ancient axiom--write about what you know. I also tell them that you don’t have to be a genius or travel the seven seas to be a writer.

Even though my novels have dealt with such topics as terrorism, government corruption, and medical experimentation, I could have written them without stepping outside of my hometown. I have traveled widely, have gone halfway around the world, but my travels have not provided the material for my novels.

Here in Leominster, watching and listening, pondering the comings and goings of my hometown, I have seen a thousand novels unfold. I have managed, at this point, to write nine of them. Which leaves me 991 to go.

Copyright 1990 by Robert Cormier.

Walter Dean Myers

Being raised black in America has been the major influence in my life.

First, I had to figure out whether being black was a good or bad thing. This is no mean trick when all of the heroes I was presented with were white. Finally, I decided that being black was at least O.K.

The next problem was to figure out what being black meant. Did it mean that I was a good athlete? Could I “naturally” sing and dance well? Was I sexually wonderful? The only thing I knew for certain was that I wanted to be like everyone else.

To an extent, I was like everyone else. I wore the same kind of clothes, the same brand of sneakers, went to the same schools. Oh, I did read more than some of my friends, but that didn’t really count.

When I reached 15, I had my first crises. Sorry, that’s crises. The world didn’t understand me. And no one seemed to understand the important things in life. Except me. I knew it all. I remember being relieved that at least somebody knew what it was all about. ...

Langston Hughes lived a few blocks away. It was my discovery of Hughes that allowed my first efforts at writing to assume a new posture, one that said I could write about poor people in general, and poor black people in particular. ...

What I do now is to rediscover my life, in bits and pieces, and write about the wonderment of the rediscovery so that others might share.

Copyright 1990 by Walter Dean Myers.

From Speaking for Ourselves: Autobiographical Sketches by Notable Authors of Books for Young Adults. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the authors.

A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 1990 edition of Education Week as Books: Authors of Young-Adult Books Look at Themselves