Thursday, December 8, 2011

Full Service by Will Weaver

Full Service is just the type of coming-of-age story that I didn’t think was still being published. The narrator, a sixteen-year old named Paul Sutton, encounters various personalities at a summer job working at a Shell service station. This character is not some sort of brilliant teenage genius or a snarky know-it-all. He is real. Which makes this novel relevant and modern despite it being set in a moment of time virtually extinct. It's the type of storytelling I like. The plot is subtle and simple. The complexities come not from action, but from a series of small events that create character and a sense of place. Like some of the early novels of Gary Paulsen, the setting is in the past, in a small town in Minnesota. Weaver sets his story in the summer of 1965, a time when this country was coming-of-age. The evolution is not only a boy's loss of innocence, but of an America in turmoil. The people Paul meets help shape him, bring him away from his fundamentalist religious upbringing, and give him a peek at what lays beyond the confines of his town. While Paul pumps gas, he learns of the secret affairs of his peers and the town inhabitants. He becomes friendly with a Chicago gangster, witnesses the sexual escapades of the prettiest girl in his school, fools around with a hippie's daughter and comes to understand the hot-headed station manager. He lives side by side with prisoners as his mother makes them houseguests for their day-labor on the farm. In some ways, this book is like a Vietnam-era Peyton Place, set in the midwest, and from a male's perspective. In other ways, it appears to be an episodic memoir with a tinge of nostalgia. Does the book appeal to today's teens? I don't know. The story is good, and the characters are real, full of life, multi-dimensional with down-to-earth problems that are never sensationalized. It certainly appealed to me, but then again, I've been known to watch reruns of The Wonder Years. Still, I can't help but feel that this book has more to it than the appeal towards "oldies" like myself. It has the heart, mild romanticism and open-endedness of a Randy Powell novel. This is excellent writing, the type that still exists in books for youth. Even though to find such a gem, you might just have to do some digging.

Are the young adult novels of my youth gone? On the shelves of the public library where I work, this might just be the oldest YA novel on the shelf. And it's only from 2005. Still, it appears dated. Unlike most of the YA titles published since 2005, it is not dark or edgy in the vampire/ paranormal sort-of post Twilight way. The cover of the book has an actual painting on it, unlike the minimalist design on most YA books that come out from most major publishers in recent years. And even the back cover of Full Service is artfully designed to reflect the dreamy existential ending of the actual story (which I won’t give away here). There are so many books for teens these days where the cover is nothing but a photoshoped close up of a girl's face. And then a curlicued series of lines adorning a slapped on font. It's a real turn off to me, these type of covers. It seems to say that the publisher's don't really care about these books. That they are as disposable as an issue of Teen Vogue. Maybe it's just me getting old. But when I look for a book, I am looking for something with heart. The artwork on the cover of Full Service somehow spoke to me. And when I actually read the book, I wasn't disappointed. I'm glad I found it as it is sure to be discarded soon in order to make place for the latest post apocalyptic epic. Whatever.

Wait, Will Weaver did write a post-apocalyptic book taking place in 2008 (Memory Boy, 2003). And it is being reissued in paperback this year? Shoot. That blows my theories. Also, this was around the time S.E. Hinton wrote a vampire novel (Hawkes Harbor). I’ve also noticed that one of my favorite writer’s of teen thrillers from the 90’s, Christopher Pike, has turned to writing fantasy and vampire books. And his old books that are being reissued have just those types of covers I despise. Yuck! Maybe the world did come to an end.

Or maybe cover design and/or trends are not such a touchy subject to writers and publishers as they are to me. After all, the most famous coming-of-age story of all time, Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye, has been reprinted hundreds of time with the notorious blank cover. To quote a young Richard Hell, “I belong to a blank generation. I can take it or leave it each time.”

I suppose I can take it or leave it too. However, in my ideal world, amongst all the variety, I would like to see more realistic stories and books with well thought out painted covers for teens. But perhaps because they are so rare, and there are so many books being published, maybe it’s a good thing. It narrows down my choice. It makes the old stuff more relevant to me.

This is my own coming-of-age. My experience with young adult books. I liked to live in them as a way of holding on to my lost youth and of not growing up. And now that I am an adult, it’s no longer as personal. It’s more about remembering a lost art. It’s about having a love for a lost America. It’s more than nostalgia. It’s an appreciation for what has been lost and forgotten. Old books are like my Route 66. They have been trampled by superhighways. Someone has to remember what it was like before all the traffic. Like mom and pop restaurants. Like truck stops that were not chains. Something that spoke of real possibilities, not technological fantasies. Something that spoke of the American Dream. These are my discard treasures.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Paul Zindel's The Pigman's Legacy

An excerpt from The Pigman's Legacy first appeared in Scholastic Scope Magazine in 1980. I believe this magazine was made available for free in public schools, for educational purposes. So, for historical interest, here are some scans from that illustrated version. Go out and buy the paperback, which is still in print. Zindel is one of my favorite YA authors and I have wanted to post something about him that has not already been replicated somewhere else online. Enjoy!

Also, here are some rare items I found online for any other Zindel completists out there. Posters and playbills from some of his plays:

Also, see these previous posts HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE!!!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Triumph Books (hitchhiking and teenage pregnancy)

From 1977-1981 Franklin Watts published a series of Hi-Lo books. These “high interest” books at a low reading level were supposed to appeal to reluctant teen readers. It was a notable series in that subjects tackled in these novels included hit and run car accidents, hitchhikers, teenage pregnancy, drug use, and more. Many of the books were written by first time novelists. Others were penned by prolific YA authors such as Kin Platt and Walter Dean Myers. Many of these titles were later reprinted by Dell as part of the Laurel Leaf Library series. What makes these books stand out to me is that they were illustrated with black and white photos throughout. Similar to fumetti, these books have the feel for a screenplay for some long forgotten afterschool specials. I have previously written about my favorite authors who wrote entries in this series: Norman Borisoff and Ellen Rabinowich. Below you will find the covers and jacket copy for two more of these hard-to-find books.

The Hitchhikers by Paul Thompson. Photos by Susan Kuklin. Franklin Watts, 1980.

A Test of Love by Bill Powers. Photos by Bill Aron. Franklin Watts, 1979.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Norman Borisoff's teenagers

Norman Borisoff is a screenwriter who began writing for motion pictures in the 1940's. Starting in the 1960's, he also began writing for television. He worked on such notable series as The Saint, I Spy, Ironside and Starsky and Hutch. In the 1970's, he turned to writing books for children and young adults. Many of these books were illustrated with black and white photographs. For example, his 4 Adventures in the City books, featured pictures by Michal Heron. If I'm not mistaken, I think that might be the same Michal Heron found HERE.
The two photo-illustrated novels by Borisoff that I have actually read are:

Crazy George. 1974, Scholastic Books. Photos by Frank Delia.
This one is narrated by a teenager named Tom. He thinks his best friend, his crazy neighbor George, is a real klutz. He watches in bewilderment as George bungles his way around attempts at impressing a beautiful new girl at their school named Linda Carter. He can't believe that Linda actually likes George, because she is always hanging out with athletes. George tries to join the wrestling and diving team, only to get injured and humiliated. Tom starts to think that George has lost his mind. He's embarrassed by him. But even after hearing all the mistakes that George has made, Linda still likes him. And his friend Tom learns not to be so critical of his friends.
The photos include some nice two page spreads.
I don't know much about the photographer Frank Delia, but HERE is another random picture I found on the internet credited to him.
The Dropout. 1975, Scholastic. Photos by (?)

correction - 9-8-11
I was thinking of the wrong book! The book I was remembering is actually a title by Peggy Mann
called The Drop-In. This is also a photo-illustrated novel. It turns out that Scholastic also had a series of photo-illustrated hi-lo books in the late 1970's. It was called The Double Action Library. Weird! Now, I want to find The Dropout. Anyone know anything about it?

I purchased this book over 15 years ago, which is probably where the confusion comes from. I actually named a comic strip I did which ran in the Long Island Voice Newspaper (1999-2000) after this book. It was called "Drop-In" . Anyway, as you can probably imagine, this book is about a high school dropout. After his mom throws him out of the house, he gets his own apartment and a job at the supermarket. His girlfriend gets pregnant (if I'm remembering this correctly) and they struggle to make ends meet. In the end, he decides to go back to school and become a cop! Again, the supermarket setting was an influence on my stories such as "That's My Baby" and Afterschool Special.

Bewitched and Bewildered. 1982, Dell. Photos by Harold Roth
To my knowledge, this is one of the last young adult novels Borisoff wrote. Similar to Crazy George, it involves a teenage boy who is obsessing over a pretty girl. Except in this book, the girl has some supernatural powers.
As for the photos, I believe this might be the same Harold Roth famous for his pictures of New York City in the 1950's. He also photographed several non-fiction children's books.

And finally, here is a video I found on YouTube of Borisoff at age 89 fighting for the rights of writers. Go Norman!

For more on the subject of photo-illustrated teen books (or TRIUMPH books), please see my previous entry on Ellen Rabinowich.


I just found this paperback original from 1973 entitled You Might Even Like It by Norman Borisoff. I love the cover and description. So I'm really looking forward tor reading this one too:

I finally read this! It's definitely my favorite of Borisoff's books I've come across. Also, unusual for a YA book because the main character is 21. This one is set up like a mystery/crime story. Kenny has a secret that is worrying his girlfriend Debbie. Why is Kenny such a loner? And why don't the cops buy his story after he gets beaten up so bad that he ends up in the hospital for two weeks? This one involves suspicious parents and drug dealers. At times, it even feels like a police procedural. It's almost like an episode of The Rookies. Told in the third person, the story jumps around from the protagonists, to the cops and then the criminals. You really get the sense of Borisoff's style and the fact that he was a prolific writer for television shows. The ending does not disappoint. This is some classic "neglected" teen pulp!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou

I've always loved the young adult books of Frank Bonham and Walter Dean Myers. In my search for early, authentic books written about the African-American experience, I recently came across the work of Kristine Hunter Lattany. The few books she wrote for teens share much in common with Bonham's Dogtown novels and Myers' popular YA novels that would come later.

The following is adapted from a brief biography found online prepared by Jackie Fiorello in 2005.

Kristin Hunter (September 12, 1931 - November 14, 2008) was a well known and talented African-American novelist. She was the author of 11 books including God Bless The Child (1964), Kinfolks (1996) and Breaking Away (2003). She also wrote several groundbreaking young adult books in the early 1960's and 1970's. These books were always authentic to the teenage experience. She portrayed her characters with genuine warmth, making the inner city environment of her books a familiar place that readers could relate to even when portraying gangs and ghetto life.

The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou (1968) was praised for its authentic portrayal of growing up in hostile surroundings and for its affirmation of black culture. The Soul Brother and Sister Lou is about a juvenile gang led by Louretta Hawkins, a fourteen year old who forms a successful music group to avoid the pressures of gang warfare and police harassment. In 1981, Lattany published its sequel, Lou in the Limelight.
While The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou has remained in print from some time, her other two books about young people are more difficult to find. In 1971, Boss Cat was released, followed by Guests in the Promised Land in 1973. Both are collections of stories about teens searching for values and direction. I particularly enjoyed the stories in Guests for the portrayal of unusual and strong black characters.
Also of note here is that her second novel titled, The Landlord, became a movie directed by Norman Jewison for Mirisch Productions in 1970.
The film can be viewed below (via Youtube).

The Landlord tells the story of a man searching for his identity. Enders, the protagonist, is a wealthy, insensitive white man, and the landlord of a residential building in the inner city ghetto. At first, he plans to evict the present occupants and construct his own luxurious home; however, he soon develops personal relationships with the tenants and eventually overcomes his character faults.

Monday, August 15, 2011

God in the 1970's

Okay, while this is off the topic of my usual vintage teenage book ramblings, I nonetheless thought this would be an interesting post. Here are two FUN and very original portrayals of God. In both cases, he is represented in human form as a fairly humble and "regular guy". I like it!

The first is from Bruce Jay Friedman's hilarious play Steambath from 1971. I've mentioned Friedman before, and he is one of my favorite humorous writers for adults (others include Herb Gardner and Mell Lazarus). This was his second play and the original Off-Broadway production starred Anthony Perkins. Later it was made into a television special (also available on DVD) that starred Bill Bixby, as seen above. In this unusual absurdist comedy, the afterlife is a steambath where those who have recently died hang out with others nude or with towels. The man in charge, or the steambath attendant, is God. He is portrayed as a Puerto-Rican with a good sense of humor who sends messages such as "Give that girl a run in her body stocking..." down to earth via a small machine that replies with BLEEP BLEEP. When the other characters are skeptical of God, he proves himself in several ways including downing an enormous whiskey sour! The play is not just also has a lot of social implications that will keep you curious about the afterlife. It makes the subject of God relatable even for an existential guy such as myself.
Other works by Friedman that I have enjoyed include his first novel Stern, as well as his screenplays for the following classic movies: The Heartbreak Kid (1972) and Splash (1984).
Also of note are Friedman's talented sons --- writer Josh Alan Friedman and the cartoonist Drew Friedman.
This second portrayal of God is from Oh God, Book II from 1980. George Burns played God in all three of the films in this series. In my opinion, Book II is the best of the lot. God communicates with an eleven year old girl named Tracy, first through fortune cookie messages, and later by appearing in person. I love that George Burns basically plays himself in this film. His superpowers as GOD are actually quite minimal. For example, he uses his abilities to appear on the Johnny Carson show and to do Tracy's homework, in her own handwriting, in an instant. He even rides a motorcycle! The other thing I like about this movie is that the kids seem very mature and their lines are wittily written. In some ways, it reminds me of the books Norma Klein wrote for kids. Maybe this has do with the fact that Tracy's parents are divorced and this is handled in a very matter of fact manner. God has bigger issues to work on, like stopping volcanoes from erupting, than solving marital issues.

George Burns was at his best when he played opposite kids or teenagers. For this reason, I also loved him in the movie 18 Again! (1988).

Anyway, this is just another example of how more risks were taken in popular culture back in the 1970's than now. I'm not sure a movie executive would give either of these projects the green light today (unless it was a remake).