Monday, July 11, 2011

Ellen Rabinowich and Triumph Books

Ellen Rabinowich is a children's book writer who wrote 3 young adult novels, a picture book and several non-fiction books. Her first two books also indirectly inspired a lot of my artwork over the years. They were part of the Triumph book series published by Franklin Watts (and later in paperback form by Bantam Books). The Triumph series were short novels illustrated with photographs aimed at teenagers with severe reading difficulties. With their easy-to-read text, reluctant readers could breeze through these short books in about a half an hour. Some other authors who contributed to the Triumph series of books included Kin Platt and Walter Dean Myers. I like how in all of these books serious subjects that pertain to teenagers such as peer pressure, drug use, divorced parents, etc. are presented in a picture book like format. The photographic illustrations make these books appear to be photo novellas of afterschool specials that never existed. In some of the books, the photography is worth the price of admission alone. I think this was a great idea for a concept book and wish more YA novels incorporated this cinematic approach to their design.
Toni's Crowd (1978) was photographed by Rabinowich's husband G. Richardson Cook. Both Rabinowich and Cook worked in the film industry. Cook, for example, was the assistant director of the 1979 film Angel's Brigade, an all women's action flick along the lines of Charlie's Angels.
His photos for Toni's crowd perfectly accompany the text in this story about a girl trying to find her place amongst peers in a new school. The story almost feels like an episode of Degrassi (which it predates) and includes shoplifting, smoking in the bathroom and dance parties. Mostly though, it's a fairly straight forward story about friendship as the character learns to find a place for herself and make the right decisions when entering a new school. The text is not necessarily groundbreaking, but the story is both realistic, relatable and charming. Additionally, the photos give this story more historical context with 1970's fashion and characters who talk to each other on telephones with chords (rather than cellphones). It's like a documentary teen time capsule in book form. And it's exciting for me to think that these photos were staged just for these books. It kind of reminds me of fumetti, or photographic comics.
Rock Fever (1979) was Rabinowich's second Triumph book. This time around the photos were by Mauro Marinelli. I prefer the photos in Toni's Crowd, but for me the text in Rock Fever is the more engaging of the two. Maybe it is because this book deals with more serious subject matter. Immediately we are thrown into the action as the story begins with a violent fight between mother and son. The main character, Doug, has a divorced mother who drinks too much and a father who doesn't understand him. To escape his parents he hangs out in a club and sings with his rock band where he is exposed to drugs. Not wanting to become like his mother, he refuses pills that are offered to him. But he needs $100 to raise money to cut a demo. He decides to steal drugs from his father and sell them at school. And in the process he begins taking Quaaludes to relax. Soon he meets Valerie and a romance begins to blossom. When he brings her back home, his mother embarrasses him by getting soused. To escape this harsh reality, Doug decides to escape through taking the 'ludes and playing pinball at the arcade. After a near tragic accident, Doug's mother gets knocked unconscious. He must reconcile his feelings and relationship toward his parents, his friends and girlfriend and kick the drug habit in order to get things straightened out.I found these two books in an old used bookstore in Glen Cove, Long Island when I was 19 and working as a cab driver. I had been thinking of drawing comics that had something to do with the young adult novels that I loved to read. Seeing these old YA novels illustrated with photographs really inspired me. I titled my first mini-comics series Quaaludes, based on the story of Rock Fever. Later, when I was drawing my comic book A Last Cry for Help, I based some of my drawings on the photographs from Toni's Crowd. Ten years later I still revisit these books from time to time. They hold a special place in my heart.
Rabinwich's 3rd YA novel is Underneath I'm Different from 1983. This is a more traditional YA novel in structure. It's longer and there aren't any photographs. Rabinowich really gets to show off her writing talents in this format. And, no surprise to me, she is a great writer! This book, dedicated to her husband, is a romance story about an overweight girl who falls in love with an artistic boy suffering from a nervous breakdown. It has all the elements that makes books by the likes of Paul Zindel (thinking of the character Marsh in his book Pardon Me You're Stepping On My Eyeball) and Barbara Wersba (her "fat" character Rita from Fat: A Love Story). so great. Thc characters are zany and the story is equally funny, sad, easy-to-relate to, tragic and with an ending that leaves you hopeful. It only makes me wonder why Rabinowich did not write more. This is the last work of hers that I know of. Anyone else out there have any more info.?

I don't know much about Rabinowich's career after 1983. She is originally from New York (Brooklyn and East Meadow, I believe) and later moved to LA to perhaps work in the film industry. I wonder how much of the YA books she wrote were based on her own personal experiences? For example, the romance in Toni's Crowd involves Sandi, an aspiring writer and Scott, an aspiring actor. Likewise, her two other books involve teens interested or involved in the arts. Additionally, her books have a very suburban feel, which I relate to having grown up on Long Island.

Finding lost teen treasures like this is what this blog is all about. For me, Rabinowich's Triumph Books were the beginning of what would turn into a decade's worth of collecting and several attempts at paying tribute to their glory through my comics and zines.

1 comment:

  1. I was wondering where the word "Quaaludes" came from. It's nice to see where the themes in your work can be traced back to. They say a lot about you, too.

    And why Lisa buys junk food for dinner :D

    It's so incredible you feel so strongly about these books to keep,care and share them. I was never exposed to these kinds of young adult novels. Most of the reading material for my age group always seemed either saccharine, condescending or obsessed with climbing the social pecking order.