Friday, July 1, 2011

John Donovan

John Donovan (1928-1992) was the President of the Children's Book Council from 1967-1992 and the author of several young adult novels. He pushed for new authors to be published as well as rallying towards new and challenging subjects to be tackled in the field of children's books. The most well known one of his own books is 1969's I'll Get There, It Better Be Worth The Trip. This book is often cited as being the first mainstream teen novel to deal with homosexuality. It concerns a boy named Davy who feels rejected. His parents are divorced, his mother's an alcoholic and his closest companions are his grandmother and dog. Later in the story he has a brief sexual encounter with one of his male classmates. In the story, this part is told with sensitivity and presented in a way that is not extraordinary. In a sense, it's presented as if this were a natural part of growing up. The book was recently reprinted in 2010 with a new introduction.
Donovan wrote four other novels dealing with characters suffering from loss and loneliness. The oddest of these is Remove Plastic Coating A Little At a Time from 1973. This is a short novel at about 90 pages and concerns the relationship between a young teenager named Harry and a 72 year old homeless lady who is squatting in an abandoned apartment building. Again, sexuality is presented here in a matter of fact manner with Harry's friends casually inviting him to X-rated movies and the like.

Harry feels isolated from his peers and his parents. Living in New York, Harry's parents are having relationship problems and his mother is suffering from depression. His isolation from his family contributes to him meeting Amelia, an eccentric bag lady, in the park. She presents him with an alternative view of life that he admires over what he sees from others in his middle class upbringing. The relationship allows him to feel emotional and bring him into a world of meaningful communication.
The book reminds me of two popular films that came out around the same time: Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Harold and Maude (1972). The first because it's about an unusual relationship taking place amongst two eccentric squatters in New York City. The latter because it's about the relationship between an old lady and a morbid teen. I'm pretty sure Donovan was familiar with both of these movies and that they were an influence on this book.
The book also shares some similarities to other books for young adults from this time period. For example, Paul Zindel's The Pigman and Barbara Wersba's The Dream Watcher (both 1969) concerned teenagers gaining insight into themselves through relationships with lonely and eccentric elderly people. Wersba had also given Donovan several positive reviews of his books as a reviewer for The New York Times Book Review.

While Donovan is not one of my favorite writers for teenagers, his books are still of interest to me as they are both representative of the time and the changing limits and taboos of realistic literature for children from the 1970's. His other books include Wild In the World (1971), Good Old James (1974) and Family (1976).

Wild In The World, is one of the darkest children's books I've ever read.   Nevertheless, it is a fascinating read and certianly a page turner.  It deals with a boy who is left alone on homesteaded land on top of a mountain full of rattlesnakes after his entire family dies.  His first memory is of his father's suicide.  He walks around naked, drinks whiskey and befriends a wild dog that looks like a wolf.

I am looking forward to tracking down Donovan's other books. 

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