Monday, August 1, 2011

Norma Klein

"Perhaps the proudest moment of my literary career was during the summer of 1982 when I read in Publisher's Weekly that I was one of the most banned writers in America." ---Norma Klein in an essay from 1986

Norma Klein wrote about the sophisticated world of privileged New York teens well before Gossip Girl. She outdid Judy Blume in terms of frankness and sexual permissiveness in her fiction. Many of her books from the 70's featured female protagonists. At times, such as in her books Beginner's Love (1982) and Breaking Up (1980), open sexuality is presented with an honest male perspective and in this way are "male romances". Scenes of sexuality are more awkward and humorous in an honest way than they are titillating or sexy. Throughout the 1980's her books often offered a male point of view.

Her novels were also unusual because they often involved parents as characters in the plot which is somewhat unusual for realistic young adult fiction from this period. It works though, because the adults in Klein's novels are often divorced and have personal/dating lives of their own. Most of Klein's books straddle the line between YA and Adult fiction. They are unusual romance novels because her characters are always more experienced (if not in sex, than in life) than you might have imagined. But perhaps their bluntness would ring true-to-life for many native New Yorkers. Still, several of her books about teens were not marketed towards a teen audience because of the "mature" subject matter. One example would be That's My Baby (1988) about a teenage boy's love affair with a married woman. The character in this book is an aspiring playwright who writes a play called Just Friends. The plot of this story within the story is similar to Klein's last YA novel Just Friends (published posthumously in 1990). One reviewer referred to Just Friends as a teenage version of the Billy Crystal movie When Harry Met Sally.

The amount of books Klein had published in such a short period of time is staggering, considering she was not a series author. She published between two and three books a year between 1972 and 1990 (shed died in 1989 at age 50). Her first book, and one of her most popular titles for younger readers, was Mom, the Wolfman and Me (1972). It's an account of an eleven-year-old girl describing her single mother and her dating life. The book was adapted into a 1980 tv movie which featured Patty Duke as the mother. Other adaptations included Young Love, First Love (1979), a made-for-tv movie starring a teenage Valerie Bertinelli. Klein also did several novelizations of screenplays including the popular Sunshine.

I must admit that Klein's books never had a strong appeal to me as a teenager; her teens always seemed too sophisticated for me at the time. Now that I am older and love films such as Noah Baumbach's The Squid In The Whale, I see Klein's work fitting into that cannon of witty honest fiction created by native New Yorkers. There is even a hint of Woody Allen in her work which might come from the fact that her father was a psychoanalyst and she grew up in a liberal New York Jewish household.
I've been discovering most of her books for the first time and enjoying the ones I can find. But it's become a bit of a challenge. While she wrote over 45 books, few can be found in the stacks of public libraries today. Which makes me wonder about out of print books. Is quality no longer a consideration when discarding books? Or are libraries simply becoming a place to read for free the same books that are available at Border's (soon to be defunct) and Barnes and Noble? Why are novels not revered and resurrected in the same way that old films are brought back to life via DVD?

As books move more to an electronic platform, it's important to reevaluate the rewards of print and to discover authors from the past whose work, while still relevant, will lack the chance for an audience in a digital age. While I have discovered some books through blogs such as my own, the library will always hold a special place in my heart as a place for discovery. It seems that the trend for YA fiction is to keep it current. Anything with a cover that does not look "modern" is assumed to be no longer of interest to teens and librarians get rid of it. I suppose this is understandable, if it's not circulating. But I think the main thing here is not the content of the book itself, but the way it "looks" within the library. IE: old and outdated (usually by the cover art).

It seems that there are very few (if any) publishers reprinting classic YA fiction (with the works of SE Hinton and Lois Duncan being a couple of exceptions). Maybe if someone did, the books would be both more attractive and henceforth valued by a new generation of readers. Both Children's and Adult books have their classics. The time has come for teen fiction to be respected in the same manner.

Current favorites include: Ange Face by Norma Klein.
And I just read her book Older Men, an interesting psychological portrait.


  1. You highlight some very interesting points.

    Publishers are always 'revamping' books, trying to make the content and design appeal to 'today's' taste...looking outdated is a death sentence.Everyone is trying to look 'current'!

    That could be why reprinting the books you feature on this blog is avoided by mainstream publishers. They know they cant just slap on a funky cover and sell them like the rest. You'd be confusing the reader who does not appreciate the context of the writing. Like putting a 'chick-lit' cover on 'Anne of Green Gables' or 'Little Women'.

    Coming up with newer, flashier covers wont sell the books on this blog either, as the content,lingo,setting etc is very time-specific. So they are termed 'dated' and unmarketable, nonprofitable = worthless.

    In the world of literature (fashion and film -like the DVDs you mentioned- are kinder towards appreciation of the 60's,70's,80's aesthetic) the content of YA on this blog is too new to be deemed classic , but too old to appeal *existing* audiences.

    Perhaps the solution is to attract new, appreciative audiences.I'm guessing mature readers , historians, teachers/lecturers (their students) and curious young people.

    It's a service too.Time (and trends) are accelerating so fast, keeping up with styles,'what's-in' is exhausting.Perhaps a step back into observing a slower paced age would be liberating, even a very welcome mental relief.

    If these books are brought back, whoever does so should care enough to bring them back with dignity, as close as possible to the way they were back then. Then you'd be offering the reader an authentic experience and a context to the different vibes,terms,technology of an era.It would be making a statement.Dated is not worthless.

    The personal, intimate situations and relationship issues of the YA novels (such things will always have a universal appeal) also offer the emotional hook to entice stepping into the shoes, thoughts, emotions of another person living in another time.

    People have a choice of genres, why not time eras(into the time frame mentioned above).. in a way most convenient, not expensive ,non digital, - reading, away from the screen.

    Woah, when did this comment become an essay. Must be the fasting.

  2. One of her books has been reissued: