I thought I’d repost something I posted on the YA Outside the Lines blog I contribute to (it seems apropro considering the conversation around letting teens read what they’re interested in reading). Thanks, mom and dad, for never keeping any of Norma Klein’s books out of my hands.
There is one author I read growing up that I still read. Not because she continues to write (she died over 20 years ago). Or because she wrote books that were critically acclaimed (although she is ranked at #76 on the American Library Association’s list of most challenged books for 1990-1999). Most of the time when I mention her name the person I’m talking to asks, “Who’s that?”
This author didn’t simply shape me as a reader or a writer. I truly believe she shaped me as a person. Which is why I ordered a bunch of her out-of-print books on Amazon so I can still crack their spines and read her amazing stories of girls that I totally related to. I also bought those books so I can give them to my daughter one day and she hopefully will love them as much as I do. My inspiration as a teen girl growing up, and as a writer today, is Norma Klein.
I had no idea that Norma Klein’s books were controversial (although I did know that they had single parents, parents living with lovers, mothers who revealed they were lesbians, teenaged sex, abortions, inappropriate relationships and characters who smoked pot and drank – she wrote in the late 70s and 80s so the drinking age was only 18 back then).
They also had teenaged girls who were high achievers making honor roll, applying to the Ivy League and getting summer internships at research labs because they loved science. I devoured Norma’s books, and her characters, because they felt so real. Nothing was sugar coated. Girls had boyfriends who were great, nice guys, and they cheated on those nice boys. Her characters were smart. They made dumb mistakes. Their parents were adults who were also just people. Actions had consequences and life always didn’t end up like they expected.
I want my books to be just like Norma’s – a reflection of real life. That means sometimes teenaged girls have sex (and it doesn’t mean they’re sluts). Sometimes they drink (my editor questioned my decision to have my characters in RICH BOYS drinking a six pack on the beach – they were underage – and I insisted the scene stay in exactly as it was). Parents sometimes make mistakes and sometimes even with the best intentions things go wrong. I recently read a review of my book THB BOOK OF LUKE and the reviewer (a mother) titled the review DO NOT BUY: PARENTS BE WARNED!!!! She thought the content was inappropriate for teens because the character has sex. She wanted to protect her child from harmful “vices” (her exact words). While that’s her right as a parent, I can’t imagine not recognizing that teenagers are people, too. They don’t all act the same way, but that’s the fun of writing. Creating a character who thinks and acts for herself.
A few years ago I was visiting with Judy Blume at her home on Martha’s Vineyard (my book, the anthology I NEEDED TO KNOW ABOUT BEING A GIRL I LEARNED FROM JUDY BLUME, had just come out). We were talking about a bunch of stuff and I happened to mention that I loved and devoured Norma Klein’s books growing up. I said that I wish I’d had a chance to meet Norma and tell her how much she affected me. Judy responded by telling me that she was very good friends with Norma Klein, and I sat there while she told me all about Norma, the woman and the writer. It was wonderful.
Recently I was re-reading (for the hundredth time) Norma’s book IT’S OKAY IF YOU DON’T LOVE ME (one of my favs). It was sitting on the desk in our kitchen and my husband picked it up and opened to a chapter. He read a few pages and turned to me. “Oh my god,” he said, “Now I know why you like these books – they’re about you, you’re the character in this book, you’re exactly like her!”
And that’s exactly how I felt growing up. As a writer and a person, she was able to capture exactly what real life is like. It’s not always pretty, but it’s always honest. And that’s why Norma Klein remains such an inspiration to me.