It wasn’t always this way. It used to be that when you were a teenager, after you’d read your way through CHARLOTTE’S WEB and BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA and THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA and you were ready for books that weren’t sold in the kids section of the bookstore, you headed right for your favorite part of the “grown-up” section. Romance, science fiction, mystery, horror…there were whole new worlds waiting for you on those shelves, worlds rich with full-on terror or steamy love scenes or apocalyptic disaster needing to be escaped. Books you sometimes had to hide from your mom. I still remember being so thrillingly terrified of Stephen King’s SALEM’S LOT that I couldn’t sleep in the same room with the book, for which I was told that fear was what I got for reading books that were too old for me.
My, how times have changed. These days it’s the adults who are heading for the teen section of the bookstore like bees to honey, and for good reason. While there are (of course) still countless mesmerizing books to be found on the adult shelves (who could put down Michael Crichton’s MICRO, even for a second?), the books being written for young adults these days are captivating a whole lot of twenty to ninety-somethings right along with the teenagers. From the ravaged dystopian world of DIVERGENT to the heartwrenching love story of DELIRIUM, the heads you see buried in teen fiction these days have as many gray hairs as they do pink streaks. When I brought home an early reading copy of THE POWER OF SIX by the mysterious Pittacus Lore, it provoked a literal tug of war between my teenage daughter and my husband. (She won, but he hovered over her relentlessly until she finished it and handed it over!)
So what’s going on here? The answer, plain and simple, is some spectacular writing. Complex. Rich. Uncensored. Daring. Provocative. Much like teenagers themselves, the authors behind teen books are pushing the envelope on stories and characters and deeply imagined worlds that stretch from love stories set in blasted dystopian landscapes, to techno-thrillers where the fate of the world lies in teenage hands, to achingly realistic dramas that zap you right back to being sixteen and both utterly terrified and stubbornly fearless all at the same time. Authors like Melissa Marr, Lauren Oliver, Veronica Roth and Sara Shepherd don’t write for teenagers. They just write. They pour it out on the page without holding back, and the fact that their main characters are adolescents is just one element of their can’t put ‘em down stories. A great book is a great book…and the teen section is packed with them - it just took us older folks a little more time to figure that out. But now that we have, there’s finally something that parents and their teenage kids can agree on.
Now if only we could all figure out a peaceful way to discuss what is and isn’t a reasonable curfew, we’d be all set!
“Roy Acuff had triggered our love for country music. He was, of all things, true to his music. But, still, maybe we could do some of them a little better.”
Even at sixteen and thirteen-years old, respectively, the Louvin Brothers knew they could do them. From Sacred Harp renditions of “Mary of the Wild Moor,” bleeding cotton pickers’ hands, their papa’s beatings and their mama’s sweet potato cobbler, Charlie and Ira Loudermilk became one of the most revered harmony duos in gospel country—the Louvin Brothers. Satan Is Real, written by Charlie with Benjamin Whitmer, chronicles a boozy, boisterous ascent from Southern Appalachia — Sand Mountain, Alabama — to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.
With the elder Ira on the mandolin, Charlie on the guitar, and no formal training (they opted for candy and cigarettes with the money their father set aside for Fa So Da Ti Do), the Loudermilk boys became the Louvin Brothers, a gospel duo known for their baffling knack for switching harmonies in the middle of a song—“We could change in the middle of a word… what we could do was that we’d learned to have a good ear for other people’s voices when we sang Sacred Harp. But the other part is that we were brothers.” Never having learned to read music, the brothers would go on to build their extensive discography with ears perked for melodies and a wire recorder at the ready. (Hank Williams also employed this method.)
The biography is written in an idiom-laden Dixie lingo (personal favorites: “like a fly in the buttermilk” and “fourteen-carat asshole”)—blunt and unapologetic, Charlie takes readers from a Depression-era sharecropper’s life through the triumphs and troughs of a touring life with a boozing, mandolin-breaking Ira.
The bulk of the book is swashed in cameos from country legends like Smilin’ Eddie Hill, George Jones, Little Jimmy Dickens, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson (who wrote the introduction to the book)—all of whom have covered Louvin Brothers’ tracks. Their songs continue to be covered by contemporary bluegrass musicians—mandolinist Chris Thile (The Punch Brothers) and guitarist Michael Daves do a stellar rendition of “She’s Running Wild.”
In 1956, at the height of their popularity, the Louvins toured with a pre-phenomenon Presley. Charlie writes that “Elvis was a true honest-to-God Louvin Brothers fan, and so was his mother.” Of course, the Louvin’s success as a country gospel duo teetered with Presley’s brand of rock n’ roll and then tottered when a drunk Ira made a racist jab at the King of Rock. Colonel Parker subsequently halted all plans for Elvis to record Louvin songs.
The packaging of the book mirrors the Satan Is Real (Capitol 1959) album cover—the sixteen-foot plywood Satan was Ira’s DIY project, set in a rock quarry near Charlie’s home. The Louvins set tires on fire, buttoned their white Nudie suits and clicked and captured the religious fervor (and fear) of evangelical America. (Today, an original Satan is Real vinyl runs about $500.)
The lures of the unheavenly and the wrath of the omniscient are leitmotifs threaded through the Louvins’ most famous songs—the notion of a doomsday overwhelms much of their discography and becomes startling when you connect it to the brothers’ upbringing at the hands of their unforgiving, vengeful father. Or as Charlie succinctly describes, “When you were dealing with Papa, you were dealing with something inevitable.”
In 1963, two years after Ira was “washed away in whiskey” and the Louvin Brothers formally broke up, a drunk driver killed the elder Louvin and his fourth wife in a head-on collision. In a final twist, the only unscathed item was Ira’s mandolin.
Six years before the onset of the Civil War, in 1855, the American poet Walt Whitman released a book of poetry that included work from the entire span of his career. Having labored over poems like “Song of Myself,” “I Sing the Body Electric” and “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” for much of his life, Whitman was finally ready to publish a full collection, tentatively titled simply Leaves of Grass. He brought the manuscript to a little shop on Fulton Street, owned by two friends who charged him a modest fee, and printed the book himself. He then sent a copy to his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, who sent him back a letter that said the book was “extraordinary.” The praise inspired him to seek out Thayer and Eldridge, a larger publisher in Boston. The company released a second edition with hundreds of additional poems. Over seven editions later, the poet declared the work — now considered one of the greatest books of poetry ever written —to be complete.
In honor of Walt Whitman’s life and work, here’s an excerpt from “Song of Myself:”
“Trippers and askers surround me, People I meet, the effect upon me of my early life or the ward and city I live in, or the nation, The latest dates, discoveries, inventions, societies, authors old and new, My dinner, dress, associates, looks, compliments, dues, The real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I love, The sickness of one of my folks or of myself, or ill-doing or loss or lack of money, or depressions or exaltations, Battles, the horrors of fratricidal war, the fever of doubtful news, the fitful events; These come to me days and nights and go from me again, But they are not the Me myself.”
In 2009, a year after the worst financial crisis since 1929 took a bite out of America’s income, the landscape of employment for young people and recent graduates looked a lot like a set-piece from a late-90’s disaster movie. On Craigslist, Idealist and other popular job boards, employers who posted open positions got hundreds of responses, many of them from people with decades of experience on their résumés. The climate turned the act of finding a job into something like auditioning for a musical. No matter how polished your cover letter or your credentials, the chances of standing out in the crowd of hopefuls were slim. So many people moved home as the months went by that it became a rite of passage. And if you wanted to work in publishing, as I did, you wondered if the downturn was permanent.
The rise of new media platforms played a big role in stoking this fear. In the years leading up to the crisis, many people, in part due to the ease of downloading new albums and TV shows, cut down on the number of books they read. When the crash hit, the issue took on a newfound urgency, forcing publishers to explore their options. They tackled difficult questions in lectures, meetings and other forums, ironing out copyright laws for e-books and other innovations. They wondered if readers with iPads wanted videos embedded in text. In conversations with authors and critics, they asked which novels still thrive in an age of distraction. And they talked about what to do on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr, where the world was spending much of its day.
When they did log on to social media networks, they discovered that readers were spreading word about the books they enjoyed. On Wordpress, Tumblr and other blog sites, they were posting lengthy articles. They were holding informal polls, some amongst their friends, some amongst many more people, to determine what to add to their reading lists. On the pages of new magazines and websites, they were publishing the writers they admired. They were making clear, in short, that literature as we know it is evolving, not dying. For publishers, they lit the way forward.
It’s a gift to be working with HarperCollins at a time when these changes are happening. Though it’s true that the industry still faces difficulties – not the least of which is the economy, which is still a long way from full employment – it’s also true that our era is bringing about some wonderful changes. In large part thanks to social media, we can talk with our readers like we never could before – and we can do it, to boot, with a speed unprecedented in history.
There’s a memory from my childhood that remains crystal clear: a very young me, sitting on the tiled floor of my local library (the Spuyten Duyvil branch of the NYPL in the Bronx), between wooden bookcases, reading Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson. It’s one of those books that I read over and over. There was something so magical about the thick purple lines he drew, and the limitlessness of imagination beyond the binding of the book that I held in my hands…
Ursula Nordstrom was the director of Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 to 1973. She has been credited with being the “single most creative force for innovation in children’s book publishing in the United States during the twentieth century.” Some of the classics Nordstrom edited include The Runaway Bunny, The Carrot Seed, Stuart Little, Goodnight Moon,Charlotte’s Web, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Where the Wild Things Are, Harriet the Spy, Little Bear, Bedtime for Frances, and The Giving Tree.
Asked by the Superintendent of Work with Children at the New York Public Library, Anne Carroll Moore, what qualified her to publish children’s books, she replied, “Well, I am a former child, and I haven’t forgotten a thing.”
She was known for testing the limits of children’s publishing, as she did with the quirky text inA Hole Is To Dig(which drew criticism for the line “A face is to make faces with”) and John Donovan’s I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth The Trip, the first young adult novel to include a reference to a homosexual experience. She later sparked controversy with In the Night Kitchenby Maurice Sendak, which included a depiction of a naked boy in the illustrations. She also published Call Me Charley, by Jesse Jackson, in 1945, one of the first young adult books to address racial tensions and controversy in American life from the perspective of an African-American.
She was also known for her publishing innovations, including the introduction of the I Can Read Books series, which launched in 1957 with Little Bear, a picture book written by Else Holmelund Minarik and illustrated by Maurice Sendak. Since then, the series has sold millions of books — and since its recent launch on the iBookstore and NOOK Bookstore in June 2011, it’s also had hundreds of thousands of downloads.
Her policy was that no author, writer or artist who wished to present their ideas to her would be turned away. She often sealed a deal for a contract without ever seeing a written piece of work, and her dedication to her authors often paid off in referrals of new authors. Many of the authors we associate today with HarperCollins came to the house via Nordstrom, including Clement Hurd, Ruth Krauss, M.E. Kerr, Shel Silverstein, and Mary Rodgers.
Nordstrom began at Harper & Brothers in 1931 as a clerk in the College Textbook Department. In 1936 she became an editorial assistant to Ida Louise Raymond, then the Director of Harper Books for Boys and Girls. In 1940, she herself was appointed head of the department after Raymond’s departure. In 1954 Harper elected Ursula Nordstrom to the Board of Directors, and she became the first woman to reach this level in the firm. In 1960, she was named the first female Vice President at Harper. In 1973, Nordstrom stepped down as publisher, but continued to work as a senior editor with her own imprint, Ursula Nordstrom Books, until 1980. She was succeeded by her protégé, author Charlotte Zolotow, who began her career as Nordstrom’s stenographer.
By the time Nordstrom left the directorship of Harper Junior Books, after 33 years, the staff had grown from 3 to 40 and had, under her directorship, achieved the “highest profit percentage of any in this House.” Nordstrom herself wrote a single book, The Secret Language.