Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, closing the book on ‘Alice’
Phyllis Reynolds Naylors Alice series has spanned nearly 30 years and 30 titles; she is perhaps best known for the Shiloh trilogy about a boy and his beagle. Illustrates BOOKS-NAYLOR (category e), by Monica Hesse (c) 2013, The Washington Post. Moved Monday, October 14, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post.)
Phyllis Reynolds Naylor is wrapping up her often-banned, nearly 30-year chronicle about an average girl named Alice and her awkward childhood. Illustrates BOOKS-NAYLOR (category e), by Monica Hesse (c) 2013, The Washington Post. Moved Monday, October 14, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Linda Davidson.)
Phyllis Reynolds Naylor is wrapping up her often-banned, nearly 30-year chronicle about an average girl named Alice and her awkward childhood.
The author whose works have been banned more than any other writer this past decade – more, even, than witchy J.K. Rowling – lives in a Methodist retirement community in Gaithersburg, Md., and makes dreamy blueberry muffins.
“Butter?” Phyllis Reynolds Naylor offers, putting a fresh stick on a small saucer. “Tea?”
The books in question are the Alice series, which, over the course of nearly 30 years and 30 titles, has dealt with menstruation, masturbation and the maturation, physical and emotional, of an average girl growing up in Silver Spring, Md. These are white-knuckle topics for parents, which helps explain how Naylor has landed on the American Library Association’s top 10 list of banned books so many times.
On this morning, she settles into the kitchen table – her formal dining room has been converted into a writing space – and considers why some people oppose her books. “I think the fear is that the child is going to come to them and ask them questions that feel too personal,” she speculates. “It’s not that their child’s not ready. It’s that they’re not ready. I’ve had a lot of, lot of letters from people saying, ‘Oh, my daughter doesn’t even know about that,’ and I can only think, ha-ha.”
She received one letter that opened with “HOW DARE YOU?” The mom explained that she’d been planning, on her daughter’s 11th birthday, to sit down with the Bible and explain how sex was part of God’s plan to populate the Earth. Instead, her 10-year-old had checked out Lovingly Alice, in which the protagonist figures out how babies are made.
“I was telling this to Judy Blume,” says Naylor. “And she said I should have asked the mom, ‘What were you waiting for? Why is 11 the magic number?’ ”
Why is Naylor, a grandmother from Indiana, an oracle for teenagehood – the creator of the painfully normal and blissfully awkward Alice McKinley? What will the fans do now that it’s all coming to an end? Katniss Everdeen’s bow and arrow are all well and good, but sometimes you just want a heroine whose current problem is heartbreak and a tragic haircut. You know?
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Naylor is 80, with gray curly hair, crinkly eyes and a warm-flannel voice. She is wildly prolific, having written 140 books, and is best known for the Shiloh trilogy – the first in the series won a Newbery in 1991 – about a boy and his beagle. But since 1985, six months of every year have been dedicated to the trials and humiliations of Alice, a motherless girl raised by an unflappable dad and brother.
In The Agony of Alice, she’s a sixth-grader longing for a beautiful teacher to befriend her. In Alice in Rapture, Sort Of, she’s entering seventh grade, wondering whether there is an earthly embarrassment greater than a boy stealing your new push-up bra.
In Alice Alone, Simply Alice, Patiently Alice and Including Alice, she goes to high school, gets a stepmom, accidentally invites a group of prostitutes to Thanksgiving and suffers through the outrageous indignities of daily life.
And now, after books that have spanned Alice’s life from ages 8 to 18, the final Alice McKinley book was released Tuesday. Naylor kicked off her farewell tour with an evening reading at a library in Maryland. Finis, Alice-lovers. Prepare your Kleenex.
Now I’ll Tell You Everything follows Alice all the way to her 60th birthday, moving through college at the University of Maryland, relationships, jobs, children. Does she end up with Patrick, the on-off boyfriend whose hormonal pawing gave helicopter parents periodic aneurysms over the years? What becomes of prudish Elizabeth and saucy Pamela, of Mr. McKinley’s music shop?
“I don’t even know how many wedding gowns are in that book,” says Naylor, since she tried to wrap up even minor characters’ story lines over the course of 500 pages.
“I finally asked a neighbor who is very into fashion if she would design all of the wedding gowns,” because Naylor couldn’t keep track of them all.
With the publication of Now I’ll Tell You Everything, Naylor will also release an online version of the Alice Bible, which she and her publisher first created to keep track of the ever-expanding Alice-verse: classmates, ear piercings, vacations, kisses.
Naylor’s universe is not Alice’s universe, no matter how much readers would like it to be. Some of the inspiration through the years has been personal – Alice tripping on the stairs at school and wetting her pants in ninth grade? It happened to Naylor’s mother in 1914 – but Naylor grew up in Indiana, not Maryland, moving east only as an adult.
Her first husband suffered from paranoid schizophrenia; she was seeking treatment for him at a mental hospital in Rockville. Their relationship later became the basis for her memoir Crazy Love, and they eventually divorced. Naylor met her second husband through church. She and Rex were married more than 50 years and had two sons.
No daughters. Just Alice. “The fact that Phyllis could write a series in which her main character went from childhood to adulthood over time – and in each book was fully realized at that particular stage of her life – shows her depth and talent as a writer,” says Edie Ching, a children’s literature specialist and instructor at the University of Maryland.
Most long-running protagonists – say, Nancy Drew – remain frozen in time. The Baby-Sitters Club series contains 130-odd books, but the characters never graduate from middle school.
But Alice McKinley grows up, four months every book, her issues gaining more complexity with each passing birthday. Some 2.5 million copies are in circulation, the early half of the series shelved in the children’s section, and the later books in the young adults’ department.
A generation of kids grew up with Alice; a generation returned to the books long after they’d aged out of them to see what happened to her. The books are really – and here, we will slip out of our authorial voice and into a fanatic’s gush – they’re really quite extraordinary.
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“I always wanted to write about an ordinary girl,” Naylor says in the interview at her house. “Alice has no special talents.” She can’t sing, she’s not the prettiest, or the smartest, or the friendliest, or the strongest. “I always saw her very much as a homebody.”
Over the years, fans would write Naylor with suggestions: Give Alice a dog, a car, diabetes, an abortion. Send her to a desert island, have her grow up to be a movie star. Naylor always resisted the glamorous ideas.
“I just kept asking, ‘What Would Alice Do?’ Sometimes I felt like wearing a bracelet – WWAD. She didn’t always do what I wanted her to do,” but Naylor knew she had to be true to the personality she had created, book after book and year after year.
“She has always been more prolific than I, something I admire, and very disciplined (I am less so),” Lois Lowry, a two-time Newbery medalist and longtime friend of Naylor’s, said via email. “I remember she stayed at my home in Boston once. . . . I think she was there for a speaking engagement . . . and early in the morning I looked out an upstairs window and there was Phyllis, out in my back yard, with a yellow legal pad . . . working.”
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“You’re probably going to ask if I’m sad the series is ending,” Naylor says, back at her kitchen table.
Of course we were.
The end of the Alice series is the end of the longest-running professional relationship of Naylor’s life, and she is a bit sad about it. But she’s also looking forward to the free time, which will allow for new creations of new characters, dealing with the new problems of this decade.
Like: “I hate cell phones. I hate what they’ve done to fiction. Think about it – every time you want a child to be in a dangerous or scary situation, and have to work it out for himself, there’s that damn cell phone.”
She is forced to come up with endless workarounds: The cell phone was forgotten, is out of batteries, has no reception. “I’m working on a book set in a cave now, and I’m just so delighted.”
It’s not really over for Alice, though. The fan mail will continue to pour in, probably for years after Now I’ll Tell You Everything is released.
New fans, old embarrassments, the eternal agony of childhood.