After 28 years and 28 novels, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor is wrapping up her series starring Alice McKinley with Now I’ll Tell You Everything, due from Atheneum on October 15. The author, whose 135-book oeuvre includes the 1992 Newbery Medal-winning Shiloh, introduced Alice in 1985 as an easily embarrassed adolescent growing up without a mother in The Agony of Alice. The series, which has 2.5 million copies in print, subsequently followed Alice through the years, a few months at a time, until the summer after high school graduation. The grand finale brings her to college graduation and well beyond – to the age of 60.
Naylor, who sold The Agony of Alice to the late Jean Karl at Atheneum (who had previously edited Naylor’s Witch series), didn’t initially envision the novel as the first in a series. “That was not in my head at all at the start,” she told PW. “I began thinking about embarrassing things that happened to me during my life – tell me a year and I can tell you something embarrassing that happened – and I thought that might make a funny story. And then when the book was published, reviewers began mentioning that Alice’s fans will await her further adventures, and that’s when we decided on making a series.”
The author was insistent on having her character age as the series progressed. “I wanted Alice to grow up, so I would have a challenge as a writer,” she said. “I didn’t want to be stuck in the same sitcom. Of course Alice changed, and not everyone liked it as she became more sophisticated. But I knew, once I made up my mind that I was going to carry her through the years, I had to be true to her. Once she became a real person in my head, I was determined to let her lead her own life. She directed the way she wanted to go.”
When Naylor learned that younger girls than anticipated were reading their older sisters’ copies of Alice books, she decided to pen a prequel about a younger Alice. That novel, Starting with Alice, was released in 2002, and two others followed: Alice in Blunderland (2003) and Lovingly Alice (2004); Atheneum reissued all three in paperback in fall 2012. In addition, the publisher has released four three-book Alice bind-ups, most recently, You and Me and the Space in Between, which pubbed last May.
Over the years, Naylor’s fans have provided her with abundant material for the Alice novels. “I’ve used the stories, of course disguised, from so many readers who have written to me,” she said. “They’ve written about the death of a friend, about a parent having an affair, about body image issues. And I’ve also heard from girls who say that after reading my books, they feel so much better about themselves. So it has worked both ways, with me helping them as well as them helping me.”
The Final Alice
In her afterword to Now I’ll Tell You Everything, Naylor noted, “Somewhere along the way, I recklessly promised fans 28 books – a book a year until Alice was 60 and I was 80.” To ensure that the series would have a proper wrap-up, the author some years ago wrote a draft of the final novel, which was originally entitled Always Alice, and placed it in a fireproof box for safekeeping. The scope of that initial story was expanded considerably, largely thanks to the input of Atheneum v-p and editorial director Caitlyn Dlouhy, who has been editing the Alice series for 14 years.
“Caitlyn told me that the novel read sort of like an outline, just catching up with the characters,” Naylor recalled. “She told me she wanted more stories, more scenes. She kept saying that I had to have this, and had to have that in the book – she wanted to learn more about Alice’s college friends, for instance. So I said, ‘OK, if there’s not the same length limit here, I will write about Alice’s marriage, children, and grandchildren. This will be the complete Alice story.’ ”
Dlouhy is pleased with how the final book turned out, but is sorry to bid adieu to Alice. “The novel clocks in at more than 500 pages and is so good,” she said. “I think it’s remarkable how Phyllis is still able to draw on her inner teenager and keep every one of her books, including this last one, so fresh and timeless. Alice represents every girl. I can get teary thinking about all the letters we get about how the Alice books have helped readers find a solution to small issues or truly terrifying situations – or to seek help. I wish I had had these books when I was a young teenager, and I’m so glad they will be here for my daughters, who are now seven and 11. But I’m sure going to miss re-meeting Alice every spring when Phyllis’s manuscripts would come in.”
To promote Now I’ll Tell You Everything, Atheneum is creating an Alice McKinley Facebook page, scheduled to debut at summer’s end. Naylor will embark on a national tour, which will kick off on October 15 at the Takoma Park Maryland Library, home turf for the Gaithersburg author. The library is hosting Naylor’s visit in conjunction with Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C.
Helping coordinate the event is Karen MacPherson, Takoma Park’s children’s and teen librarian. MacPherson is a longtime fan of the Alice series, calling the books “timeless, yet up-to-date.” She added, “I think readers really see themselves in Alice and her friends, and the books often answer questions that kids don’t feel comfortable asking anyone. The novels still ring very true after all these years, and I look forward to giving the new book to my 22-year-old daughter, who read the earlier books when she was younger.”
At Politics and Prose, children’s and teen buyer Mary Alice Garber expects that Now I’ll Tell You Everything will have a crossover audience, and that the library event “may well have some 20-somethings attending as well as younger readers.” She noted that her store “consistently keeps a nice number of all of the Alice books on hand, and has moved them from the elementary section to the middle school and young teen section to keep in step with the subject matter as Alice has grown up. Likely the new book will be in the ‘PG-15’ section.”
More than two months before pub date, Naylor said that she has already received letters from readers in their 20s and 30s who grew up with her series, “and can’t wait to see how Alice handles the rest of her life.”
One missive especially touched her. “I got a letter from a young woman who told me that she talks so often to her boyfriend about the Alice books that she got home from work one day and there were rose petals strewn from the front door to the bookshelf,” Naylor said. “There she found a complete set of Alice books. He had bought every novel she didn’t already have. And so many people write to say how much my books have meant to them and now they are reading them to their daughters. It makes me feel old, but it definitely is gratifying!”
Now I’ll Tell You Everything by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. Atheneum, $17.99 Oct. ISBN 978-1-4424-4590-1