Alice McKinley may be having the longest adolescence on record. She entered sixth grade 17 years ago, but she finished ninth grade only last spring. The heroine of 15 books by Newbery Medalist Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, Alice is even more popular today than when she first appeared, in The Agony of Alice (S&S, 1985). More than half a million copies of the Alice books are in print and, with a prequel series debuting this fall and a new design sprucing up all the titles, it seems as if the audience for Alice just continues to expand.
Why do readers and critics love Alice, and how does Naylor—who writes as many as four books a year in addition to her Alice novels—keep the Alice books fresh?
The story of Alice's evolution offers clues. Naylor told PW she originally set out to write about a girl in search of a role model. Like most girls, the author in her youth viewed grown women as potential role models, especially because her own mother was self-effacing. "Much as I loved my mother," the author said with what appears to be characteristic candor, "I didn't see her as a person I wanted to be." Alice's need to search is more obvious than was Naylor's, because Alice's mother has died, well before the series opens. Naylor gave Alice a brother who is eight years older, along with a down-to-earth, sensitive dad, and in the motherless household she saw opportunity for poignancy—and humor. Who is Alice to talk to about matters of burning importance—in other words, sex, with its infinite hold on adolescent curiosity—if not these two men?
The chemistry worked. Naylor had not intended to start a series with The Agony of Alice, but the novel garnered reviews ending with lines like "fans will want to see Alice's next adventures" and kids began writing to Naylor with questions about Alice. "I figured I had to have a series," she said cheerfully.
Naylor slowed down Alice's development to accommodate a series approach. Where Agony spans an academic year, subsequent Alice titles cover only three months each. Naylor plans to write 28 books in all, following Alice through high school; in the series finale, Alice will go from age 18 to age 60.
Despite the entreaties of Alice fans for more frequent installments, Naylor is bringing out one Alice title per year, in the spring. But enthusiasts—who include adult women along with young readers—will be gratified to know that Naylor has already written the ending. "I consider where I am in life," said Naylor, who was born in 1933. "I still have 14 [Alice] books left, and who knows what will happen in the next 14 years? The readers want so passionately to know who Alice marries and whether she has kids, and so on, that I wrote the last book. It's in a firesafe box with a letter to my sons, saying that if anything happens to me, would they please have Atheneum publish it."
Having settled Alice's future, Naylor has also pinned down Alice's pre-Agony past. With the publication of Starting with Alice (S&S/Atheneum, Sept.), Naylor backs up Alice to age eight, in the first of three planned prequels. "Librarians kept saying, 'Girls are going on and on about Alice, and their little sisters want to read it, too,' " Naylor said. So she tailored a story line and writing style for younger readers, and chose third grade as the new starting point for Alice and her audience, "because kids aren't reading that well before third grade." Each prequel will cover one year; the next two are scheduled to appear in September 2003 and September 2004.
Naylor's commitment to readers extends unusually far. As she recalls, Rick Richter, then president of Simon & Schuster's children's division, suggested that a separate Alice section be built on the house's Web site (www.SimonSaysKids.com). The site goes beyond the expected FAQs, jacket covers and author statements—on it, Naylor writes friendly general letters, answers e-mails and solicits input from readers (e.g., she recently asked them to describe their jobs and volunteer work, with the stated purpose of finding ways for Alice and her friends to spend their school vacations). Naylor estimates that she receives 40 letters a day via the Web site, and she spends an hour a day replying to them.
Alice devotees have become a resource for Naylor. "If I can't remember a detail [from a previous book]," she said, "I post a question, and there's usually a reply within 24 hours." Alice fans take turns supplying a trivia quiz for the site (Naylor admits she usually misses a couple of the 12 questions).
Among the comments Naylor consistently hears from readers is "Alice is so real" or "This is my life." JoAnn Fruchtman, owner of The Children's Bookstore in Baltimore, can testify to that. Customers regularly patrol her store for new Alice releases; among them are one mother and daughter who have made a tradition of reading the Alice books (and no others) aloud to each other. "Alice has become a part of [readers'] lives, almost an institution," Fruchtman said. "The books are very realistic, and the humor is a big part of it." She thinks Naylor's healthy, informative approach to girls' questions is "psychologically a good thing."
Alice in the Flesh
But the frankness that attracts readers can dismay some adults, and the Alice series ranks seventh on the American Library Association's list of the most-challenged books of 2001 ("Schools in Webb City, Mo., ban three books on sexual development," read an Aug. 18, 2002, headline in the St. Louis [Mo.] Post-Dispatch, referring to Alice titles).
Pat Scales, director of library services at the South Carolina Governor School for the Arts and Humanities and a member of the ALA's committee on intellectual freedom, believes that would-be censors often react to isolated passages, usually dealing with sexual curiosity. "I don't think they read the books. If they read the books, they would see it as the whole adolescent experience," she offered. "[In the books] you really do watch a girl come of age, and that's what appeals to the kids. It's parents who don't want to face the fact that a young girl is thinking about [sex]. These are people who probably would have objected to [Judy Blume's] Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret."
About two years ago, Lee Wade, v-p and creative director of S&S Children's Publishing, decided that the up-to-date content of the books needed an up-to-date presentation to match, and she had the series redesigned. It wasn't the first time—"It's incredible how many times people have tried to repackage Alice," Wade said. She and art director Debbie Sfetsios decided on a photographic approach to the jackets. "We felt it would be fresher and might help girls relate to her better."
To find their Alice, they combed modeling agencies and looked at about 30 girls. "But when [the girl we chose] walked into our office," Wade said, "everyone knew that she was Alice. It was even more than how she looked. She had this enthusiasm and vitality." They struck it lucky on the prequel covers as well: they saw only three models before finding a young "Alice" who matched the older "Alice's" appearance and sparkle.
Earlier this year, Wade and her colleagues were ready to shoot images for forthcoming titles for the regular series (and to redo the most recent installment, Simply Alice, after readers complained the girl on the cover looked too young). The problem they encountered was easily overcome: in the intervening two years, the original model had stopped working, but she happily came out of retirement to incarnate Alice again. She's read the series—and she's a fan.
Perhaps readers love Alice because the author so clearly loves her as well. "I didn't have a daughter," said Naylor, who has two adult sons. But when, in preparation for an Alice novel, she registered for the parental portion of a church-sponsored sex education program for high school seniors, she listed Alice as her child. "These novels are a way for me to bring up a daughter," she explained. And maybe, she added, her motherly regard for Alice helps explain why she has already written the last book. "I want to see her grow up, too."