LEARNING ABOUT M. E. KERR

Compiled by Tamora Francis, Patricia McHugh with Kay E. Vandergrift in Young Adult Literature



"In my books for young adults, I updated everything that happened to me in my teens, to make my stories more contemporary, probably not trusting the idea I could interest today's kids in yesterday's happenings. I knew I could interest today's kids in yesterday's kids, because they' re the same kids..." From Me Me Me Me Me: Not a Novel by M.E. Kerr

BIOGRAPHY

M.E. Kerr was born on May 27, 1927 as Marijane Agnes Meaker in Auburn, NY to Ellis R. (a mayonnaise manufacturer) and Ida T. Meaker. She received a B.A. from the University of Missouri in 1949, after which she briefly worked as an assistant clerk for the publishing firm of D.P. Dutton. Her interest in freelance writing also began at this time. During her prolific writing career she has published under the pseudonyms of M.E.Kerr, Ann Aldrich, Mary James and Vin Packer. At present she is a member of PEN, Authors League of America and Society of Children's Book Writers. M.E. Kerr is the winner of the 1993 Margaret Edwards Award for her lifetime achievement in writing books for young adults. The following is a brief autobiographical sketch of the author.

"I was born in Auburn, New York. From the time I was a small child I was aware of a man in our town called Samuel Hopkins Adams. I had never met him, but I knew one thing about him that made me fascinated by him. He was a writer. He was the only writer in our area. I can' t even remember when I first became aware of the notion I wanted to be a writer. It seems that I always did. My father was an ardent reader of everything. Our living room was lined with bookcases. I was always borrowing books from them to take up to my room and devour. Anything about writing or writers interested me. I romanticized them as other children did movie stars or royalty. The idea of pseudonyms fascinated me too... the idea that you could invent an entirely new name for yourself and use it as your name when you wrote. I'd always hated the name Marijane. I attended Stuart Hall in Staunton, Virginia. I was an unruly, rebellious child - a troublemaker with low marks. I was suspended in my senior year for throwing darts at a dartboard decorated with the pictures of faculty members cut out of an old yearbook. My mother's pleas to the bishop (it was an Episcopal school) got me reinstated long enough to graduate.

I went to the University of Missouri, thinking I would study journalism. I switched plans and studied English literature. I was always writing and submitting my work to magazines. I had many, many rejection slips. But I was right to have switched from journalism. I would have made a bad reporter of any kind. I was more suited to fiction. I lived in fantasy. My grades were always bad. I daydreamed and read and partied. I was a member of a sorority but I liked less conforming friends. I fell in love with a Hungarian boy and hung around with other would-be writers --a motley crew-- and dreamed of going to New York, where all the publishing houses were. I did just that. For a while I was some kind of assistant to the assistant file clerk at E.P. Dutton. I didn' t know shorthand and I was a self-taught typist. These skills were all but essential in 1950 for a young girl career. Again - I was always sending out stories. I sold my first short story to Ladies Home Journal. I thought I received a check for eighty-five dollars. I was delighted when one of my roommates came home and pointed out it was for eight hundred and fifty dollars. I was more than delighted. I was in business as a free-lancer. That was 1951. In 1952 I published my first novel. I had a pseudonym: "Vin Packer." I wrote mystery and suspense - about twenty books under that name. Then as M.J. Meaker I wrote a book (nonfiction) about famous suicides, Sullen Endings, the inevitable book about one's hometown, Hometown, and on and on until as Marijane Meaker I wrote Shockproof Sydney Shate. The paperback sale provided enough money for me to experiment. The late Louise Fitzhugh was a dear friend. I 'd read Harriet the Spy and I decided to try a book for young adults. Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack! was the result. I live in East Hampton, New York. I read a lot. I love animals. I love writing, still. And other writers, still."

From: Fourth Book of Junior Authors and Illustrators,

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.
If I Love You, Am I Trapped Forever. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.
The Son of Someone Famous. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.
Is That You, Miss Blue? New York: Harper & Row, 1975.
Love Is a Missing Person. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.
I'll Love You When You' re More Like Me.New York: Harper & Row, 1977.
Gentlehands. New York: Harper & Row, 1978.
Little Little. New York: Harper & Row, 1981.
What I Really Think of You. New York: Harper & Row, 1982.
Me Me Me Me Me: Not a Novel. New York: Harper & Row, 1983.
Him She Loves? New York: Harper & Row, 1984.
I Stay Near You: One Story in Three. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.
Night Kites. New York: HarperCollins, 1986.
Fell. New York: HarperCollins, 1987.
M.E. Kerr Introduces Fell. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.
Fell Back. New York: HarperCollins, 1989.
Fell Down. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
Linger. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.
Deliver Us from Evie. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.

Written as Marijane Meeker

Sudden Endings. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964.
Hometown. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967.
Game of Survival. New York: New American Library, 1968.
Shockproof Sydney Skate. New York: Plume, 1990.

Written as Vin Parker

Whisper His Sin. New York: Fawcett, 1954.
The Thrill Kids. New York: Fawcett, 1955.
The Evil Friendship Greenwich, CT: Fawcett, 1958.
5:45 to Surburbia. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett, 1959.
Don't Rely on Gemini. New York: Delacorte, 1969.
The Girl on the Best Seller List. V.Packer, 1990.

Written as Ann Aldrich

We Two Won't Last. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett, 1963.

AWARDS

Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack
If I Love You, Am I Trapped Forever.
The Son of Someone Famous.
Is That You, Miss Blue?
I' ll Love You When You' re More Like Me.
Gentlehands.
Little Little.
What I Really Think of You.
Me Me Me Me Me: Not a Novel.
I Stay Near You.
Night Kites.
Fell.
Fell Back.
Fell Down.

REVIEWS AND CRITIQUES

GENTLEHANDS

"The author has magnificently depicted the clash of values, emphasizing the two families contrasting lifestyles and prejudices; Buddy's inarticulate father and his uneducated mother are particularly will portrayed. The boy's grief and confusion are understandable and his attempt to accept responsibility, as taught him by his grandfather, is admirable, but the book is seriously flawed by the abrupt and unbelievable transition of Grandpa Trenker from hero to villain." A.A. Flowers, Horn Book Vol. 54 (June 1978): 284.
"Miss Kerr's book is important and useful as an introduction to the grotesque character of the Nazi period, as well as to the paradoxes that exist in the heart of man. Her ear for youthful American speech is superb; her understanding of youthful feelings; and youth's occasional lack of them, is sure. If she fails to explain thoroughly the alarming enigma of Frank Trenker's double life, it is only because there is, finally, no explanation possible." Richard Bradford, New York Times Book Review (April 30, 1978): 30.
"Kerr doesn't let anybody off the hook: neither the 'rehabilitated' Trenker, the law-and-order Boyles, nor the crass Penningtons with their ingrained arrogance escape their share of scrutiny. Kerr carries it all off without her usual stream of one-liners but with her sense of irony intact: the final twist is that in testifying against Trenker (an act that occurs off-stage and without fanfare) Buddy is actually following the old man's urgings to stop being one of life's onlookers and enter the fray." P.D. Pollack, School Library Journal. Vol. 24 (March 1978): 138.

NIGHT KITES

"Kerr has insight, but no easy sympathies for her characters: Nikki is a heartless poseuse; Erick, rather a pushover; Pete is promiscuous, unable to fall in love. The most sympathetic portraits are of Erick's parents, as they each take a different, fumbling way of handling Pete's homosexuality and disease. The celebrated Kerr wit is subdued here, and is in fact missed in some of the slower, aimless passages of the book. But the overall tone is one of melancholy...seems absolutely right for what is most likely the saddest book Kerr has written." Bulletin for the Center of Children's Books. Vol. 39 (May 1986): 169.
"The author's more serious and darker books, such as Night Kites and Gentlehands, never mesh into quite as satisfying wholes as the others because even with serious topics she cannot help being sarcastic. But they are still important books; for, like Robert Cormier and Richard Peck, M.E. Kerr is one of the few young adult writers, who can take a subject that affects teenagers' lives, can say something important to young readers about it, and can craft what is first and foremost a good story, without preaching and without histrionics. Consequently, Night Kites is an important contribution to the literature for young adults." Anita Silvery, Horn Book. Vol. 62 (September/October 1986): 597.
"[This novelist] has, with sensitivity and delicacy, described an issue that may face many more families if predictions about AIDS come true. This is a fine story, beautifully told, with characters that ring true. Ms. Kerr has simply never been better in her long and lauded career; she too is a "night kite", unafraid to soar into the darkness of the human predicament." Audrey B. Eadlen, New York Times Book Review. (April13,1986):30.

LINGER

"Kerr is one of the few YA writers who can dramatize politics and ideas without haranguing the reader. In a story filled with wit and sadness, she tells of kids entangled in love, war, and work...Alternating with Gary's laid-back voice are journal entries from Bobby's time in the desert. The two narratives come together in the climax: Bobby returns from the war burned and deaf from 'friendly fire', the teacher's fired and driven out of town, and the patriotic celebration at the restaurant reveals its vicious underside. Kerr doesn't preach; though she's sending an antiwar message, her characters are more than symbols." Hazel Rochman, Booklist. v89 (June 1-15 1993): 1814.
"The Gulf Was is painted as horrific, using vivid juxtapositions; the subtle, but also deadly, civilian war centers on racial prejudice. Bobby's journal entries and letters are woven so smoothly with Gary's observations that readers will really enjoy the dramatic tension that is produced. This novel has one heck of a good plot, terrific pacing, and searingly realistic characters. It's Kerr as readers expects her to be - tough, ironic, and yet, highly entertaining. She makes it clear that in a world of hypocrisy, prejudice, and brutality, personal integrity can be a proper armor, even if it slips a bit. Cindy Darling Codell School Library Journal. v39 (July 1993): 101.

DELIVER US FROM EVIE

"Unlike Nancy Garden's Annie on My Mind, (1982), the focus here isn't on the lesbian lovers. The story is told by Evie's 15-year-old brother, Parr, the latest of Kerr's tender, smart male teenage narrators. Through this eyes, Evie is a bit too perfect to be true;. . .in contrast, the powerful banker is a fat, waddling, controlling villain. But the other characters, including Parr's religious fundamentalist girlfriend, are more subtly drawn. . . If Kerr's message is more over than usual, it's a complicated message, and she has a loth of fun with it. Teens will be swept up in the emotion and immediacy of Parr's fast-paced narrative, his voice perfectly pitched between wit and melancholy. It's a story that challenges stereotypes, not only about love, but also about farmers and families and religion and responsibility - about all our definitions of 'normal.'" Hazel Rochman, Booklist Vol. 91 (September 15, 1994): 125.
"Well known for her award-winning books, Kerr has deftly handled controversial subjects before, but here sacrifices plot, dialogue and character development in an earnest attempt to create a dramatic story about teenage lesbians... Not only does Parr never convince us that he has a real relationship with his sister (let alone his girlfriend), all of the characters seem to be cardboard figures, straight form central casting. The secondary characters - a boorish boyfriend of Evie's, an older brother with a snooty girlfriend, the rich bigot - are hardly believable. No doubt Kerr thought that by confronting the stereotype directly (yet playing it safe by providing the "pretty" lesbian as well) she could help teenagers understand that lesbians come in all shapes and sizes - a transparent message at best." Cyrisse Jaffe, Women's Review of Books. Vol.12 (November, 1994): 31.

COMMENTARIES

A reader-response from a young teenager is provided by clicking here.

A DISCUSSION OF NIGHT KITES

By Tamara L. Francis

Seventeen year old Erick Rudd's comfortable and well ordered life, in an affluent Long Island community, begins to fall apart when he is forced to keep two secrets: the identity of his new girlfriend and the nature of his brother's debilitating illness.

Problems start when Erick falls in love with Nicki Marr, a flamboyant and mature seventeen-year-old, and who happens to be the girl who dates his best friend, Jack. the arrangement causes friction because Erick is also dating Dill, a longtime high school sweetheart. Jack and Dill find out about Nicki and Erick's betrayal and as a result are shunned by their classmates at Seaville High. In the middle of all this, Pete, Erick's oldest brother breaks the news that he is gay and the family soon learns that he has AIDS and will soon die.

Erick comes to terms with his brother's illness and finds solace in Nicki. Eventually finds out about Pete's illness and informs Erick that she no longer wants to see him. Devastated, Erick realizes that he has to come to terms with the loss of Nicki, just had Pete had to come to terms with his terminal illness.

Kerr was taking a big risk in her coverage of such a sensitive and controversial issue such as AIDS in 1986. Most people were familiar with this devastating illness only through media, publications or television. Only recently has the epidemic been given due attention because many families have had to face the realities of this human condition.

Without the elements of another plot, this story might have created problems for a young reader. The author did an excellent job of examining the issues of first love and first sex, as this turned the reader's attention from an uncomfortable and sensitive subject, to one that young readers could understand and relate to.

Both plots raise the issue of promiscuous behavior. Pete and his inability to maintain a relationship with one partner, and Erick's father who encouraged him to sow his wild oats before marriage. Even Nicki was unable to develop a lasting relationship because she was only concerned with being liked and only wanted what she couldn't have.

Neither father ever thought about the physical consequences of promiscuity. The concept of safe sex was not discussed with the same fervor because of the unfamiliar nature of the disease. But seemingly, one of the fathers would have at least alluded to the idea of being selective in choosing a partner.

The author makes it clear to young readers that making choices (especially the right ones) is not an easy task. It was a subtle yet intense approach of sacrificing all of the main characters in the story. In case no one noticed, there were no winners in the end.

A DISCUSSION OF LINGER

By Patricia McHugh

The setting for Linger is the small town of Berryville, PA and takes place during the Desert Storm crisis. Once again, M.E. Kerr explores a controversial subject through the eyes and lives of average, middle class American youths. The story is narrated by the two Peel brothers. Gary, a sophomore at Berryville High, speaks to us in the first person and alternating chapters are letters and diary entries by his older brother Bobby, an eighteen-year-old newly enlisted soldier serving in the Gulf. This juxtapositioning allows for an intricately woven plot with great pacing. While Bobby is coming of age in the Saudi desert, far from his small town homelife, Gary is learning adult lessons about personal integrity in a vicious though far more subtle war raging within the community of Berryville.

Linger is the restaurant in town. It is owned by Mr. Dunlinger, a bigoted officious hot-shot, who is held in high esteem by the local citizens. His adored wife is somewhat of a brainless dreamer, prancing about the restaurant on busy nights donning slinky gowns and "trilling" out her renditions of popular songs. Their daughter Lynn is a slightly spoiled breathtaking beauty of seventeen. Lynn is the most desired girl in Berryville (for a brief period the pen pal of Bobby) and is the absolute jewel of her parents. Mr. and Mrs. Peel both work at Linger, as does Gary and as Bobby once did. Jules Raleigh, a Berryville HS teacher, is the piano player at Linger, the secret lover of Lynn and an anti-war liberal who urges his students to "DO SOMETHING ORIGINAL! SAY SOMETHING PROVOCATIVE! WAKE UP YOUR PASSIONS! CHANGE! FEEL FOR OTHER PEOPLE!" Kerr portrays her characters in such a realistic light that they become incredibly alive, inspiring strong emotional reactions. Gary's and Bobby's observations are presented with amazing wit and candor, so much so that they lead the reader to believe completely in, and bond completely with, the Peel brothers.

What happens when Bobby returns from the war, badly burned and partially deaf from 'friendly fire', exposes the hypocrisy and racial bigotry buried deep within his hometown. Desert Storm had most certainly changed Bobby and Gary into more enlightened and caring individuals, as Jules Raliegh wished for all his students, but more importantly through them and with them so have their family and friends. Kerr abstains from writing in an opinionated tone. Although you come to realize her stance, it is not one which is forced upon you. Her references to popular culture, i.e. TV, music, movies are so accurate and "hip" that they are remarkably refreshing. She truly has a voice which can easily reach young and "old" adults alike. The humor and pathos found in Linger will touch any reader of any age with full emotional impact. In her much admired fashion, Kerr deals with another difficult modern issue and in doing so has woven a fabulous tale.

BIBLIOGRAPHY ABOUT M.E. KERR

de Montreville, Doris & Crawford, Elizabeth D. (Eds.). (1978). Fourth Book of Junior Authors and Illustrators. NY: H.W.Wilson.
Graham, Joyce L. (1993, Fall). An interview with M.E. Kerr. Journal of Youth Services in Libraries. 7, 31-36.
Lesniak, James G. (Ed.). (1992). Contemporary Authors. (vol.37). Detroit: Gale Research, Inc.
Mooney, Martha T. (Ed.). (1978-1996). Book Review Digest. NY: The H.W. Wilson Co.
Nilsen, Aileen Pace. (1986). Presenting M.E. Kerr. Boston: Twayne Publishers. Podell, Tim. (Producer). Good Conversation: A Talk with M.E.Kerr. [Video]. Scarborough, NY: Tim Podell Productions.
Spencer, Pam. (1994). What Do Young Adults Read Next? A Reader's Guide to Fiction for Young Adults. Detroit: Gale Research.
Sutton, Roger. (1993, June). A conversation with M.E. Kerr. School Library Journal, 39, 24-29.


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Written by Kay E. Vandergrift

Created April 15, 1996; Last Revised September 23, 1996