Does anyone remember Norma Klein? I go around asking people this pretty often and no one ever seems to. I think her best-known book for kids was Mom, the Wolf Man, and Me, but I was usually less into her books for younger readers and more into her YA. I was deeply into her YA novels.
I just did a little searching and was delighted to see that Lizzie Skurnick over at Jezebel's Fine Lines column — a column I live and die for — also appreciates some NK, but she is largely a lost writer these days. Yet in the '70s, Norma Klein was well known. Mostly for her YA books, but she also wrote for adults, though I have to say I don't think her sensibility translated very well. She was not unlike Judy Blume writing for older kids, about kids with less conventional families and with fewer of Blume's maddening ellipses in the dialogue. The thing about Norma Klein for me was that her world was so distant and exotic that it was almost sci-fi. The books usually took place in New York City, so half the involvement for me was trying to parse from Ohio some of the basics of life in the city. When she wrote about going to someone's house, did she mean house or apartment? The setting struck me as vast and unnavigable: how did people ever just run into each other in New York City? How did they find each other at all? There seemed to be an arcane ritual for reserving time on a city tennis court, and people all took trains and subways and thought nothing of it, and teenagers had parents on their second or third marriages, parents who had come out, parents who didn't care if they smoked weed at home as long as they opened the windows.
But the greatest part of all was the frankness about sex. Teenagers had affairs with each other or older people though no one seemed bothered by that, they got diaphragms and later the pill, had misunderstandings, got hurt, got over it. It wasn't presented in the way it so often is now, as some kind of world-in-peril decision from which the kids had to be protected at all costs. (And before we note that, yes, this was pre-AIDS, I think it's worth noting how rarely the current hysteria about teens and sex seriously addresses safe sex and sexual health — it's usually more about what some would call virtue, as far as I can tell.) Sex was a part of the adult world these characters were learning to navigate. Their families were imperfect — the parents often yelled or apologized later, or were maddeningly opaque or just clueless about their own marriages and affairs, but they were largely unfazed by the appearance of sexuality on the scene for their offspring. I don't recall them as being extraordinarily helpful, but how many parents really are in these matters?
The thing is, these weren't "issues" books; they weren't explaining radical phenomena but just depicting a life that I suppose was pretty realistic for some. And this was thirty years ago — I would love to hear from someone with YA publishing experience if they think these books would be published today or what, in the current market, compares. Maybe there is something out there that does?
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Michelle Wildgen is the author of the novels But Not for Long and You're Not You and editor of the anthology Food and Booze. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, O, the Oprah Magazine, Best New American Voices, Best Food Writing, and various anthologies and journals. A senior editor at Tin House Magazine, she lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
Books mentioned in this post
Michelle Wildgen is the author of But Not for Long