17.4.07

Alice, I Think


I can't tell you how many times I have followed my husband around the house, clutching a young-adult novel and reading passages aloud to him. Well, yes, I can. Once. The passage was from Susan Juby's Alice, I Think (HarperCollins Canada, 242 pages, $15.99), the first in a planned trilogy of novels about Alice MacLeod of Smithers.
The bit I felt impelled to share is near the beginning of the novel, where Alice is describing how she was socially crippled by what she calls her "supportive home life." As a preschooler, she becomes obsessed with Tolkien's The Hobbit and is encouraged by her parents:
"Not only did they encourage me in thinking I was a hobbit, my mother actually made me a hobbit outfit. It included a burlap-sack tunic with twine fringe, brown felt slippers with bits of fake fur on the toes, and a pointy green hat. I wore it everywhere. I said hobbity things and practised my deep fruity laugh. I asked people to call me Took and carried an oversized pipe that my Dad's friend picked up for me at something called a headshop.
"So off I went for my first day of Grade 1 where I quickly discovered that everyone else had bonded and figured out the rules the year before. My next discovery was that kids don't like other kids who think they are hobbits, especially kids who break into song and dance without warning."
I don't usually quote at such length, but it's the most direct way of showing that this Susan Juby is funny, no matter what age you may be.
Curiosity led me to her Web site (Susanjuby.com), and to her at her Nanaimo home. She and her husband relocated there after she completed the master's program in publishing at Simon Fraser University. I told her I'd read an article recently about people moving to Nanaimo and commuting to Vancouver. There was a polite pause and then she told me that she'd written it.
Juby has had an interesting journey with her first novel. It was originally published by Thistledown Press and was nominated for both the Amazon/Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Canadian Library Association Best Young Adult Novel Award. The nominations are a good indication of the fact that it is one of those crossover books that can be enjoyed by both teen and adult readers.
I offered up the term "kidult fiction," which I'd seen coined in a British article about the Harry Potter phenomenon. Juby thought it might be a more useful designation than the one she'd been using up to now: "immature adult fiction."
After completing the manuscript for her follow-up novel, Miss Smithers, she decided she would be well advised to find an agent who could sell foreign rights to both novels together. Hilary McMahon of Westwood Creative Artists read the manuscript.
Then she mentioned it to a New York editor, who, on the basis of a description of one scene in the book, urged McMahon to sign Juby and bring the manuscript to her.
Subsequently, all three novels have been signed in a lucrative international deal that will see the books appearing here, in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. Miss Smithers will be available here next spring. The new edition of Alice, I Think is available now.
The books recount the continuing adventures of Alice MacLeod, a girl with her own definite perspective on life. She is in a constant process of revising her list of life goals, and at different junctures it includes such items as: "Become practising feminist. (Find out what it entails besides being nice to other females)" and "Develop new look. (Like career choice, must reflect uniqueness. Must also be at least semipresentable, not just sad.)"
Alice is a true non-conformist, even if she is always trying to model herself on someone else.
Her recounting of adolescence is every bit as horrific as I remember it being: She is counselled at the Teens in Crisis Centre by a man she refers to as Death Lord Bob; she takes a career aptitude test that shows she should become either a stewardess or a seamstress ("I pointed out to my mom that I'm afraid to fly and can't sew"); she gets a haircut so terrible it incites violence; she meets a boy named Aubrey who keeps trying to work the word "zoo- merization" into the conversation; she gets a job in an alternative bookstore but is fired (by her own mother) for "over-surveilling" the customers.
Alice, I Think is your typical angst-ridden female adolescent coming-of-age story with all the dreary earnestness sucked right out of it, which is to say not typical at all.
Juby says she was happy when the book found a home with Thistledown because it was one of the few small presses actively publishing YA fiction and willing to take a chance with edgier choices.
Until she began approaching publishers, Juby wasn't even aware that she was writing for teens. As of September, she is teaching a course in the subject at the University of Victoria.
She is also doing a little tutoring online, but her students aren't your standard-issue creative writing types. She is tutoring United Nations employees who are working in trouble spots around the world and need to pass UN writing exams.
It seems the sort of career choice you could never exactly plan, and I was reminded of how, at the end of Alice, I Think, Alice, age 15, imagines her future life.
"It strikes me that perhaps what I learned today is that I would be a good observer of some kind. You know, one of those people who watch things happen and don't feel the need to get involved. What are they called? Oh yeah, impartial observers. They go to wars and demonstrations and things like that and just watch. I could be quite good at that."
It's ironic that Juby felt compelled to have something like teaching publishing as a back-up plan because she couldn't imagine how she'd ever support herself from her writing.
So far, it's going pretty darned well, and I think she's going to find herself with a lot of readers: mature and immature, adults and teens.
Imagine a younger, non-smoking, non-drinking, non-dieting Bridget Jones in a remote British Columbia locale. Imagine Adrian Mole with a father who writes (but never publishes) romance novels and a younger brother who breeds rare and unusual fish. Imagine Holden Caulfield in a 1950s housedress, nurse shoes and full 1980s makeup, adjusting to life at an alternative high school after 10 years of home-schooling.
Imagine Alice. You're going to love her.
(Originally published 2003)

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