Monk, Writer, Critic
S. David Gill
Ask an English major about the literary merits of adolescent literature, and you're liable to get a bird's eye view of his nostrils, as he pokes his nose in the air and dismisses the genre as being void of any such merit. You could write this reaction off as intellectual snobbery or as the knee-jerk reaction of someone ignorant of young adult literature. You might console yourself that this person's only contact with YA was a mass market horror novel churned out with all the integrity of processed cheese food. Then again, you might take a hard look at the canon of adolescent literature and point to certain authors who write what critics term "literary" fiction. One such literary writer is Aidan Chambers.
More popular in his native England than the U.S., Chambers is a stylist of the first order, an engaging writer of novels that are unsurpassed in linguistic skill. In a 1984 article for English Journal, G. Robert Carlsen wrote that "[t]he best that can be said for most teenage books is that they are good journalistic writing" (p. 30). Chambers' work is far from journalistic, owing more to the traditions of William Faulkner than to the pedestrian prose symptomatic of many young adult novels. One of Chambers' novels, Dance on My Grave (1982), was selected as ALA Best Books for Young Adults. Another, Breaktime, was a School Library Journal Best Book (Spring 1979). He has received international acclaim for other children's books and is a noted scholar/critic of children's literature.
Chambers began life in 1934 in an English mining town. Though he only lived in the town until age ten, he was deeply influenced by the feelings of loneliness there. Like many writers, he had no love for school, and his grades reflected it. Not surprisingly, his sense of isolation and the dislike of school resonate throughout his novels, where characters echo Chambers' feelings about school. Like the character Hal in Dance on My Grave, Chambers bonded with one special teacher, Jim Osborn, who encouraged him to pursue drama, and through it, writing.
At age fifteen Chambers realized he wanted to be an author. But that career was a few years and jobs down the road. After a stint in the navy, he finished college, worked as a secondary school teacher, and then became an Anglican monk. He established a monastery aimed at aiding adolescents, and for the next seven years, divided time between his duties there, a part-time teaching job, and an editorship. He married Nancy Lockwood in 1968. Together they publish Young Drama and Signal, a critical journal for children's literature. They also founded Thimble Press in order to publish books for children.
The roles have been many for Chambers: editor, monk, advocate, and critic. Add to this his devotion to craft and producing fine writing, and it is easy to see why he has produced so few books. Those he has published, however, form four parts of an intended sextet which explores issues common to adolescents.
His first novel, published in England, saw the beginning of a wave of attention for Chambers' young adult work. The main characters in Breaktime (Harper & Row, 1978) are Ditto, a seventeen-year-old British school boy, and Morgan, his classmate. After Morgan tells Ditto that literature is "crap," Ditto sets out to prove him wrong by keeping a record of his adventures (real and imagined) over a holiday. Later, when Morgan reads Ditto's story, which includes a full-blown description of Ditto losing his virginity, he realizes that he and Ditto have become characters in the story. He is unable to tell truth from fiction, which was Ditto's point all along. Because of its experimental style and provocative subject matter, Chambers thought Breaktime would never be published, but it proved that his writing could find an audience.
Dance on My Grave
Chambers' 1982 novel Dance on My Grave (Harper & Row, 1983) is subtitled, "A Life and a Death in Four Parts/One Hundred and Seventeen Bits/Six Running Reports/and Two Press Clippings/with a few jokes/a puzzle or three/some footnotes/and a fiasco now and then/to help the story along." Hardly what Carlsen would call journalistic writing. True to its word, Dance mixes elements of different styles, changes points of view, incorporates reports, scenes, clippings, and footnotes to form one fine novel. Chambers raised a few eyebrows with Dance because of its sensitive treatment of homosexual love. The novel begins with a newspaper story about Hal Robinson, who is arrested for dancing on the fresh grave of his lover, Barry. A fast living, hard loving Romeo, Barry made Hal agree to perform this bizarre ritual after his death. The normally reticent Hal agreed, but the act exposed his long hidden sexual orientation and forced him to deal with it publicly and spiritually. According to Chambers, Dance "is largely to do with emotions Ñ kinds of love and our personal obsessions" (Hipple).
NIK: Now I Know
Published as Now I Know in England (HarperCollins, 1987), this philosophical novel is told alternately through straight narration, a transcript from an audio tape, a film shooting script, and the notebook of Nik, an atheist who agrees to produce a youth group's pageant about the return of Christ to Earth. Nik meets Julie, who has strong Ñ if unconventional Ñ beliefs about religion, and they enter into long conversations and bouts of soul searching about life, religion, and other "stuff."
The Toll Bridge
His latest, The Toll Bridge (HarperCollins, 1992), is a more traditional narrative, but it is still more challenging than the best of American YA writing. The novel borrows its motif from the Greek myth of Janus, the keeper of the gate to Hades who has two faces. Symbolically, the protagonist, Piers has two faces as well. To escape the pressures of school, parents, and a co-dependent girlfriend, Piers takes a job as a gatekeeper of a private toll bridge. He lives alone in the gate house until the mysterious Adam shows up one night and intrudes into his life. Piers wants rid of his house guest but feels an odd attraction to him. This attraction is also felt by Tess, the daughter of the landowner, who steps into Piers' life just in time to complicate the plot and to confuse Piers even more by renaming him Jan, for the two-faced gate keeper. As in the other books, the protagonist of Toll Bridge is disenfranchised from society; and like the others, he struggles with a gamut of conflicts before finding his way.
Chambers as Stylist
In an interview, Chambers said of his books: "you have to read the books two or three times to enjoy them" (Hipple). Admittedly, the stylized writing found in these novels may intimidate readers who like their novels "once and fast," but Chambers is worth the work: his writing rewards rereading. If Chambers is so difficult, why then would his novels be recommended to American adolescents? I would argue that Chambers' complexity is the very reason he should be incorporated into the secondary school canon. Rarely does a writer possess the skill to integrate so many elements into a cohesive narrative. Underlying this skill, however, are universal stories about adolescents struggling to deal with their worlds. But Chambers' writing is far more than the journalistic fact-telling Carlsen criticized. He may be one of the few writers to use language and ideas with equal complexity. So why would such a gifted stylist bother with adolescent literature? Chambers himself put it best when he wrote "...you discover yourself... and therefore learn to understand more about yourself" (Chambers).
Carlsen, Robert G. "Teaching Literature for the Adolescent: A Historical Perspective," English Journal. November, 1984, pp.28-30.
Chambers, Aidan. Something About the Author: Autobiography Series. Gale Research Company, 1986, pp. 37-55.
Gowar, Mick, "Interview with Aidan Chambers," in Living Writers: A New Approach to English Novelists, eds. Mick Gowar and Dennis Hanley. London: Nelson, 1992, pp. 111-115.
Hipple, Theodore, "Aidan Chambers," in Writers for Young Adults, Vol. 1, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1997, pp. 172-178.
David Gill is a doctoral student at the University of Tennessee. He taught English for seven years in the Chattanooga Public Schools.