How I Came To Pioneering Young Adult Novels by Dorris Heffron

Photo by W. H.Newton-Smith

September 1970. In an outfit of her own making, Dorris drives (in a flowered van!) from Oxford to London to sign her first contract. Photo by W. H.Newton-Smith

Somehow, at age seven, I knew I wanted to be a writer and began keeping journals recording the life I could see and know about. My first journal recorded such things as “Jenny hen laid another egg today.” “Canada beat Russia in world hockey.” “Common expression – ‘goober’ You’re a real goober!”

It was clear from the start that my focus would not be on fantasy, horror stories, or myself. I was interested in others, in Canada, our place in the world, how people really do speak and think. The stuff of realistic fiction. At age ten, I won a copy of Anne of Green Gables in a bicycle decorating contest. Like most everyone, I loved that book and got all of L.M. Montgomery’s books from the library. There was no money in my family to buy books. We carried a big debt load after my Dad’s store went bankrupt when I was five, and we moved from the village of Blyth to Toronto to farmland and finally to the town of Woodbridge where my parents got permanent jobs. Though poor in money, it was a childhood rich in adventure and experience.

When I searched the libraries for more Canadian novels about young people and could find none, I thought…aha! Here is a need to be fulfilled. Do some good was another incorrigible instinct in me. So I quietly planned to write realistic novels about teenagers. In highschool, my English teacher detected my ambition and gave me  J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye to read. That novel set the modern standard for me. With student loans, I went to Queen’s University and did Honours English and Philosophy because I was, and still am, interested in the big questions. What is truth, goodness, beauty, time?

In 1968, when I was doing my M.A. thesis (on the philosophy and novels of Iris Murdoch), I went to Oxford to marry another Queen’s graduate, Bill Newton-Smith, doing his D.Phil. at Balliol College. After finishing my thesis, it was agreed; I would write my first novel and then get a job. So I did that. Completed the first draft over four months, set it aside for a month , revised it and sent it off to the biggest English publisher I knew of with a branch plant in Canada, the venerable Macmillan, London.

From the start, that’s what was important to me, that my books be published in Canada. And this was 1970, at a time when Canadian writers such as Margaret Laurence and Mordecai Richler felt they had to ‘make it’ abroad before, or more than, at home. At the same time, and this was more of my ignorance of what to do or where to go as a writer…I sent the manuscript to a big agency that was suggested to me.

The astounding thing is that both Macmillan and the Higham agency wanted my manuscript. It happened to land on the desk of the renowned children’s book editor, Marni Hodgkins who wanted to launch realistic novels about teenagers in England. And it landed on the desk of Sheila Watson, the agent who had recently handled Leonard Cohen’s novel, Beautiful Losers.

My first novel is about a sixteen year old Mohawk girl who hitchhikes from her home in Kingston to Yorkville, Toronto in the sixties to try some ‘pot’, away from the judgemental eyes of others who would regard her a rep of all young Mohawks. A Nice Fire And Some Moonpennies  is the benign title I gave this novel.

It was shocking subject matter for the young adult readers of England in 1970. Not to mention the publishers and parents who thought their young reading genius should move from The Secret Garden to War and Peace. That was the argument against “these vulgar novels about teenagers coming from North America.” For sure, a thirteen year old can read War and Peace , but what do they get out of it?

Marni, my editor, was prepared to fight for A Nice Fire And Some Moonpennies. She knew the first battle would be with Sir Harold Macmillan presiding at the board meeting in which the editors had to tell him about the books they wanted to do that season. Marni had sent my manuscript to three eminent London librarians to report their opinion on it. So, when Marni had to tell Sir Harold that Moonpennies involved a young teenager  and marijuana and he raised his finger wagging, “Ah wicked, we cannot…”, Marni presented him with the librarians’ reports that the novel conveys good values, is insightful, warmhearted, talented new writing etc., Sir Harold concluded, “Then we must publish it.”

Moonpennies came out in England at the same time as the American S.E. Hinton’s The Outsider, which is about teenage gangs in New York. The two major reviewers, the Times and The Guardian were divided. The Guardian said our realistic novels about teenagers were just what young readers needed, The Times said young people did not need our kind of books. Of course the controversy aroused more interest and Macmillan had the clout and connections to have Moonpennies ordered by the stores and libraries and it got far more favourable reviews than not.   

Thanks to the good work of my agent, Sheila Watson, Moonpennies was eventually translated and put on high school literature courses in Europe, North America, and Japan. It was the first Canadian novel to be published in Japan after Anne of Green Gables, though very soon after that with the flourishing of Canadian literature, many Canadian books have come out in Japan.

Another controversy was: are these novels ‘for’ or ‘about’ teenagers? And what should they be called? Let me just say, my focus was always writing ‘about’ teenagers and so I was most pleased when Penguin books launched a new series of paperback novels which they called their Peacock series (Puffins were for children). The Peacock series was novels and short stories about young people by established authors, such as Chekov and Margaret Drabble. A Nice Fire And Some Moonpennies was included in that series. Too bad the series didn’t last.

But forty years later, Moonpennies and my other two ‘young adult novels’ as the new genre has become called, are still circulating in the libraries. In my opinion, ‘young adult novels’ is a lot better than some of the names suggested, such as ‘juvenile fiction’! But novels about teenagers remains the most accurate and least restricting of readership.

Pioneering a new genre is not easy for writers or their publishers. Like starting any new business, it can take a long time for it to become profitable. I was lucky to have the strength of Macmillan behind my books and the determination of Marni Hodgkins. But I couldn’t agree with the strategy they and others adopted to try to sell more books. They thought that by making novels about teenagers also appeal to the established children’s novel market they would gain more sales. I think this just drove away the intended market, since teenagers won’t go near ‘children’s’ anything. But I was not in command.    

My sequel to Moonpennies was rejected on the grounds that it was ‘too adult’. I was more willing to negotiate with my second novel. It is based on the true story of the last evacuation of children from England in the Second World War. The then Master of Balliol College, organized that the children, including some of his own four kids, be sent to Canada. Then he took off with the college secretary who then died in the Blitz and he ended his days banished in Coventry. In my novel, the young teenagers are taken to Cape Breton Island where the main character, Tanis, who gets nicknamed Crusty, falls in love with a schoolmate shorter than she is. The novel is about growing up in one culture and learning to adapt to another, the division of the heart. My title was The Atlantic Between.

Marni argued this title is ‘too adult’ that it should be called Crusty Crossed  and the jacket portrays Tanis/Crusty looking about ten years old.

My third novel I titled The Miracle Workers. Influenced by James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I wrote about two sisters, Apple and Rain, growing up with the myths and symbols we have in Canada. Opposite in personality, and Rain having been adopted as a baby, there’s sibling rivalry and much striving on the part of Apple as they go through high school. In the second half of the novel they go to Thailand and become involved in the student protest of 1973 when the Thai students succeeded in ousting the dictator.

Marni had retired and there was a new young editor at Macmillan but the policy of trying to expand the market by making the books also appeal to pre-teenagers was still in force. ‘The first half of your book, no problem,’ the new editor said. ‘But the second half with the girls age 16 and 18 with the student revolution… Let’s make two books of it. We’ll publish the first half as a separate book and then see about the second as a sequel.’

And so my third novel about teenagers is about Rain and Apple before they go to Thailand and is titled Rain and I. It is an interesting book on its own and continues to flourish.

It was 1980 when I signed that contract. I had been in England for twelve years, writing and teaching part time for Oxford University and The Open University. It was a good life but I wanted to come home with my two little daughters and write adult fiction. I felt I had done enough pioneering work and I wanted to have the full spectrum to write about. My husband didn’t want to leave Oxford. We divorced and I came home with my children to write adult realistic fiction.

It’s great to see that young adult literature has become a thriving, profitable, well established genre.

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