Living Vicariously Through Alice

Question:

As evident on your website, you must receive dozens of emails from girls of all ages saying they identify with Alice. I’m no different; I also identify with her! I will never forget when I checked out my first Alice book “Alice the Brave” from the library. I was 13 years old (like Alice), extremely average (like Alice), and was terrified of swimming in deep water (like Alice!). I would go to the library and look up all kinds of books in the catalog, and what I was experiencing as a 13 year old led me to Alice. After a failed attempt at learning how to swim as a child, my mother enrolled me in private swimming lessons at the pool. I was so scared, but after reading what Alice went through and how she overcame her fears, I felt confident that I could learn how to swim. And I did!

I believe that it was divine intervention that led me to Alice, because after reading “Alice the Brave” I continued to read every Alice book I could get my hands on, and her experiences helped me tremendously. I love how unabashed you were when it came to writing about puberty and sex. In “The Grooming of Alice”, when the girls attend the ‘For Girls Only’ seminar at the YMCA, I felt like I was right there along with them; I learned so much! I was such a shy and introverted teenager, that I feel like I lived vicariously through Alice and her friends’. I continue to re-read the Alice books, even as a 24-almost-25 year old, and I suspect that I will continue to read these books and pass them along to my children one day. My fiancé teases me all the time for reading them, but they truly make me happy (despite knowing exactly what happens in each book).

I honestly cannot thank you enough for writing these books; there are times when Alice feels like a real person, and a real friend. I feel a little silly typing that, but it’s the truth. The parallels between what I experienced as a teenager, and what Alice did resonates with so many girls. I work in a middle school library, and it makes me so happy when kids check out the Alice books; new generations of kids still identify with Alice. The Alice books are timeless.

Although I was sad when I read the final Alice book (I read it as soon as it came out!), I thought you did a tremendous job wrapping up the series; I have no complaints! I also want to commend you and your copy editor for giving the fans the ‘Alice Bible’ on your website. I know that it must have taken a lot of work to compile, but I had so much fun reading it! I will continue to reference it when I re-read the series.

Again, thank you for writing the Alice books.

Phyllis replied:

I appreciate your letter so much, and I’ve passed it on to the editorial staff as well.  What a nice fan letter for a Friday!   I’m just so glad that you found help in “Alice the Brave.”  That’s the way I finally conquered my fear of deep water too, and the person who taught me was a girl in my church group, who took the time, when we were all in a pool together, to show me the little trick of swimming back and forth in a corner of the pool .  Once I was convinced that I would stay up and not sink, the rest came more easily.  The girl wasn’t even a close friend–just someone who noticed my fear, and sympathized enough to help.

What delights me most about your letter is that you are now in a position to recommend the Alice books to other girls.  So the people who helped me in my life problems found a place in my books, and you found help from them and are passing it along….

Yes, the Alice bible was enormous work for the copy-editor who put it together, and I’ve used it many times even now when I want to look up something in particular to use in a talk.  Thanks again for a letter that made us all happy today.

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How Do You Get Started?

Question:

I am a fan, inspired by your story at http://www.phyllisnaylor.com  I am writing to tell you I use you for my role model. Writing has been a dormant passion of mine. I am finally able to give my time to writing. I used to sneak it in small increments of time when I was working full time. Now, I am not working, and this is my new life, I wondered how someone like yourself started off. Did you have the money to hire editors? Did you have the resources that allowed you to be able to self publish? Can you advise somebody like me who has 0 to spend on those type of luxury’s? Or do you where or who to direct me towards? Thanks!I don’t mean to sound whiney! I am just trying all my avenues to get valuable information from an expert!

Phyllis replied:

You don’t sound whiney, but you do sort of imply that it takes financial resources to succeed, and I started with zero too.  I would say that the two main factors for succeeding as a writer are talent, of course, and persistance.  There is such a wide difference of time between when I got my start and when you are starting out; I had advantages then that aren’t available now, but you have advantages I didn’t have.

First, I wrote short stories–about 2000 of them, to be exact–for fifteen years before I ever tried writing a novel.  At the time, most church denominations had story papers or magazines for both children and teenagers, and they were constantly looking for really good stories that were character-building without moralizing.  As my writing improved, I began picking themes that no one else was writing about for children–how it feels to be a teen, and knowing your dad is having an affair; a teenager who commits suicide when the crowd below taunts him to jump…. But I also loved to write comedy, and for 25…or was it 35 years…I wrote a column for teens called “First  Person Singular” under the pseudonym, P.R. Tedesco.  I subscribed to The Writer magazine, and when I saw an ad about a contest for a first novel for children, I submitted a manuscript.  I did not win the prize.  In fact, it was rejected, but with a note telling me that if I would completely rewrite the manuscript from the viewpoint of one of the characters instead of the whole family, they would give the manuscript a second look.  I did, and my first novel, “What the Gulls were Singing,” was published.  From there, one at a time, very slowly, I began writing books.  I did not get an agent until I began writing novels for adults, and I never paid anyone to critique my manuscripts.  The editors at the publishing company taught me the rest.

Today, there probably aren’t magazines for children and teens published inexpensively by church denominations.  But there are still contests if you look for them.  And all sorts of ways to promote oneself and one’s work online.  Yes, there is probably way more competition.  Paying for a website is not cheap.  But there are also organizations that are extremely helpful to the beginning writer, such as Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, if you are at all interested in writing for children, teens, or young adults.  Write, write, write.  Read, read, read.  Push yourself.  Learn from rejections.  Best wishes and best of luck!

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I Can Relate

Question:

Where do I begin? To be honest, I dont have a story where I have been reading your books for years, it actually started just recently (back in December). I, at the time, didnt know there were 28 books. I started at her freshman year and went on from there. Let me say, your writing is AMAZING. So many things Alice says…experiences…thoughts; I can relate to them all. I am currently reading “Please don’t let this be true”. I got it 3 days ago and only have a bit more to read (100-200 pages perhaps?) I cant stop reading! So many parts of each book I can most definitely relate to. I felt like, at some points of my life, I feel like no one else knows what I mean. I feel like Alice is a friend of mine and I get to see into her world. I feel like I connect most and closest to Alice, mostly because in school, shes that “average joe” kinda girl; sorta like the kid who doesnt want to go all honors or do community service every single month for school for 15 hours, you know? Currently Im in freshman year but I feel like Im already in my senior year reading the current book (LOL!). Even though I dont have a boyfriend or anything..I feel like Alices thoughts and everything regarding Patrick..Sam..Tony..every lover of hers, I can relate to. I really like how you cover all topics like religion (with Shelley, I just read that part) and the LGBT community. Can you please run for president? Ill vote ^0^! Ahaha. And lastly, I would just like to say that I feel like I can use these books to help self discover myself. You are truly amazing.

Im sorry if this turned out really long and Im sure hoping I included everything I wanted to say!   From a loving reader…

Phyllis replied:

I’m so glad you took time to write to me.  I love hearing that readers can relate to many aspects of Alice’s life.  “Discovering yourself” is a lifelong journey, but it’s true that the more you know yourself–both the honest-to-God self you are now, and the self you would like to be, the less chance there is of making mistakes about the larger decisions of life.  If you would like to see a list–and covers–and a short description of each of the 28 Alice books, in order, go to my new website, http://www.phyllisnaylor.com and click on “Alice series” on the bulletin board.  This might help you choose some of the Alice books you’ve missed along the way.

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Websites?

Question:

#1: I LOVE your Alice books!
You probably hear that everyday, but like the other fans, I can really connect to Alice and all the other characters. Well, kinda. I’m probably really different from Alice, so, maybe, NOT Alice, but the other characters. Come to think about it, I’m not like ANY of the characters… more with their conflicts and situations. Oops?

ALSO like the other girls, I am pretty sad about the ending of the Alice books. But I’m pretty satisfied with the ending. I love that wonderful ending of Alice opening the letter she wrote to herself 60 years ago. It made me tear up and smile really big. I think about doing that, but then I come up with problems that make me just give up. But it’s a pretty good idea!

#2: Where is the alice website???

Phyllis replied:

So glad you like the Alice books!  There are two websites that will interest you, actually.  Many of the letters and emails I receive, along with my replies, can be found at http://www.alicemckinley.wordpress.com

My own website, which lists all my 140 books, including the 28 Alice books, is at http://www.phyllisnaylor.com

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Someone Like Me

Question:
I am 27 years old. I feel like a big geek for sending this e-mail, but I just would like to tell you how much I adore your Alice series. I started reading the books when I was 11 or so, so I basically grew up with Alice. I can’t tell you how nice it was to have “someone like me” and someone who dealt with the same things I did as I got older. I remember every year around March or April, I would start getting super excited that it was almost time for another Alice book. One day, if I’m ever blessed with a daughter, I will read them with her.

I’ve actually been reading your works for much longer than that…I read the Shiloh books as well, and those were a favorite of mine in elementary school. They taught me that, yes, there are mean people in the world, but they don’t always win.

I’ve always wanted to send mail to my favorite authors, but I’ve never thought they would appreciate being bugged. However, for some reason I was looking something up about your series earlier, and I found out I could e-mail you! I don’t know how I missed it before, but I really appreciate that you’ve made it where your readers can contact you! So thanks!

I’m sure you get this question often, but I am an aspiring-to-be-published writer, and I wondered if there is any advice you’d be willing to share about writing and seeking publication in general.

Thank you for taking the time to read this, and thank you again (so much!!) for sharing your works with the world. I can’t imagine my childhood without those books.

Phyllis replied:

No need to feel geekish at all.  No author should be offended by fan mail. We may wish sometimes that big batches didn’t all come at once, or that fans didn’t ask for impossible things–for us to read their manuscripts and critique them, for example.  But I very much appreciated your lovely letter.

I don’t have any “get published quick” tidbits to send, unfortunately.  Most of us got our start by starting out very small and taking years to perfect our craft.  Probably most of us wrote and wrote and wrote long before we even dreamed of publication.  We wrote because we loved what we could do with words–describing a character, for example, or taking a situation and running with it, just to see where it would lead.

Enter every contest you possibly can.  Write for the joy of writing, of reading your work aloud, just to yourself, to hear how it sounds.  Form a small critique group of others who like to write, or join a larger group like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and attend their meetings.

I wish you the best of luck, and thanks again for your letter.

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Victim-Blaming

Question:

I don’t know if the reader who sent you that comment about reporting attempted assault ever followed up, because you responded and said you didn’t understand why she felt like the scene was victim-blaming.  I think I understand what the reader meant.

The statement you made is that many girls don’t report because of their own feelings about their assault, and then other girls end up getting assaulted by the same guy.  This makes it sound like the victim was selfish for attending to her own feelings about the situation and like it’s HER FAULT that other women get assaulted.

I know you meant to be encouraging, and maybe you do believe that the victim should take that kind of responsibility even if it is hard for her.  In my case, I didn’t have the strength to talk to police on my own because I was assaulted by an authority figure and didn’t have supportive people to help me get through it, when I first tried to talk to my parents about it they sort of didn’t believe me and swept it under the rug, so I tried to do the same and move on.  Police and other people often don’t believe victims and can make it into a really big ordeal of proving that you were really victimised and weren’t “asking for it” or just slandering the guy, and if you feel ashamed and confused yourself that can be really hard to defend yourself against. Maybe that story will help you make sense of why someone would be hurt at the idea that they should have taken more responsibility to report after being assaulted.

Thank you for everything!

Phyllis replied:

You made a really good point.  I think I was trying to convey that if you need an extra push to get you to report it, think of the girls you might be saving by getting the guy off the street.  But yes, a girl is so traumatized, especially if the offender was an authority figure, that I can well understand why she would feel she didn’t have the strength to go through the whole reporting process.

On a much smaller scale, when I was in high school and a student was at the blackboard working out some physics problem, our teacher used to come to the empty chairs at the back and sit behind us while the student was up front.  And he would often reach out and flip the bra strap of one of us girls.  We were so nervous in that class that whenever he headed to the back of the room, we all leaned forward so it wouldn’t be us he fooled around with.  If we ever had to talk to him after class about a problem, we had another girl go with us.  And sometimes in the lab, working at a lab table, he would come up of us and sort of rub himself against us, obviously with an erection.  Then move on.  Or we would.  AND, WE NEVER REPORTED HIM. WE NEVER TOLD OUR PARENTS.  I’ve often had this discussion with friends of mine our own age.  Why?  My parents would have been alarmed.  But I also think, their first question might be, “What did you do to provoke that?”  Or “Did you do anything to provoke it?”  If I assured them I hadn’t, I think they would have believed me, but then they would question whether I was sure.  Could I possibly have imagined something that was innocent as something seductive. Etc. etc.  And they would have been VERY reluctant to report it if we could simply stay out of this guy’s way.  He probably would have had to actually assault us before they would take action.

To go back even farther than this, in my parents’ day, I often remember adults saying things like, “If we got a whipping at school, you could be sure we’d get another one when we got home.”  Meaning that a kid didn’t even get a hearing back then.  The teacher was always right, and the kid got punished twice.  So all generations, it seems, have a battle of how to deal with authority when authority is the offender.  Thank you so much for your thoughts on this problem.  I’m so sorry that no one was in your corner when you needed it.

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A Messed-up Girl Like Me

Question:
a lot of girls seem to write to you saying they are thankful you wrote the Alice books because the characters seem so real and normal that they can really relate to them.  i had the opposite experience.  you wrote about these pretty middle class white girls who face all life’s problems from within a secure and stable home environment, their parents and teachers basically care about them, they have always had friends since elementary school, they are all thin and pretty enough that there is always a boy crushing on them.. meanwhile i came from an unsettled family, was molested at a young age, my parents were violent, i never had a friend group because we moved all the time and i was depressed so no one liked me, and i got into drugs and sleeping around by age 14 so i never had those cute innocent relationships that come so easily to girls like Alice..

i would read the Alice books in order to try to get a glimpse of girls who had a normal, stable life like that.  they are really well written but mostly fascinated me for that reason.  eventually it started making me feel too lonely and envious that i would never have these things and i had to stop reading.  it also started making me feel like if only i was a pretty, cheerful white girl, or if (like Alice) i stayed away from drugs and men who took advantage of me, then i would deserve to have all those other things like supportive family and friends, so it was my fault that my life wasn’t like that.  i doubt i will ever read the last book because just hearing about how she turns out to be so fulfilled with a loving husband and children makes me want to throw up.  of COURSE she will have a happy ending but life isnt like that for everyone and it’s too painful to keep hearing about.

i love that you answer all these letters and make yourself so available to your readers.  it surprised me how real and understanding you seem to be and so open to sharing from your life experience.  i would have thought that there is no way a kindly white grandmother type could understand or be open to a messed up girl like me but after reading your responses to readers i actually felt like you would in some way.  so thank you for making me feel a little less worthless compared to the ‘Alice-and-friends’ type of girls.

sorry for writing you a letter filled with ugly words instead of praise.   i hope you are not offended.  much love.

Phyllis replied:

They were not ugly words; they were true words.  And yes, Alice’s problems and those of her friends are very different from those of many girls, but they also ring true for many.  As I’ve made clear in writing the series, I am following the life of one particular girl in my imagination.  She cannot be “all-girls.” She can’t represent all girls.  A lot of it is taken from my own memories and those of my friends, and I can’t change the environment I grew up in any more than you can. We deal with the cards we were handed in life, and do the best we can.  Some are unluckier than others, through no fault of their own.

I do think that you painted a rather idealistic picture of Alice and her friends, however.  One grows up without a mother.  Another has a mother with a drinking problem, and she herself gets pregnant as a teen.  A third friend is sexually abused by a family friend.  Do they have to get on drugs too to be authentic?  I’m sure that much of the time they didn’t feel like “pretty white girls” with all the breaks.

I’m not trying to belittle your feelings or overlook the fact that they had advantages you did not.  But everyone, no matter their race or homelife, will suffer great sadnesses in their lives.  Not all of my books are about girls like  Alice.  Read “Faith, Hope and Ivy June” for life with a coal miner’s granddaughter in Kentucky; read “Send No Blessings” about a girl in a large family, living in a double wide trailer in West Virginia. Read “Ice” about a girl in New York State whose dad is in prison.  And if you aren’t acquainted with the books of these two wonderful African American writers, read Jacqueline Woodson’s “Brown Girl Dreaming,” or Sharon Draper’s “Darkness Before Dawn.”  If it helps, I DO care about you, and I thank you so much for taking the time to write to me.  Not offended in the least.

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