Rebecca Lerner: ‘Alice,’ Revisited

Monday, February 22, 2016 - 12:55am

It was a snowy day in January, and my roommate Sophia and I were walking home. As usual, our conversation had turned to books, but this time we talked specifically about those of our childhood. Sophia offhandedly asked me if I would let my hypothetical children read these same works. When I joked that I would incinerate garbage like “The Clique” or “Gossip Girl” before letting it into my future home, Sophia asked what I would encourage my children to read. Without hesitation, I said that if I had a daughter I would sequentially give her all of Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s “Alice” books when she started third grade.

There’s a moment in the film “The Royal Tenenbaums” when a voiceover from narrator Alec Baldwin responds to a statement made by the patriarch of the family, quietly disclosing that “Immediately after making this statement, Royal realized that it was true.” The exact same line boomed in my head after I mentioned “Alice.” It’s comforting to think that the series critical to my adolescence is always on the tip of my tongue and a bit disconcerting that Alec Baldwin’s voice lurks in the corners of my minds.

The “Alice” series started in 1985 with “The Agony of Alice.” Alice McKinley is an awkward, motherless sixth grader being raised by her father and her brother, Lester. Lacking a maternal figure, Alice feels doubly clueless heading into adolescence and attempts to find a mother in teachers, aunts and Lester’s teenage girlfriends with their extensive knowledge of perms. Naylor follows Alice through 28 books — we see her teenage years to her adulthood in the last book. Naylor has described Alice as the daughter she never had, crafting her with love and reality.

I read the first book when I was in fourth grade. In the start of the year, the girl sitting across from me — my future best friend, Elizabeth — saw me reading it. I had just taken “The Agony of Alice” out of my desk when she leaned across the table. Elizabeth has always been one to play it cool, but this was way too important to be nonchalant. “Did you know that Phyllis Reynolds Naylor lives in our neighborhood?” I did not. But it made me feel even closer to Alice. Alice, who loved words and who got herself into awkward situations by thinking without speaking just like I did, was conceived two blocks away from where I was growing up.

The proximity of the author amplified my intense obsession with the books, but the origin of my infatuation with Alice was the message, because it was different from the simplistic didactic prose of other young adult I was reading, where themes of “being yourself” littered every page. But Alice doesn’t conform to that confining argument, instead embracing that change and uncertainty are necessary for growth. In “My So Called Life,” another inspirational and important form of teen media, the protagonist Angela proclaims with angst “People always say how you should be yourself, like yourself is a definitive thing, like a toaster or something.” This was a problem I encountered as a teenager and continue to experience — is there inauthenticity in perpetual change? “Alice” helped me mitigate this shame of not immediately knowing who we are and who we could be. My friends and I were never not going to be simulacra and Naylor knew that — but it felt like she loved us anyways. We could be whoever we wanted for as long as we wanted, and that was beautiful.

What truly made the “Alice” series different from other young adult books like “The Song of the Lioness” series or “The Babysitter’s Club” was its unabashed treatment of sex. I have the clearest memory of being 10 and reading one of the “Alice” books on a car trip with my family. Through Naylor’s rather graphic descriptions, I learned what oral sex was, and asked my mother if it was true because I genuinely could not believe it. After affirming that this aspect of sexuality was not a joke, she craned her head from the front seat with a perplexed look. “What? Rebecca, what are you reading?” Through the awkward sexual misadventures of Alice and her friend, Naylor, a self-described “enlightened grandmother,” the series strives to demystify sex and the taboos surrounding it. The expression of sexual development in “Alice” doesn’t follow a typical mold, especially in its focus on female pleasure and masturbation. Alice’s undaunted discussion of masturbation leads to more pleasurable sexual relations later in her life. In “Intensely Alice,” Alice and her boyfriend Patrick mutually masturbate on a park bench where she “guided his fingers just where I wanted them, showing him how hard to press and how fast to do it, and a few minutes later, in the dark of Botany Pond, I came.” Scenes like the one can be jarring but also informative for a young readership just learning about sex and relationships. Thankfully, my parents were either too busy or cool enough to let me continue reading the series, but its frank discussion of sex has made the “Alice” series one of the most frequently challenged series in schools and libraries in the United States.

The stories of Alice McKinley emulate the mores of young American women in a way that no other series has had the courage to. The narratives are taken from a myriad of sources  — from emails and letters from readers of “Alice” to Naylor’s own mother’s experiences in the early 20th century. In an interview with The New Yorker, Naylor aptly described that “What happened to women in 1914 still resonates in (the 21st century).”

When I told Elizabeth, who is now a sophomore at Vanderbilt University, that I was writing this column her first reaction was “I’M CRYING I LOVE YOU.” After calming down she said, “I remember ‘Alice’ because she had these really great two best friends. Maybe it’s not that different from other books but it felt very real and honest and they went through a lot. Their problems and experiences weren’t trivialized or made to seem immature — they felt authentic. Also, I think you should mention that Phyllis Reynolds Naylor gave out Almond Joys when we went trick or treating at her house.”

Through Alice, Naylor thoughtfully explores what it means to be a girl and a woman in public spaces and fearlessly lets her young female readers know that they have power in this world, a revolutionary act in any time period. In “The Agony of Alice,” Alice’s teacher and friend, Mrs. Plotkin, tells her that “we grow up whether we’re ready or not.” These words are terrifying in their inescapability but reflective of Naylor herself in their very nature — unafraid to inspire action in simplicity and truth.