Joan Bauer, who will be honored on Saturday, June 4, 2011 at the Printer’s Row Lit Fest with the Young Adult Literary Prize, says humor belongs next to sorrow. “It makes life palatable,” she observed. She speaks as someone who is highly aware of the palate. She loves to bake and writes so convincingly about food that I raided the refrigerator several times while reading about the adventures of Hope and her aunt, the award-winning chef.
Bauer and I talked by phone recently about her work. She has lived in Brooklyn for years but said that she feels that growing up in the Midwest gave her a sensibility that shines through in her writing. She likes the strong work ethic of Midwesterners, how they do what they say they will do, and the sense of neighborhood and community she felt as a child growing up in River Forest.
Bauer’s books are a welcome departure from what seems currently popular in young adult fiction—dystopias and vampires. Her characters face moments of truth and times of tense uncertainty but they come through these crises with humor and hope. In fact, hope is a recurring theme in Bauer’s work. She believes it’s worth the struggle to find hope because when we surround ourselves with hope, we become really strong. This is a lesson she would like young readers to take from her novels.
Bauer has a new book out, Close to Famous. The protagonist, Foster McFee, is an accomplished, self-taught baker who wants to be a famous TV chef. She cannot read, though, and hides this fact as best she can from everyone. She has been told she is dumb but she learns that she is able to do much more than she realizes, even finally becoming a real reader.
I asked Bauer how she came to write a story about a character with a learning disability. As a special education teacher, I am always looking for books that provide a balanced picture of a student with learning difficulties. It’s even better if the story is well written and not preachy. She said she isn’t always able to pinpoint how a character comes to her. Sometimes it is a snippet of dialogue or a story in the news that starts her thinking about a book. She often writes long biographies of her characters to get to know them. But all of them have idiosyncrasies and all of them have a humorous edge.
She said that all of her characters have something of herself in them too. She never had to struggle to read like Foster, but she has had other struggles in her life, so she could understand why Foster would try to hide her problem. But it was important that Foster face her problem because that is what we all have to do—face the fact that we are not as adept in some areas as others and accept that part of ourselves while at the same time not using our weaknesses as a crutch. It’s a hard balancing act.
I have not yet read Close to Famous, but I have read two other Bauer novels, Standing Tall and Hope was Here. What I like about her books is that the protagonists are believable, the challenges they face are realistic, there is both humor and sadness, and the plots move the stories along but character development is not sacrificed.
I also like that the adults in the stories are varied but there are always some who are trustworthy. It’s currently fashionable to portray all adults cynically in young adult books, but teens need to know that there are people they can rely on. Bauer and I talked about the importance of having adults in the stories who were role models because in real life young people need the experience and knowledge of older people, just as older people need the technological savvy and risk-taking of younger people. Literature needs to affirm the interdependence of the generations, not blot out the existence of anyone over 30.
I got teary as I read the ending to Hope was Here and I rarely cry. The grief was handled sensitively and the reactions of Hope, the main character, were courageous and poignant. I cared deeply about the characters and was rooting for Hope to develop the strength to make the most out of her father’s life.
One review on Amazon dismissed the ending of Close to Famous as “too picture-perfect.” Well, I think we need to balance the current diet of dystopias with something more positive. As President Obama has written, it is audacious to have hope for the future but having hope makes that future more likely.
For more information about Joan Bauer go to: http://www.joanbauer.com
More information about the Printers Row Lit Fest is available at: http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/books/printersrow