Biography and Awards

M. E. Kerr is one of the pen names used by Marijane Meaker, born May 27, 1927 in Auburn, NY to Ida T. and Ellis R. Meaker.  Other pen names include Mary James, M. J. Meaker, Vin Packer and Ann Aldrich. She also writes under her own name Marijane Meaker. She spent her childhood in Auburn, and more can be read on this topic in ME ME ME ME ME: Not a Novel.  One of the books M. E. Kerr notes reading and being moved by as a child is Carson McCullers’ Member of the Wedding. In 1943, M. E. Kerr was sent to Stuart Hall, a boarding school in Virginia.  Upon graduation, she found that due to her questionable recommendations from Stuart Hall and her less than stellar academic record, her plans to go to college were not actualized immediately.  However, it all worked out as she went to Vermont Junior College (1945) for a year and then attended the University of Missouri (1946-49) where she majored in English literature.  She then moved to New York where she roomed with some college friends, Alpha Delta Pi sorority sisters. It was during this time she got her lucky break and sold her first writing piece as Laura Winston to the magazine Ladies’ Home Journal.  After establishing her career as a writer, under various pen names, most notably mystery thriller author Vin Packer, she was motivated and encouraged by her friend Louise Fitzhugh, author of Harriet the Spy, to embark on her career as M. E. Kerr.  She was also inspired to write young adult literature after reading Paul Zindel’s The Pigman. Her first book as M. E. Kerr, Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack!, was published in 1972.

After many years of living in New York City, M. E. Kerr decided to move to East Hampton, NY, where she presently resides and teaches writing classes at the Ashawagh Hall Writers’ Workshop.  Her instructional book, Blood on the Forehead: What I Know About Writing (1998), arose in part from these experiences as a writing instructor. Notably, in 1993, M. E. Kerr received a lifetime achievement award in the form of the Margaret A. Edwards Award from the Young Adult Library Services Association of the American Library Association. Also of interest, in 1990, M. E. Kerr wrote under the pen name of Mary James and wrote the first of a series of books geared at a slightly younger audience.  It wasn’t until 1994, after her third book in the series, that she let her readers know on the cover she was also known as M. E. Kerr. These books, ShoebagThe Shuteyes, Frankenlouse and Shoebag Returns, have earned her an even bigger fan base.

As M. E. Kerr, she has written numerous works of fiction for adolescents.  Her young adult works are much acclaimed for their style, honesty and wit.  In her writing, she draws from her memories of her youth, combining them with her active imagination and impressive research skills developed from her experiences in journalism.  These memories include her antics growing up in upstate New York – life with her parents and two brothers, her escapades with her friends – platonic and romantic, experiences at boarding school and being part of a sorority. She also finds inspiration in her experiences, observations and interactions as an adult. For example, Seaside, NY, the fictional setting for several of her books, is actually a community based on her own in East Hampton, NY.

In her work, there is ample evidence that Kerr’s effort to keep her finger on the pulse of young America isn’t all for naught.  She has admitted to being an avid fan of rock music, among other elements of pop and youth culture.  Kerr’s book titles and character names are catchy and well thought out.  Her books appeal to boys and girls alike as protagonists of both genders are distributed throughout her works. However, she has said that upon hearing from teachers that girls will read either voice but boys prefer male protagonists, she has tried to stick with male narrators in her books to even the odds.  Also of interest, she is said to have learned at some point that boys, while enjoying her writing, were reluctant to carry around books with “love” on the cover.  Since then, Kerr has taken care to avoid using “love” in titles and has always tried to have a hand in the design of her book covers, steering towards illustrations with appeal to readers of all ages.

The primary issues Kerr deals with in her books are the development, function and description of relationships between her characters.  The relationships that arise are familial, student-teacher, peer/friend and of course, romantic;  she often writes of first loves in general.  The themes that arise in her books are serious ones, though not without comic and entertaining aspects.  Kerr enjoys injecting humor into her writing – an element that is not lost on her audience, younger and older.  She also makes effort to update issues and make them relevant to the times, such as in Linger, when she addresses the topic of the Gulf War.  At the same time, her fresh perspective is mingled with recurring themes and personalities throughout her body of work resulting in a sense of continuity and familiarity for her readers.

Nilson (1997) discusses M. E. Kerr’s persistence and strength in portraying and supporting “the underdog” in her work. Tolerance, prejudices, denial and acceptance of different kinds of people with different backgrounds, beliefs, lifestyles and socio-economic statuses are topics apparent in all of her books, by both M. E. Kerr and Mary James. For example, The Shuteyes, written as Mary James, is about a planet where sleeping is considered unnatural, and those who shut their eyes are persecuted and punished. However, some members of the population need to sleep and sometimes resort to secret snoozing. Kerr/James has said her aim in writing this story was to show “the ridiculousness of prejudice” (Nilsen, 1996, p. 496).

Religion and religious differences are common themes such as in Him She Loves? and What I Really Think of You. In Little Little, the main characters are dwarves, who describe their life experiences as being part of a minority group. Race issues are addressed in Love is a Missing Person though Kerr has said she would portray her black characters with less stereotype if she could re-write the book today. Class issues and classism are common underlying themes as Kerr often contrasts blue collar, middle class and upper class teens and families as well as the attitudes members of each class have about others. Linger is a good example of portrayal of class issues within a small community. Also, in Gentlehands and Hello, I Lied, the protagonists are middle class while their love interests (of sorts) are super rich.

Sexuality and sexual orientation are topics touched upon and explored in varying degrees of detail though never as explicitly as say Judy Blume’s Forever (a seminal work nonetheless). Kerr has a way with words that is neither embarrassing nor patronizing when it comes to the subject of hormonal urges and desires. Her much-acclaimed Deliver Us From Evie directly raises many different areas and questions about sexual orientation. Evie’s family is half in denial that she’s in a meaningful romantic relationship with another young woman. The young man who fancies her thinks it’s just a passing stage. Her mother looks for causes and sources to blame for Evie’s preferences. For any readers, themes of prejudice and tolerance will call out to them. And for gay and lesbian teens, situations and characters in some of Kerr’s works might ring true with their own experiences.

M. E. Kerr has said that living through World War II has contributed to the psyche of her generation and influenced her writing as well. The government required that her father’s mayonnaise factory produce a product for the army. He did not want to produce munitions so he chose to produce dehydrated onions for soldiers’ rations. M. E. Kerr said that entire town smelled like onions and everyone blamed the Meakers. Her father told the town that when they smelled onions, they should pray for peace thus underscoring the patriotic duty he was doing. Slap Your Sides introduces the idea of a C.I. or Conscientious Objector in WWII. Stars in Your Eyes again takes place in a prison town, similar to the one M. E. Kerr grew up in, and takes place at the cusp of WWII. The ideas of friendship, rivalry and underground workers helping Jews in Germany are all touched upon. Someone Like Summer takes place during more recent wars and raises the ideas of immigrants receiving green cards for serving in the military. As noted earlier, Linger also addresses this time period and the issues of PTSD.

In sum, M. E. Kerr keeps her readers on their toes with the introduction of thought-provoking issues and captivating characters and on the edge of their seats with anticipation for what she’s going to come up with next. To date, the works of M. E. Kerr have been translated into Catalan, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Spanish and Swedish. Her writing transcends languages while her themes of adolescence across time periods, across genders, across classes and religions, are universal.

To learn more details about M. E. Kerr’s background and works under other pen names, her autobiography of sorts, ME ME ME ME ME: Not a Novel and Alleen Pace Nilsen’s Presenting M. E. Kerr, both the original and updated editions, are excellent resources.

The above includes information available in the following:
Gale Research Inc. (1998)  Eleventh Writer’s Directory.
Kerr, M. E. (1998)  Blood on the Forehead: What I Know About Writing.  New York:  HarperCollinsPublishers.
Kerr, M. E. (1984)  ME ME ME ME ME: Not a Novel.  New York:  Penguin.
Koh, M. M. E. Kerr:  A critical perspective.  Unpublished manuscript.  Teachers College, Columbia University.
Nilsen, A. P. (1997)   Presenting M. E. Kerr.  Boston:  Twayne.
—–(1986) Presenting M. E. Kerr.  Boston:  Twayne.
Nilsen, A. P. (1996)   M.E. Kerr: Awakening her readers.  Para Doxa, 2(3-4), 494-505.

AWARDS AND HONORS RECEIVED BY M. E. KERR

YOUR EYES IN STARS is on the list for the 2007 New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age

SLAP YOUR SIDES voted one of the 10 best books about religion in 2002 by Booklist and nominated for the Oklahoma Library Association Young Adult Book Award, along with 9 others. Winners to be announced in Feb. ’03

SLAP YOUR SIDES selected for New York Public Library “Books for the Teen Age” 2002 List

ALAN (Lifetime Achievement Award) 2000, Assembly on Literature for Adolescents, National Council of Teachers of English

The Knickerbocker (Lifetime Achievement Award) 1999, The New York State Library Association

DINKY HOCKER SHOOTS SMACK
School Library Journal asked a team of experts* to select the 20th century’s 100 most significant books for children and young adults, and Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack was included on the list. *(Karen Breen, Ellen Fader, Kathleen Odean, and Zena Sutherland), School Library Journal, 2000
Best of the Best Books (YA) 1970-1983, ALA
Best Children’s Books of 1972, School Library Journal
    ALA Notable Children’s Books of 1972
Cited for Margaret A. Edwards Award, 1993

IF I LOVE YOU, AM I TRAPPED FOREVER?
Honor Book, Book World Children’s Spring Book Festival, 1973
Outstanding Children’s Books of 1973, New York Times

THE SON OF SOMEONE FAMOUS
Best Children’s Books of 1975, School Library Journal
Best of the Best 1966-1978, School Library Journal

IS THAT YOU, MISS BLUE?
Outstanding Children’s Books of 1975, New York Times
ALA Notable Children’s Books of 1975
Best Books for Young Adults, 1975, ALA

I’LL LOVE YOU WHEN YOU’RE MORE LIKE ME
Best Children’s Books of 1977, School Library Journal

Best of the Best Books 1966-1992, ALA
Best Books for Young Adults, 1978, ALA
ALA Notable Children’s Books of 1978
Best Children’s Books of 1978, School Library Journal
Winner, 1978 Christopher Award
New York Times
Cited for Margaret A. Edwards Award, 1993

LITTLE LITTLE
ALA Notable Children’s Books of 1981
Best Books for Young Adults, 1981, ALA
Best Books of 1981, School Library Journal
Winner, 1981 Golden Kite Award, Society of Children’s Book Writers

WHAT I REALLY THINK OF YOU
Best Books of 1982, School Library Journal

ME ME ME ME ME: NOT A NOVEL
Best Books for Young Adults, 1983
Cited for Margaret A. Edwards Award, 1993

I STAY NEAR YOU
Best Books for Young Adults, 1985

NIGHT KITES
Best of the Best Books 1966-1980, ALA
Best Books for Young Adults, 1986, ALA
    Booklist Editor’s Choice, 1987
Recommended Books for Reluctant YA Readers, 1987, ALA
1992 California Young Reader Award
Cited for Margaret A. Edwards Award, 1993

FELL
Best Books for Young Adults, 1987, ALA
    Booklist Editor’s Choice, 1987

FELL BACK
Finalist, 1990 Edgar Allan Poe Award, Best Young Adult Mystery (Mystery Writers of America)

FELL DOWN
ALA Booklist books for Youth Editors Choices, 1991

DELIVER US FROM EVIE
The Best Young Adult Novels of the ’90s: Deliver Us From Evie was in the top 12 in a National Council of English Teachers’ Assembly on Literature for Adolescents survey, as reported in VOYA, February 2000
Best Books for Young Adults, 1995, ALA
    Booklist Editors’ Choice, 1994
Recommended Books for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, 1995, ALA
    Horn Book Fanfare Honor List, 1995
Best Books 1994, School Library Journal
    1994 Best Book Honor Award, Michigan Library Association