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Young Adult Fiction and Literary Freedom

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Two recent deaths in the literary world touched me.

The first was the passing away of E.L. Konigsburg, at 83. She was the author of many young-adult books, including the classic "From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler," for which she won the American Library Association's John Newbery Medal for distinguished children's literature (another of her books was the runner-up that same year!).

It's the story of two children - a brother and sister - who flee home and camp out at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Who doesn't sympathize with not running away but of luxuriating, even in secret, in the presence of great masterpieces of painting and sculpture? It's a tale of freedom, responsibility and the power of art. It's also about the power of being responsible for one's own actions. But the book never makes this really explicit, which is why it's still so readable. I'm always saddened by the death of a writer who was so popular, but also heartened when such a death receives notice in the nation's newspapers (the Times ran a big obituary and a follow-up story about the influence of Konigsberg's novel).

Young adult literature is among the most vibrant genres in publishing today, with a sales increase of 11% last year. And many people are entering the field, with actor Jason Segel being the latest to sign a deal to write a book for young people.

A good friend of mine belongs to a book group that concentrates on reading young-adult fiction. It's not that they're slumming - he tells me that his group is made up of writers, literary agents, editors and publishers - it's that these books speaks to them, as they do to many people. In his reading in general he doesn't avoid so-called adult fiction, or whatever that genre known as literary fiction entails. I think it's the emotional directness of the stories that appeals to him, rather than anything else. My friend said they don't look for morals (who does?) but rather a depiction of the world as it is, without the heavy message you sometimes get from some grownup fiction. Or you could simply say they happen to like these books. And they're free to choose what to read, and why not this kind of novel? Some people would have your choices limited, however.

Which brings me to the other death this week, that of Edward de Grazia, a lawyer who helped defeat government bans on racy books, in countering puritanical censorship in the cause of literary freedom. This is, of course, a far cry from young-adult fiction. De Grazia fought for the publication of, among other works, Henry Miller's explicit 1934 novel "Tropic of Cancer," which was cleared, in a manner of speaking, in 1961, by a Supreme Court ruling that overturned a 1957 ruling that had claimed that obscenity was not free speech.

In 1991, de Grazia published a book, too: "Girls Lean Back Everywhere: The Law of Obscenity and the Assault on Genius," which treats censorship and our First Amendment rights, as well as the rights of someone to make up his or her own mind.

Konigsberg was a very fine writer who considered herself an outsider, and thus ideally suited to the life of a writer. De Grazia was a lawyer and teacher who fought for the inclusion of writing considered outsider, or obscene, by those who recoil at frankness or even the broaching of sensitive subjects.

We're much better off for the efforts of both: the writer and the lawyer who defended writers' right to write. Both the act of writing, and the defense of it, require great acts of courage: to lay yourself out there for all to see and to protect the brave artist who dares to do that.