Barbara Wersba Nicholas Tucker - Essay

Nicholas Tucker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[A] rare but … frank mention of what now seems to have become a forbidden topic occurs in Barbara Wersba's quite delightful Tunes for a Small Harmonica. Here, the 16-year-old heroine J. F. asks her best friend Marylou if they could try kissing "in the name of science" to establish whether J. F. was properly gay or not. But although the kiss is passionate, J. F. feels nothing, and concentrates instead on her new love for her weedy English teacher, Harold Murth. When all her efforts fail in this direction too, she again decides that "Only sex could make us forget that we were teacher and pupil, adolescent and adult. In my mind's eye, I saw us lying in bed smoking cigarets and talking about our lives, sharing confidences. The only trouble was that my mind's eye could not get our clothes off. We lay in bed completely dressed." The attempted seduction is yet another flop, described once more in that bantering, witty style that American writers can always seem to pull off so much more deftly than their counterparts in Britain…. (p. 77)

Nicholas Tucker, "School Stories, 1970–80," in Children's literature in education, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Summer), 1982, pp. 73-9 [the excerpt of Barbara Wersba's material used here was originally published in her Tunes for a Small Harmonica, Harper & Row, 1976, The Bodley Head, 1979].∗