(Masterpieces of American Literature)

M. E. Kerr has often stated that she prefers to write about characters who are underdogs or outsiders in some sense, which is immediately apparent in her young adult fiction. Included among the “outsider” characters about whom she writes so convincingly are homosexuals (Night Kites and Deliver Us from Evie), Jewish people (If I Love You, Am I Trapped Forever?), dwarves (Little Little, 1981), obese teenagers (Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack!), and others.

Kerr’s young adult novels are often praised for their realistic portrayal of characters’ reactions to uncomfortable social situations. Part of this realism stems from the fact that many of her novels are written not from the social outcast’s point of view but that of characters close to them who are able to witness the social ostracism slightly more objectively and therefore apply what they learn to their own relationships. Kerr’s narrators often find themselves disillusioned with human nature and disappointed that people have difficulty accepting that which is different, even when that difference occurs in someone they love.

Perhaps another reason for Kerr’s success writing young-adult fiction lies in her ability to make her outcast characters sympathetic to readers by pitting them against the same kind of authority figures with whom readers may themselves struggle. For instance, in If I Love You, Am I Trapped Forever?, a student named Duncan Stein transfers into the main character’s high school and initially refuses to go out for sports or other traditional high school activities; this is something to which readers who do not enjoy or excel at sports might easily relate.

Another theme often addressed by Kerr is how families relate to one another, particularly in times of family crisis. In some novels, Kerr’s young adult characters have divorced parents, whereas in others they have parents who are married and who for the most part support each other but who often disagree where their children are concerned. For instance, in both Night Kites and Deliver Us from Evie, the parents of the homosexual characters have different levels of difficulty adjusting to their children’s sexual orientation and lifestyle. For the most part, Kerr’s fictional families try to come through for one another in times of crises, but family relationships are never portrayed as easy.

The emotional resonance of Kerr’s fiction, as well as her memorable and distinct characters, have helped her win over readers and earn a number of literary awards, including multiple citations as American Library Association notable books, School Library Journal’s best books of the year, and The New York Times’ outstanding books of the year. One of Kerr’s greatest strengths lies in her ability to analyze events and real people’s characteristics, as well as events from her own life, and turn them into fictional situations that transcend any given time period so that her work remains relevant for multiple generations.

If I Love You, Am I Trapped Forever?

First published: 1973

Type of work: Novel

Alan Bennett’s senior year is derailed by the arrival of Duncan Stein, a Jewish student who makes classmates question their values and traditions.

In If I Love You, Am I Trapped Forever?, high school athlete Alan Bennett is complacent about his relatively easy life, particularly since he has just started going steady with the popular and attractive Leah. He is completely unprepared for the arrival of Duncan Stein, a half-Jewish student whose parents open an alcoholism rehabilitation center on the outskirts of Alan’s small hometown. Utilizing a first-person, past-tense narrative from Alan’s point of view, the novel immediately creates suspense when Alan states that “unforeseen clouds are gathering in the distance,” thus leading the reader to wonder how and why Duncan’s arrival should affect Alan’s life so profoundly.

Duncan, whose classmates nickname him “Doomed” due to his unusual appearance and his lack of desire to “fit in,” refuses to go out for basketball despite his height and instead starts an underground newspaper that questions...

(The entire section is 1764 words.)