Norma Fox Mazer Essay - Critical Essays

Mazer, Norma Fox


Norma Fox Mazer 1931–

American novelist and short story writer.

In her fiction, Mazer presents people of all ages, socioeconomic classes, and family backgrounds grappling with common dilemmas and emotional conflicts. She strives to give her readers an accurate representation of the world in which they live, but her view is neither bleakly pessimistic nor unduly optimistic. Mazer's stance is one of confident humanism, which is reflected in her characters' heightened awareness and control over their lives.

In her early novel, A Figure of Speech, which won the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1973, Mazer portrays an adolescent girl's sympathy and respect for her grandfather's desire to preserve his independence and dignity. Mazer has been especially praised for her short stories. Dear Bill, Remember Me? and Summer Girls, Love Boys, and Other Short Stories are both considered outstanding collections.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72 and Something about the Author, Vol. 24.)

Hildagarde Gray

[In A Figure of Speech, fine], strong affection based on a mutual need presents a plea for our reconsideration of today's old people. Jenny has felt an unwanted child all her thirteen years. When her "thoroughly middle-class" family starts a campaign along lines of what's best for eighty-three-year-old Grandpa, Jenny is personally wounded. She has shared most of her hours with the old man, who was alert, interested in life, and no trouble to anyone.

Details of the story are unimportant here; the point driven home with tremendous force is a painful, but proven, one—when we feel we are no longer needed, we begin to atrophy, physically and emotionally—a theory shown to be fact, repeatedly, in institutions and "old folks homes."

A pitiable attempt to regain dignity and youthful independence leads Grandpa and Jenny on a chase to recapture a bygone day—one best left to be re-lived in his strong mind, not to be attempted by the worn-out flesh.

Very good—moving without becoming maudlin—and deserving of a place in non-fiction sections because it speaks the truth about our contemporary selfishness and ingratitude.

Hildagarde Gray, in her review of "A Figure of Speech," in Best Sellers (copyright 1973, by the University of Scranton), Vol. 33, No. 16, November 15, 1973, p. 382.

Jill Paton Walsh

In "A Figure of Speech" Jenny Pennoyer loves her Grandpa, and finds it tough to get along with the rest of her family. This is hardly surprising, considering what a selfish lot they are. Grandpa lives in the basement, which is damp, but at least it keeps him out of the way. Only Jenny visits with him…. [And] she is horrified at [her family's] fussy and humiliating attitude toward him.

The crisis comes when Jenny's brother drops out of college and comes home with a young wife, and the couple look covetously at Grandpa's basement apartment…. [They] move him upstairs to share a bedroom with Jenny's teen-age brother—where Grandpa is even more in the way.

When the old man asserts himself by running away, back to his remembered past, Jenny goes with him to share the last days of his life. "Didn't suffer a bit," say her parents, talking about his death. "A real comfort to us that he went so easily." But then they have a cozy figure of speech to cover up the truth about anything….

["A Figure of Speech"], written in a quiet, remorselessly realistic style, [is] … infused with a deeply felt compassion and humanity. And yet [it does not quite rise] … to the importance of its subject. Death is always a mystery; when it comes it is a cataclysmic finality. Rightly perhaps, [Norma Mazer concentrates] … on those aspects of aging that can be avoided…. "If we'd thought of it in time, we might have saved him," says Jenny's mother. But the truth is that no one can be saved from death—either his own, or another's. Children, too, must face this; it is one of the conditions of life….

[Yet] "A Figure of Speech" comes [close] to the heart of things…. [The book] offers us an image of death itself: an old man lying in the attitude of sleep on the wet grass under an apple tree.

Jill Paton Walsh, in her review of "A Figure of Speech," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 17, 1974, p. 8.

Mary M. Burns

[In A Figure of Speech] the euphemisms which cloak the attitudes of the middle-aged and the young toward the elderly are presented as a series of shabby self-deceptions…. [The book's narrator, Jenny,] has always felt alienated from her short-sighted, thoroughly middle-class family. Her one bulwark is her grandfather, who came to live with the family the year Jenny was born and, feeling as unwanted as she, virtually raised her to adolescence. Shifting the focus between Jenny and her grandfather, the narrative chronicles the climactic weeks in the crowded Pennoyer household following the elder son's arrival with his new bride. His indulgent parents plan to move the old man into a nursing home so that the young couple can have the basement apartment. The denouement is tragic, not simply because the old man dies but because Jenny cannot reconcile her family's post-mortem commentaries with their actions toward the man who had once lived with them. The subordinate characters are seen primarily from Jenny's and the grandfather's points of view; they are one-dimensional types, hypocritical and unlikeable…. Yet, the tendency toward melodramatic oversimplification is offset by the significance of the situation and by the crusty personality of grandfather, who refuses to "go gentle into that good night." (pp. 152-53)

Mary M. Burns, in her review of "A Figure of Speech," in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1974 by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), Vol. L, No. 2, April, 1974, pp. 152-53.

Barbara Wersba

Consider for a moment this plot: a 14-year-old girl who lives in a crowded city is by accident swept back into the primeval past. A world of cave men. At first horrified, she gradually learns to become one of them, discovers the joys and sorrows of primitive life and finds that she has bridged a metaphysical river where past, present and future are one. Suddenly she is returned to the modern world, but no one believes in her journey…. She is sent to a psychologist and learns to behave like a "normal" person. But the memory of an earlier, more beautiful life haunts her, and she prays never to forget, never to become ordinary…. Her story ends on a note of pain.

In synopsis, I find this idea fascinating. But in Norma Fox Mazer's rendition something has gone wrong. It is not only that ["Saturday, the Twelfth of October"] is too long …, but that the mechanics which make it work are not dramatic. All science fiction and fantasy demand a crisis through which a human being can journey from one world to another. But our young heroine's dilemma is no more crucial than the fact that her brother and his friends have read her diary (a document fraught with the fear of menstruation). Enraged by this, she flees to a nearby park, leans against an ancient boulder—and is transported back to a world of innocence.

The premise does not succeed, and no one is sorrier than I, for Mrs. Mazer is a dazzling writer and brings to her work a literacy that would be admirable in any type of fiction. Her sense of character and place are expert, her use of suspense masterly and her descriptive powers superb. But one wonders why menstruation looms so largely in the plot, why it has been chosen as a device to show the innocence of the cave people and the frozen sophistication of the girl. One also wonders why—over and again—biological realism is forced upon stories that do not need it. (pp. 12, 14)

Barbara Wersba, in her review of "Saturday, the Twelfth of October," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 19, 1975, pp. 12, 14.

Jack Forman

To escape [from the anxieties of modern life, Zan, the heroine in Saturday, the Twelfth of October,] fantasizes a world in the Stone Age, complete with a new language and primitive culture. Zan gradually becomes accustomed to her new life in this primitive world, and the adventures which emerge from this unexplained time jump provide a fascinating and completely believable story within a story. Mazer never lets readers know for sure whether Zan's experience is real or schizophrenic escape, and the characters are developed with skill and understanding in both the primitive society and Zan's everyday world. An intriguing and compelling mixture of science fiction and fantasy.

Jack Forman, in his review of "Saturday, the Twelfth of October," in School Library Journal (reprinted from the November, 1975 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co./A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1975), Vol. 22, No. 3, November, 1975, p. 93.

Tom Heffernan

The fine definition of all characters, the plausibility of the situations and the variety of realistic insights into motivation make [A Figure of Speech] almost too good to be true. There is no point at which it passes into an area of depiction or explanation that would exceed the experience of a young adolescent. But there is also no point at which the psychological perceptiveness and narrative control would disappoint an adult reader.

It is hard to say whether the story would be more poignant to a young or old reader. The child may read with a strong identification with Jenny as victim; the adult will probably read with appreciation of the exposure of the stupid, attritive family conflicts....

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[A] fantasy that makes for exciting reading is Saturday the Twelfth of October. Zan Ford is a fourteen-year-old growing up in today's New York City complete with muggings, family squabbles, and impersonal relationships. Through an unexplained time warp, Zan is removed from Mechanix Park and set down in the same spot during the Stone Age. She is in almost a Garden of Eden. There is laughter, honesty, and people touching and relating to each other. When tempers flair, a hollering match is held to relieve tension and solve the problem. But as the story unfolds, violence and selfishness are introduced through a shiny knife that Zan happened to have in her pocket when she went through the time warp. Whether or not...

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Pamela D. Pollack

["Dear Bill, Remember Me?" and Other Stories contains eight] stories that turn on small moments of defiance or determination. Mazer is at her best dissecting all-female families—in "Peter in the Park," an intense tale of breaking out of maternal bondage, or in the splendidly ironic "Guess Whose Loving Hands," in which an uncosmeticized cancer victim is cheated of an honest acknowledgement of her impending death by her ministering mother and sister. The women are drawn with every nuance and even a smothering mother is not without sympathy. Unfortunately, the men have a limited range, tending to be jellyfish, skunks, or dark horses, e.g., the men in "Chocolate Pudding" are spineless wino Dad and a reverse snob who's...

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Kirkus Reviews

Short story collections at this level are scarce, and when a good one … does appear on a YA list it often seems to have wound up there by default…. [Mazer's stories in Dear Bill, Remember Me?] are clearly broadcast on a young teenager's wavelength, with the signal unobtrusively amplified as in good YA novels; and just as clearly, Mazer appreciates the short story form, with its narrow focus and spotlit moments, where others might do up the same material as diluted novels. Except for "Zelzah," a resilient immigrant of "long ago," these are sympathetic views of ordinary, contemporary girls and their relationships with mothers and new boyfriends. In the funniest, and shrewdest, a socially insecure girl ends up...

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Ann A. Flowers

In [Dear Bill, Remember Me? and Other Stories] the heroines are all young girls, each passing through a crisis in search of her own particular freedom. A certain similarity among the stories is noticeable; many of the mothers are rather protective and most of the girls are fatherless or have ineffectual or unfeeling fathers. Individually, however, each girl's struggle to reach her goal is realistic in the presentation of the options now open to young people. Zoe in "Peter in the Park" is almost suffocated by the excessive love and understanding of her grandmother, her mother, and her aunt; her mild rebellion in the form of a late-night walk in the park brings her a sense of satisfaction…. Tart and amusing...

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Joyce Milton

The best that can be said about The Solid Gold Kid is that the authors have hit on a plot with 14-carat potential. The mass kidnapping of five teenagers, previously strangers, is a premise that's virtually guaranteed to keep youngsters turning pages.

The solid gold kid himself is Derek Chapman, the lonely, insecure son of a self-made millionaire. While waiting for a bus outside the gates of his private school, Derek unsuspectingly hitches a ride with Pearl and Bogie, a self-styled Bonnie and Clyde who have been planning to kidnap him for a cool half-million in ransom. Just as innocently, Derek invites five townies who happen to be standing at the bus stop to share the back of the van with him....

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Ethel L. Heins

[The Solid Gold Kid is] a skillfully written and credibly plotted suspense story with fascinating psychological overtones…. At the mercy of a vicious, sadistic couple,… five young people—three boys and two girls—endure days of agonizing imprisonment and live through unspeakable physical and mental torture. Several times they nearly escape, and once they come within a hairsbreadth of being cremated alive; one of the girls is shot and severely wounded, and the other risks her life in a perilous but vain attempt to free the captives. The teenagers, from diverse racial and social backgrounds, are incisively individualized characters; closely confined and under the pressure of constant terror, their...

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Patty Campbell

Not since [Maureen Daly's] Seventeenth Summer have the agonies and yearnings of sexual avoidance been presented so vividly as in Up in Seth's Room…. [The relationship of Seth and Finn] soon develops into a grotesque battle over whether she is willing to let him—as they used to say in the sex manuals—achieve penetration. She accepts every other form of intimacy with cheerful enthusiasm, but protects her technical virginity with hysterical zeal. This medieval attitude has evidently been absorbed from Finn's parents, who regard her older sister's cohabitation as a terrible tragedy. In the end, Finn and Seth go off into the sunset, after working out a method of satisfaction for him. (It doesn't seem to...

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[In Up in Seth's Room, fifteen year old Finn] feels confident that she wants to remain a virgin despite pressure to "go all the way"…. [It] is not until Finn meets handsome Seth … that her attitude is put to the test. Ignoring prohibitions from her disapproving family …, Finn begins to see Seth in secret and the two develop real feelings for each other. Their sexual relationship is limited to kissing and petting until Seth finds his own apartment when matters rapidly change. After an encounter that stops just short of force, the pair realizes that Seth has interpreted Finn's resistance as a challenge to his masculinity. The knowledge affects them both, forcing Finn to weigh her romantic attachment to Seth...

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Kirkus Reviews

[Up in Seth's Room presents a] cliché situation, with some goopy descriptions of sexual bliss and what might well be seen as a ludicrous solution in these days when technical virginity has pretty much lost its cachet. But one can imagine other girls becoming involved in Finn's lonely battles (defying her parents, disagreeing with Vida, resisting Seth). And the fact that different readers can come out of this taking different sides—Finn's, Seth's, even the parents'—attests to Mazer's skill in giving the single-issue story some human contours.

A review of "Up in Seth's Room," in Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1979 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), Vol. XLVII, No. 23,...

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Karel Rose

[A Figure of Speech is] a tragic novel about the continuing deterioration of a "senior citizen" and the family's plan to move him into an "old folks" home. Living in a basement apartment in his son's house, the old grandfather refuses to submit to the arrangements that are being made for his life. His confidante and dear friend is his granddaughter Jenny, and the very thought of her dispels his self pity. "Of course he had a reason to get out of bed every morning. Jenny. She was his reason."

The language interchanges in the book are exciting. The old man always fights for what is real in language and life, rejecting the euphemisms applied to him. He refuses, for example, to be categorized as a...

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Jean Fritz

[Up in Seth's Room] is strictly for teenagers, although the under-12 Judy Blume crowd will probably sniff it out.

The questions we follow relentlessly from beginning to end are the perennial ones of adolescence: Will she or won't she? And what's it like? Fifteen-year-old Finn says she won't. It's too soon, she's too young, and she's not ready…. Seth, who is 19 (old enough and definitely ready) is the brother of the man that Finn's older sister is living with. "Living in sin," as far as the parents are concerned.

Well, to make a long story short, everyone should be pleased with the outcome. Finn sticks to her guns, although the fact that she "doesn't" is hardly more than a...

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Laura Geringer

[Mrs. Fish, Ape, and Me, the Dump Queen] is told from the point of view of Joyce, orphaned ward of her uncle Ape Man, the town trash collector. Mocked and ostracized by other children for her association with rubbish …, she lives a sheltered routine with her surly, diamond-in-the-rough guardian…. But when the sturdy isolationist has a stroke, the girl enlists the aid of fat Mrs. Fish, the cleaning lady at school…. In the ailing giant's rude behavior, the lonely custodian sees buried gallantry…. The trio become an odd family in the end and the young heroine … is finally able to share her Swiss cheese sandwich with a new friend. The tone here is self-conscious and contrived. People fly into rages, sing...

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Ruth M. Stein

Dumps seem to be popping up frequently in juvenile literature this year. [The one in Mrs. Fish, Ape, and Me, The Dump Queen] is the Queenship Town Dump, whose smells and sights come alive under Mazer's deft pen. "Ape" is what people call Old Dad, Joyce's uncle in charge of the dump. Mrs. Fish is the temporary custodian in Joyce's school who befriends the lonely girl. How life becomes more bearable for all is the ordinary theme made extraordinary by well-delineated characters and the proper mixture of laughter and tears.

Ruth M. Stein, in her review of "Mrs. Fish, Ape, and Me, The Dump Queen" (copyright © 1981 by the National Council of Teachers of English; reprinted by...

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Leonore Gordon

Steadfastly maintaining self-respect in spite of their derogation by others, the three protagonists [of Mrs Fish, Ape, and Me, the Dump Queen]—Joyce, "Ole Dad" and Mrs. Fish—have a great deal to teach readers of any age.

Joyce, the central character who tells the story, lives with her uncle, Ole Dad, in a garbage dump, of which he is the caretaker. Together, they recycle old garbage into useful forms, critically eyeing the materialism and wastefulness of others. Ole Dad is a positive, nurturing single male parent, still a rarity in children's books.

Each of the three central characters must face the challenge of enduring the age-old sport of name-calling, and children who...

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Karen Ritter

Considering all the recent publicity about divorced parents who kidnap their own children, there was certain to be a juvenile novel on the subject sooner or later. And [Taking Terri Mueller] is a good one, not just capitalizing on that gimmick—in fact, readers don't learn until halfway through the book what has actually happened—but developing strong characters and a plot that involves the kidnapping angle as a basic element. Terri has always been told that her mother died when she was four years old, and since her father has effectively cut off all contact with most of their relatives …, Terri has no sources of information on her family. Terri and her father apparently have a warm, loving, open...

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Ilene Cooper

[In Taking Terri Mueller,] thirteen-year-old Terri and her father, Phil, have an almost idyllic relationship…. Terri has no reason to doubt what her father has told her about her mother's death in an auto accident nine years before…. Through snooping and pressuring her father, she learns the truth—that when her mother planned to remarry and move abroad, Phil kidnapped Terri. The ramifications of that disclosure and Terri's eventual reunion with her mother comprise the rest of this well-written, fast-paced story. For a book that begins so benignly, amazing emotional depths are reached. Strong characterizations on all sides make Terri's eventual decision about who she will live with realistically...

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Kliatt Young Adult Paperback Book Guide

Mazer became interested in writing a novel about children who have been kidnapped after divorce when she learned that about 25,000 children each year are stolen from one parent by the other parent. [In Taking Terri Mueller] Terri Mueller is just such a child. For eight years she has believed that her mother died in a car crash. Now that she is thirteen, she begins to notice certain discrepancies in her father's story, and she asks questions. At times, it appears that she has opened up a Pandora's box—her knowledge causes even more suffering and division. Mazer has looked at the issue from all angles and successfully conveys the overwhelming emotional impact inherent in the situation. Readers will readily...

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Dick Abrahamson

[Taking Terri Mueller] is one of Norma Mazer's best. Terri moves from town to town with her father. Their relationship is one of mutual love and friendship. As Terri grows older, she begins to question the secrecy and frequency of their moves across the country….

Terri eavesdrops on a conversation between her father and her aunt and finds out that her mother is not dead as she'd been told. She also finds that her father kidnapped her after her mother was granted child custody. Mazer does a fine job of taking Terri through the emotional ups and downs caused by her discovery. She wants to contact her mother, but she's afraid her father will be jailed. She's mad at him for denying her a...

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Kirkus Reviews

If the title [of Summer Girls, Love Boys and Other Short Stories] turns you off, the first story, cast as a series of unsent letters to a boy the girl writer is stuck on, will confirm the worst. It's pure teen-romance drivel. The title story is tuned to the same wave-length, though less sappy and possessed of more elements: 15-year-old Mary's doting older parents, her weak stab at independence, a charming boy who gives her rides on his motorcycle but openly admits his love for another girl, the boy's attractive father who eventually shocks Mary by kissing her, and her aching, on her sadder-because-wiser sixteenth birthday, "to still be fifteen—oh! To still be fifteen!" The other entries are so obvious and one...

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Stephanie Zvirin

[Summer Girls, Love Boys and Other Short Stories is a] satisfying collection of nine short stories sandwiched together between two poems reflecting on parent/teen relationships also written by Mazer. Featuring female protagonists, the stories mix the bitter and the sweet of life while encompassing a variety of narrative techniques, settings, themes, and tones. For example, in "Avie Loves Ric Forever," Mazer uses letters, a device she employed in the title story of her last collection, Dear Bill, Remember Me?…, to record the ache of a teenager's unrequited love; in "Do You Really Think It's Fair?" she writes a kind of extended monologue to depict a teenager verbalizing her feelings about her sister's...

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C. Nordhielm Wooldridge

[The stories in Summer Girls, Love Boys and Other Short Stories] are bound by locale, Greene Street; but with one peripheral exception the characters do not cross the boundaries of their individual stories. Four center on a first love…. Three protagonists face or cause crises…. The spotlight that swings through this neighborhood sympathetically catches women of all ages at various junctures in life and gives equal time to puppy love, marriage and death because all carry equal significance at the moment they occur. If there is an overall message here it is that Mazer can really write a short story.

C. Nordhielm Wooldridge, in his review of "Summer Girls, Love Boys and...

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Kirkus Reviews

Jenny and Rob: as Jenny's friend Rhoda points out, their initials are the same as Romeo and Juliet's. Their situation [in When We First Met] is similar too. Jenny Pennoyer and Rob Montana are drawn to each other on first sight, then realize that Rob's mother was the driver who hit and killed Jenny's sister Gail two years earlier. Knowing how her mother nurses her grief and her grudge against Mrs. Montana …, Jenny resists Rob's overtures. Eventually however they fall in love. At first Jenny keeps the relationship from her family, and she breaks with Rob later when it seems too much for the Pennoyers. But finally, after Mrs. Montana attempts suicide and Rob is seen with another girl, Jenny decides that she must...

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Ethel R. Twichell

A single neighborhood is apparently the setting for [Summer Girls, Love Boys and Other Short Stories, a collection of] nine short stories that are otherwise unrelated and are uneven in quality. Among the best of them is "How I Run Away and Make My Mother Toe the Line," in which a young girl—big, mouthy, and prickly about her rights—runs away from her weary, bossy mother, only to realize on her return a grudging respect and love for Mom. In the story the author has successfully used the rhythms and cadences of street talk to reveal character and plot. Another good tale, "Down Here on Greene Street," again shows the author using specific speech patterns and details of food, dress, and furniture with a sure...

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Publishers Weekly

[When We First Met] is plotted on a situation that a less sure hand would reduce to a soap opera. But the award-winning author invests the ordinary people in her story with realism and draws readers into lives tragically altered when Nell Montana is convicted of drunken driving and fatally injuring Gail Pennoyer. Two years later, Gail's sister Jenny, 16, and Rob Montana meet and fall in love, despite their shock at realizing his mother is the object of the Pennoyer family's implacable hatred. Jenny and Rob meet secretly for a time, until he persuades her to introduce him to her parents, an occurrence with shattering results. Mazer adroitly handles ensuing developments and earns one's admiration for making each...

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Gary H. Paterson

Credibility of plot is essential [in a realistic novel]. In Norma Fox Mazer's depiction of old age in A Figure of Speech …, Jenny tries to protect her grandfather from being sent off to a nursing home. The actual portrayal of the home is a fine caricature of the stereotype of efficiency at the cost of personal identity that persists even to-day, but caricature is not realism. Quite obviously, the plot depends upon saving grandfather from the nightmarish nursing home, so the novelist's solution is to create an inappropriate one. To me, this is an example of realism cheating. (p. 30)

Gary H. Paterson, "Perspectives on the New Realism in Children's Literature," in...

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Suzanne Freeman

It's not hard to see why Norma Fox Mazer has found a place among the most popular writers for young adults these days. At her best, Mazer can cut right to the bone of teenage troubles and then show us how the wounds will heal. She can set down the everyday scenes of her characters' lives in images that are scalpel-sharp. In Mazer's books, we find lovers who cheat and fathers who cry. We find elephant jokes and pink champagne. We find college students who live in apartments which smell of cats and we find high school kids who walk through corridors which smell of "lysol, oregano (pizza for lunch again) and cigarette smoke." What's apparent throughout all of this is that Mazer has taken great care to get to know the...

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