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The House That Alice Built

By Alleen Pace Nilsen
[(essay date October 1979) In the following essay, Nilsen offers a critical reading of the publishing history and inspirations behind Go Ask Alice, offering several interview excerpts with Sparks as well.] Any List of the 10 most popular young adult books of the 1970s would have to include Go Ask Alice, the anonymous diary of a young drug addict who dies of an overdose. In numbers of copies sold, the book might well lead the list. Practically every high school and community library has one or more of the Prentice-Hall hardback copies, and, according to a local bookstore, the Avon paperback edition is now in its 43rd printing. The book has been translated into 16 languages, and every year since 1973 millions of viewers have seen its television adaptation. During the years between 1971 (when it was first published) and 1978, the anonymity of the book lent it a certain air of mystery. But in 1978, a new book, Voices, was published by Times Books. Boldly printed on its cover is the legend: "From Beatrice Sparks, the author who brought you Go Ask Alice." The book which is apparently aimed at adults is a rather melodramatic compilation of four interviews or case histories of teenagers in trouble. In 1979, Times Books published a second book by Sparks. It is entitled Jay's Journal and was written from the notes given to Sparks by the mother of a boy who was deeply involved in witchcraft and as a result committed suicide. It, too, is advertised as being edited by "the author who brought you Go Ask Alice." ….. 1. What are Sparks' Qualifications for Working with Troubled Teenagers? On the dust jacket of Voices, it appears that Sparks is a professional youth counselor or social worker. But during the interview, I was given no evidence of formal training or professional affiliation. Sparks became interested in the problems of young people and drugs in the late 1960s when she and her husband moved from Southern California to Utah. The specific reason for the move was that they wanted to be near the family of their married son who thought Provo would be a better place than California to raise his children. When they arrived in Provo, Sparks was appalled to find out how little the general public knew about the problems of young people and drugs. Because there were no counseling programs and no alternatives, parents were having 16- and 17-year-olds who experimented with drugs committed to the state mental hospital. Then a few months later, when the kids were released, they suffered a double whammy. They not only had to cope with having drug records, but also the stigma of having been "up the hill." Sparks had once held a job in a drug abuse clinic in California (she was vague about the specifics) and knew that there were many stages between drug experimentation and the necessity for commitment to a mental institution. She began to speak out on the needs for counseling and communication between young people and adults. It is in this role as a speaker that she has come in contact with troubled teen-agers. 2. Was There a Real Alice? Yes, there was a real Alice. Sparks met her in the middle of the night at a youth convention where Sparks had been a featured speaker. She says that in her speeches she always offers to talk personally with anyone who has a problem and wants a listening ear--Sparks also confided that she cries a little in each speech. This particular night she was awakened by a phone call. A counselor from the convention was calling to say that a girl who was hysterical did not want to go home and refused to speak to anyone except Sparks. Sparks 1

recognized the symptoms of a drug problem and went to the girl. She promised not to send her home and not to report her to anyone. She also convinced the girl to tell her what she had taken so that she could phone a doctor friend to see if the girl needed to have her stomach pumped. What the girl had taken was half a package of Mydol and there was no need for her stomach to be pumped. Sparks stayed with her until she was calm again. The two became friends even though the girl lived in California and Sparks now lived in Utah. The girl heard Sparks speak two or three times. And when the Sparks family went to California they stopped to visit Alice and her family; Alice and her family returned the visit in Utah. Alice's family knew that the girl was in trouble and they encouraged the friendship between her and Sparks hoping that it could be of some help. Sparks says that Alice was a very pretty girl. It was her guilt and her poor self-esteem that she says in her diary made her view herself as ugly. Alice was also very intelligent and came from a family that by most community standards would have been considered ideal. On one visit to Sparks, Alice brought two diaries along with bits and pieces of scrap paper. It was during her worst times that she wrote on whatever happened to be handy rather than in either of the regular diaries. She gave the diaries and the notes to Sparks saying that perhaps they would help her to better understand what it was like for kids who are involved in drugs. Alice did not want to leave her diaries at home because she did not want her parents to read them, yet for some reason she could not bring herself to burn them. Sparks said it was almost as if she had a premonition. Six months after Alice left the diaries, Sparks received a phone call from Alice's mother saying that Alice had died. Sparks did nothing with the diaries for a couple of months, but the idea of using them as the basis for a book began developing in her head. 3. How Closely Does the Book Resemble the Diaries? The question of how much of Go Ask Alice was written by the real Alice and how much by Beatrice Sparks can only be conjectured. The two diaries which Alice wrote are locked away at Prentice-Hall, but even with these it would be an impossible question because as Sparks deciphered the notes from pieces of brown paper bags and other scrap paper, she says she thoughtlessly dropped these parts of the diaries into her wastebasket. Also, in seeking a release from Alice's parents, which she knew would be hard to obtain, Sparks asked for the right to use the diaries as the basis to which she would add other incidents and thoughts gleaned from similar case studies. This was Sparks' compromise between her conscience and Alice's request that her parents never see the diaries. In this way, Sparks figured that Alice's parents could reject, as being Alice's, whatever parts of the diary that they did not want to believe. Sparks says that it took her three months of solid work to transcribe the diaries and prepare them for publication. She changed names, locations, and other identifying material. The real Alice did not die of an overdose, but in a way that could have been either an accident or a suicide. Either way, Alice's judgment and the part she played in the accident was probably influenced by her being on drugs. Sparks says that one thing which has surprised her is that when she wrote Alice's story, she thought it was unique, but she is constantly being questioned by people who have a relative or a friend whose story they think it tells. 4. Does Sparks Feel that She Broke a Trust by Publishing the Diary?


Apparently not. When I hinted at the similarity between doctor-patient relationships and counselor-youth relationships, Sparks said that she had been Alice's friend, not her counselor. Sparks was paid to be the speaker at the convention where she first met Alice, but other than that it was not a professional relationship. The thing that did give Sparks moral concern was the language in the diary. She was truly troubled by it. She tried deleting swear words and vulgarisms, but then it didn't ring true. She sought advice from people whose judgement she admired and was reassured when they told her that she had to weigh the bad against the good. Introducing kids to four-letter words (which they probably already knew anyway) was a minus, but helping them understand the dangers of drugs was a bigger plus. Sparks thinks that what happened to Alice is not so likely to happen to kids today because they aren't as naive as Alice. 5. How Did the Book Get Published? When Sparks lived in California, she did various kinds of writing such as newspaper columns and occasional ghost writing for Hollywood personalities, including Art Linkletter. It was just after the drug-related suicide of Linkletter's daughter that Sparks finished preparing Go Ask Alice for publication. Because of Linkletter's openness about the tragedy (the family had suffered a previous drug-related death which had been covered up) and his efforts towards promoting drug education, Sparks sent him her finished manuscript. He passed it on to his literary agent who sold it to Prentice-Hall. 6. Why Was Go Ask Alice Published Anonymously? I went to the interview having heard from a reputable source in the publishing world that Go Ask Alice was published anonymously because Alice's parents had initiated legal action and planned to bring suit if the author were known in such a way that the book could be traced to their daughter. Sparks said the book was published anonymously so that it would be more credible to kids. When I mentioned the legal matter, she shrugged and said, "Oh, there were many reasons for publishing it anonymously, but my reason was for the kids." When I expressed surprise that someone who had spent years developing skill as a writer wouldn't feel a little sad not to receive credit for the one book whose distribution records she could hardly hope to beat, she assured me that she did not have an ego involvement with the book. She wrote it to make a contribution, not to become rich and famous. Besides the people who are important to her--her family and closest friends-knew all the time that it was her work. 7. Does Alice's Family Share in the Royalties? No. 8. Why Has Sparks Now Decided to Step Forward and Take Credit for Go Ask Alice? Sparks acknowledged that the answer to this question was a commercial one. She compared an author to a pound of meat up for sale. The fact that she wrote Go Ask Alice makes her worth that much more on the selling block. As she talked about this commercial side of the book world, she spoke in the third person as if she had nothing to do with the decisions. They are made back in New York by agents and publishers. An example of the kind of commercialization that is taking place can be seen on the cover of the recently published Spanish edition of Voices. Even though the book is in no way related to Go Ask Alice except that it is about troubled teen-agers, the cover features the face of a pretty girl and ¿Recuerdas a Alicia? translates to Do You Remember Alice? In smaller print is a subtitle which translates, "Dramatic Stories of Youths Presented by the Author to Whom Alice Told Her Tragedy." Sparks' explanation for this is that "Voices" translated into Spanish wouldn't mean anything to readers. 3

9. Will We Be Hearing More about Beatrice Sparks? My prediction is yes, we probably will. According to Sparks, both Voices and Jay's Journal are soon to come out in paperback. She wasn't sure whether it was Dell or Avon, but she said that one of them had contacted her about her availability in January and February of 1980 for a promotions tour and the TV talk show circuit. Public speaking is Sparks' forté so if this takes place, it will undoubtedly create interest in her books. She is optimistic that both Voices and Jay's Journal will be popular in the same way that Alice is. She bases her optimism on the idea that books do not really get popular with teen-agers until they come out in paperback. This may be true, but still I'm not sure that I share her optimism. My 16-year-old daughter, Nicolette, who came after the interview to take the pictures was thoroughly charmed with Sparks. However, even on a long, boring trip home, through the Utah and Arizona deserts, she just couldn't get interested in reading Voices. She tried twice and then gave up and settled back to reread Go Ask Alice. Despite the evidence of shrewd business instincts, Sparks seems in some ways surprisingly naive about the book world. For example, she questions the value of a literary agent. But surely it must have been her agent, the one provided by Art Linkletter, who protected her interests in the negotiations for 16 foreign language editions and in the television filming of Go Ask Alice. The only book Sparks had published previous to Alice was a didactic piece put out by a church-related press. She is unclear about the difference between a juvenile and an adult division of a publishing house and what this means in the way of promotion and sales. She thinks of herself as an author for a general audience, yet she wants the financial benefits and the school and library related support that comes with a young adult audience. She agreed with me when I suggested that good books can open doors of communication between adults and teen-agers, but when I mentioned books by Robert Cormier, Richard Peck, Paul Zindel, and M. E. Kerr she had not heard of any of them. The only author whose name she recognized was Paul Zindel. In conclusion, I think that what Sparks has in mind is to extend the "house that Alice built" into something far beyond the actual physical structure of the family home in Utah. She wants to use Go Ask Alice as the foundation for a publishing career. Perhaps she can do it, but in the words of another Alice, it's all "curiouser and curiouser."
Source Citation: Nilsen, Alleen Pace. "The House That Alice Built." School Library Journal. 26.2 (Oct. 1979): 109-112. Rpt. in Children's Literature Review. Ed. Tom Burns. Vol. 139. Detroit: Gale, 109-112. Literature Resource Center. Gale. PUBLIC LIBRARY OF CINCINNATI HAMILTON C. 21 Dec. 2009 < p=LitRC&u=cinc37305>.