Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Year Without Michael

In my career, the three books that have had the greatest critical and commercial success were Kid Power, Life As We Knew It, and The Year Without Michael.

My guess is if you're here, you're familiar with Life As We Knew It. And I'll write about Kid Power some other time. But now I'm going to tell you about The Year Without Michael.

There are certain themes I return to regularly and certain structures I always enjoy. Michael is an example of both of them. Its plot, a family torn apart when their young teenage son Michael disappears, is in its own way quite similar to Life As We Knew It. Its structure, third person, episodic, with dates rather than chapters, is the same as The Dead And The Gone.

I chose to write Michael because I wanted to explore how it felt to live through a situation without resolution. At the time, someone I knew was fighting cancer, a life of illness, treatment, remission, illness, treatment, remission, then illness again. I also knew someone who had suffered severe brain damage. In both cases, these were people I cared about, but both of them were loved by people I loved. In both cases, it was wrong to give up hope, but in some ways hope was more difficult than acceptance. Since I didn't want to write anything too specifically about these people, I chose to explore the dilemma by writing about a missing person.

The Year Without Michael is told from the point of view of sixteen year old Jody, Michael's older sister. In this era before cellphones and the Internet, Jody is plunged into a world of uncertainty. Her parents are devastated, her younger sister is acting out, and yet Jody has to cope with everyday life, school, friends, family.

The book worked. It got my only starred School Library Journal review, and a great New York Times review (here's the plant my publisher sent me in celebration).

There were so many fine things said, my publisher printed a bunch of them as part of a publicity brochure.

The Year Without Michael was my second book to win the South Carolina Young Readers Award (About David was my first). It was my only book to be optioned for an After School Special. A Tony Award winning playwright was hired to do the adaptation, but it never got made (an episodic book about a family with a missing child didn't really lend itself to an hour long format for kids).

While I was going through my Michael file, I discovered a letter Robert Cormier had written to my editor.

Thanks for sending along Susan Beth Pfeffer's novel, The Year Without Michael. It's a wonderful book on an important topic. Her style--- that staccato prose and crackling dialogue--- is mesmerizing. I read it in one sitting. Pfeffer breaks your heart but she somehow manages to put it together again although the edges remain jagged. A beautiful job.

Several years after its publication, the American Library Association Young Adult Services (YALSA) named The Year Without Michael one of the 100 Best Books For Young Adults, published in a 25 year period.

I'm very pleased that The Year Without Michael is now available on e-book formats, including Amazon and Nook.


Mr. Cavin said...

I read it one sitting, too. I'm also thrilled that it's available again. Where I live, it can be difficult to find older books--and, well, mail ordering used books can be kind of a crap-shoot. The fact that this is available digitally remedies that stuff.

I thought it was marvelous. Harrowing. It seemed more like a cross between Blood Wounds and the dead and the gone to me, but that was taking both context and content into consideration. I'll be interested in reading reviews by modern teens. I enjoyed the glimpse back into a world without the internet or mobile phones, but for me that was comfortable because I lived through those times. I am pretty much exactly Jody's age, so the story was nostalgic along with the other ways it had an impact.

Susan Beth Pfeffer, you write the best police officers! They sound so incredibly authentic (“incredibly authentic” is your sly oxymoron of the day).

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Thank you Mr. Cavin-

I forgot about the police officer. I stole the last name of a local policeman (from a prominent local family).

For a fine upright citizen, I'm often stealing things!

trista said...

I'll be thrilled to read your entry about Kid Power. I checked that book out from the library over and over again back in the mid 1980's. My third grade daughter started a greeting card business with a friend, and I immediately thought of your book. I went back to the same library and checked the same copy out for her. We will be buying a used copy soon.

Gretchen said...

Wow--what an amazing quote from Robert Cormier (!). I've only read your work from the moon books on, so I didn't even know this existed until now, but I seriously couldn't get to amazon fast enough to buy the ebook!

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Good morning trista and Gretchen-

It may take a little while before I write about Kid Power, but it is on my to do list. It's one of those books that I remember exactly where I was when I came up with the idea (mowing my back yard).

I have scores of books that predate the moon books. I've been going through them, trying to decide which ones make sense to put in e-book format, and which don't. Michael is my test run, but it's also a book I'd like people to have a chance to read, so that's why it's the first one I've put up there.

Linda Jacobs said...

Thanks for the link. I just downloaded it. I've been thinking of reading it for some time, now, and this was just the kick in the butt I needed.

rowster said...

Thank you for this book. I read this when I was around eleven, and it was one of the most powerful books I had read. I memorized that passage from Corinthians because of this book, and those lines have stayed with me all my life. A few months ago, I decided to look for a copy so I could read it again, but I couldn't remember the title! I could remember individual lines from the book, and I knew that the brother's name was Michael, but the title escaped me. I Googled so many different permutations but I couldn't find it. Finally, this evening, I managed to key in the right words that helped me find the book (on page 3 of my Google search)!! I eventually find your blog, and I discover that by a wonderful coincidence, you just blogged about it two days ago. (One day ago actually, since I'm in a different time zone.) Serendipity.

Morgaine said...

Just bought and downloaded it onto my Kindle. It sounds familiar, but as a kid I devoured two or three books a day, so I don't remember every book I read! I will let you know if it was one I read.

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Hello and thank you to Linda Jacobs,rowster, and Morgaine-

I hope you enjoy your reading and/or rereading of Michael.

If you look in the beginning, you'll see an acknowledgement to a good friend of mine (then and now). She was the one who told me the passage from Corinthians, when I explained the scene to her and told her what I needed.

Oddly enough, the book is dedicated to someone I was friends with at the time, but who I have very little contact with now. She moved away and we simply haven't stayed in touch.

But I don't think she disappeared like Michael did!

Anonymous said...

I've read The Year Without Michael several times over the past 25 years -- just twice in the last week! Ms. Pfeffer, are there any plans to ever write a sequel? My guess is you want the reader to feel the heartbreaking lack of resolution just like your characters. Thus, no sequel. Still, I thought I would check. I've wondered for decades what happened to Michael, just like his family.

I love your work, and I think it's time to expand my SBP collection. Thanks for your time. I'm glad I found a way to communicate with you.


Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Hi Rebecca-

No plans for a sequel, I'm afraid. Years ago, I wanted to, but my editor firmly and regularly said no.

So the mystery of what became of Michael will remain one forever!

Anonymous said...

Thank-you for the reply Ms. Pfeffer!


Cailean said...

Hello! With news of recent Jessica Ridgeway disappearing, I thought of this book. I read it as a kid (I'm 34 now) a few times and it really struck a chord. The not-knowing, agony, etc. I think of the book every time I hear about a missing child, but mostly when I think about Jacob Wetterling and how his disappearance is so similar to Michael's. I think because this book moved me so deeply as a kid, any missing child report really makes me sad. I now have children of my own and can't even imagine the devastation.

Anonymous said...

This was one of my favorite books while growing up (I am "only" 29 now!) and I too have wondered what has become of Michael. This is such a well written, but heart breaking story and the ending does fit as many families don't have a resolution in real life.

I read a comment your editor firmly said no to a sequel. Would you ever consider one now? That would be so wonderful! If not, as I totally understand, would you tell us in your mind what happened to Michael? Is he alive or dead? Who took him?

Thank you so much for writing such an amazing book!


Margaret said...

I’ve finally gotten my hands on a copy of this book and I am so thrilled to be reading it.

I am intrigued by the idea there could have been a sequel. I will not ask what happened to Michael, but I wonder if you can answer this question: If there had been a sequel, would readers have learned anything about what happened to him or not?

Anonymous said...