John Donovan

Introduction:

John Donovan was born in Lynn Massachusetts, in 1928.  While little is known about his personal life and upbringing, it is well documented that he attended and graduated from William and Mary College in 1949.  After graduating, Donovan attended law school at the University of Virginia and graduated with his law degree in 1957.  Following law school, Donovan obtained employment as a copyright lawyer for the Library of Congress, and after a short time entered the publishing field, as an affiliate of St. Martin’s Press.  Donovan’s duties at St. Martin’s Press were relatively short lived, soon after working at the press, he decided to embark on a different literary journey, one that would inspire, educate, and provide hope for children and young adults worldwide.

     

 In children’s literature circles, John Donovan is viewed as a “taboo buster”, known for his innovative novels, daring subject matter, and unique approach to YA and Children’s literature.  As the Executive Director of the Children’s Book Council, he was intensely passionate about children and their right to honest and unfiltered and often used his voice to advocate for quality, truthful, and uncensored literature.

 John Donovan is not considered amongst the greatest author’s of children’s literature.  In fact, a Google search for the author’ biography will result in information about a computer scientist, a government officials, a news correspondent, and a business executive.  Needless to say, the information available about John Donovan is extremely limited, so much so, that only the author’s obituary could be accessed on the World Wide Web.  Even still his first novel remains as one of the most groundbreaking tales of teen adolescence.  While John Donovan’s name is not a household one, his novel I’ll Get There, It Better Be Worth the Trip. is widely considered as the first young adult to deal with homosexuality amongst teens.  It was this text that catapulted Donovan’s career as an author and playwright.  

Early Career:

John Donovan began his career as a lawyer for the Library of Congress. In the early 1960’s he began to pursue a literary career and published his very first work, The Little Orange Book, in 1961.  The Little Orange Book, a children’s book that deals with bullying and self-esteem, gave Donovan his start in the children’s literature genre.  It was around the time of this publication that Donovan became the Executive Director at the Children’s Book Council, a non-profit trade association for children’s book publishers.  While working for the CBC, Donovan was responsible for studying trends in children’s literature, he was active within the YA and Children’s Literature community and devoted much of his time to advocating on behalf of publishers, authors, and young readers.   His passion for children’s literature is evident in his writing.  For example, in 1975 when U.S. Education Commissioner Terrell H. Bell criticized children’s book publishers and authors for their emphasis on “violence and obscenity” in children’s books, Donovan fired back stating that Bell misunderstood the first amendment and constitution.  He went on to contend that, “If publishers, teachers, and librarians must honor the demands of frequently irrational, sometimes hysterical parents, there isn’t much point of being a publisher, librarians, or even a teacher” (Donovan, 1975).   While Bell argued for children to read classic literature like The Wizard of Oz and A Tale of Two Cities, Donovan adamantly argued for the a child’s right to read high interest content and the publishers right to release that content that children enjoy.   During Donovan’s 25-year career at the CBC, he travelled the world advocating for literacy and quality children’s literature, he served as Executive Director of the CBC until his death in 1992.

Just two years into his tenure at the CBC, John Donovan published his second and most critically acclaimed novel. It was 1969’s I’ll Get There, It Better Be Worth the Trip.  The novel chronicles Davy, a thirteen-year-old boy reeling from the aftermath of his parent’s divorce.  Davy is forced to live with grandmother because his father remarries and his mother is an unfit alcoholic, which only compounds his loneliness. Eventually, he meets another lonely young man and the two form a friendship that eventually leads to “a brief sexual encounter, which leads Davy to a new level of self-awareness and maturity,” (Gale, 2003).  The novel’s homosexual content was considered taboo and the first of its kind.  Donovan used his publishing industry connections to enlist the help of Ursula Nordstrom, Harper and Row’s legendary and iconic publisher.   After corresponding with Donovan, she agreed to publish his controversial novel.  Though initially skeptical about handling such controversial subject matter (for 1969), Nordstrom’s excitement for the project grew.  Essentially, Donovan won her over with his talent, professionalism, and charm. In a personal correspondence between the two, Nordstrom gloated about Donovan’s professionalism and her excitement over their partnership.  In Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, edited by Leonard Marcus, Nordstrom declares, “The whole experience of publishing your book has been a most rewarding one for me, everyone in the department was so FOR the book.  So thank you so much for being such a good author” (Marcus, 2000, p. 270).   Nordstrom and Donovan exchanged a host of letters throughout the publication process, the letters are a display of the adoration Nordstrom had for Donovan, she praises him for the improvements he makes to the novel, thanks him for proactively responding to critics and even encourages him to send her his next novel, a plan that ultimately comes to fruition.        

 Other Writings:

Donovan wrote five other young adult novels following the acclaim of I’ll Get There, none of them reaching the critical or commercial success of Davy’s tale.  Still Donovan’s novels explored topics relative to young adults.  He is especially known for his depiction of loneliness and depression in adolescents.   For example, in Wild in the World, his follow up to I’ll Get There, Donovan introduces John Gridley, who like Davy has lost all twelve members of his family; they die in a variety of tragic circumstances.  John, the youngest member of his family is left to tend the family farm when he meets a stray dog named Son.  Similar to Davy, John too bonds with his dog and learns to feel emotion again.  After his emotional awakening, John meets his own untimely death.  While their stories are completely different, Davy, John, and Donovan’s other protagonist have commonalities, they are typically from broken or dysfunctional homes, find solace in the company of animals, and find a companion that restores their faith in humanity and life.  Loneliness and the love for animals are the most common themes found in Donovan’s writings, the irony of his writings is that while human beings are almost always portrayed as unreliable, animals are a constant comfort, so much so that they often posses more humanity than Donovan’s human characters.An Advertisement detailing Donovan's first play "Riverside Drive".

Donovan also worked as a playwright.  According to Donovan’s New York Times obituary, “His two short play, “Damn you, Scarlett O’Hara and “All My Pretty Little Ones,” ran in 1964 under the collective title “Riverside Drive” (New York Times, 1992).  Donovan’s theatre debut received mostly positive reviews; with many critics pegging the first time play write as promising.  The show ran for the entire month of February 1964 (New York Times, 1964).   His plays unlike his novels were geared toward an adult audience, which is testament to his versatility as a writer.  Additionally, Donovan penned many articles for respected journals and periodicals including Publishers Weekly, Wilson LibraryBulletin, Horn Book, and School Library Journal.  Donovan’s academic writings were geared towards his advocacy of children’s literature.

Death:

On April 29, 1992, John Donovan died of cancer, in his Manhattan home. CBC President and colleague Paula Quint reported his death to the New York Times. The author left behind a legacy of passion for children’s literature and compassion for human beings.  While he had many accomplishments, his most memorable achievement will be the writings that he left behind for the children of the world. 

John Donovan's Obituary appeared in the New York Times.
 

 

References 

“Display Ad 42”. (1964).  New York Times, 44.

Donovan, J. (1975).   CBC Director Donovan Reacts to Bell’s Speech.  School Library Journal.   21 (5). 

"John Donovan." (2003). Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale. Gale Biography In Context. Web. 16 Sep. 2012.

 "John Donovan." (1992). Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults. Gale. Gale Biography In Context.    Web. 16 Sep. 2012.

"John Donovan." (1999).  St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers. Gale. Gale Biography In Context. Web. 16 Sep. 2012.

“John Donovan, 63; Wrote Books and Plays.” (01 May 1992). New York Times. Web.

Marcus, L. S. (2000).  Dear genius: The letters of Ursula Nordstrom.  New York:  HarperCollins, 259-263, 268-273, 280-    283.

                                                                 “Riverside Drive’ to end run.” (14 February 1964).  New York Times, 19.

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