October 8, 2006
Maureen Daly died last week in California at the age of 85. Her first novel, Seventeenth Summer, published in 1942 when she was only 20, is thought by many to be the first young adult novel. She was already a veteran writer then. Her short story “Sixteen” had won the Scholastic Magazine writing contest when she was a junior in high school. She went on to a career as a journalist, continuing to write travel works and fiction for adolescents while raising the two children she had with novelist and screenwriter William McGivern. She wrote Acts of Love, a young adult novel based on her daughter’s teenage years, in 1983 to help assuage her grief over the daughter’s death. Her husband died in 1992. Most recently she was a restaurant reviewer for The Desert Sun, a newspaper in Palm Springs, California.
Her obituary in the Los Angeles Times reports that as a teenager in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, Daly was a wallflower who found that writing stories helped “relieve the tense, hurt feelings inside.”
That exactly describes me when I was fifteen and read Maureen Daly for the first time. “Sixteen” was in the anthology we used in tenth grade in Sister Mary Kilian’s English class. I went on to read the whole collection, Sixteen and Other Stories, as well as Seventeenth Summer, borrowing them from the downtown branch of the public library. Inspired by all this, I wrote a short story about a girl who turns down an invitation to the prom from the boy of her dreams because she can’t afford a dress. The boy asks someone else, and he and the other girl both die in a car accident on prom night.
That synopsis sounds pretty bad. I’m certain that the whole manuscript was even worse. But Sister Kilian read it, made some suggestions, and signed off as sponsor on the submission form when I sent it to the 1963 Scholastic Magazine writing contest. It didn’t win anything, but I continued to write, and Sister Kilian continued to read and respond. She was the first person who ever encouraged me as a writer. She died in 1968 before she was fifty years old. I put flowers on her grave every Mother’s Day.
I read Seventeenth Summer twenty years after it was first published, and I thought it spoke eloquently to me of love and loss and change, the things I continue to write about. It’s been in print continuously for more than sixty years and it still sells well, but its target audience these days is younger by five or six years than I was when I first read it. The world it portrays is so far from the experience of most teenagers that it’s become something of a historical novel, about a more innocent, perhaps naive, social structure than one is likely to find today.
Maureen Daly was an early role model for me of a woman who wrote about love and loss and loneliness and whom people took seriously as a writer. I never met her, never took the time to write to her, and yet her passing from this world leaves something of a void. In the glorious fall mornings to come this week, I’ll be revisiting Seventeenth Summer. And visiting Sister Kilian’s gravesite as well.
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