BOOK BEAT Naples Sun Times October 25-31, 2006
by Philip K. Jason
After earning his B.A. from Illinois Wesleyan University and his M.A. from Illinois State (specializing in English Literature), James W. Bennett taught in junior colleges for twelve years. He then went on to manage East Bay Camp in Lake Bloomington, Illinois for eight years. Next, Bennett spent twelve years doing planning work for the Bloomington school district. During this part of his working life, Bennett developed a special knack for getting into the heads of teenagers. How else could he have fashioned his highly acclaimed books for young adults?
Bennett tackles difficult topics, and many of his titles are just as useful to adults as to the young adult readers he most often has in mind. His first book, A Quiet Desperation, explores depression, while I Can Hear the Mourning Dove – named a top book for young adults by both Publishers Weekly and the American Library Association – is an engaging novel that helps readers understand and cope with mental illness. Bennett received similar kudos for Dakota Dream, a coming of age novel that involves its protagonist in Native American traditions as it underscores how difficult and painful a young man’s search for identity can be.
Several of Bennett’s best-known books have a sports motif. These include The Squared Circle (one of Bennett’s favorites) and Blue Star Rapture, about basketball, and several baseball stories including The Flex of the Thumb, Old Hoss, and Plunking Reggie Jackson. The popular and critical success of these books has established James W. Bennett as the foremost writer of sports fiction for young adults. In each, sports is the hook – decision making and self-mastery are the fundamental themes.
Faith Wish is one of Bennett’s edgier books. It takes up the issue of religious cults and predatory false prophets. By touching on many taboos and not wrapping everything up in a sweet resolution, Bennett sacrifices feel-good for the tough love of realistic insights. Faith Wish received a stellar review in VOYA – the Voice of Youth Advocates library journal.
Bennett’s most recent titles are Harvey Porter Does Dallas and How the Bible Was Built. The former is a whimsical satire that takes advantage of and spoofs the Harry Potter craze. The latter was co-written (originally drafted) by the late United Methodist Minister Charles Merrill Smith, who died in 1985. Discovered after Smith’s death, the original manuscript was expanded and reworked for a broader audience by Bennett, who was a friend of Smith’s for many years. It is a popularization for general readers of the scholarship that explores the motivations, inspirations, collecting, writing, and organizing of holy scripture. One center of interest is the process by which “biblical” writings became rejected or accepted as canonical in both the Old and New Testament.
The impact of Bennett’s writings on young adults is considerable. Many of his titles are required or recommended reading in junior high schools, high schools, and community colleges, and many young people first become serious, engaged readers upon discovering a Bennett novel.
When I asked him how and why he became dedicated to writing books for young adults, Bennett said that it was quite accidental. He had never set out to write specifically for this audience; in fact, he was unaware that there was such a thing as the young adult (YA) market. But he did choose to center his novels on teenage protagonists. Editors and marketing specialists more or less turned him into a young adult author simply by pressing him into that category. Ironically, in some libraries, Bennett’s works, promoted and purchased as young adult titles, are reclassified and shelved in the adult fiction section!
For writers trying to break into print, Bennett insists that knowing and understanding the market – or markets – is essential, as the lines between market categories have become almost impenetrable walls. One must conceive of and prepare and propose one’s work with firm knowledge of where it fits into the market-driven publishing world.
James Bennett and his wife Judith relocated to Naples in 2004 when Mrs. Bennett, a psychiatric nurse, found a position at the David Lawrence Center. A free-lance writer can live anywhere and keep writing. Besides doing just that, Bennett has been tutoring in English skills at Lely High School. This year, he is working with gifted seniors participating in the Laureate Program, a high-powered set of challenges geared toward preparing students for acceptance and success in the top-ranked universities.
Bennett has done hundreds of guest author appearances and workshops at secondary schools from coast to coast, and he continues to be available for such engagements. Readers can find out more about this exciting author and speaker at jameswbennett.com.
Philip K. Jason, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy. A poet, critic, and free-lance writer with twenty books to his credit, this “Dr. Phil” chairs the annual Naples Writers’ Conference presented by the Naples Press Club. Send him your book news at firstname.lastname@example.org.