The gloom and doom canon

A new book argues that young adult novels are too dark. But should kids be sheltered from the real world?

Published October 18, 2004 7:27PM (EDT)

I was preparing for my big move to college, loading the car with freshman necessities -- the new computer, the photos of friends, the clothes I'd promptly abandon for more Massachusetts-blizzard-appropriate attire -- and lugging a box of old books to the trunk, when my mother stopped me. "Why are you taking those?" she asked, gesturing towards a pile of young adult novels like Francesca Lia Block's "Weetzie Bat" and Louise Fitzhugh's "Harriet the Spy." "You're not going to have space for them, or time to read them." Why am I taking these? I thought. And then I realized why: They were coming with me for comfort, for reassurance. "They're my friends," I said.

Mom and I both laughed, but it wasn't a joke, really; I felt like I needed these books around. Growing up, I relied on the books I read -- more than my family, more than friends -- to teach me about people, relationships, life in general. And I relied on their characters to remind me that, even though I perpetually felt like an outsider, I wasn't completely alone -- whatever I was feeling, someone had felt that way before.

This is what reading can do for you, at 8, at 11, at 14, at 18: It promises you that other people are out there, and that there's a life beyond your school and your neighborhood. It promises you that you're normal (or, at least, that you're not as weird as you think you are), and that, even if they exist only on the page, people have dealt with the issues you might be battling at home or school: neglectful parents, alcoholism, bullies, general ennui, whatever. Books allow you to fantasize and make sense of a world beyond your own.

In her new book, "Welcome to the Lizard Motel," a parenting memoir about childhood and middle school reading and imagination, writer Barbara Feinberg seems to have forgotten this. "Welcome to the Lizard Motel" takes place during the first six months of the 1999 school year and revolves around Feinberg's two children: her 12-year-old son Alex, a seventh grader, and his younger sister, 7-year-old second-grader Claire. An avid writer and reader who runs an after-school creative arts program for kids in Westchester County, N.Y. (the title of the book is taken from a story by one of her students), Feinberg is dismayed that Alex can't stand to read the books he's been assigned in language arts class, books touted as quality literature for middle schoolers. He loves reading fantasy, and he devours any book about the comedian Mel Brooks -- so why does he hate to read for school?

To find out, Feinberg decides to read Alex's class reading herself -- and is surprised when she agrees with her son. The books he's been assigned -- like Sharon Creech's novel "Walk Two Moons" and Karen Hesse's "Phoenix Rising" -- are serious novels whose protagonists grapple with dire problems and experience intense hardships -- death, abuse and abandonment. They're known as "problem novels," a catchall term for hyperrealistic children's and young adult (Y.A.) novels with issue-laden plots. Problem novels, as Feinberg learns, are often the recipient of the American Library Association's annual Newbery Award -- the highest honor given to children's chapter books.

But problem novels aren't authentic, Feinberg argues throughout "Welcome to the Lizard Motel:" most of the narrators' voices sound like adults, not kids or teens, and the constant melodrama weighs too heavily on the readers. They're not "cozy," like Feinberg's favorite book growing up, Betty Smith's 1943 classic "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn." "The ethos of many of these books, if there is one," she writes, "seems not to be 'Love Makes the World Go Round' or 'There's No Place Like Home.' Instead 'Only Survive' or 'At Least You Have Yourself (since you can't rely on anyone else)' is more to the point."

Alex's required reading is seen almost as a household chore. "Just do it," Feinberg tells him. "I meant it in the same way someone might have once said, 'Just drink your milk,' or 'Just take your cod liver oil,' or, I realized suddenly, the way someone might believe that a child ought to endure a beating, because even though it hurt, it was 'a good beating,' would make him better, build character. Was this kind of reading akin to a 'good beating'?"

A writer and a mother likening children's lit to "a good beating"? It seems overly dramatic, but to children and Y.A. literature experts, Feinberg's reaction isn't unusual. Librarians and teachers are used to parents' complaints about problem novels by now -- that they're too traumatic, too adult, too provocative, etc. After all, most of the books challenged and banned in school libraries are problem novels, says Michael Cart, a professor of Y.A. literature at UCLA's school of education and the author of "From Romance to Realism: 50 Years of Growth and Change in Young Adult Literature." "Any book that's tried to push the envelope of what material can be dealt with in a young adult novel -- like Judy Blume's "Forever," which contains the first explicit sex scene in Y.A. literature -- has routinely been challenged," he says.

"Welcome to Lizard Motel" has received a handful of positive reviews. Those who aren't among Feinberg's fans, though, are children's and Y.A. literature experts -- who were especially miffed by an Op-Ed she wrote in The New York Times in July, in which she slammed the required reading lists that many schools hand out to kids before summer begins. "I can't imagine how I would have fared if I had been asked ... to read the hard-hitting books on current summer reading lists," she wrote. "They depict children who must 'come to terms,' 'cope with,' and 'work through' harsh realities ... But should helping children face adversity be the main goal of children's literature?" After the piece ran, a popular teen reading listserv (run by YALSA, the Young Adults Library Services Association) was inundated with anti-Feinberg rants.

"There weren't too many people rushing to defend Feinberg," says listserv member Cart. "And once we realized she'd written a book, too, people started reading it and posting synopses and observations about what they saw as its deficiencies. It was the same old thing -- like, here they come again, attacking one small aspect of a field that they don't understand and don't know very much about."

Y.A. literature librarians take issue with Feinberg for not differentiating between children's lit -- technically for children up to 12 -- and books written for teens. "That's probably an apt criticism," Feinberg admits, "But the books trickle down -- it's a general erosion in our culture of the distinction between children and adolescents." Another complaint librarians have about "Welcome to Lizard Motel" is that problem novels are treated as the whole of Y.A. lit. The incredibly popular books that kids and teens read for pleasure -- the fantasy novels (Brian Jacques's "Redwall" series; 19-year-old author Christopher Paolini's "Eragaon") and teen chick lit books (Cecily von Ziegesar's wildly successful "Gossip Girls" series) that have made it onto New York Times bestseller lists -- are never mentioned.

But what gets Y.A. literature experts most up in arms, they say, is that Feinberg sees these serious books only as a heavy burden for kids to carry. She doesn't see the other side -- that reading books about someone else's problems can often help them vicariously work out their own. Some books might not be a good fit for a particular child or teenager, sure, but realistic books are good for kids, they say. "Problem" novels aren't, well, problems.

"Issues explored in these novels should be explored, and fiction is a safe way for teens to experience them," says Carlie Webber, a Y.A. librarian in Kennelon, N.J. "It's a way for readers to learn about different aspects of life."

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Compared to adult fiction, children's and Y.A. literature has always been relegated to second class: When was the last time you heard about a great Y.A. writer or a great teen novel? (J.K. Rowling and, more recently, Lemony Snicket, are, of course, exceptions.)

Most adults just aren't aware of these books. If you grew up during or after the late 1960s, when contemporary children's and Y.A. lit were born, you might have read a few Y.A. novels now considered classics, like Paul Zindel's "The Pigman," (1968) or S.E. Hinton's "The Outsiders" (1967) -- but they were most likely forgotten once you entered high school. And if you're the parent of a middle schooler or teenager, you probably don't spend time reading the books your kids bring home, as a recent Harper's article about the history of Y.A. lit (which called the genre a "secret garden") pointed out.

But there's a whole world devoted to books for and about kids and teens, made up of librarians and teachers, writers and academics, and the journals, newsletters and countless Web sites where they discuss it. Pairing the right book with the right child is part of their job; if it works, it can be a powerful match. If a child is having trouble at home or school, a book can be incredibly therapeutic in helping her come to grips with the problem.

This idea of librarians or teachers offering a kind of therapy through reading is a twist on "bibliotherapy," in which books and reading are used to help solve emotional or interpersonal problems. The term "bibliotherapy" was first used in 1916, but the idea didn't become popularized among psychologists until the 1970s. And unlike art, music or play therapy, bibliotherapy still hasn't fully entered the mainstream. (A Lexis search brought up only a handful of psychological articles and studies on bibliotherapy over the past few decades). Bibliotherapy has yet to stand up as a modality on its own; it's more likely to be mentioned as a supplement to other forms of therapy. That makes sense: Children aren't able to verbally articulate their thoughts, feelings and experiences as well as adults, so a book that they feel connected to -- whether they're experiencing something similar, know someone who is, or just relate to the thoughts of a character -- can be a way to work out, feel or express their emotions.

"Most kids aren't just going to come out and tell us what's wrong," says child therapist and controversial Y.A. author Chris Crutcher, whose books have been banned in schools. "It's scary; they're not sure how they feel; they don't know who they are. But if they can relate to that character, then they get to watch that character and see what the character does about some problem. When they read that some kid in a novel feels the same way they feel, all of a sudden they're less alone."

And books provide insulation, says Crutcher -- a way for kids to relate to their own experiences without running the emotional risk of actually talking about those experiences. A kid who's struggling with a violent or demanding parent, for instance, might find comfort in Crutcher's "Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes," in which a teen girl's father repeatedly abuses her: "The reader can be mad at Sarah's father," says Crutcher, "but he's afraid to be mad at his own father -- that might cost him too much."

Feinberg says she isn't opposed to problem novels as a whole: she's just opposed to those that aren't "emotionally satisfying" to kids -- the ones that don't seem to teach a lesson other than that Life Is Hard. This caveat doesn't come through in "Welcome to Lizard Motel." She takes Katherine Paterson's 1977 "Bridge to Terabithia" to task for killing off one of the characters, and repeatedly criticizes Sharon Creech's "Walk Two Moons" for what she considers Creech's "hasty resolution" of the protagonist's mother's death. She spends a lot of time in her local library, reading kids' and Y.A. books, and in the process, starts an ongoing dialogue about Y.A. literature with the children's librarian: "'When we were kids, didn't we used to read books that were less ... catastrophic?'" she asks. ("These realistic sad books are very popular," the librarian answers. "Teachers love them.")

But these books reflect life, say Y.A. lit experts, and kids and teenagers today are dealing with some harsh realities that shouldn't be glossed over. "Fine if you like a happily-ever-after book -- there's nothing wrong with that," says Crutcher. "But don't expect your life to be. You're going to be disappointed."

Feinberg's own teen years certainly weren't idyllic -- she was a runaway who grew up with an alcoholic father -- so it's surprising that she resists the possible therapeutic values of problem novels for kids and teenagers. She originally addressed the concept of bibliotherapy in "Welcome to Lizard Motel," Feinberg says, but cut it when she decided it interrupted the flow and structure of the book. "What I was complaining about in 'Welcome to Lizard Motel' -- maybe I didn't do it articulately enough -- were certain kinds of books that I felt were contrived and not emotionally satisfying for children," she says. "Books like 'Walk Two Moons' hit all these politically correct notes -- they talk about suicide, depression. But to me those books added up to a big fat nothing." Because, she says, they don't feel like they're coming from the voice of a child: They feel like an adult attempting to write like a child.

Webber, the teen librarian in New Jersey, disagrees. Kids and teens "don't want to be lied to," she says. "If they felt those books were inauthentic, they wouldn't read them. It's the same way that they know which teachers love their jobs and which are biding their time until retirement."

Although she repeatedly mentions "Walk Two Moons," Feinberg also takes on Paterson's "Bridge to Terabithia" -- a children's lit classic that's often taught in the fifth grade. It's the story of Jesse, a neglected farm boy in Virginia, who strikes up a friendship with the new girl, Leslie, next door. Together, they create an imaginary kingdom, Terabithia, in the woods behind their houses -- until Jesse's friend Leslie dies in an accident. Feinberg was a fan of the book until the end: "I think of the author, Katherine Paterson, for the first time," she writes. "Why in the world did you kill off your character? To make a point? I berate her: You didn't set the death up right. You didn't prepare us."

Paterson says she'd be more concerned about Feinberg's book "if I hadn't received hundreds and hundreds of letters from people who were deeply comforted by 'Bridge to Terabithia.' "Books like 'Bridge to Terabithia' give children a rehearsal for the things that they're going to meet in life, inevitably," she says. "We cannot protect our children from sorrow and pain." Paterson wrote the book, she says, because two of her four children lost close friends -- one died in her sleep; another was hit by lightning -- before they were 8.

Novelist Crutcher also uses his personal experience as a therapist to inform his books; many of his characters endure intense physical, emotional and sexual abuse. "I've never written a story that wasn't based in truth in some way," he says. "One in three girls, and one in five boys have been sexually abused -- and that doesn't count the kids who have been beaten or emotionally abused. Look out over a class of 30 kids and just do the math. And for those lucky kids whose lives have been relatively sheltered -- and those kids have troubles too -- they're sitting among those kids. It does not make sense to me to not try to tell those truths as best as we can as storytellers and let kids take a look at them." (It should be noted that statistics about the percentage of children who have been sexually abused are highly controversial.)

"Librarians aren't psychologists," says Stephanie Reynolds, a library science Ph.D. candidate in Denton, Texas, who is writing a dissertation on bibliotherapy and teen novels. "But at the same time, you never know when that one shy child who maybe has an abuse or neglect problem at home -- if you give that child the one book that might give her the guts, the power and the information she might need, it might save her life."

That might sound far-fetched, but Crutcher says it isn't: He tells a story about a 17-year-old girl who approached him after a book talk he gave in Texas in 1990. "I had just written 'Chinese Handcuffs' -- a really tough story about a girl who's been molested all her life," he says. "The girl walked up and said, 'I just wanted you to know that I read this story and I thought you knew me.'" It was the first time she'd talked about her sexual abuse, and she wasn't sure if she should tell anyone else, says Crutcher. He suggested she confide in the person who gave her the book -- her English teacher. A few weeks later, he heard from both of them: They were seeking therapy for the girl. "Without that connection that she made -- and it doesn't have to be to my book -- she might go another five or 10 years thinking she's the only girl who has to live through that," he says. "That makes my book a hell of a lot better than it ever had a right to be."

By Whitney Joiner

Whitney Joiner is an editor at Seventeen magazine and a frequent contributor to Salon.

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