the new york times

august 22, 2004
the new york times book review, p12(l) col 01

why teachers love depressing books

essay; 'a good book should make you cry'

by laura miller

a n avid reader growing up, i decided that there were two types of children's books: call it ''little women'' versus ''phantom tollbooth.'' the first type was usually foisted on you by nostalgic grown-ups. these were books populated by snivelers and goody-two-shoes, the most saintly of whom were sure to die in some tediously drawn-out scene. when the characters weren't dying or performing acts of charity or thawing the hearts of mean old gentlemen, they mostly just hung around the house, thinking about how they felt about their relatives.

the people in the other kind of book, however, were entirely different. they had adventures.

barbara feinberg's ''welcome to lizard motel: children, stories, and the mystery of making things up'' (beacon press) conjures up memories of such youthful literary predilections. feinberg, who runs an arts program for kids, was provoked to write this unusual hybrid of memoir and polemic by the trials of her 12-year-old son, alex. she had seen him steel himself, again and again, for the joyless task of completing the assigned reading for his ''language arts'' class, and she decided to investigate how those books could so oppress a boy who otherwise happily gobbled up harry potter novels and anything by or about his idol, mel brooks.

her curiosity plunges feinberg into the contemporary genre of young adult (y.a.) ''problem novels,'' the bane of her son's existence. these books describe, with spare realism, child and teenage protagonists weathering abuse, addiction, parental abandonment or fecklessness, mental illness, pregnancy, suicide, violence, prostitution or self-mutilation -- and often a combination of the above. ''teachers love them,'' the local librarian explains as feinberg scans a shelf of such titles. ''they win all the awards.''

most of the books chosen by the english committee at alex's school are problem novels, and the curriculum proves inflexible. ''we can't ever say we don't like the books,'' alex tells his mother, because, according to his teacher, ''if you're not liking the books, you're not reading them closely enough.'' the books are so depressing -- '' 'everybody dies in them,' he told me wearily'' -- alex insists on reading with his bedroom door open.

you can't blame feinberg for her alarm, but ''welcome to lizard motel'' (titled after an art project created by one of her students) turns out to be more than a diatribe against the dark subject matter of y.a. problem novels. feinberg finds herself enjoying some parts of many of these books, even though they leave her, like her son, feeling ''unconsoled.'' her efforts to sort out why are fascinating, if also sometimes muddled, because feinberg herself is a lover of ''little women'' novels. her childhood favorite, ''a tree grows in brooklyn,'' in which the loving but alcoholic father dies halfway through, is a prime specimen of the realistic vein in children's fiction, from which problem novels evolved.

only a reader as attuned to realism as feinberg could have puzzled out so nuanced a defense of imagination in children's lives. she sees the memoirlike problem novels as symptoms of ''the drastic fall from grace that the imagination has suffered in popular understanding'' and her generation's insistence on ''making our children wake from the dream of their childhoods.'' adults, she suspects, secretly resent the sheltered, enchanted world children inhabit and under the pretext of preparing them for life's inevitable difficulties, want to rub their noses in traumas they may never actually experience and often aren't yet able to comprehend. all the better to turn them into miniature grown-ups, little troupers girded to face a world where they have no one to count on but themselves.

this perversity finds its counterpart in a writing program adopted in feinberg's daughter's second-grade classroom. the 7-year-olds are instructed to write their ''memoirs,'' and a handout promises, ''your child will receive critique on all aspects of writing, and learn how to edit, rewrite and publish!'' only nonfiction writing is allowed, as the founder explains in a book in which she also details the regimented means by which she directs her own children's ''poetic observation.'' when a first grader wrote a story about two lizard brothers who flew to the sun, one of the program's experts told the child he needed to ''seriously rethink his material.'' it's one thing to bum kids out with depictions of homelessness and institutional foster care, but getting them on the creative writing workshop circuit before they've outgrown nap time? now that's harsh.

problem novels represent just a fraction of the y.a. market, but one particularly esteemed by educators and prize committees. (newbery medal winners are notoriously glum.) that, daniel handler, author of the best-selling lemony snicket series, told me recently in an interview, results from a ''wrong-headed belief that the more misery there is, the more quality there is, that the most lurid, unvarnished stories are closest to the truth.'' or, as one of alex's teachers put it, ''a good book should make you cry.'' in this context, the success of harry potter and the mock-gothic snicket books, in which orphans become intrepid adventurers instead of just numb survivors, has the whiff of insurrection. in an e-mail message, dave eggers, who founded 826 valencia, a tutoring center for young writers in san francisco, wrote, ''the middle-schoolers i talk to in passing, almost all of our regulars, are harry potter readers and then fantasy-in-general readers.''

not all the books that trouble feinberg are unrelentingly gloomy, but most of them do revolve around grief. sharon creech's well-written novels, particularly nettlesome to feinberg, turned out to be friskier than i expected, but they are booby-trapped; they start out like ''phantom tollbooth'' books, with adventures like road trips or reblazing an old trail, yet somehow the stories always circle back to dwell on the death of a beloved relative: pure ''little women.'' others, like paula fox's ''monkey island'' (about an abandoned 11-year-old living on the street) and karen hesse's ''phoenix rising'' (about a girl whose father ran off, whose mother and grandfather are dead and whose neighbors are poisoned by radiation from an accident at a nearby power plant), are as bleak as a gas station parking lot at 4 a.m.

nevertheless, many kids do love these books. perhaps they make certain readers, the ones who've grown up too fast, feel less alone and impart to others, the ones too eager to grow up, a frisson of the ''serious.'' the latter might well become teachers who insist that kids read books that make them cry. but there is no chemistry more subtle and combustible than the matching of reader with book; it just can't be standardized. pair a ''phantom tollbooth'' kid with ''little women'' and the results will stink. you have to experiment until you get it right: that's the only formula for making a lifelong reader.

laura miller writes the last word column for the book review.

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