Reflections on the "Problem Novel"
Do These Calamity-Filled Books Serve Up Too Much, Too Often, Too Early?
By Barbara Feinberg
The day started out all right. I woke early and, still in my nightgown, walked out to the porch and began to paint the walls. I had never planned on doing this. The porch didn't need to be painted, and because of all its windows and high ceiling—not to mention the bicycles and muddy shoes and old couches that needed to be shoved aside—to paint it was a huge undertaking, one I never would have wanted to do.
My children ambled in. Alex is 12, very tall, and has bright blue eyes. Clair is 7, round and dark, and her hair was tangled from sleep. They were quiet and sleepy. They lay down on an old couch.
After a while, Alex announced to Clair in a serious voice, "We have to do that thing," and she, delighted to be needed by her older brother, nodded, and they trooped off into the house.
I climbed up on the arm of the couch and, having found a can called "Summer Blue," began painting the trim of the large window that looks from the porch into the living room. When my children came back into the living room, they walked into the blue frame. They had changed out of their pajamas, and looked as if they were getting ready to go to work, which it turned out was sort of the case. My daughter was wearing a little vest over her T-shirt.
I couldn't hear them, but could see that they were clearly discussing an audiotape Alex was holding, a novel on tape he'd gotten from the library the day before. The book, I knew, was Chasing Redbird by Sharon Creech; this was the book he was supposed to read over the summer, in preparation for seventh grade. And he dreaded this. He had read another book by Sharon Creech for the previous summer's assigned reading and hated that—said it was too "dark." So this summer, he'd settled on the idea of listening to Chasing Redbird instead of reading it. This way, he'd reasoned, he could have the company of his sister, and this would make the experience more "bearable."
I watched as they put the tape in the cassette slot. They were sitting side by side on the couch. I tapped on the glass, but they were engrossed now, waiting for it to begin. A woman's voice came on. I could not make out her words, but the volume was high, and the feeling and quality of her voice permeated the glass. It was a low voice, with no lift or variation.
"Ah, a sad story," I thought happily. Alex and Clair had spent the summer roaming around, reading Harry Potter, playing, swimming, and lounging. Alex had read a gamut of scripts and biographies of comedians. This foray into a sad tale sounded intriguing now, on this dark morning; it seemed important, more akin to "serious literature." But Alex and Clair looked tense, and the phrase "bracing themselves" came to mind.
What exactly was this book? Aside from the title, I knew nothing about it. In fact, all the books Alex was assigned in school were foreign to me. I recalled his last year's language arts teacher, on Back to School Night. I had been excited to meet her, because Alex adored her and her class.
But now I remembered that I had also felt a slight wariness with regard to the school's choice of books. I remembered her gesturing to the paperbacks the class would be reading. "Most of these books are recommended by the American Library Association, and many are Newbery Medal winners." The books were propped around the room. They all had teens on the covers. I didn't recognize a single title. I had picked up one and read that it promised "profound struggle." I put it back carefully.
The good warm feeling in the room had persisted. When the teacher cited an experience she'd had the previous year, during which a mother "came up to me and said, ‘Gee, thanks a lot, my daughter was up all night crying because of the death of a whale in a book'" (it wasn't Moby-Dick), we all laughed a bit at the sarcasm, and from a certain happiness we felt at the idea of a child being so swept up in a story. But now I remembered something else that had been said: "You see," the teacher had gone on to explain, "A good book should make you cry."
These words came back to me now as I watched my children. They were sitting so stiffly, their spines arched. Their posture was the opposite of how they sat when they were absorbed.
I had seen Alex like this many times during the year, when I'd passed his room in the evening; he always left his door open. There he'd be, reading one or another book assigned from school, under the cone of his desk lamp. He never looked at ease while he read. I had tried adjusting his light and suggested he close his door. No, he always wanted the door open when he read, didn't like to be alone with these books. "Everyone dies in them," he told me wearily. He'd recited the litany: a story about a town besieged by radioactive poisoning; one in which a girl searches for her mother, only to find her mother has committed suicide; children being abused in foster care, never told why their mothers weren't coming back. The list went on.
It can't be that bad, I always thought; reading, after all, is good. His teacher was a fine captain; I trusted her sense of direction. (But the choice of books?) I had never offered too much sympathy. Once or twice I'd picked up a book and studied the cover, where a photograph of a teen stared back at me, challengingly, such that I always lowered my eyes. Once in a while I had put my hand on Alex's shoulder and, wondering what to say, found only these words: "Just do it."
What had I meant? 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"?
Would the monotony of the voice on the tape break? I was listening for a shift in tone, a ravine of mystery, but no shift came. I realized no change would come. I had been listening for a certain music of sadness; instead, these were the brittle and fatty sounds of heavy depression. The voice was aggressive too, the way depression can make someone hostile.
"You know nothing about how bad life really is," it seemed to be droning. "You need this big dose of reality I am giving you. It's killing me, this talking, but I'm doing it for you."
* * *
It is easy to spot Alex's assigned reading books among his real books. His real books are worn, and cling to a driving force, namely Comedy. These books are stacked and bulging in his shelves, all the novels by Louis Sachar, Daniel Pinkwater, Barbara Park. And then thicker books—the biographies of Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Larry Gelbart; all the scripts from Our Show of Shows; the script of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum; a book called 170 Years of Show Business. But mostly his library serves to illuminate and honor Mel Brooks, his hero.
Among these worn texts, the school-issued books seem sleek and untouched in comparison. They are paperbacks moderate in length, and on their covers are drawings of slim, attractive teenagers. They look cool, defiant; they manage to look at me but not seem exposed. I never read any of these books in my own childhood (nothing in this pile was published before 1972). Who are these bold teenage protagonists? Do these books constitute a new kind of book, represent a new sensibility with regard to children? What is the nature of their grimness?
* * *
I decide to read Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech, a book I know Alex had to read last summer, before entering sixth grade. It has a girl on the cover, although we can see only her long flowing hair. She is turned toward an intriguing landscape of purple mountains and clear water, with a vibrant sunset beyond the mountains. Stamped in the middle of the cover, as if it were a moon floating in that clear water, is the golden seal of a Newbery Medal.
I sit in a slatted chair, out on my front lawn, alone for a few hours since my children are at the town pool and my husband won't be home until dinnertime. I begin to read. The book is about Salamanca, a girl whose mother has strangely and abruptly left home; Sal travels across the country with her grandparents looking for her mother. The plan is to show up where she thinks her mother has gone, on her mother's birthday, and coax her to return. The story is told by Sal, and takes place mostly in the car, in dialogue between Sal and her two interesting and unusual grandparents. She spends much time telling fascinating stories about things that have been happening to her since her mother has gone. I set about reading Walk Two Moons with the notion of keeping an analytic distance, but the story draws me in, and I begin to read slowly to savor the language. The writing is lyrical, the insights of the narrator sensitively revealed. I put the book down midway for a break with a feeling of pleasant surprise. I feel excited for my son: Here is an ambitious book, ambitious not only in terms of the writer's reach, but also in the way that it calls upon the young reader to stretch his way of hearing a story and seeing a world.
Walk Two Moons is engrossing, although increasingly upsetting things begin to pile up. We learn about the bloody miscarriage and hysterectomy Sal's mother endured before she deserted her family. Sal's grandmother has a stroke and must go to the hospital. The grandfather must remain to watch over her, so Sal drives on to find her mother by herself. She arrives in the town her mother has fled to, and yes, she has made it right on her mother's birthday. I am excited, the long journey has come to an end (the reader is told that Sal's grandmother has died in the meantime, but for the moment the girl does not know this), and I cannot wait for the mother and daughter to hold each other in their arms. Only it turns out the mother is not there, since she's been dead all along. She was killed in a bus accident. We find this out in the last pages. There are some hasty resolutions afterwards, but these feel tacked on and don't do much to dispel the book's great bad wallop of an ending.
I am stunned by this death and all this sudden cramming in of dismal facts. I feel as if I've been had, the way you might feel if, all along, you thought someone was your friend, only to find he is a paid actor. The ending and, suddenly, the whole book feel immeasurably contrived, weighted with a huge message—something about growing up and having to leave one's mother behind. About having to rely on yourself. Something like that. What had begun as a real book, sad yes, but complex and original, has ended as a tearjerker.
I drop the book on the grass and close my eyes. Evening is coming on. The wind is near, and then very far, more like an echo, and the dusk takes on a deeper dimension, beyond the small planet of my yard. Autumn is approaching. Soon Alex will disappear down the path on the side of the house each morning to school.
Every night before school, he will do his homework, diligently, pack his own things up, manage projects: He is masterful in his realm. When he leaves down the steps, his blue knapsack will look heavy and lumpy, but he's not dwarfed by it. His stride is purposeful. He looks like "a youth just starting out."
What does someone just starting out in the world need to take? If I were to stand in the street in my slippers and call after him now that he is 12, as he descends the steps, what would I call?
("Come home at three."?)
What book in his knapsack might help him along his way? (Not the one I've read today; it seems too nerve-racking, freighted with anxiety. It would weigh him down.)
What Builds Courage? Lightens Despair?
A sudden cold snap extinguishes the bright roses along the fence. Summer is over just like that, and the yard looks littered and strange. My children return to school, and I stand in the doorway.
My job—I run a creative arts program for children, called Story Shop—doesn't begin until late October. Story Shop is an afterschool program I run for children, which, as I explain to parents, "helps children find forms for their original stories." Children write stories, and tell them, and enact them, and build scenes and characters out of paper and boxes and odds and ends. Stories are often presented to the group as a whole, so that kids get a chance to share what they've made, and also to draw inspiration from the work of others.
I began Story Shop when Alex was little, and I needed a part-time job that would allow me to work close to home. For the previous 10 years I had been teaching writing as an adjunct professor in colleges, and while I liked this, what I loved most was working with children, especially in the arts, and especially as it gave me a chance to be in the realm of childhood imagination. I had been a teacher of writing for children in many different venues: in a residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed children, in a fantastically wealthy private school, and as part of an arts program in a low-income neighborhood. When Story Shop reopens for fall, I will be buckled into an exacting routine, but for now, for this brief period, I am free.
At midmorning I drive to the library in the next town, as I have been doing lately. I like to go there, because, unlike in my own library, I rarely see anyone I know, and I like the anonymity. The children's librarian, who is stamping books at the front desk, is a sturdy woman, with a serene face and tidy, pale hair.
"Excuse me," I said pleasantly, "but when we were kids, didn't we used to read books that were less ... catastrophic?"
"Oh, these realistic sad books are very popular," she said mildly. "Teachers love them. They win all the awards." In fact, in the past 10 years, 40 percent of the Newbery Medal winners have been of this sort.
Later, after I made my way over to a table, having begun tentatively to pluck books with glaring teens on their covers, she walked over to me and handed me a hefty book. "This might help you," she said.
It was a reference book called Children's Literature in the Elementary School, into which she had stuck a yellow sticky note where, presumably, she thought I should read:
"Realistic fiction helps children enlarge their frames of reference while seeing the world from another perspective," the highlighted passage read. "Stories ... help young people develop compassion for an understanding of human actions.... For many years, death was a taboo subject in children's literature. Yet, as children face the honest realities of life in books, they are developing a kind of courage for facing problems in their own lives."
Sound enough, as far as it went. I read further. But after a while, I began to wonder different things. First, what did they mean that death had been taboo? What did it take for a young reader to draw courage from a book? I knew it was possible, of course. Even though I was very unsettled by reading The Hundred Dresses, by Eleanor Estes, when I was 9—a story about schoolgirls' insensitivity to a poor classmate, and the failure of any of them to stand up for the girl—I recognize that it helped me to begin to formulate some ideas about how I wanted to act, and not act. In particular, I think the book offered me the first outline of the idea that it was possible to resist the velocity of group pressure.
But more often in my reading experience, it seems, I had drawn inspiration not so much from a character's actions, or the plot, as from some moment in the language of the story, when it was revealed to me that the author was seeing the world in the same way I did. At such times, I felt pulled out from some shadow I hadn't known I'd been hiding in. I remember feeling startled, embarrassed, but strangely heartened, for example, when I came across Alfred Kazin's book A Walker in the City when I was 12; it was as if Alfred Kazin were writing specifically about me, and the secret feeling I had that my neighborhood in the upper tip of Manhattan was odd, too far from the rest of the world. "When I was a child," he wrote, "I thought we lived at the end of the world. It was the eternity of the subway ride into the city that first gave me this idea. Even the I.R.T. got tired by the time it came to us, and ran up into the open for a breath of air." The subway had always been a being to me also, in need of that fresh gulp of air, but I never guessed that another person thought this way too.
* * *
My table at the library is by the window, a round table with a quiet luster, on which all the books I've been reading for two weeks make a precarious stack. These are the books whose titles I came across on school reading lists, some that were prize winners, some recommended to me by friends and kids I know. But some books I found just by generally poking around the shelves—the children's shelves and the adjacent Young Adult section. I selected books that strove to be realistic, rather than books of fantasy, or humor, or historical fiction, because the realistic books seemed distinct from books I grew up with, whereas the other types were more familiar. I tried to choose books that promised "profound struggle."
And I have come to regard my books in the words of a 10-year-old girl I know: "They give me a headache in my stomach." Literary critics refer to some of the books I've assembled as "problem novels"—and boy do problems abound.
While making my way through them, I have encountered: kids whose parents are drunk and cruelly neglectful (The Pigman), a child's uncle so demented by grief that he hallucinates his dead wife throughout the whole book (Chasing Redbird), atrocities of foster care and abandonment by one's mother (They Cage the Animals at Night; Monkey Island), more abandonment (Dicey's Song; Belle Prater's Boy), alcoholism (The Late, Great Me), kidnapping (Ransom; The Face on the Milk Carton), child abuse (Bruises; Don't Hurt Laurie), family violence (Breathing Lessons), sexual abuse (Speak), incest (Abby, My Love), teen suicide (Tunnel Vision), death of a friend (Bridge to Terabithia), running away and child prostitution (A House for Jonnie O.), and self-mutilation (Cut; Crosses)—to name but a very few. Some of the books are well written and affecting. Some—many—are downright depressing, so that even if the writing is vibrant, the story told is unpleasant, weighty. Others are so sensationalistic as to read like dopey soap operas, pure and simple. The Face on the Milk Carton—about a teenage girl who suddenly realizes one day at breakfast that the face she sees of a missing child on the milk carton is actually her own when she was a toddler, and that, in fact, the adults she lives with, whom she has believed are her mother and father, must really be people who kidnapped her from her real parents years before—well—fits the last category.
While plowing through these stacks, I read around in some other texts as well, in an effort to get a handle on the nature of these novels.
"Stated broadly, and ignoring variations that inevitably exist in so large a literature," writes historian Anne Scott Macleod, "the path of American adolescent novels has been from outward to inward; from concern with the young adult's relationship to the larger community to a nearly exclusive emphasis on the adolescent's inner feelings."
Problem novels and the like sprang into existence during and after the 1960s (I probably stopped dipping into children's literature just at the moment they began). The general speculation seems to be that The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger, while not intended for teenagers, was perhaps a prototype for the first problem novels, in that the story is told in the voice of a disaffected adolescent at odds with a disappointing adult world.
Sheila Egoff, a Canadian specialist in children's literature, writes that the realistic adolescent novel, "[takes] the approach that maturity can be attained only through a severe testing of soul and self, [featuring] some kind of shocking ‘rite of passage' such as the uprooting of a child's life by war, the death of a close friend...." She defines the problem novel as a subgenre of the realistic adolescent novel: It tends to be narrower in focus, less rich in narrative scope, and at times feels "as if the writers had begun with the problem rather than the plot or characters." The problem novel is most often about a "child defined by the terminology of pain." Egoff further delineates some of its characteristics:
• The protagonist is alienated and hostile toward adults.
• Some relief from unhappiness comes from a relationship with an adult outside the family.
• The story is often told in the first person, and is often confessional and self-centered.
• The narrative is told from the point of view of an ordinary child, often in the vernacular; vocabulary is limited; tone is often flat, and emotionally detached.
• Dialogue predominates.
• The settings are urban, usually in New York or California.
• Sexuality is openly and frequently discussed.
• Parents are absent, either physically or emotionally.
I have found these observations applicable to many of the books I've read, although in the more recently published books, death, rather than sex, seems the primary theme, and locations are not limited to the coastal cities. And while many are written primarily in dialogue, often in the vernacular, there appears to be a growing body of realistic, problem-driven books written in a densely elegiac language, borrowing, perhaps, from the mood of the adult memoir.
A desolate feeling in many of the novels prevails. In virtually all the books I've read, the character's mother is dead, missing, or nonfunctional.
The ethos of many of these books, if there is one, seems not to be "Love Makes the World Go Round," or "Only Connect," or "There's No Place Like Home," or even primarily "Be Brave." Instead, "Only Survive" or "At Least You Have Yourself (since you can't rely on anyone else)" is more to the point. Also: "What You See Is All There Is." Also: "Lower Your Expectations (the most you can expect from life is small kindnesses from strangers and the fact that you can get up in the morning and go on)."
The narrative voices in these novels, whether the story is told in first person or third, seem to share a particular quality. Lack of humor, the tackling of traumatic themes, and a relentless earnestness all come to mind, as well as their often confessional tone. But another aspect also links this group.
It's Not an Authentic Child's Voice
While the books are most often told in the voice of a child narrator, or narrator identified with a child, and, in some, the child's language might sound more or less believable, many of the books rarely deliver what I consider an authentic child's perspective. Something feels false. Something essential feels missing.
What is it? The answer is this: No child I have known (who is approximately 12 or under) experiences "reality" only in terms of what happens—"the facts." For all children, except in cases of extreme pathology, there is to a greater or lesser degree a corresponding magical, imaginative counterpart to experience. This dimension does not have to be fully conscious, but exists nevertheless. By "magic" I do not mean (only) manifest magic, as the child's belief or wish that he could turn invisible or fly. In fact, as children get older, such manifest magic is understood increasingly to be the exclusive province of dramatic play and art, distinct from reality. But latent magic continues to abound in the everyday. There is chatter among trees. The world vibrates with connections, and within these connections the world is more dangerous (than for adults), since shadows can be alive, and menacing, but the world is more providential also, since allies can be found in rocks, in the hopeful sunlight, and the like. Within this universe, the child is the nexus, but while he might be hindered or aided by the natural world, he is never alone. The point is that in childhood, and well into early adolescence (and in all poetic worlds), the universe is animate, or at least potentially animate, with an unseen presence.
And it is precisely this dimension to childhood experience that is absent from many realistic novels and virtually all problem novels. No magic, manifest or latent, vibrates within them. Instead, in all of these self-proclaimed realistic stories, "reality" is understood as the opposite of imagination and fantasy, as if childhood were a dream from which children must be awakened—when, in fact, reality is not divisible from imagining, for children. But in these books children's imagination is regarded as something that must be tamed, monitored, barred. The child protagonist, while presented with the darkest and most upsetting situations imaginable, is denied what in real childhood would exist in abundance: recourse to fantasy.
There's something else about these child narrator voices that feels so inauthentic: These little narrators see too much, they know too much. Real kids' minds filter the world's events. And when a child narrates a realistic story with a genuine voice, that filter is in place, allowing children of different ages (and even adults) to grasp the novel at different levels in varying ways, helping the child reach for a fuller understanding of the world, but without a heavy hand.
Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary are brilliant at capturing an authentic child's perspective. Christopher Paul Curtis is another author who writes convincingly from a child's point of view. In particular, I am thinking here of The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, a book dealing with harrowing, realistic themes indeed. The 9-year-old narrator, Kenny, tells the story of his family traveling to Alabama to visit relatives, and the horrible church bombing that occurs during their visit. Kenny believes his little sister, who had chosen to attend the church that morning, was killed, and even when he finds out she wasn't, his terror and depression continue; he can't shake the feelings.
While some problem novels might have handled these themes in a heavy-handed way, this book manages to be graceful, sometimes quite lighthearted. This is true because Kenny's narrative voice never feels like an adult talking through a child, and instead reads exactly, to my ear, the way a genuine 9-year-old (who has a great sense of humor) would be experiencing his life. The language is believable—word choice, rhythm, etc.—but even more significant is the way events are relayed through his voice: much is filtered out; not everything is noted by the child narrator. Curtis's genius is that while he manages to convey to the keen reader the facts of poverty and racism in the child's community, mostly through details Kenny notes almost in passing, he does not choose to have Kenny fully grasp and describe with full scope the meaning of these observations. Kenny doesn't reflect on "big issues"—although because information is noted, we can expect that as he grows, he will become more reflective. But what is within the child narrator's grasp now is what is immediately important to him: family relationships, the intricacies of friendships, playing, etc. In other words, his life is described at his eye level.
Particularly compelling is the way Kenny describes his efforts to make sense of the traumatic events he witnessed. When solace comes, it is not because an adult in the book has delivered a meta-narrative about the meaning of racism, or stress, or why he should move on with his life and stop feeling bad. (Adults try in the book but their attempts don't do the trick.) Instead, Kenny pursues his own imaginative and idiosyncratic ways of healing himself, just as a real child might, and is finally delivered by the loving attention of his brother.
The author's faithfulness to the child's perspective allows the child reader to take in as much as he is able about the story. He can identify with the narrator, who, as I've said, sees things through his particular filtering lens. Or, as the child reader is ready, he can ponder larger aspects of the story. The author doesn't shout out "the problem" and/or "the meaning" but leaves room for the reader to connect with the story—the beautifully told story—on the level that is meaningful to him.
* * *
Children also do not play in problem novels. Or if they do, the play sequences are never woven seamlessly into life, the way, for example, Huck in Huckleberry Finn describes his playing life. (Huck, even though he has a whole array of family troubles, like children in problem novels, is the very antithesis of the problem novel character.) Huck's narrative moves in and out of descriptions of play and fantasy episodes. When he pretends to plot crimes with Tom Sawyer and a gang of other boys, deep in damp caves in the middle of the night, pages are devoted to descriptions of the oath pledged among the boys, involving exchanges of blood and promises of murder if the secret of their gang is revealed by any. The story told through Huck's eyes portrays play the way it really feels to children: deliciously real, but at the same time, not exactly the same as reality. Play and fantasy are facets of the prism through which life is experienced.
Many of the novels I've read seem not to regard play in this way. Any play sequences are described in a highly self-conscious, guarded way, and are put in the story to teach a lesson. The "secret world" in Bridge to Terabithia is a perfect example of how fantasy is regarded in these books. The very bridge in question causes the death of a child. (Fantasy is dangerous.) And Jess's realization at the end of the book—indeed the book's epiphany, as it were—is that to grow up he must give up imaginative wanderings in favor of "reality."
But while the children in problem novels don't have rich imaginations, they are given mood states: They are depressed, nervous, worried. And they often feel very guilty. One child I know remarked, "In those books the kids always hate themselves." Many characters are portrayed as feeling that they are the cause of the terrible things that occur.
This feeling of being the center of the universe—the cause of everything—is authentic enough to childhood, but where this omnipotence reigns in child thinking, doesn't a whole world of other fantasies—comforting, deep ones—exist along side it? Why deprive the child narrators of the rest of their experience?
From the (Overly?) Benign to the (Overly?) Malign
I open another book in my stack—American Children's Literature and the Construction of Childhood by Gail Schmunk Murray. It is a nice size book, small, not too thick, with a peaceful golden cover. It is part of a series called Twayne's History of American Childhood. It was published in 1998. I turn it over in my hands before I open it. It promises to contextualize, as the historians say, the advent of the problem novel. Why and when did the problem novel come into being?
In her introduction, Murray argues that "the meaning of childhood is socially constructed and ... its meaning has changed over time."
Of course, society has never spoken with one voice, but in every era, except perhaps the present one, a dominant culture has prevailed. Books written for children reveal this dominant culture, reflect its behavioral standards.... On the whole, children's literature is a conservative medium. Clergy, teachers, parents, and writers have all used it to shape morals, control information, model proper behavior, delineate gender roles, and reinforce class, race, and ethnic separation. Historically, children's fiction has not encouraged creativity, exploration of behaviors, or self-expression.
"Children's books," Murray observes, "often tell us much more about the image of the ideal child that society would like to produce than they do about real children."
And what was the ideal child like when I was young, nearly 40 years ago? The ideal girl—at least the ideal that spoke loudest to me—was pure and good, charitable, almost selfless. I am thinking of Pollyanna and Anne of Green Gables, books written early in the 20th century, but which did not feel outdated when I was young. An ideal boy was more like Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn: fundamentally kind and just, but adventurous, even wayward. A risk-taker.
I flip to the chapter called "Idealized Realism, 1920-1950," which, even though I was born in 1956, seems to sum up in its title something about the books I grew up on. "It is hard to find a more turbulent era in American history," Murray writes, "than the three decades bracketed in this chapter." But children's literature of this period, she notes, did not reflect any of the country's upheaval; instead, books offered an optimistic world-view.
I am reminded here of a succinct sentence written by Anne Macleod, summing up the same period: "On the whole, the outer world as pictured in children's fiction was benign, an extension of home kindness toward children."
All this rings true. Weren't all our books then safe, with the presence of someone, some kind adult, however crusty or obscure, watching over us? Wasn't there someone who, when we felt most alone, turned out to have been there all along?
I don't remember feeling anxiety upon opening a book. Somebody was in charge of those books. And if it wasn't a character, an adult or a wise animal, maybe I'm just remembering my feeling about the narrative voice itself back then: omniscient, disembodied (never a first-person child narrator). Maybe because it spoke over and above, this narrative voice had a kind of sweeping grandeur for me, echoing my feelings about an overseeing God, or nature, or a protective, all-knowing adult.
And those narrators would never tell us stories that left us desolate. Even the youngest readers knew this. We knew from the outset who would never die: main characters, children, parents. Or if someone central was killed off, if tragedy struck, death would be cocooned in a kind of enviable angelic aura (e.g., Little Eva in Uncle Tom's Cabin). Or death was otherwise neatly subsumed into the story, and over before you knew it, making it seem remarkably manageable.
I remember reading a novel about the Holocaust when I was 12, called The Silver Sword, by Ian Serraillier, about children whose parents are taken away by Nazis, and who then had to fend for themselves in the woods and abandoned basements. But even though the story was tense and felt profoundly real, and I knew about the Holocaust from my parents and grandparents, I loved that book. I don't recall feeling overwhelmed or bleak, the way, say, Alex seems to feel about some of the books he is asked to read. It didn't give me nightmares. In fact, didn't I used to play that I was somehow also an orphan, hiding from the Nazis, just like in the book? How had that story been handled such that it left me feeling exhilarated, rather than hopeless?
I remember that the children had verve. They formed a kind of ragtag gang of orphans; they had a certain jaunty cheer. They were inventive. And even though the world they moved through was terribly dangerous, the mere fact that they were children gave them a special status, an aura of protection.
Later I find the book on the library shelves, one old tattered copy, published in 1959. I come upon a section that I seem to have remembered all these years: the children, who have been hiding in a barn, and who are exhausted and scared, are discovered by a farmer who might or might not turn them over to the authorities. He orders the children to his farmhouse. But a certain fairy tale atmosphere prevails:
There were gay window-boxes on the sills of the farmhouse, gay with flowers. On the scrubbed table in the kitchen a breakfast of coffee and rolls had been laid.
"Emma," called the farmer. "Four visitors for breakfast—four tattered bundles of mischief from Poland."
A plump and comfortable-looking lady shook hands with each of them in turn, and, welcoming them to the table, went to fetch more breakfast.
The children are refreshed. The scene is radiant. It is as if the story dips itself periodically into a clear lake that washes away the grime of life, leaving the children's spirits renewed. While the tone here is like a fairy tale's, it also captures something realistic about childhood for me: Alex and Clair, and most children I know, seem to have access to this clear lake, this radiance and capacity for renewal.
* * *
I rest my head on my folded arms, and angle my face to the weak sunlight. I am remembering Dick and Jane readers, the very first schoolbooks. The drawings of chubby little Jane from so long ago, with her blonde curls and her gossamer pinafore, and Dick, in shorts, the very picture of a "lad."
The parents were called Mother and Father, which I found shocking—that children might refer to their parents so formally. And Mother and Father came out onto the green yard once in a while, on special occasions. They were young, laughing, trim. Mother had such a small waist, and wore a little belt around her dress.
But even when Mother and Father weren't in the pictures, their shadows seemed to fall across the lawn, as if they were standing just out of the frame, always present. If there wasn't this proximity, how else could Dick and Jane be so carefree? Which was how they seemed: wagons and balls scattered casually on the lawn (in my New York City life, I had never seen a real wagon); the dog yipping around without a leash. The parents oversaw everything. The white picket fence encircled the children. The continual joy of the parents impressed me: It seemed incited by nothing in particular, except by the same joy the children felt about their ball, their dog, life in general. This was the feeling in all our books then, wasn't it?
I continue to lie on my arms. Against the darkening sky, I can see my own eyes looking back at me in the glass, watching myself, remembering the pictures, and myself as a girl reader.
What if Dick and Jane had looked up, beyond the page, and seen me—the huge face of a dark girl?
How did Jewish enter into this? What made me know—although I never then could have formed it into words—that Dick and Jane and Mother and Father weren't Jews? That they had never heard of Jews, that they might not like Jews? What mood would cross their faces if they realized who had been watching them all this time?
No Jew lived in that book.
I sit up. This is what I remember from those first books. The children in them were safe, and enclosed. It was sunny there. But sometimes I felt left out. I imagine many other children must have felt this way too.
"[A] new construction of childhood emerged during the 1960s," Gail Murray argues in her chapter "Child Liberation 1950–1990":
It recognized that children could not always be protected from the dangers and sorrows of real life; they might be better prepared to cope with pain if adults did not try to protect them from it.... The boundaries that had protected children and adolescents from adult responsibilities throughout the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century became much more permeable.... Such previously defined adult issues as sexuality and suffering entered the realm of childhood.
Or, as Anne Macleod sums up: "By the middle of the 1960s, political and social changes leaned hard on the crystal cage that had surrounded children's literature for decades. It cracked, and the world flowed in."
I view the stacks of books on my table. The Pigman, by Paul Zindel, written in 1968, is a book I find especially haunting, one that most seems to sum up this new "construction of childhood." It never fell into my hands when I was young, but a neighbor's daughter read it in sixth grade. She hated it, said it was "weird" and "depressing."
It is weird and depressing. But it's intriguing too. It stands out from the rest of the problem novels, maybe because—unlike in Bridge to Terabithia, say—no adult viewpoint comes in to wrap the story up, bring it down to earth, pay lip service to its "meaning." The Pigman, in a sense, is unchaperoned by any sobering adult sensibility, is told straight in the alternating voices of two teenagers, and ends disastrously. It does not serve as a moral tale; the reader does not sense any hidden agenda, or at least not a familiar one, on the part of the writer.
A friend tells me she read The Pigman when she was a teenager, years ago, when it first came out. She said the book meant a lot to her, that she cherished it, that it told her something about boys and girls together that she hadn't read anywhere before. This remark reminds me of a critic's observation: "Individual readers come to each story at a slightly different point in their life's journey. If nobody comes between them and the book, they may discover within it some insight they require, a rest they long for, a point of view that challenges their own, a friend they may cherish for life." My friend felt that the book was "secret and private."
Would I have liked this book years ago? Would it have been the same experience to read it at 12—as my neighbor's daughter did—as, say, at 15? Would it be the same to read it on one's own, in "secret and private," as to have to read it as part of a school curriculum?
To read about the anarchic world of The Pigman, at 12 (unthinkable at 8) would have been more then I could handle. Like a direct assault. It would have been like ripping down one structure, the only structure I had, before anything else was in its place. (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, on the other hand, ripped down nothing: it constructed something.)
How about at 15?
By then a lot had changed.
What Does a Young Person Need?
Alex has left his room ablaze with light, and I go in to turn off the lamps. They Cage the Animals at Night lies on the bed. I flip through the pages, the soft tuft fanning me. The sadness of the book returns. How does such a searing story about abandonment—this child's mother drops him off one day at an orphanage, with no explanation, and never is really able to retrieve him—hit a 12-year-old reader? A friend of mine who is a psychiatrist in a city clinic told me that a 12-year-old patient of hers, with a "trainwreck life"—foster care, abuse, horrible things—loved reading excessively traumatic books. "The girl eats them up," my friend said, "can't get enough. Finishes one, picks up another." This makes sense to me; I can imagine how reading about others in trouble could feel like a lifeline.
But how do the books hit a 12-year-old or 10-year-old who still has a mother, whose life has all its parts more or less functioning, but who is just beginning the process of becoming more independent? What is the effect of hitting a kid with stories about abandonment and loss just at the moment that he is repositioning himself to separate?
The books evoke compassion, sure. They offer a glimpse into other lives, broaden understanding of the inequities of society. Obviously this is good. But unless there is the assumption that children always remain slightly detached readers—sociological perspective foremost—don't stories with such potent, universal themes as abandonment and loss reverberate as personal stories?
Some of them must have been written as a kind of offering: to the child, to all children, who may at some point be in trouble. The book is a protector; the book reaches out. The child needs help.
I sit down on Alex's bed.
The troubling books are all squished together in his bookshelf. They have taken up residence. Seen as a group, they have a pushy, aggressive edge.
Just who is their intended reader? What assumptions have been made about that intended (10- to 12-year-old) reader?
Self-centered, unfeeling? Needs to be hit on the head repeatedly about how people suffer? Can't this approach inspire the opposite reaction—invite such a detached person to become even more detached? Does a blitz of misery sensitize a person, or numb him? Rather than making issues of human suffering more available for reflection, might such a barrage invite a person to trivialize such issues? "A book must be an ice axe to break the sea frozen inside us," Kafka wrote. The child is frozen, the book's job is to hack away?
I pick up the book on Alex's bed again, and flip through it. This time a paper falls out of the tuft. It is a paragraph Alex must have typed, copied from Newsweek. It is from an article on foster care:
The autopsy photo shows a little boy who looks relieved to be dead. His eyes are closed. A hospital tube protrudes through his broken nose. He has deep cuts above his right ear and dark linear scars on his forehead. The bruises on his back are a succession of yellows, greens, and blues. On the bottom of his tiny feet are third-degree burns. He had been battered and tortured.
On the bottom of the page, in clear print, Alex's teacher has written: "Excellent Choice Alex! A!"
This? A child relieved to be dead? In the whole wide world of literature, why is it imperative for 12-year-olds to stare into the abyss of the abusive foster care system? Why? Why this of all things?
I stomp downstairs. Alex is eating a cookie in the kitchen. He looks cheerful. "I saw this article about foster care," I say casually, offering it. "It's an intense article. Why exactly did he have you read this?"
His face darkens. "It's for language arts. To go with They Cage the Animals at Night. We have to research the foster care system. Forget it. It's not important."
I don't know what to say. "But, it's so—Did you find it, I mean, what did you think of this article?"
"Please," he says. "Please. I don't want to talk about it!"
"But I just want to understand—"
"Leave me alone!"
* * *
The days are grey. The branches are bare; there is mud, a battering of icy rain. My friend calls and invites me to go for a walk.
The woods are dreary. My friend is a cheerful sort, although she is a thoughtful, rather scholarly person who lives books, and in fact does volunteer reading once a week in an orphanage. We like to talk about books, and wonder together at the strange books assigned to our sons. Her son is 12, like Alex, and also in the seventh grade.
"They've finished Ransom, about the kids being kidnapped," she tells me. She's heard that in a nearby town the seventh-graders are reading A Child Called It, by David Pelzer, an adult memoir about a man's recollection of his childhood abuse. "I called a friend of mine who lives over there," she says, "and asked her how she feels about this. You know what she said? She said she looked at what the kids have been reading, and that she thought the books were good because they were like a ‘modern day Oliver Twist.'"
I ponder what my friend has said. The hugeness of the difference between Oliver Twist and any of these books is too much to articulate. The whole of the 19th century is in that book, the complexity, the subtlety, the vision of childhood. "For one thing," I hear myself say, "Isn't Oliver Twist a great book?" And then I add, "What do real orphans like to read? Orphans who are 11 and 12 years old? Would you read them They Cage the Animals at Night, for example?"
She turns to look at me as we walk. "Oh my god no. They would hate it. It's too real. They would find it unbearable."
"They wouldn't take comfort in it? What do they like instead?"
"You're not going to believe this," she says, and stops again. "And, no, they wouldn't take comfort in it. They like picture books. They like Dr. Seuss; they like The Three Little Pigs."
You read 12-year-olds The Three Little Pigs?" I try to picture this. "How did you hit on that idea? Aren't they seriously into being teenagers? Weren't you worried the first time you pulled the book out that they would feel insulted? And hate it?"
"Yes," she said. "The first time I was going to read, a girl who looked about 18 (she was really maybe 12), with long fingernails, kept tapping them on the table. It made me really nervous. But I had taken some of them to the library the week before, and what they gravitated toward was picture books, nursery rhymes in fact. These tough-looking kids were absolutely riveted by Mother Goose. It was really surprising. But I still worried the first time I decided to read that that girl would hate it. But as soon as I started reading Corduroy—you know, about the stuffed bear who gets lost in a store—she stopped tapping her nails. She absolutely loved it. They all want me to read all the books over and over. That's what I do each week now."
So who are those sad books for? I wonder as we resume walking. Apparently, at any rate, not for real orphans. But I continue to wonder. They did, after all, seem to fill a deep need for my psychiatrist friend's patient.
* * *
The librarians are talking so loudly I feel indignant. I think about shouting, "Uh, do you mind? This is a library! I'm trying to get some sleep!" Luckily I realize the folly of this, and I stop myself.
I sit up. I am surprised to see that the librarian is walking softly along the periphery of the room, as if waiting for her shadow to lead the way. She is drawing the shades, pulling delicate cords.
I sink back down between the table and the window. I must have dozed again, because this time when I open my eyes she is standing over me, and so is the other one—the goodly one, whose velvet headband sweeps her hair back; in my mind I call her Alice.
"Hi," I say weakly.
I sit up properly and make to slap dust off my legs, as if this lying position had been foisted on me, and is infinitely irritating. In one swoop I am a citizen, sitting upright. I say, loudly, "I have realized what is missing in those books."
They wait expectantly.
They continue to stand expectantly, and I struggle to remember what it is I am referring to, and then I do.
"It's from a line in a Grace Paley story. She describes how she hates stories that move from point a to point b, toward an ending that's fixed before starting out. You know, contrived. She says she hates that absolute line between two points"—and then I lower my voice, and recite—"‘... not for literary reasons,' she says, ‘but because it takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.'"
They are nodding.
"I've always preferred open destiny myself," Alice says.
Before we can continue, the bank of lights overhead has been turned out, and then another bank. I realize there has been a third librarian all along, a frail Indian woman, in a sari. The room is blue now, and through the blinds, lightning crackles in the sky, although as far as I can tell, it is not yet raining. I sit quietly and wonder, as I often do: What does a young person need from his family and culture when he is about to set out on his own?
Barbara Feinberg founded and now teaches at Story Shop, a creative writing afterschool program for children. This article is adapted from Welcome to Lizard Motel: Children, Stories, and the Mystery of Making Things Up, a Memoir by Barbara Feinberg, 2004, by permission of Beacon Press. In this unique and interesting memoir, a mother and creative writing teacher reflects on the role of imagination in children's lives. By special arrangement with Beacon Press, members of the American Federation of Teachers are eligible for a 20 percent discount. To order, visit www.beacon.org and enter the promotional code FEINBERG.