Do teachers really love depressing books? It’s an interesting question. Writer Barbara Feinberg believes they do, and she says as much in her new tome “Welcome to Lizard Motel: Children, Stories and the Mystery of Making Things Up.” An article in a recent New York Times reviews her book.
“A avid reader growing up, I decided that there were two types of children’s books,” writes Laura Miller in the New York Times. “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.â€
â€œFeinberg, 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,â€ writes Miller. â€œShe 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.”
Feinberg dove into the contemporary genre of young adult (YA) know as â€œproblem novels.â€ These books are, as Miller puts it, â€œas bleak as a gas station parking lot at 4 a.m.â€ With spare realism, these books depict â€œchild and teenage protagonists weathering abuse, addiction, parental abandonment or fecklessness, mental illness, pregnancy, suicide, violence, prostitution or self-mutilation â€” and often a combination of the above.â€
”Teachers love them,” the local librarian explains as Feinberg scans a shelf of such titles. ”They win all the awards.”
Some noted books include 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).
Do you remember similar experiences when you were first turned on to reading? Did you like what you read in class, forever grateful to the teacher who showed you the light? Or did you stray to the library on your own to discover the books that seemed to be written just for you?
Not that there is anything wrong with the â€œproblem novels.â€ In fact, â€œmany kids do love these books,â€ writes Miller in the Times article. â€œPerhaps 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.â€
But not every book is for every reader. I like how Miller ends her essay: â€œThere is no chemistry more subtle and combustible than the matching of reader with book; it just can’t be standardized â€¦ You have to experiment until you get it right: that’s the only formula for making a lifelong reader.â€