Monday, May 30, 2005

Picnic Book Talk

I was at the annual Memorial Day picnic yesterday, just shooting the breeze with my brother-in-law, when he starts talking about reading to his six-year-old daughter. He mentioned that they'd recently read one of the Magic Tree House books. Evidently it wasn't the first that they'd read because he said he couldn't help but notice that they were all alike. They seemed very much like the same book written over and over again.

I hated to be the one to break it to him, but that's the case with a lot of series books written for new readers. While talking about this...phenomena...I wondered if there was a developmental reason for it. Maybe these books weren't just quick and dirty ways to make a buck--hook the kid on a character and situation and keep them coming back for more.

So I posed that very question at Child_Lit. The response was pretty much unanimous. Kids do need repetition to become fluent readers. They need to see the same words over and over again in order to really know them. (Which may explain why Dr. Seuss worked with a word list when he started out in the 50s or 60s.) With every repetitious, predictable book in a series that kids read, they become more and more comfortable reading. Evidently not having to put a lot of energy into working out new characters and plots leaves them with energy to store away vocabulary and maybe just get the feel for how stories are put together.

I am obsessing on this, of course, because I'm still working on a book for that age group.

Friday, May 27, 2005

I Made It

I made it through Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett. But it wasn't easy.

Chasing Vermeer is a book about coincidences and whether or not there are connections we just don't see between so-called unrelated events. The author tries to build an art mystery around that basic--and, really, interesting--premise. Unfortunately, coincidence is deadly in a work of fiction. It wrecks all the elements that go into building a piece of writing. A novel about coincidence needs to be very carefully written.

Chasing Vermeer is not carefully written.

The events in a plot--whether for a mystery or any other kind of book--need to lead from one to another. Event B happens because Event A happened; Event A leads to B leads to C, etc. It's called a causal relationship. Something causes something to happen. There's very little causal relationship in Chasing Vermeer. The events in the book are more or less just a list of things that happen. This probably helps explain why the characters' reactions to events often seem to come out of nowhere, too.

Speaking of characters--two suddenly appear out of nowhere as a plot device. They literally appear to open a door for the main characters. Then we never see them again. That's definitely a flaw. As a matter of fact, all the secondary characters move in and out of the book in a very jerky, clunky way.

Chasing Vermeer also has long sections that sound "instructive." Teaching kids to think seems to be a very important part of the book. Now, you may be thinking, "I love books that make me think!" But do you love books that provide you with instruction on how to do so? Children's books have a history of being "instructive." What children's literature existed in the nineteenth century was often of an "improving" nature. You can still see that thread in children's publishing to this very day. It's not a particularly attractive thread.

Think about this: Would instruction be tolerated in a novel for adults? A poor plot, clunky movement of characters, yes. But instruction? Write a textbook!

I know that I sound as if I'm harping about writing technicalities. But writing isn't some kind of magical or romantic thing that just happens. (By the way, there's some romanticizing of writing in this book, too--one of the characters is interested in writing.) Even if you think of writing as an art and not a craft, artists know the technicalities of their art. Writers need to know the technicalities of theirs, too.

To try to end on a positive note, I've heard that there are readers who are into puzzles and riddles who enjoy Chasing Vermeer.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

I Don't Know if I'm Going to be Able to Make it Through This One

I am reading a book that is so breathtakingly terrible that all I can think of is the early rejected contestants on American Idol. And I won't watch the show in the early weeks when they're televising those contestants because I think it's just plain wrong. So why do I continue to read this book?

Thank goodness it's going to be a movie. Maybe a good screenwriter can make something of this mess.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

What I Learned in First Grade

This week I visited a first grade class at the Elmer Thienes/Mary Hall School that was getting ready for an "Author Day" presentation for their parents. I was invited to attend the presentation, and I went in a couple of days earlier to hear all the books that had been created for the big day. I came away with all kinds of thoughts.

First: Almost everyone one of these kids wrote a nonfiction book. I saw "memoirs" about birthday parties and shopping trips. I saw what you might call mixed genres--memoirs mixed with travel literature and memoirs mixed with sports literature. What I found so incredibly interesting is that more nonfiction than fiction is published in this country. Presumably, people prefer reading nonfiction over fiction. And these young writers seemed to reflect this reality.

When I brought up this point with them, one boy (who wrote quite a nice piece about his vacation with incredible illustrations) said that more kids wrote nonfiction than fiction because kids had trouble making things up. I think he may have a point there. Certainly back when I used to volunteer working with young writers I found that many of them seemed to hit a brick wall when it came time to generate ideas.

Second: Today while I was out in the hall with the parents waiting for "Author Day" to begin, I realized that next week is Book Expo America. Publishers show off their new books to booksellers, librarians, educators, and, according to what I've heard, anyone who can wrangle a ticket (it's not open to the general public). Well, BEA is held every year. And lots of classes have "Author Days" or "Author Teas" every spring. So I was thinking, wouldn't it be cool to coordinate elementary school "Author Days" with Book Expo America? They could be held at the same time and the kids could feel they were part of a big writers' event. Teachers could register with Book Expo America ahead of time and get posters for their classrooms or bookmarks/postcards/whatever you promoting new books. It would be good for the kids and good for the publishers and writers.

Third: After the first grade authors read their new works, there was a reception. I am always lame at receptions so I picked up a book called When Pigasso Met Mootisse by Nina Laden. I love art books for kids when they are clever and/or witty and don't cram education down their readers' throats. This one absolutely met all my requirements.

I've been told that the author, Nina Laden, is very popular with this particular class. I'd never heard of her. Obviously, first graders have something to teach us.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Creating a Nation of Well-Educated Nonreaders

MSNBC is carrying an article (that appears to have originally come from Washington about schools destroying reading for students. It mentions AP courses in particular.

This has definitely been the experience in our family. All my hard work instilling love of reading was carefully destroyed on the high school level. But I'm not bitter about wasting years of my life. (Thanks to Blog of a BS for the link.)

This is Why so Many People Give up Reading News

So is the book biz looking up, as this article seems to suggest? Or do I want to believe this article, which is very clear that book business is down, way down? If you bother to read these things, notice that they give two different numbers for the total of books published last year.

My Parrrty

I became obsessed with Virginia Woolf and the movie version of Mrs. Dalloway last week partly because I was having a party of my own and totally got into Vanessa Redgrave talking about "my parrrty."

Now, my party was a "Summer Reading Bookswap." Otherwise, I wouldn't be boring you with it. Ten of us got together with copies of books we liked. They were all placed in brown paper bags so party goers didn't know what bag they were drawing out of the pool. The person who brought the book had to give it a little review, and the person who picked the book up had to read the first sentence.

You must understand, I don't have a great reputation as a hostess. I've given more than one party at which people were silently wondering if it would be rude to look at their watches--myself included. But this party went over so well that the guests asked to do it again this fall.

There were a great many so-called "Oprah Books" in the pool as well as one Jasper Fforde. I, myself, brought Girl With a Pearl Earring. The book I was particularly interested in getting (but passed on to allow another person to take it because I was the hostess, after all, and should have been looking out for my guests)was The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell, an author I had heard of but knew nothing about. She writes essays! Essays that sound entertaining instead of boring!

And what did I draw for a book myself? Tara Road by Maeve Binchy. I just found this book reviewed at, which means I'm totally justified in writing about this whole event here.

I'm hoping Tara Road will be a Englishie woman's book, which I rather like. Though, of course, Binchy is Irish.

Monday, May 23, 2005

First, Some Catching Up

I've been away for threedays so you all will reap the benefit of what I cull while I catch up on my blog reading.

First, carried a piece on book reviews. The author, Scott Pack, said, "Book reviews should inspire reading. They should excite, stimulate, agitate and empower readers to discover new books and avoid bad ones. They should turn you on to undiscovered authors, prompt you into finally reading the writer you have never quite got round to, and make you wonder at the world of delights that remain unread.

"But let's be honest. They don't, do they

I've read reviews for years and years. I've learned a lot about writing from reading book reviews. But I have to say that I've always been selective about my review reading. Reviews of historical nonfiction I read primarily for what I could learn about the subject from the review. And a lot of reviews of mainstream fiction are just plain tedious. They seem written to impress me with the intelligence and education of the reviewer rather than to say much of anything about the book. Plus, as Pack says in his Bookseller piece, a lot of reviews are of the same old, same old. They're reviews of books that are already getting a lot of buzz and the content is pretty much what we've already heard elsewhere. What's more, a lot of reviews of, say, debut novels or chicklit or books by middle-aged male authors all sound alike.

So I definitely appreciated the above piece, which I found thanks to

I noticed some talk today at Child_Lit about a new series of books that simplify classic novels for kids with reading difficulties. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

How about asking if this is a new thing? My nephew read lots of Great Illustrated Classics in his younger days. They were cheap and available everywhere. Don't know if they were any good, but they certainly are a precedent for doing this sort of thing. (Thanks to Blog of a B.S. for link.)

The House of Blogsdoesn't have much to do with children's literature, but it does have links to masses and masses and masses of blogs.

Didn't I mention lately that there are supposed to be 8 million blogs? How many million do you suppose are about books or writing?

The thought of reading all these things has exhausted me. I've got to go.

But I've got lots of good stuff to talk about this week.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

This is a Little Overwhelming

I heard on National Public Radio this morning that there's something in the area of 8 million blogs in the so-called blogosphere. And I am only one of them. No wonder I have only two verifiable regular readers.

How many of those blogs have been updated in the last month? Or six months?

I'm one of 8 million bloggers. The last time I had a book published it was one of 175,000 books published that year. That doesn't seem like such a staggering number any more.

And Look What I Stumbled Upon!

Today I stumbled upon a mailing list/website called Adbooks, which appears to be a discussion group for YA books. They have an upcoming schedule for book discussions and everything! Since I really, really need to be part of another on-line discussion group, I think I'm going to subscribe. I just have to wait for my Yahoo password to be e-mailed to me because it's been so long since I've used it that I can't imagine what it could be.

I'll let you know how things go with the Adbooks people.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

New Websites for Established Organizations

The Horn Book, is one of my favorite magazines. In fact, I have the new one floating around the house somewhere. Well, it has done a big revision to its website and now has all kinds of information. This could be a really useful site.

Books to Dreams was established back in 1996 and has just set up its website. The organization provides new and like new books for children in need. A few years ago I was contacted by a teacher in Hartford looking for good used books for her classroom. I contacted Books to Dreams, and the people there were happy to help the teacher out. Books can definitely provide comfort and escape for people who find themselves in unfortunate circumstances. And literacy can help them get out of those unfortunate circumstances. Books have a role to play in improving life for children.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

My Latest Obsession and Me

I wrote probably five or six sentences today, spread over two different projects. I did do some journal work relating to things I hope to write in the future, but real work...five or six sentences.

This reminds me of the movie The Hours, which I was talking about yesterday. I so relate to Virginia Woolf as she was portrayed in that movie--inept at housekeeping (she couldn't manage her help; if I had household help I would make them coffee and buy them doughnuts every day)and taking forever to squeeze out a sentence or two. Plus one morning she went for a walk, to which her husband said something like, "I wish I could just go for a walk in the middle of the day." Tomorrow I'm supposed to go for an eight-mile hike. Not that anyone will complain, but people would be justified if they did.

Oh, well. Enough whining.

A Couple of Links

The Golden Duck Awards are given for excellence in children's science fiction literature. I had some trouble figuring out what group sponsors this award, but it also seems to sponsor some kind of kid science fiction conference.

Then I heard about America Writes for Kids is a project that collects and organizes children's author websites by state so that kids and teachers can find local writers.

Monday, May 16, 2005

My New Obsession

I'm finally off Lizard Motel, and now I'm on to Virginia Woolf.

I had my first experience reading Woolf about three and a half years ago when I was taking a graduate course. We read a Woolf essay about going shopping for a pen. Or a pencil. I was...intrigued. Then last year I read To the Lighthouse. I was...intrigued. Last week I saw The Hours, which is about three women loosely connected by the book Mrs. Dalloway, one of the three women being Virginia Woolf who wrote Mrs. Dalloway. I was...intrigued.

By that point I wanted to read Mrs. Dalloway, but, of course, our library didn't have it. So instead I saw the movie version. I was...intrigued. Especially by Vanessa Redgrave who plays Mrs. Dalloway and is constantly talking about "my parrrrrty," which she is giving that very night.

As my two regular readers will tell you, there must be a kidlit connection to this ramble or I wouldn't be rambling it here. And, sure enough, there is. Virginia Woolf wrote a children's story called Nurse Lugton's Curtain. And I just read that it was found among the pages of the manuscript for...Mrs. Dalloway! How cool is that?

Friday, May 13, 2005

So Long to Lizard Motel

I finished reading Welcome to Lizard Motel about a week ago, and the book will be due at the library soon, so it's time to wrap up this discussion.

In a nutshell, I found this book disappointing. I think the questions Feinberg raises are legitimate ones and questions that the kidlit community ought to take seriously and discuss. But she doesn't discuss them, she just raises them. And the memoir portion of the book drags the narrative down.

I happened to buy the May/June issue of Poets and Writers, which carries an article by Sven Birkerts called Then, Again: Memoir and the Work of Time. In talking of his own memoir writing, he says, "...I discerned the possibility of hidden patterns, patterns that, if unearthed and understood, would somehow explain me--my life--to myself." He also says that what some other memoirs have in common is that "their deeper purpose is to discover the connections that allow those experiences to make larger sense."

I think that is what Feinberg is trying to do in Lizard Motel--she's trying to make sense of her reaction and responses to problem novels by looking for patterns in her life that relate to that reaction and response or that support her reaction and response. I know it's presumptuous of me to say so, but I wonder if the patterns she finds are patterns at all. She admits at one point that she's obsessed with the problem novel issue. She may just be seeing problem novel connections whether they are necessarily there or not.

For instance, she talks about the children who attend the afterschool writing workshops she conducts and describes how they like to play that they are orphans. And of these desire to play this game she says, "Do problem novels, with their attention to lone and lonely children in dire conditions, capitalize on this naturally occurring fantasy in childhood, namely to be a self-reliant, free orphan? Do they piggy-back in?" Once again, she doesn't answer this question or pursue it. But I wonder if she doesn't have the whole issue backward. Is the orphan fantasy about being a self-reliant, free orphan or is it a way for children to workout a way to emotionally survive their greatest fear--being orphaned? And, if so, do problem books capitalize on this fear or are they an instrument kids can use, should they want to, to help deal with it?

Feinberg also talks about her own child's anxiety over an upcoming surgery. She eventually brings her daughter to a psychiatrist who asks the girl to describe what she feels.

"'That I will lose Mommy," she says. "That they put that thing over me to go to sleep." Then she adds in a little voice, "And I'm afraid I'll fade away.'

"He asks, 'Are you afraid you'll die?'

"I lurch in my seat. Shut up! I want to scream. Are you crazy? Why are you talking like that to my little girl? Why the hell are you speaking of death? She's only seven!

"But she has brightened. 'Yes,' she is saying. 'Yes! That's it exactly!'"

And the doctor then goes on to talk to the little girl about her fears. After they are done, Feinberg says to the doctor. "'I could never talk about that with her'...'About death. Are you sure it's a good idea? Won't it make her more scared?'"

The doctor's response is, "'No, the opposite. It will make her more prepared...It is your fears that make it difficult to discuss it with her. It's too scary for you.'"

Feinberg then relates this experience to her feelings about problem novels. "How is it that facing the truth about reality, especially a harsh reality, causes such revitalization?...Why is this so obviously helpful, while reality as presented in problem novels seems more often merely unsettling?"

Well, I don't know that that's true. Maybe what the doctor has to say about talking with children with death relates to problem novels, too. Maybe not all kids find them unsettling. Maybe it's adult fears that makes problem books unsettling.

I am not feeling as negatively about problem books as I did before I read Lizard Motel, which I believe is just the opposite of what Feinberg hoped her readers' response would be. I do feel, though, that kids have to be ready for them, and I just don't know how the adult world can tell if individual children are ready for them. So perhaps younger children should be left to find them on their own. If a kid comes upon a problem book and wants to read it, that's probably a sign she's ready. If it's on a mandatory reading list for sixth grade, who knows?

I guess now that my main objection to many of the problem novels I've read is that I don't feel they're particularly well written. A lot of them seem similar to one another, no matter who is writing them. There often isn't a theme unique to an individual author, a world view unique to an individual author. They've become formula books for me, a formula that a lot of the adult world just adores.

To make me like a problem book, the author has to make character and plot as important as the problem, as Meg Rosoff does in How I Live Now. A problem, by itself, just doesn't sell me on a book.

And now I think I have just about exhausted this topic. For the time being.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Pain and Suffering

Two days ago I spent a half hour updating this blog, then went to upload it. Blogger was doing some kind of maintenance, and I lost the whole thing. Do not tell me I should have saved my work.

Then yesterday I redid only half the original post because I was working on a laptop for the first time because both our other computers were being used. Can you believe? In most families the PC gathers dust, but here two aren't enough for us. Anyway, who were laptops designed for? Children? It was agony typing on it.

This Could be the Start of Something Decent

I read the first in a series called The Stink Files by Holm and Hamel, who are into being mysterious. The book is a clever takeoff on spy stories with a cat as a James Bond type. There are two more books, so far, in the series.

Today's Lizard Motel Update

I picked up a very nice looking copy of The Pigman by Paul Zindel on Saturday because Barbara Feinberg talks about it in Lizard Motel. Feinberg is a great one for asking questions and then dropping them without answering them or even giving much of a discussion. In relation to The Pigman she raises questions about whether or not there are times in children's lives when a problem book can have great meaning for them and whether having edgy, rebelious books assigned by a teacher, along with worksheets and assignments ruins them.

I think those are both good questions. I wish Feinberg had talked about ways to get the right book to the right child at the right time and how to save the reading experience from being beaten to death at school. But she didn't.

I, myself, think I've only recently become developmentally ready for Virgina Woolf. And I don't know if I'll ever be developmentally ready for Kate Chopin.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

An Underground Book Marketing Economy?

At the writer-type sites I favor there has been a lot of talk about the poor state of publishing, mainly because books aren't being sold, advances aren't being earned, thus meaning that writers aren't able to sell subsequent books.

However, second hand bookstores are supposed to be doing well. And what's more, there are so many ways to buy second hand books. Bookstores are selling them on Amazon as well as on ebay where private citizens are also selling books they no longer want. And what about library book sales which are primarily used books? A library near here makes nearly twenty thousand dollars twice a year at its sales.

The point I am making, here, is that people are buying books, they just aren't buying new ones, which many people are finding too pricie. As far as the publishing world is concerned, though, used books don't register because writers and publishers don't make anything on them. We only make money on books once, the first time they're sold.

I'm not complaining. I just find this interesting.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Irony All Over the Place

So, I'm having this big, analytical experience reading Welcome to Lizard Motel, which is all about the author's responses to "problem books"--angst- ridden stories involving grim problems that a young protagonist must over come. Or not. And what should I stumble upon while I'm reading that but How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff.

How I Live Now begins with a stereotypical problem novel protagonist. Daisy is anorexic, her mother died when she was born, she's hostile toward her father and stepmother, she's put in her share of time with psychiatrists, and she tells her story in the first person. Sounds like everything I dislike, right? But very early on in the book, Rosoff sends Daisy off to visit relatives in England, thus placing this stereotypical problem teen in an eccentric English children's story. And then, on page 24, Rosoff sends all these kids off into a war story by having London attacked by unnamed forces. There's even a little dystopian thing going on.

This is a book in which the author pays as much attention to the story and characters as she does to the problems she saddles them with. That is the difference between a good problem book and a bad one.

And Daisy, Rosoff's main character, has a wonderful, wonderful voice. She's a marvelous character, a teen with some mental health issues who is forced to become the sane one. I believe I've said it before--one really fantastic character can make a book.

I wasn't crazy about the ending, but even that was a nod to what I think is the most famous dystopian novel of the late 20th Century, The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. (I wasn't crazy about how that book ended, either.) And I feel obligated to point out that there is a sexual situation that some readers might find...hmmm...creepy? disturbing? distasteful? It's not that large a part of the story, but I thought I should mention it.

So, I was finding that kind of ironic, loving a problem book while I was reading Lizard Motel. The other ironic feeling I've been getting lately is that I find Lizard Motel, well, sort of like a problem book. There's the heavy tone to the writing, the "something very, very serious is happening here" that often accompanies problem books. Then Feinberg tells us that her parents divorced, she was thrown out of school, and she ran away from home, herself, when she was a teenager. She tells a story about a child who became mute after being traumatized by a surgery she had to endure. She also describes how, when she was a daycare teacher, she decided to explain to her charges what a hostage is. (She wishes someone had stopped her. I bet some of those kids do, too.) It seemed as if the kinds of "problems" that might appear in a problem novel, kept coming up in her narrative.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

I Love These Kids

Daddy's Law deals with the chore of getting kids to read what's good for them. I know I should be totally supportive of that, but... (Thanks to Blog of a B.S.)

Today's Lizard Motel Entry

Today, children, we will discuss Feinberg's feelings about magic. She feels that it is missing from children's realistic and problem novels. She's not talking about fantasy novels here. She believes that children turn to magic or play, even more so when they are stressed and traumatized, say, in a problem novel. "For all children, except in cases of extreme pathology, there is to a greater or lesser degree a corresponding magical, imaginative counterpart to experience...

"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."
pgs. 42-43

I think Feinberg is romanticizing childhood a bit here. Or a lot. She talks about these books lacking authenticity and not being childlike. I think she's close to something with that, but not because a child's romanticized imagination is missing. I don't think there's something missing in these books that should be there; I think there's something in them that shouldn't be--interests that are primarily adult in nature.

The desire to dwell on problems and traumas is, to make an overgeneralization I'm sure, an adult interest, not a child's. Children just aren't aware of a lot that's going on around them, unless it happens to have to do directly with them. They start out life self-centered for good reason--they can't care for themselves and have to make a lot of noise about their needs in order to get adults to take care of them. Interest in the greater world and the problems of others comes slowly. I'm not saying kids are selfish and insensitive; they just haven't developed those traits in a generalized sort of way as highly as they will later. When they're adults.

Traditionally, kids have been interested in mystery stories (they involve solving a problem and bringing the universe back into order) and science fiction and fantasy (where all kinds of dangerous things can happen in a world remote from their own). There are very logical reasons for kids to like these kinds of stories. They're safe.

I'm not saying that these are the only kinds of books that should be out there for kids, and we'll get to why in another posting. (Well, besides the reason that we have freedom of speech and the press in this country, of course.) I'm just saying that I often find kid problem books forced and contrived not because of a lack of anything but because adults have imposed their own interests upon them.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Art Books...Sort Of

I read Ms. Hannah Is Bananas! by Dan Gutman as part of my continuing survey of books for readers in the lower grades. Oddly enough, though this book is part of a series, My Weird School I wasn't actually able to find reviews of it. Promotional material but not reviews. Whatever that means.

I thought this was a well-intentioned book. It exposes kids to terms like modern art, performance art, and kinetic sculptures. If I were the mom of young children, I'd definitely be bringing this book home from the library for them.

However, like so many kids' books, it's written in the first person. And, personally, I find that a lot of these first person narrators sound alike, with somewhat forced humor developed around the idea that adults are weird. Even though that is the case, the sameness of all these books means that not much stands out in the field.

I can't tell whether or not Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier was written as a Young Adult book, but the Young Adult Library Services Association named it a best book for 2001 so that justifies me writing about it here. I just finished it this morning. It qualifies as an art book as far as I'm concerned not just because it claims to be about Vermeer's maid, but because that maid could talk intelligently about the art she saw in Vermeer's studio. At least to this ignorant reader it sounded as if she did. The period detail in this book is marvelous. Not because I know all about the period and can assure you that it's authentic but because the writing is so good that I didn't feel that I was reading a historical novel. I didn't feel that a lot of historical research was being stuffied down my throat. I very much liked Griet, the main character, and I like how her life turned out. This is a strong young woman who did what was best for herself.

So there, folks, I liked a book.

Today's Thoughts About Lizard Motel

Just today at Readerville someone asked "What is a problem novel?" I opened up Welcome to Lizard Motel to a passage I'd marked and what did I find but a description, quoting and paraphrasing Sheila Egoff> Feinberg says:

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."

Feinberg gives characteristics of the novel, again paraphrasing Egoff, some of which are: an alienated protagonist hostile toward adults, often a first-person narrator, often told in the vernacular, dialogue predominates, settings often urban, parents are absent, either physically or emotionally.

I wish the book had an index so I could see if she talks more about the "problem novel" in other places. But it doesn't. So I'll just have to see what more she has to say about definitions, characteristics, significance, and on and on. I also wish that if this definition is bogus, her critics had picked her up on it and given a correct one. But to my knowledge, they didn't.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Another List of Notables

I've never heard of the Children's Literature Assembly, but it has put out a list of Notable Children's Books in the English Language Arts, which was mentioned at both Child-Lit and Kids Lit. I haven't read a single book on the list. Which means I can't complain about them.

Gail's Lizard Motel Reading Journal

Welcome to my thoughts as I read Welcome to Lizard Motel by Barbara Feinberg. Many critics of Feinberg's book bring up the fact that she has an objection to Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. But Feinberg's objection is interesting because, the way I read it, she's not just claiming Terabithia is a downer and unsuitable for that reason. What Feinberg says is:

Why in the world did you (Paterson) kill off your character? To make a point? I berate her: You didn't set the death up right. You didn't prepare us. On some level we have to be prepared. I wasn't aware, even subliminally, of a dark forewarning: no haunting undertone. This was a complete shock. Even a shock should reverberate somehow. An ending should be a manifestation, should have a feeling of necessity to it. Your book posed no question, even unconsciously, that this death answers. Random and artificially constructed. (Page 17)

It seems to me that what Feinberg is doing here is not complaining that the book has a sad ending. She's talking about the quality of the writing. She's talking about construction, foreshadowing, and plot. That is a totally different thing than just ranting about sad books, which is what she's often criticized for doing.

I have never read Bridge to Terabithia, though I've known of teenagers who loved it. I have no reason to think the book is poorly written. But the questions Feinberg raises about the book are legitimate questions to raise about any book. Personally, I've read a number of problem books with one-dimensional characters, stereotypical antagonists, contrived plots, and cliched, politically correct situations. (I have no objection to political correctness; cliches, however, are a totally different thing.) And I've often wondered, are these books allowed to slip through the cracks because critics and editors are so taken with the problem at their cores?

Feinberg doesn't pursue the question of writing quality with Bridge to Terabithia. At least, she hasn't so far. I'll be interested to see if she'll have more to say about the quality issue later in her book.