Interview: Grim, Scary Tales

October 08, 2004 5 min read
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Four years ago, when her son was 12, Barbara Feinberg began to feel uneasy about the novels his middle school required him to read. Many, she says, were unremittingly bleak, dealing with such themes as divorce, abuse, and accidental death. And the other children she knew, including the 4- to 14-year-olds attending Story Shop, an after-school writing and arts program she founded in 1993, disliked the books. Feinberg says they preferred stories offering an abundance of humor and imagination.

Further research resulted in her book, Welcome to Lizard Motel: Children, Stories, and the Mystery of Making Things Up (Beacon). The title, she writes, refers to a model that a child in Story Shop created to accompany his tale about lizards. Feinberg reports that the fiction today’s preteens and adolescents are forced to read, which she terms “problem novels,” are dominant in many school curricula. Many educators and authors believe that “childhood is a dream from which children must be awakened,” she writes.

On a recent summer afternoon, Feinberg spoke to Teacher Magazine from her home in Westchester County, New York, about the kinds of stories she believes kids are inherently interested in and how harmful “problem novels” can be.

Q: What exactly is a “problem novel”?

A: It’s a subgenre of the realistic novel. The realistic novel [for juvenile readers] was written by authors like Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume, who tried to reveal real life from a child’s point of view. Over time, the realistic novel increasingly took on difficult themes, but the writers still had a sense of boundaries that they wouldn’t cross, so that the kid would feel safe. Also, the difficulties the child faced seemed intrinsic to the novel as a work of art.

The problem novel, on the other hand, is a realistic novel that tends to deal with a very specific issue. It doesn’t even have a hint of fantasy. It’s like, “Let’s write a book about divorce, incest, self-mutilation.” Someone recently told me that there’s a new book about genital mutilation being considered for a Newbery prize. What you end up remembering most in a problem novel is the generally depressing, upsetting tone of it and the bad things that happen in it.

Q: A lot of these problem novels have won the big literary prizes.

A: Yes. And it seems to me that Newbery winners often have the same language an adult memoir might be written in.

Q: Why are so many of these books being written?

A: There’s no one answer. I think there are probably some very benevolent impulses in wanting to offer the child a chance to think about a wider world view than I grew up with. So we’re getting books that approach topics like the Holocaust and slavery, which can be illuminating.

But I also think there’s an impulse to offer children narratives that adults think would have been useful to them when they were children. That’s the idea I keep coming back to. When I sat in on a children-of-alcoholics meeting, [I’d] hear people throw out incredible stories of suffering and survival. This is reassuring to adults—that you can tell such a story and then step away, knowing that the ordeal is over. So I think it’s very possible that some of this impulse has been handed over to the realm of children’s literature. Adults think, “Where’s that story about divorce and how the child got through it? I wish I had had that story.”

Q: What’s wrong with that kind of story?

A: What’s wrong with that construction of offering a story that you think you would have liked is that it just doesn’t work—an adult having a memory of something and a child actually experiencing something are wildly different things. That’s what’s not calibrated when you just make these stories and hand them over to children.

Q: Did you talk to the principal or teachers at your son’s school about your concerns?

A: I did a little bit. At some point I stopped because I wanted to have the creative space to write about it. But one woman I know, a psychologist, was really outraged, and so she called a meeting with the middle school and English department heads. She told me that they basically blew her off and said that “anxiety is good for children.” That’s a real line. They also said that kids don’t like to read now, that there is a whole category of reluctant readers you will only reach with these kinds of problem novels.

I heard the same thing from one of the English teachers. He said that they can’t get kids to read the classics anymore and so they have to “ratchet up” the material to get kids to read. Of course, this belief is completely misguided—just look at the number of kids who can’t get enough of Harry Potter.

Q: In your book, you also criticize the way young people are taught to write stories.

A: Yes, it’s been highly influenced by Lucy Calkins [director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University], who to my mind emphasizes a very rigid, doctrinaire approach. Not too long ago, I went to a seminar on teaching writing to kids, at Teachers College, and listened to the presenter talk about how “we teach writing to convey a social issue.” First, children write characters to embody social issues. Then this incredible plotting goes on a graph—what characters say, how you’re going show dialogue, incident. “Remember,” the presenter said, “there should be no surprises when you sit down to write.” So the fiction was to be didactic, to make a point.

Q: What kind of stories do kids create in your Story Shop program?

A: Because Story Shop is my own program, I’m not accountable to anyone. So one of the things I get to see is what stories kids make up when they’re on their own, what their fantasy life is like when there is no adult imposition. And I can tell you one thing: The stories kids make up are nothing like the problem novels we’ve been talking about. They may be about divorce or loneliness, but they’re cast in symbolic, not realistic, terms. They’re inventing an alternate world. That’s what’s most jarring—to see what children pretend over and over again in their stories and then to juxtapose that to the literature we’re describing. It’s apples and oranges.

Q: What kind of themes do you find children are drawn to?

A: An amazing number of stories, especially those written by kids in the 8-to-12 range, are about orphans. Not the sad part about orphans, but the sweet part. These stories are ultimately about kids being on their own, which is really their preoccupation. They might encounter danger, horrible things, but the kid ends up being triumphant. This is what fairy tales are all about. And, as in the fairy tales, the kids like to put in humor and animals, too. Now, terrorism might come in, or 9/11, but never in the stark terms of the problem novel. Usually there’s a kid who will save the day, or some such thing.

—David Ruenzel

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