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.


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10:13 PM  

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