Monday, October 26, 2009

Welcome Fellow Lizards

Welcome to the Lizard Motel is hard to define. The subtitle reads "Children, Stories, and the Mystery of Making Things Up", and below that the book identifies itself as a memoir. I had heard that this was a book about someone annoyed at the modern trend towards realism and despair in children's books, which sounded interesting, and the memoir led me to hope that it would also talk a lot about books the author, Barbara Feinberg, had read as a child and as an adult and how those shaped her life. Book memoirs are a delicious treat for me, even better than food memoirs.

And there is some of that. Feinberg remember the love and comfort she felt from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a book I also loved. She chronicles the day she spent reading some of her son's assigned reading, and her bitterness at the unremitting grief and pain depicted in the texts. Yet so much of her story is repulsive, in the sense that I want to draw away from the author. Her understanding of Bridge To Terabithia contradicts mine -- I do not think the final lesson is that "Terabithia/Childhood Imagination must ultimately be forfeited." That's the opposite of what I thought it symbolized when he built a stronger and safer bridge. So I'm not inclined to trust her perceptions on several levels. And the idea that someone who makes a living working with children, and who claims to be a book lover, could be flabbergasted at a death in a Katherine Paterson book, implies many things that don't make me want to invite her to my book club.

She includes many details of her life and her kids, and she comes across as a bit creepy from the first pages, when she wakes up, grabs some leftover paint, and goes out on the front porch in her nightgown. Her kids eventually wake up and enthusiastically join in until it is time for the brother to do his summer reading. He enlists his sister, and they march inside to face the music, literally, since he has checked out an audio book of Chasing Redbird. He knew he would want company when facing the next grim tale his education demands. Feinberg stays outside (still in her nightgown) but listens to the low, ominous tone of the speaker through the window, and observes how her children seem crushed under the weight of the sonorous cadences. It never occurs to her to go inside. Or get dressed, apparently.

Later on my initial uneasiness is confirmed when she sneaks food into a library and spatters crumbs all over the stacks, then slides under the table for a post-snack nap. Not really the clientele I'm hoping for at my neighborhood library; she strikes me as a page-folder. She seems very impressed with her insights, even when they seem facile or just plain wrong. Yes, it is true that Bridge to Terabithia beat out a happy family story like Ramona and her Father for the Newbery, but the next year The Westing Game trumped foster-child tale The Great Gilly Hopkins. Dicey's Song is not at all about abandonment, but about loving and trusting your family. No one is abandoned. Bud Not Buddy is not a problem novel.

She never questions her conclusion that all literary children's books since 1974 are realistic tear-jerkers, when I'd think the first step would be to look at a list of Newbery winners. Yes, there is a solid representation of sad or emotional books (Kira-Kira, I'm looking at you; Out of the Dust is right behind you), but there are also books like Criss Cross, Joyful Noise, The Hero and the Crown, The Grey King. Maybe her son has the misfortune of being in a school district with a large investment in tissue companies, but this is not a universal phenomenon. My son gets to read Hatchet, and I think even the moose survives. So the portion of the book that is a polemic against the dreariness of children's books seems wasted against a straw man.

This habit of confusing the personal with the universal makes for a fun read because there is a lively interior dialogue (Hey, that's not right! That's true, but only in limited amounts!, Huh?!). But in a memoir that takes itself as seriously as this one does, I prefer to respect its opinions more. She never talks to anyone who does enjoy "problem novels," and lord knows there were and are many of them. But I don't think kids read them with the seriousness that it seems her son brings to them; I and the people I know read them on a lark, to wallow in the bathos and then emerge relatively unscathed. It's a way of trying on strong emotions, and early adolescence is a time when strong emotions are often the only ones available in your interior closet, but with a good book (or sometimes even better, a bad book) about cancer or family dismemberment or a spiral into drug destruction you can take on and take off the passion without incident. I don't think these books are read in an attempt to learn appropriate responses.

Ironically, after all the complaints about books forcing misery into any situations, the author brings us along as her younger daughter deals with several frightening surgeries for a tumor in her inner ear. The emphasis is still on Feinberg, who is impressed with her sensitivity at noticing that the girl and her brother are both scared. She even has the epiphany that this might not be a good time to bombard her family with books about children dying in hospitals, which leads her to the conclusion that such books are worthless and bad for all children everywhere. Hmm.

So, Feinberg and I agree that children's books matter. We disagree on what most of those books are about, what topics are appropriate for children, what children tend to get out of books, and why they were written. and I hope someone who has read a few more will write another book. C-

1 comment:

kmitcham said...

"she strikes me as a page-folder"

Off with her head!