The Mystery of Making Things Up
August 29, 2004 11:19 AM   Subscribe

Welcome to the Lizard Motel. Barbara Feinberg's new book is both a memoir of certain childhood memories and an indictment against the dismal state of books for young adults. Feinberg became concerned when her two children, once avid readers, became agitated at the prospect of reading the current crop of assigned literature for the upcoming school year. Curious, she started reading these books for herself, and discovered that, by and large, they were all examples of "problem literature," stories intended to educate children about the cold, harsh realities of life. Her conclusion:

"We seem to have lost sight of what children can actually process, and more important, of their own innate capacities. Instead of our children being free to roam and dream and invent on their own timetable, and to read about children doing such things, we increasingly ask our children to be sober and hard-working at every turn, to take detailed notes on their required texts with Talmudic attention, to endure computer-generated tests." Yet such books are are ever so popular with educators. Why? And what books to MeFites recall from their formative years? What makes for good reading for children?
posted by Ayn Marx (54 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The Jungle Book.
(I mean Kipling’s Jungle Book, which is a collection of short stories, no similarity with the Disney product of the same name)
posted by Termite at 11:37 AM on August 29, 2004

I was a voracious reader as a child (ahem; I guess I still am, when time allows) and I read folk and fairy tales as often as possible. I was also a huge Nancy Drew fan and would read Trixie Belden mysteries after I had exhausted all of my and my friends' Drew books, even venturing into a couple of Hardy Boys. Heidi, Little Women, Alice In Wonderland, The Adventures of Remi and the Adventures of Perrine, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were additional faves. I totally got into Jane Eyre but had a hard time as a kid understanding Wuthering Heights. Then discovered the 1001 Arabian Nights. I learned about classics by reading a series of comic books called Illustrated Classics. Took a brief detour into biography by reading Lives of the Saints in eighth grade, during my one brush with piety. Then I read Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis, and took my first step into the wonderful world of science fiction and fantasy, where I still find my most enjoyable reading.
posted by Lynsey at 11:51 AM on August 29, 2004

When I was younger, I avoided the "problem books" as much as I could. All the ones I did read were just boring to me. I grew up on stuff like The Hardy Boys, The Three Investigators, Encyclopedia Brown, and fantasy novels, mainly. When I hit high school I read a lot of the bestseller fantasy novels (I was a Dragonlance addict for a while). For me, the award stickers on some of the books meant nothing good. In my spare time I'd rather prefer to pick up something imaginative than something so grim. I think I more or less skipped a lot of the "young adult" novels for this reason. Many of them seemed very dumbed-down to me. I don't know.

In class, we followed a fairly standard (for British Columbia) curriculum-- Outsiders and Jumping the Nail in eight grade, Romeo and Juliet, 1984, Hamlet, Animal Farm, and so on in other grades. I think I was fortunate in that I had teachers who didn't enjoy the social problem novels much either.
posted by synecdoche at 12:21 PM on August 29, 2004

Great reading comes from any of Roald Dahl's childrens books.
posted by the biscuit man at 12:28 PM on August 29, 2004

I think I'd call "problem literature" prescriptive nonsense. When the "message" is in your face rather than part of the (and god help me) tapestry of the story, it usually comes out rather poorly. I still hold The Secret World of Og dear to my children's lit heart as well as the Phantom Tollbooth. There were others, but I've forgotten them.
posted by juiceCake at 12:31 PM on August 29, 2004

Ms. Feinberg may have a point, but from these limited articles and book reviews it is difficult to tell. I wish there was a more detailed reading list of these alienation books.

As for my own memories, between "Charlotte's Web" in second grade and "Romeo and Juliet" in eighth I remember nothing, at least as school assigned readings. My school was a bit weak in teaching reading and a love of literature. Luckily, I was in a program called Junior Great Books where adult volunteers led discussion groups on selected readings. There we read some great stuff. I remember "Beowulf", "The OverCoat" and "The Open Boat." I think we also did "Huck Finn." At least "Huck Finn" was about kids, sort of. None of these were cozy fantasies.
posted by caddis at 12:32 PM on August 29, 2004

The one that comes to mind immediately, since I still reread it now and then after 25 years is The Little Prince. Add the Madeline L'Engle's series that starts with A Wrinkle in Time, and throw in a touch of H. G. Wells and Isaac Asimov, and you have the books/authors that made me a voracious reader.
posted by jakestone at 12:35 PM on August 29, 2004

posted by matteo at 12:45 PM on August 29, 2004

Rootabaga Stories, by Carl Sandburg.

(Note: I disapprove of this gentleman's reproducing copyrighted material on the Internet, but you have to see the illustrations to believe them. Call me a hypocrite if you like, but to quote the late, great Mr. Sandburg, "You can be a yang yang if you want to/You can be a hoo hoo if you want to.")

The Egypt Game, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. And From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsburg. And, of course, Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh.

And Time/Life history and science books. And The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, by Will Cuppy.

But, you know, the two books that probably had the most influence on me as a child were:

a) Little Women,
b) Flim Flam!, by James "The Amazing" Randi.

I also remember spending a lot of time reading those "I Am Joe's Islets of Langerhans" stories in my grandparents' Reader's Digests.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:45 PM on August 29, 2004

Stories of the Greek gods.

Jack Tales.

Aesop's Fables.

posted by nofundy at 12:54 PM on August 29, 2004

As a kid I remember reading all the "problem" books in school and then retreating the sunny perky world of Sweet Valley High when I got to choose what to read.

This reminds me of a constant debate that we have in my writing classes about sad or depressing or problem stories.

Our teacher pointed to Tobias Wolff’s introduction to The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories. In the introduction Wolff writes:
"I've have never been able to understand the complaint that a story is "depressing" because of its subject matter. What depresses me are stories that don’t seem to know these things go on, or hide them in resolute chipperness; "witty" stories, in which every problem is an occasion for a joke, "upbeat" stories that flog you with transcendence. Please. We’re grown-ups now, we get to stay in the kitchen when the other grown-ups talk.

Far from being depressed, my own reaction to stories like these are exhilaration, both at the honesty and the art. The art gives shape to what the honesty discovers, and allows us to face what in truth we are already afraid of anyway. It lets us know we’re not alone."

Maybe the problem isn't really the books, but the way their being taught. I don't think it's that adults are jealous of children's fantasy worlds at all. It's probably more that they want to prepare these young adults for the world through the books they choose.

My writing teacher went on to quote a famous author (I think it might have been Raymond Carver) who said something to the effect of, "I don't need art to get me through the good times."
posted by jodic at 12:55 PM on August 29, 2004

Please. We’re grown-ups now

But kids aren't grown-ups. That's the whole point. "Preparing them for life" by shoving the worst of it in their faces is much like beating them so they'll know it's not all peaches and cream. Let kids be kids for a while, for chrissake.
posted by languagehat at 1:33 PM on August 29, 2004

At what point do you stop protecting kids? Feinberg isn't talking about 6-year-olds, she's writing about young-adult books geared at 12-15-year-olds.
posted by jodic at 1:37 PM on August 29, 2004

Daniel Pinkwater saved my young adult life.
posted by gwint at 1:38 PM on August 29, 2004

lots and lots of porn.
posted by Stynxno at 1:43 PM on August 29, 2004

The Jungle Book, certainly. And Sherlock Holmes, Poe's short stories, and Alice in Wonderland . For a bit of a lighter touch, Brian Jacques' Redwall books are good, too. I loved Watership Down more than anything else when I was in elementary school, but I was kind of an advanced reader.

I don't think there's anything wrong with "problem literature" itself. Rather, the problem is with required reading lists that don't let the children pick which book they'd most like to read. Give kids the choice between many different books to read, along with a few absolute requirements, and they'll be less likely to balk at reading.
posted by vorfeed at 1:55 PM on August 29, 2004

I don't know how old Ms. Feinberg is, but I am almost 40, and when I was in school we were assigned tiresome "problem books" like The Chocolate Wars and Summer of My German Soldier and P. S. Your Cat Is Dead and The Outsiders and The Pigman, etc., etc.

There was a lot of vomiting depicted in detail, as I recall, and the word "groovy" was used far too often.

However, the two "problem books" that I hated with the white-hot passion of a thousand burning suns were a) Catcher in the Rye, and b) A Separate Peace.

I think that I hated A Separate Peace more than any other book I have ever been assigned in a school setting, including Silas Marner and the Pearl (not the dull Steinbeck novel, but the tiresome Middle English thingie).
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:06 PM on August 29, 2004

Michele Landsberg of the Toronto Star wrote a book on Canadian children's literature. Although I am not a fan of her work and I don't agree with everything she says and it's especially irritating that she gets major plot details from books she's supposedly read very WRONG, I did completely agree with one insight of hers. I'll paraphrase it.

She says that the idea of problem novels is to give kids books about their specific problems to help them learn to deal with the problem i.e., give kids whose parents are getting divorced books about kids whose parents are getting divorced. But her own experience as a reader has led her to believe that reading doesn't work that way. When her mother died, she found great comfort in Swedish detective novels. Had people given her books about middle-aged grieving women, she would have been tempted to slap them.

I think that reading and art in general is at least partly about escape and transcendence from one's own life. One wants to experience something apart from one's own sphere - qualties of beauty, courage, hope, imagination, or alternatively, grief, ugliness, despair, and defeat. And then when one puts the book down or leaves the theatre or backs away from the picture, the experience of these things is something that enriches and inspires the individual and that can be applied to his or her specific circumstances in some inimitable way.

No one can tell you exactly how to deal with your problems. And that is what is wrong with many problem novels (there are some good ones), because that is what they mainly attempt to do. Good novels are character driven. Books that are meant to tell people how to live are nothing but tracts, and no one reads a novel to be preached at.
posted by orange swan at 2:06 PM on August 29, 2004

Absolutely agreeing with orange swan.

With only a couple of exceptions, I read all the books that have been mentioned here, plus all the Mary Poppins books and a bunch of the Oz books. I definitely loved fantasy, and big fat books, and serial books. I adored mythology and fairy tales, and Arabian Nights sorts of collections. I don't remember having any reading assignments that I really disliked, except that usually the level was too low for me and, in fact, most of the time I'd already read the book.

(Now that I think about it, though, I did go on a jag of reading biographies at one point when I was 8 or 9, I think, so it wasn't all fantasy.)
posted by taz at 2:17 PM on August 29, 2004

I still remember the white mountains as being the first book i ever picked up, read, and then had to finish the serious because it was soo incredibly good (which started me on the rest of my sci-fi addicted childhood reading). Of course, i always hated all of the books that came out of english class (well, tale of two cities was ok, but nothing will make up for being forced to read on the beach...seriously, what the fuck was that about?).

As far as i'm concerned when i eventually have the kids i'm definitly going to try to show them that there's a big difference between enjoyable reading and what they have to read in school.
posted by NGnerd at 2:38 PM on August 29, 2004

Oh, and another aspect of this is that kids do need room to define their own taste in reading material. As vorfeed said, they need choice.

I have nieces and a nephew, and I have given them many, many books over the years, probably a few hundred or so. I'd go to Goodwill and such places (lots of kids throw out their books once they outgrow them) and buy books for 50 cents a piece.

I only bought books that I honestly thought had merit. One of my nieces was very into the Babysitter's Club books and collected the series, and she wanted me to find the ones she didn't have. I never criticized her for reading them or told her that they weren't good books - I just said that since she was already reading them I would rather buy books that she might not ever even see unless I gave them to her. She was disappointed, but in a few years' time she gave all her BSC books to her younger sister while the books she got from me remained in her bookcase.

I liken choice in reading materials to that in diet. Formulaic books like Nancy Drew or romance novels are like candy, and there's nothing wrong with a little candy for either adults or children. But if I know anyone who consumes nothing but candy, I try to encourage them to branch out a little, and if I'm giving books to such a child, I try to meet them on their own ground. Even cake is a step up. I was lucky enough to find a trilogy of hockey novels for my slow-reading, hockey-loving nephew.

I never pressured the kids to read the books I gave them or asked if they had read this or that. And definitely asking kids lit and crit style questions about books really ruins the experience for them. It was enough to see that some of the books were lying around on nightstands, and/or were getting very much more battered than they had been when I bought them, and sometimes the kids would volunteer that they had loved such and such a book, had read it ten times, and could I find them the sequel?

I would also read to them practically every time I saw them, and I would read whatever book they wanted me to read.

But although I may have helped a little, it's my brother and sister-in-law who really fostered a love of reading in their children. Every child had his or her own bookcase and every bed was supplied with a reading light, even if it was an upper bunk and my brother had to rig up a special attachment that clamped to the headboard. The kids were allowed to read past their bedtimes as long as they remained quietly in bed. They were praised for reading. It worked. All four of them love to read now, although some of them developed the habit much later than others.
posted by orange swan at 2:47 PM on August 29, 2004

I remember a series of books about The Mad Scientists' Club. I loved them. Before that I enjoyed reading the Henry Reed books (such as Henry Reed's Babysitting Service). The Mouse on the Motorcyle was a favorite. It must have been around fifth or sixth grade that I started reading a bunch of World War II novels by Robb White (Up Periscope, for instance). I loved the Hardy Boys. And of course, Naked Lunch.
posted by Man-Thing at 3:18 PM on August 29, 2004

This reminds me of an interesting article, published in the Spectator a few weeks ago, about sex in contemporary children's fiction. For the most part it was the usual fogeyish rant about declining standards, and how children's books aren't what they were in the days of A.A. Milne and Arthur Ransome, but it did make some worthwhile points. It also introduced me to the novels of Jacqueline Wilson, who according to her website has sold over 15 million copies in Britain, is officially "the most borrowed author from public libraries throughout the UK" and was recently voted "English children's favourite children's author" (above J.K. Rowling? can this really be true?).

I grew up on Enid Blyton -- the Secret Seven, the Famous Five, the Island (Mountain/Castle/Circus/Caravan) of Adventure -- "candy" as orange swan aptly calls it; all very trashy, but it taught me to read fast and fluently, and I'm deeply grateful for that. In general I take the view that it doesn't much matter what children read for pleasure, just as long as they're reading something. But any more exposure to the works of Jacqueline Wilson and I may have to revise this view.
posted by verstegan at 3:42 PM on August 29, 2004

When I was a kid, I just about refused to read any novel that wasn't fantasy, science fiction, or historical. But I also did adore Summer of my German soldier (as well as its more complex sequel), and Bridge to Terebithia. Both would probably be counted as "problem books" - though they were molified in my mind by the first being historical, and the second full of Narnia references.

It is probably true that educators should be more open to the fantastical in literature, to the wealth of weird and wonderful novels for children. I remember reading (and loving) books about girls dressing as boys to become knights, travelling across Medieval England to ransom a father, singing to fire lizards and riding dragons, children who fought the powers of the Dark (and, yes, that did win a Newberry) - and at least a half dozen or more books related to Arthur in one way or another. (And I, too, adored Pinkwater - and dream of Green Death Chilli to this day).

But other kids liked books about sports, about classroom antics (those so annoyed me), about summer camp. Some even liked "problem novels". And I loved Little Women (though I liked Little Men and Jo's Boys better) - and read every L.M. Montgomery novel ever published. I would have been so happy if we had been assigned those in class, but I wouldn't be surprised that doing so would have lead to a classroom revolution. (Though hopefully not A War between the Pitiful Teachers and Splendid Kids.) The other kids would have gone home and complained to their parents, just as the child of this author has, while I happily skipped home to let my mum know the good news. (This actually did happen a little later, as I delighted in reading The Chrysalids again for class in grade nine, while half of the room grumbled away).

vorfeed is exactly right - it isn't what is chosen, but simply that the children are being told what they must read. None of us like that - I've even come back to books or authors I thought I hated in school, only to find later that I enjoyed them (including Dickens, and Romeo and Juliet).

My mother used to run a literacy program for children, and her one principle on book choice was to try to offer as much choice as possible. She didn't care what they read, so long as they enjoyed it - that was what got children reading, and helped them get better. The special education program I attended also allowed a lot of choice in reading - we would follow certain criteria, such as a book set in the past, or about a certain topic, which encouraged us to branch out from what we were used to, but other than that were offered many different novels to pick from. And some I love to this day.
posted by jb at 3:50 PM on August 29, 2004

I hate gritty, realistic YA and had the misfortune to take an Adolescent Lit course in college from a professor who honestly loved that genre. I gotta give him credit for teaching what, to him, were probably controversial and "edgy" works at a Christian college where most of the Education students would end up teaching at private Christian school systems. For all he knew, that might be our only contact with such unsentimental, un-moralistic lit and I think he turned a lot of sheltered Ed majors onto a new thing.

And in defense of the genre: all lit for children and young adults used to be didactic and intended to foster values desirable in, and to, adults (cf. Elsie Dinsmore, who cheerfully practiced piano every day as her Papa wanted, but refused to play wicked occasional music on Sundays). Adventure and fantasy stories for children weren't published until the middle of the 19th century (and were considered unspeakably coarse, hence the name "penny dreadful" and etc), and it was nearly another hundred years before the problem or issue genre took off for YA. So it's a movement that's still relatively young and I suspect a lot of older people remember the first thrill of books that treated them as equals, able to understand adult things and take part in an adult world.

I agree with orange swan, thought, that it's a mistake to think that people want books that spotlight their own particular problems. I like to think that realism in YA is more useful for enlarging teens' experience and giving perspective to kids who've maybe never encountered those issues.
posted by Pyth at 4:09 PM on August 29, 2004

The Egypt Game, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. And From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsburg. And, of course, Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh.

Yes, Yes, and Oh god, Yes a million times over. I'm not even sure I have the words to articulate what Harriet the Spy gave me as a geeky, book obsessed 10 year old. And still does, in ways that would take a while to explain.

I missed the advent of 'problem books' by a whisker-- a close friend who is only five years younger than me grew up on Judy Blume-- and I have no regrets. For me: Alice, of course; Alan Garner's books starting with The Weirdstone of Brisingamen; The Gammage Cup-- a fantastic, wonderful work by Carol Kendall; The Martian Chronicles; E. Nesbit's The Story of the Amulet; The Green Knowe series; Farley Mowat's Lost in the Barrens and The Dog Who Wouldn't Be (token Canadian content); Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals; The Last Unicorn; and the Narnia books, which I still have more or less memorized; Catherine Storr's Marianne Dreams; and one or two of Heinlein's juvenile novels. Just off the top of my head.

The best part of my childhood was in reading, so I tend to be a bit emotional about the topic.... Had I been faced with the 'problem books' in my adolesence, I would have probably avoided them like the plague, and still think I learned more about the psychological realities of 'growing up' through reading the (as it then was) Earthsea Trilogy, which dealt with issues of sex and autonomy through exquisitely presented metaphor.
posted by jokeefe at 4:42 PM on August 29, 2004

I worked as a children's librarian in a private school for a couple years, and the thing I noticed was that no matter what you want your children to read, they will like what they like. No matter how many copies of Jack London I put out, Captain Underpants was still the favorite.

But I also learned something else. After these kids had wore out my collection of the good Captain, Pony Pals, Goosebumps, and Harry Potter, they turned to me and asked what else I thought they might like. It was then I was able to slip in Black Beauty to the girls who liked Pony Pals, or Frankenstein to those that adored Goosebumps.

So the lesson was to let them read what they wanted, and after they taught themselves how enjoyable it was, then slip in the books containing themes and lessons more in line with their school work. Rushing the process just creates reluctant readers who see the entire process as a chore.

As to books I read and enjoyed at that age, it doesn't matter. Parents should be more concerned with what their child wants to read right now.
posted by FunkyHelix at 5:04 PM on August 29, 2004

I moved a lot and went to a different school each year from fifth through eighth grade. I think every year in there I was assigned to read "Where the Red Fern Grows." I may have enjoyed it the first time, I don't know. But I do know that when it was assigned for the fourth time in four years I got permission to move up to the advanced reading class so I wouldn't have to deal with it any more.

When I was that age, I was really into reading young-person accesible books written for adults. Mists of Avalon made me feel grown-up, even though there was sexual content that was probably above my head.

I tried to read a book about a girl who loved ballet and whose parents were getting a divorce, once, I recall. It was so stupid that after I accidentally left it on the school bus I decided not to go back to look for it later.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 5:19 PM on August 29, 2004

I remember in the 7th grade our teacher tried the "give them a choice" angle for our big reading project. I chose The Westing Game (and loved it) since she billed it as one of the more difficult choices. Fully 2/3 of the rest of the class chose a novelization of the TV show "Charles in Charge." Choice is good, but never underestimate the laziness of a group of 13-year-olds.

In terms of this discussion, I don't think the line between "problem" books and good books is so clear. F'rinstance, it's funny to me that Roald Dahl (who I run a fan website for) is held up as a type of author that kids should read, when actually nearly all his stories fit the mold that Feinberg is railing against. Nearly all of them feature protagonists that "must face their stark circumstances nearly alone, without adult shelter." Matilda is full of abuse, as is James and the Giant Peach. The BFG features kidnapping, violence, and lots of gore. In The Witches the main character has to deal with the death of his parents. Yet kids still love to read these books because those "problems" are just the starting off point for some really fun stories. I remember reading dreck like Deenie in junior high - in case you haven't read it, it's about the horrors of having scoliosis and the shame of having to receive your first kiss while wearing a back brace - and I remember even then realizing that it was just lame didactic crap. Whereas with the Dahl stuff, I read it for the fun and only afterwards realized how much it affected me. Erica Jong wrote a wonderful review about "The Witches" that really sums it up for me:
"The Witches" is finally a love story – the story of a little boy who loves his grandmother so utterly (and she him) that they are looking forward to spending their last years few exterminating the witches of the world together. It is a curious sort of tale but an honest one, which deals with matters of crucial importance to children: smallness, the existence of evil in the world, mourning, separation, death.
See, you can still learn about all those things in a fun story. The problem with most "problem" books is that they're written by grownups who have no idea how to make such important themes palatable and fun to their target audience.
posted by web-goddess at 5:24 PM on August 29, 2004

The Good Master and The Singing Tree. Both about a pair of cousins in pre-WWI Hungary. The boy, Jancsi (and I still remember that name, though I'll be damned if I know how to pronounce it), grew up on a farm and broke in horses, and then his city cousin comes to live with his family for the summer. Both books were about as far away from my OC youth as I could think, and I loved them.

And Summer of My German Soldier blew. The only required reading I remember loving was Brave New World, East of Eden and Catch-22, all from senior year of high school. Just the right time for them, I thought.
posted by RakDaddy at 5:28 PM on August 29, 2004

Pyth makes an extraordinarily good point by pointing out that "all literature for children and young adults used to be didactic".

Elsie Dinsmore and the truly horrific Pollyanna (a classic case of conversion hysteria if I ever saw one) aside, there were tons and tons of "improving" books for children published in English in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Horatio Alger, for example. Ugghhh!

However, I do recommend Penrod, by Booth Tarkington, as an antidote if you ever have to read some of those "improving" books. Penrod was the first slacker hero ever. (Note: there is a more than a bit of racism in the "hilarious dialect" of the "colored children" Penrod plays with, though given the time frame and period, these kids are unusually well-developed for minor characters in a white author's novel.)

The best antidote of all, though, is "The Story-Teller", by Saki.

I think, too, that kids want to read "problem books", when they do, on their own. I know a lot of women who really valued the book Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret but imagine, at 12 or 13, having to talk about the book's central drama--getting your period for the first time--in class. Yeeecchhhhhh!

Taz, your point about biographies is a good one. I think lots of kids love biographies. My brother and I used to devour those tiny orange-backed biographies of famous Americans (my father referred to them under the collective title of John Wilkes Booth, Boy Assassin).
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:47 PM on August 29, 2004

Dahl may be full of abuse, but it is abuse exaggerated beyond reality in its severity (Mrs Trunchbull swinging children around by their hair) and lack of serious consequence (no one sustains anything worse than bruises). To me there's a big difference between Roald Dahl's essentially fantastic, fairy-tale violence and that of the "problem books".

My daughter (9) has just devoured Pratchett's The Wee Free Men and is pestering me for a copy of A Hat Full of Sky. She is also as fond of Dahl as I am (which may be why I'm so defensive about him. Yes, I know he was a horrible man, but his books are great.)

J P Martin's Uncle books were great favourites of mine.

("Uncle is an elephant. He is immensely rich, and he's a B.A. He dresses well, generally in a purple dressing gown, and often rides about on a traction engine, which he prefers to a car. He lives in a castle called Homeward, which is hard to describe, but try to think of about a hundred skyscrapers all joined together and surrounded by a moat with a drawbridge over it, and you'll get some idea of it.").

I also loved Gumbles and Bottersnikes, Thinifers and Fattipuffs, and anything with illustrations by Quentin Blake. Agaton Sax!

And the Moomintrolls... poor old Tove Jansson.

Yup, definitely I preferred the fantastic to the realistic, and still do in many ways.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:52 PM on August 29, 2004

I also devoured everything by Kurt Vonnegut when I was about 12 or 13-- the perfect age, I think.

It came as a bit of a shock to me that my son didn't love the books that I did-- I had thought, naively, that all you had to do was to read the good stuff to kids and it would just.... stick. Not necessarily-- we all have our own tastes, which can assert themselves very early.
posted by jokeefe at 6:08 PM on August 29, 2004

I thought TheNational Lampoon 1964 High School Yearbook was pretty good, when I found it on a city bench. Before that I liked Mrs. Frisby and the rats of N.I.M.H., amongst many others listed already.
I also went through a western period and read all the Zane Grey novels.
Oh, yeah, Freddy the pig was awesome, too.
posted by pekar wood at 6:08 PM on August 29, 2004

Thanks, Sidhe. Yeah, the kind of books you want to read to explore illicit or embarassing topics aren't the kind of thing you want an adult to recommend, I suspect. And, depending on local opinion, not necessarily safe for teachers to assign to a whole class. So much better left to finding on one's own and not as assigned reading.

I was glued to fairy tales, adult sci-fi and fantasy, and all the off-kilter appeal of LeGuin, L'Engle, Konigsburg, Susan Cooper, Stephen Donaldson, Lloyd Alexander, Anne McCaffrey, Robin McKinley, Patricia McKillip, (which three all came to mind at once because they were always shelved together -- go figure), and all kinds of fantasy that was pretty advanced in scope and theme but pigeon-holed as YA because of an assumption that adults wouldn't read about things that "weren't real." A completely different topic guaranteed to irritate the hell out of me at a moment's notice, but I guess that same narrow-mindedness is responsible for offering young adults a vastly richer body of work.
posted by Pyth at 6:10 PM on August 29, 2004

I wouldn't say it was all fairy-tale violence in the Dahl stories. James is beaten, starved, and worked like a horse by Aunt Sponge and Spiker. Charlie really does start to starve. Sophie tells the BFG how the woman who runs the orphanage used to punish them. Danny gets his hand whacked by his teacher with a cane. The ostensibly true stories of Dahl's abuse in British public schools in his autobiography "Boy" are even worse. (In the case of "Matilda", the Trunchbull's abuse is much more realistic in the book than it was the DeVito movie a few years ago. I think he realized quite rightly that parents would freak out if he didn't tone it down.)

I'm not trying to run him down. I've dedicated more of my life to commemorating his work than is probably healthy. I just get annoyed at efforts to whitewash some of the darker aspects of his life and stories. I mean, the "problems" in his stories are still enough to get him banned from school libraries at lot these days...
posted by web-goddess at 6:13 PM on August 29, 2004

See, you can still learn about all those things in a fun story. The problem with most "problem" books is that they're written by grownups who have no idea how to make such important themes palatable and fun to their target audience.

This is a point that Feinberg makes in the book (I'm about 2/3 through it) that doesn't come across, I think, in the reviews and op-ed pieces. It isn't so much the topics in the books, but that the authors are much better at dreaming up problems than they are at telling them from a child's point of view.

Many of these books have a child narrator, but they come off as a bit too jaded and polemical; the voice is not authentic.

It almost seems as though the authors long to go back in time and re-experience life as older-and-wiser adults. This may be therapeutic for the author, but may not make for good art.
posted by Ayn Marx at 6:50 PM on August 29, 2004

I loved Kate Seredy's The Good Master and its sequel! And it's great to read other mentions of books I loved as well.

Sorry I rabbited on so much above. I'm an avid reader (2-3 books a week plus a lot of other stuff), and one of my special interests is kids' lit. I read and collect it and critical works about it. So threads like these always get me spouting off in an EB kinda way.

I have too many favourites to mention. Sadly, some of my all-time favourites are out of print. Like Elizabeth Gray Vining's terrific historical novels. Only her Adam of the Road is still in print - the story of a 12-year-old minstrel in 12th century England. Or there's Mary Calhoun's Ownself, which is a book about a little girl in 1900 who is transformed by her belief that she is inhabited by a fairy. Or Norma Johnston's excellent and very literary Keeping Days books, a series about a teenaged girl in the Bronx in 1900.

I bought a copy of Polyanna once for my collection, and it was so incredibly SHITTY that I threw it out right away after reading it. Definitely the worst childrens' book to remain perpetually in print. Even Elsie Dinsmore (I have a few from that series) is not nearly that bad.

I have a copy of the Oxford Book of Children's Stories, and it was an interesting experience to read through it. The stories are arranged in chronological order, starting with some written in the mid-nineteenth century and continuing to some contemporary ones. Frankly, I don't know that we've managed to improve greatly on the didactic stories of the nineteenth century. Some of the modern ones were every bit as dreary and preachy in a different way.
posted by orange swan at 7:16 PM on August 29, 2004

I don't know how old Ms. Feinberg is, but I am almost 40, and when I was in school we were assigned tiresome "problem books"

i'm 43 and these so called problem books did not exist at any of the schools i went to, and i'm very grateful - they sound awful on so many levels.

i read everything on my dad's nightstand, so by the time i was 12 i'd consumed a whole lot of james branch cabell, ellery queen, james joyce, vonnegut, isaac asimov, ayn rand, and mad magazine. then there was the stuff my dad bought for me specifically - dickens, shakespeare, the bronte sisters , ionesco, brecht, tennessee williams, eugene o'neill, e.m. forster, muriel spark, dot parker, steinbeck, edith wharton. school threw loads of can-lit at me - margaret laurence, margaret atwood, morley callaghan, robertson davies, gabrielle roy. i loved it all... not that joyce made perfect sense to me back then, but hey, most adults have problems with him too.

the only child-centric books i remember reading were a wrinkle in time, and the works of lucy maud montgomery. i adored those, but otherwise preferred "regular" literature - i would never make a point of buying children's lit or books for "young adults" for a child in my family... i'd worry about keeping them at a certain level for too long, keeping their scope narrow, and not giving them enough of a challenge. as for these "problem" books, they sound like a passing of the buck in many ways. if a kid is having difficulties, you should be talking face to face with them, not just dumping a questionable book in their laps. these sorts of books sound like they should be additional if neccessary, not required reading, or taking the place of classics and other great works of literature.
posted by t r a c y at 8:14 PM on August 29, 2004

I think that Feinberg's got some good points. For me, the key issue is the element of choice. Different kids read different things, and the whole point is to get them hooked on reading. Kids do make different choices, they'll derive different messages (not always the message that they're "supposed" to derive). But when they've been assigned to read it, told in lecture format what the correct message is, and asked to regurgitate it on a test, it has little relation to them. I liked Lord of the Flies the first time I read it, but when I had to write essays on its theme, and symbolism, and characterization, and then compare and contrast it with a panoply of other novels, I grew to hate it.

Had a boy in my classroom last year who hated fantasy novels (which I love). He wanted hard-boiled, realistic stories of kids on the street dealing with problems - went through every Walter Dean Myers book and then towards books like The Outsiders and Tangerine. The girl sitting next to him, who has had a life like something out of the "problem books," went through all of the Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary books. Next to her was a boy who was finishing Return of the King as the school year started, and then read Ender's Game and Xenocide, before moving on to Earthsea. And at the table next to them was the kid who read 1984, Animal Farm, and then (God help me) Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.

These kids were at wildly different reading levels and had wildly different interests, and none of them I think would have been particularly well-served if I'd said each week, "this week we're all going to read Johnny Tremain" or whatever the book of the week might have been. My job isn't to find the one right book with the one right message that's going to appeal to every fifth and sixth grader in my classroom. My job is to monitor what they're choosing, make sure they're really reading, give them suggestions, and occasionally give them a kick in the right direction - but above all, to ask them to choose and then let them do it.

I think all this has somewhat to do with a shift that should be happening throughout education and isn't: That the point of schooling in the information age isn't to learn things but to learn how to learn. If you have the mindset that there's a message you should teach kids, you choose a single book that gets that message across. But if you have the mindset that your purpose is to bring about kids who will read - and read critically and thoughtfully - throughout their lives, then you needn't constantly assign a single book to an entire class. Unfortunately, this kind of "everyone does what's right for them" pedagogy is wholly inconsistent with standardized testing, which is why it's not more prevalent (and in many places, including my own school, under attack).
posted by Chanther at 8:21 PM on August 29, 2004

CS.Lewis's Narnia chronicles, AA Milne's Pooh books, the Mary Poppins series by P.L. Travers, ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON A Child's Garden of Verses, Roald Dahl, E. B. White, The Little Prince, Madeline L'Engle, Andrew Lang's Fairy Books... My Grandmother read to me from a very early age and I was reading well before I was four. I then read about one hour per night to my children from before birth to ages 12 and 13. The common thread in what we read (they picked the books as they got older) was good writing and a story about real people. I am glad I never had to read the Potter books. The characters are good but the writing is appalling. JK Rowling is no CS. Lewis.

Ayn Marx – Good question but weak links.
posted by arse_hat at 9:02 PM on August 29, 2004

So much of all literature and art is based on conflict that I don't see how anyone can dismiss "problem books" out of hand. I still read Frances Hodgson Burnett's books; both of Mary's parents die at the start of The Secret Garden, and Sara Crewe deals with a lost father, sudden poverty, and an exploitive, sadistic adult in A Little Princess.

I think the distinction between those books and badly written realism of any age is that their wonderful main characters are not the sum of their problems. Mary didn't commence a laudanum habit, she planted a garden; Sara didn't start cutting herself, she told beautiful fictions. They got on, the way most children in trouble do. They fantasized better lives, and they acted to create them. I never read those books with dread, even though terrible things happened to the children in them, because their responses to trouble were so thoughtful and creative.

I still love children's literature. I know a Victorian/Children's Lit professor and go by her recommendations: I was lucky to get to hear early about writers like Philip Pullman, Dianna Wynne-Jones, and Garth Nix. Whether it's easier to give characters courage in the fantasy genre I couldn't say, but I prefer to read books where children are fully realized as people: reasoning, suffering, active, and sometimes truimphant.

(Oh, and I have to second jokeefe's mention of Gerald Durell's My Family and Other Animals. I read it as an adult and it's hilarious, especially if you've ever read ultra-serious Lawrence Durrell, in the book a conceited pudgy whiner called Larry.)
posted by melissa may at 9:05 PM on August 29, 2004

The most voracious reader I ever knew was a kid whose grandfather was blind and lived with the family. He was raised with the idea that it was one of his chores to read to his grandfather. And so, for the last hour of every day, he would read out loud, starting with old children's books and classic adventure tales, and over the course of years getting into histories and serious non-fiction.
The emphasis was never on him, the kid, learning to read or improving himself, or even enjoying himself. So he learned, improved, and enjoyed himself immensely, doing his grandfather a favor. Pretty soon, he was pre-reading books at the local library and trying to make judgement calls about what his grandfather would like. It became frustrating for him because he couldn't follow up on subjects he had learned to like--there were always more books, so he began to hope that someday he could go back and read more on his own.
The last step was learning to read silently at a much faster speed then he could read out loud. By high school, he was routinely reading a new book every night, with pretty good retention.
The irony was that his grandfather was able to read, in that he was only partially blind. Just enough so he couldn't drive. Years later, when the kid had grown up and had kids of his own, his father offered to have "dim vision", too. Just enough so that his two grandkids would need to read to him. A family tradition.
posted by kablam at 9:18 PM on August 29, 2004

“They got on, the way most children in trouble do” - melissa may. I think that is a key point. Good children’s literature is often about how kids “get on” after a crisis. I loved Andrew Lang's Fairy Books (his attempt to collect all the old oral fairytales) much more than the Disney bastardizations. So did my sons and any other children I have read them to. Children’s literature often reminds me of the play between young mammals. Puppies, kittens, wolf pups, etc. all play in ways that can sometimes seems very harsh and violent but can be recognized as training for real life survival. I think human’s stories for children are just a way to accomplish the same with less biting.
posted by arse_hat at 9:22 PM on August 29, 2004

Just a thought as I'm headed to bed...think the line between other fiction and "problem books" is somewhere around the borders of what's socially acceptable for kids to read/know, and what's considered deviant, immoral, taboo, or too "adult" (sex, divorce, menstruation, war and inhumanity, homosexuality, corruption among authority figures, criticism of religion, etc). I think, too, that these trigger issues change over time, eg. divorce isn't in that camp anymore but fantasy-style witchcraft might be, whereas magic and witches used to belong solely to fairy tales which were considered harmless children's stories.

So your run-of-the-mill tragedy or misfortune in which the child is blameless and simply a survivor doesn't really strike me as gritty in the same way. You've got to admit, although Sarah Crewe is subject to harsh conditions, there's a nearly magical ending in which redemption comes through a kindly (and wealthy) adult who realizes that Sarah deserves to be saved because of her innocence and virtuous nature. Not really in the same vein as, say, Robert Cormier or The Grounding of Group Six.

I apologize if I'm just talking to myself, here -- this thread has me thinking!
posted by Pyth at 9:32 PM on August 29, 2004

I am glad I never had to read the Potter books. The characters are good but the writing is appalling. JK Rowling is no CS. Lewis.

Word to that. I couldn't even finish the first Harry Potter, and haven't read the rest. The pacing went all weird towards the end... and the prose is dull... I loved the Sorting Hat, and the world of magic existing alongside the 'real world', but once they got settled in at Hogwarts Rowling lost me.

As for Roald Dahl: his work is hardly more frightening than your average fairly tale, no? I apologize if this has been brought up already, as it's getting late and I've had to just skim the comments here. Most books that I read and loved as a child-- and which featured children-- almost always began with the children being separated from their parents in some way. Once the parents were out of the way, the adventures could begin.
posted by jokeefe at 11:02 PM on August 29, 2004

The Tinderbox - but only because of the fantastic and freakish black-and-white illustrations of creatures with eyes as big as dinner plates, and their weird, open-mouthed, blank staring. (Couldn't find any links with those particular illustrations, unfortunately.)

Charlotte's Web, which was my first recollection of a book with an evocative and richly imagined world - though it was a bit "worthwhile" for me.

And the only school-assigned book that made me think, 'man, that was a fucking cool book' - Animal Farm.

Oh, and then the bad stuff like Day of the Triffids, Lord of the Flies (which along with "Lord of the Rings") I had to suffer - this dreary '2nd world-war period', dry, earnest crud in which dry, lifeless writers tried and failed to evoke fantastical stories in a terribly pedestrian, uninspiring and workmanlike manner, and which we were all supposed to regard as wonderful. Urgh!
posted by Blue Stone at 3:46 AM on August 30, 2004

And at the table next to them was the kid who read 1984, Animal Farm, and then (God help me) Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.
Get that kid an account here, stat!
posted by darukaru at 6:26 AM on August 30, 2004

I want to be in Chanther's class.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:36 AM on August 30, 2004

Hey Pyth, I know what you mean about magical endings undercutting realism -- children's books, like other 19c romances/gothic stories, have this way of raining convenient inheritances and kindly patrons out of the sky after the heroine has suitably suffered (and learned) from repeated kicks in the teeth. Like you say, the taboo markers change over time: the Burnett books deal with children orphaned, neglected, abused, forced into labor, and by extension problems of colonialism, war, and class, which seems pretty gritty for Victorian children's literature. It's true that these issues are often presented in naive, sentimental, and pious ways. But predictable plot conventions and pieties aside, I like that these stories really do show how intolerable situations can be mitigated by creativity, even when you're small.

When I think of childhood reading, it was never the magic solution that gripped me or gave me hope -- it was the idea that I had power over my own life. The Burnett books and many others remembered and loved in this thread flatly acknowledged that life could be cruel and adults insensitive, weak, and mean, which was itself a revelation. They validated such problems existed -- validated reality, really -- and miraculously fixed it on pages you could read over and again. Though I didn't have words for it as a child, that was why I read myself nearsighted, every word I could. And the books that not only acknowledged the problems of childhood, but showed it was possible to mitigate them (even if no inheritance or kindly patron ever came) -- that showed that even when you're powerless, you have the power of your mind and will? Those were the books I really treasured.
posted by melissa may at 10:39 AM on August 30, 2004

Is there a list with all the book she dislikes? From what I can tell, I'm 4 years younger than her yet my summer reading list had some of the mentioned books she sees as bad, adding I went to private schools. Where did she grow up? For me, the links pepci blu her book through hatred for her idealogy - you want to figure out what’s her deal and pancake her.
posted by thomcatspike at 5:20 PM on August 30, 2004

What does she think of Peter Pan which read the chilhood's best fun - imagination.
posted by thomcatspike at 5:22 PM on August 30, 2004

…which reads childhood's best fun - imagination. Maybe she had no childhood and worked at a young age or takes life too serious, "profit?."
posted by thomcatspike at 5:24 PM on August 30, 2004

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