Barbara Feinberg's two children have always loved to read. So when her 12-year-old son, Alex, began complaining about the young adult novels his seventh-grade teacher had assigned, Ms. Feinberg was puzzled.
"Everyone dies in them," Alex told his mother wearily. His teacher put it this way: "A good book should make you cry."
Curious, Feinberg started reading the novels herself. What she found was a literary world filled with traumatic images and plots that mirror daily headlines. Child abuse, abandonment, alcoholism, incest, teen suicide, rape, self-mutilation - all are recurring themes in young-adult novels. Coping with grief becomes the order of the day for young characters.
Goodbye, childhood fantasy. Hello, gritty realism.
For publishers, it's a formula for success. "Problem novels" constitute the largest genre of books for teens. Some win top awards, proudly displaying the prestigious Newbery Medal on the cover.
But for Feinberg, who runs a creative-arts program for children called the Story Shop in Westchester County, N.Y., these gloom-and-doom books, as her children call them, raise concerns. She explores this literary landscape in "Welcome to Lizard Motel: Children, Stories, and the Mystery of Making Things Up" (Beacon Press, $23). Part critique, part parenting memoir, the book makes a persuasive case for the value of imagination and creativity in stories for young adults.
Although Feinberg praises the quality of writing in many of these books, she takes issue with their basic premise. "What kids are expected to learn in problem novels is, you have no one but yourself," she says in a telephone interview. Adult characters are often destructive or inept. Or the family is broken and unsupportive. The child must find meaning or comfort alone, or with help from an adult outside the family.
Feinberg also laments the lack of a rich fantasy life in these novels. Descriptions of characters and settings are often minimal. Unlike earlier books that emphasized young people's relationship to the larger community, these plots turn inward, focusing on feelings. "They're not wacky or funny," she says. "They're very serious, very earnest."
What a contrast to the "cozier" and "less catastrophic" stories Feinberg remembers reading as an adolescent. Those books depict a whole world, she explains, with a rich narrative voice and rounded characters. "Even if a sad thing happens, it's part of a whole, so you come away with a feeling of having a rich experience. That isn't the case with a lot of these 'problem novels.' "
She traces the beginning of the genre to the 1960s and 1970s. As social change rocked the country, it reshaped young-adult fiction.
In 1964, Louise Fitzhugh broke new ground with "Harriet the Spy," about a stubborn 11-year-old girl. Three years later, Paul Zindel's "The Pigman" featured two teenagers from unhappy families who were involved in the death of an eccentric man. More recently, Sharon Creech's "Walk Two Moons" features multiple tragedies, including illness and suicide. "Every woman meets a terrible fate," Feinberg says.
Supporters of the genre argue that this new reality reflects daily life, helping young people to cope with their own problems. Feinberg does not oppose realism, but argues that it needs richer context.
She rails against the sudden death of a main character at the end of "Bridge to Terabithia," by Katherine Paterson. While lauding the book's beautiful writing, she berates the author for killing off the character and failing to prepare readers for the death.
By contrast, in Betty Smith's classic, "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," the death of the narrator's father occurs in the middle of the book, giving Smith time to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion. Whereas "Bridge to Terabithia" left Feinberg "cold and sad," reading "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" was "an intimate, deepening experience."
Feinberg is no Pollyanna. She describes her own rebellious adolescence as "pretty rocky, in general." She and her parents, who later divorced, were engaged in "open war." She was thrown out of school. Through it all, books sustained her.
"I have memories of being on a train, running away," she says. "I had books with me. They were like constellations - a way to chart my way home. In a world where you don't quite know where you are, or where you are going, I literally held onto books. There was a structure within the books I could feel OK in."
Still, Feinberg avoids playing a literary-cop role. "I would never legislate that all kids should read this or that," she says.
Although Feinberg understands that some students find problem novels "very meaningful," her children's friends show little enthusiasm for them. "Girls tend to like them more, or at least not hate them," she says. "I don't know any boys who enjoy reading Sharon Creech. They're gravitating more toward fantasy and certainly Harry Potter. They love funny stuff, such as Daniel Pinkwater."
Similarly, Feinberg says, "I haven't found general affection from children's librarians for these books, but they think, 'This is what young adults want.' "
To those with an abiding interest in these readers, she offers this advice: "Instead of trying to imagine what young people should be hearing from an adult point of view, just take a couple steps back and be more observant and respectful of children whose actual childhoods are unfolding right before us. We need to be more humble."