Monday, February 23, 2009


During my net surfing for a censorship entry awhile back, I ran across a NY Times article entitled, "A Good Book Should Make You Cry." It concerns the "problem novels" that teachers, often following book awards, think kids "should" appreciate.

The author rightly perceives that matching the reader to the book is important and difficult, and she touches on the attraction of bleak stories, but she doesn't really tackle the issue of why a story that puts its main character through serious emotional trauma can be well-loved, and how it differs from the ones kids avoid. The key is there, though, in her comment that the problem novels left her "unconsoled."

I tackled the issue when I got the whole set of Little House books for my 9th birthday. I'd already polished off 2 or 3 of them thanks to the school library, and had begged to own them.

(Shameless digression: There they are on my emergency evacuation shelf. On top of the stack is a paperback Little House on the Prairie in French. Next to the Wilder books is the first, and therefore dearest to me, of my Victorian schoolbook collection, which I wanted because they were the kind of books Laura had. I bought that one, Lippincott's Sixth Reader, in an antique store when I was 11. Not that I was really, like, into this or anything.)

When I got to By the Shores of Silver Lake I got the shock of my reading life:

Far worst of all, the fever had settled in Mary's eyes and Mary was blind. She was able to sit up now, wrapped in quilts in Ma's old hickory rocking chair. All that long time, week after week, when she could still see a little but less every day, she had never cried.
By the end of chapter 2, when Laura's beloved dog, Jack, died, I felt suckerpunched.

I never hesitated to skip ahead (still don't), so I pushed pages aside looking for the cure. Surely Mary would be cured by the end of the book.

She wasn't cured. I cheated outrageously and spot-checked the rest of the books as well, only to discover that Mary never regains her sight.

This is, i guess, a transition every kid has to make if s/he's an avid reader. I noticed that the above-article's author, writing in 2004, praised the cheerful Harry Potter books. They sure got darker later.

I was mulling all this over for my blog (I mull at length) when Mike Peterson -- for a treat, visit the classic stories on his Weekly Storybook site -- passed on to me a related article, "Has the Newbery Lost Its Way?" It was published in School Library Journal, which I was glad to see. SLJ is right where the librarians who review and who sit on the many ALA award committees will see it.

Library school, among many other things, set out to train us to join the reviewer pool. We were urged to get on board with the library journals once we were degreed and employed. It's entry-level professional publishing, and one can get into heavier publishing, organization and presentation work, editorial work, networking, and, for some, places on award committees. In a Booklist, Library Journal or SLJ review, somebody with the same training I have can say "Highly recommended" and generate serious sales of the title. Then libraries expose some readers to nifty books they would not ordinarily run into.

In a way it's good for prestigious awards to be given by practicing librarians. Or it used to be. Or it ought to be. We supposedly strike a good balance between literary knowledge and life in the real world with real readers.

The decisions that we look back on -- passing up Charlotte's Web is pretty cringe-worthy ‑‑ aren't as clear at the time we make them. It's good to publicize a cool but more obscure book. But how do you factor popular appeal and outside-the-box writing/subject matter, to craft an equation you can call "excellence"?? I can tell you one thing, though:

Kids can spot a book chosen to Improve them a mile away, and that goes not only for moral lessons, but for straight-out Learning Opportunities about history or other cultures. Those things are all great if the story is strong, but if the story is the packaging and a Lesson the contents, instead of vice versa, expect kids to Just Say No.

Charlotte's Web is great precisely because it entertains so marvelously, and yet does not shy away from depicting the full emotional power of death and loss. Neither do Frances Hodgson Burnett's books.

Neither did By the Shores of Silver Lake, which we're back to because it was my watershed book. Once I'd grudgingly accepted Mary's permanent situation, I was ready to sit down and read the book and let Wilder take me where she would. There would be new rules. A character could suffer harm or loss, but I trusted that the author would help her, and me, find our way back from it. This served me well because Roller Skates, The Secret Garden and A Little Princess would be in my hands shortly.

A child and a kids' book author have a relationship, and it's based on trust. Wilder did not let me down. OK, Laura's life has changed forever and she needs to become her sister's "eyes." Her new need to observe and describe is the beginning of Laura's training as a writer.

It's also the first stirring of her psychological independence, joyously symbolized by a hair-raising pony ride out in the prairie with her wild tomboy cousin, away from her nuclear family and its sorrows and responsibilities for one wonderful afternoon. The book is a terrific depiction of a girl's emotional growth, but that's where a good story has its real power: when it's a depiction, not a lesson.

And especially, when it's hopeful. A source of psychological tools for the reader.

That would make such a nice, neat closing sentence, but some of the grim-reality "problem novels" are a 3rd category, neither the cheerful story of fun and adventure, nor the classic tale of adversity overcome. The books that send librarians into ecstasies are often lesson-free, stories of stark and often horrible realism. Librarians, bless their good intentions, embraced this as kind of a rebellion against didacticism, and they promoted authors like Robert Cormier. Well-written grim reality speaks to an important readership that includes kids with life hardships who need their experience acknowledged and validated.

Cormier's The Chocolate War is one powerhouse of a book about a kid who tries to buck the system and gets crushed, but it's a mistake to decide that the uncompromising realism per se is what makes it excellent, and then start loading the shelves with lots of death-and-despair titles. What made The Chocolate War excellent was a factor that's one of the most difficult things to articulate and train into a reviewer. A story can depict failure, all attempts to fight for truth and justice can turn to ash, but the reader can see a spark of hope and the possibility of a different path.

At some point a reader becomes aware enough to see that the very existence of the book in her hand means that the corruption has been exposed. People who value truth, justice and mercy may not triumph in the book, but they grow up and write the books. This is a new type of consolation, at a remove from the story itself, but it's there.

Cormier got it in that novel. Barely. He even got it in After The First Death, a grueling terrorism novel for teens in which he lets you fully engage with and root for various young characters and then lets the terrorist kill them anyway. I haven't read all his books. The Bumblebee Flies Anyway -- a hopeless, pointless and hideous children's cancer clinic story -- was my farewell to Cormier. I'm pretty good at achieving the detachment that lets me see the merit in a book I don't like, but I had trouble finding a purpose for this book. Just my opinion, but: "Not recommended."

The excellence of the best examples can fool less insightful reviewers, and award-givers, into thinking everything ugly must be good. Both these articles provide what I think is an important wake-up call.


Mike said...

A lot of ponderables. I liked the Potter series until the end, but I was bitterly disappointed that he let a character become a major villain who had previously seemed difficult but not actively hostile. I had praised Rowling for allowing some people to be necessary and valuable without being much fun to be around, and I thought this was a betrayal of the reader.

I'm also disappointed that publishers have let the Potter phenomenon blossom into a billion books featuring magic instead of a billion books in which the author doesn't talk down to the young readers.

One thing the Potter and Little House books share is that they increase in complexity as their characters age, so that the books are more-or-less geared towards readers of the same age as the main characters. I'm not sure it's quite as purposeful in Rowling's case -- I think maybe the more sales she rang up, the less the editors reined her in. But maybe I'm just an old cynic.

And if it's any consolation, I think the Ingalls' real life in the period between Plum Creek and Silver Lake was considerably more grim than the books let on. There are good reasons she never wrote "Little Crappy Apartment Over A Cheesy Bar in Burr Oak, Iowa." (Best source I've found for the books is, btw)

Dann said...


Which Potter character was previously difficult but morphed into a major villian?


Mike said...

No spoilers from me, Dann, but it's the adult who emerges at the end as a traitor and an active warrior for the other side.