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Sign of the times

July 18, 2004
Summer Reading List Blues
ASTINGS-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. — I don't remember exactly what books were on the
summer reading list handed out on the last day of school back when I was 10 —
more than 30 years ago — but I do recall that they were merely "suggested
reading." I can remember scraps of stories: children making kooky inventions; a
lonely girl making a Japanese doll house out of bright fabric; something
about a fat little witch afraid of Halloween.
But mostly it's the easy feeling I remember when I picture reading that
summer. I imagine myself sitting under a broad, shady tree, surrounded by distant
hills, turning pages of a crinkly covered library book. There is a breeze
high up in the branches. I might never have actually sat under such a tree
then; we lived in the city, and it's unlikely we went away that summer. I've come
to think it's just as likely I am remembering an expansive landscape
conjured by the books themselves. In any case, it is a shady place I recall, one
that let my mind rest, and roam.
I can't imagine how I would have fared if I had been asked back then to read
the hard-hitting books on current summer reading lists. Like many parents of
fourth- to seventh-graders today, I wasn't asked; none of these books had
been written yet. Take a look, and you'll find that resting and roaming are not
key experiences in many of the "young adult" novels on the lists. Less
common too is "suggested" reading. "In September," reads an addendum to a summer
book list handed out to sixth-graders in a nearby school, "you will be given a
computer-generated test on your summer reading. This will count as 20
percent of your grade, or two quiz scores."
The required books are often the "good books" — that is, the ones that
garner the highest literary prizes, like the Newbery Medal. They tend not to be
about children having adventures or fighting foes in slightly enchanted realms,
as the young characters do in, say, "A Wrinkle in Time," the 1962 classic by
Madeleine L'Engle. Instead, they depict children who must "come to terms,"
"cope with" and "work through" harsh realties. Where characters in my books
lollygagged in meadows, as it were, the children in these books are trying to
hack their way out of cellars.
Their suffering is generally caused by adults: a parent has died, or run
off, or otherwise acted irresponsibly, drunkenly, selfishly, dissolutely. The
children are left trying to put together the pieces. No magic swoops in to aid
a resolution; no fantasy cushions the pain. As a group, these books are well
written; they have some complex characters and subplots, and are rich in
cultural description. But the angst and crash landings of the books is what
sticks with you. A 10-year-old attending the creative arts program I run told me,
"Those books give me a headache in my stomach."
I can see why. Here are some novels assigned this summer to American
sixth-graders, all winners of the highest literary prizes: "Walk Two Moons," by
Sharon Creech, chronicles a daughter's search for her missing mother, who fled,
it turns out, because of a deep depression after a miscarriage and subsequent
hysterectomy. At the end, the girl discovers that her mother was killed in a
bus accident. In "Belle Prater's Boy," by Ruth White, a missing father is
found to have died because he shot himself in the face; Belle Prater, the errant
mother, is never found, although her son remembers her saying that she's in
a straitjacket: "Squeezed to death. I can't move. I can't breathe. I have to
get out of here." A far gentler book, "Because of Winn-Dixie," by Kate
DiCamillo, is about a girl who finds a friendly dog who in turn helps her rebuild
her life. But she must do that because her mother abandoned her; we are told
also that the mother "loved to drink."
These kinds of books, often referred to as "realistic" or "problem novels,"
emerged as a genre in the 1960's, and have been in full swing ever since. In
the last few decades, writes a children's literature historian, Anne Scott
Macleod, "the path of American adolescent novels has been from outward to
inward; from concern with the young adult's relation to the larger community to a
nearly exclusive emphasis on the adolescent's inner feelings." Sheila Egoff,
also an expert in the field, writes that such books "take the approach that
maturity can be attained only through a severe testing of soul and self,
featuring some kind of shocking `rite of passage.' "
The rationale for exposing 10-year-olds to such potentially upsetting books
is that children who read about situations different from their own gain a
larger frame of reference for understanding human behavior and cultural
diversity. Some educators believe that life is harder than it used to be; books
shouldn't shield children from this. The argument is, as the head of the English
department in a school here in Westchester County told parents, that anxiety
is useful to children.
But what makes a book useful to a child? A book provides insight into
oneself, the psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim has written, only when one is already
needing and ready to receive such insight. Otherwise, presumably, a book at
best has little impact, or at worst, sideswipes the reader with an emotional
force he's not ready to handle.
The kind of realistic fiction that seems more "useful," according to my
observation of my children and their friends, affords its young heroes and
heroines a certain measure of emotional protection. These novels manage to relay
rich material, but don't need to tell all, and instead are quirkily selective,
in a way that feels consistent with how an authentic child might filter
experience. "The Devil's Arithmetic," by Jane Yolen, about the Holocaust, and "The
Watsons go to Birmingham — 1963" by Christopher Paul, about the racist
South, are books my 16-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter loved when they were
10. While the circumstances of these stories are indeed harrowing, they are
not experienced as emotionally shattering: the child characters are protected
by adults throughout.
But what remains most loved, and most useful in helping children "face
adversity," is the realm of fantasy, or the realm of the slightly less real world —
like Louis Sachar's "Holes," for example. A universe where scary things are
blunted — that is, by a blanket of fantasy — is easier to enter; it's
helpful too for the main character to have access to a tiny bit of magical power.
One need only to remember that Harry Potter, after all, has had to deal with
the murder of his parents and an abusive foster family. His magic accompanies
him; he is looked out for at every turn. Rather than confronting evil in the
form of a violent realistic father, say, it is vastly less stressful for
some children to contemplate evil in the form of "he who must not be named."
But should helping children face adversity be the main goal of children's
literature? Why does facing adversity have to be understood as work, in adult
terms? Don't children have their own ways of processing experience distinct
from adults'?
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. And the texts we require
them to pore over have become all too often about guarded, world-weary,
overburdened children, who are spending their childhoods trying to cope with the
mess their parents left them.
Strangely, it seems that in such stories the only people who get to break
free are the missing parents: these characters seem to have found their lives
too stressful and boxed-in, and have fled — right out of the books.
Barbara Feinberg, who runs a creative arts program for children in
Westchester County, N.Y., is the author of the forthcoming "Welcome to Lizard Motel:
Children, Stories, and the Mystery of Making Things Up."