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Welcome to Lizard Motel

There is a spe­cial peri­od of … child­hood, approx­i­mate­ly from five or six to eleven or twelve — between the striv­ings of ani­mal infan­cy and the storms of ado­les­cence — when the nat­ur­al world is expe­ri­enced in some high­ly evoca­tive way … It is prin­ci­pal­ly to this mid­dle age range … that writ­ers say they return in mem­o­ry in order to renew the pow­er and impulse to cre­ate. —Edith Cobb

Welcome to Lizard MotelWel­come to Lizard Motel: Chil­dren, Stories, 
and the Mys­tery of Mak­ing Things Up, A Memoir
Bar­bara Feinberg
Bea­con Press, 2004

At first glance, Wel­come to Lizard Motel, with its cov­er illus­tra­tion of a bureau and a lizard’s tail (pre­sum­ably) stick­ing out of one draw­er, seems an unlike­ly book about children’s lit­er­a­ture. That’s what I thought when I saw it on the edu­ca­tion shelf in Bor­ders. The sub­ti­tle, though, Chil­dren, Sto­ries, and the Mys­tery of Mak­ing Things Up, reeled me in. 

Fein­berg begins her mem­oir on a day in which her twelve-year-old son must read a New­bery-win­ning nov­el as his sum­mer assign­ment. He hates the book, hat­ed the book he had to read the sum­mer before (anoth­er New­bery medal­ist). She takes her son to the pool and learns from his friends that they all despise those books. Fein­berg decides to read them herself. 

The first third of Lizard Motel is devot­ed to Feinberg’s thoughts about “prob­lem nov­els,” pop­u­lar in the 70s and still going strong in more lit­er­ary iter­a­tions through the 80s to the mid-90s.  Lyri­cal writ­ing pulls her through many nar­ra­tives, but she feels depressed by the bleak end­ings. “Don’t you think there’s an exces­sive amount of angst [in mod­ern children’s books]?” she asked a librar­i­an. “Weren’t our books cozi­er?” She remem­bers read­ing Anne of Green Gables and Eleanor Estes’ The Hun­dred Dress­es, books that didn’t shy away from harsh­er real­i­ties, but didn’t cheat the read­er. She takes to task books such as The Pig­man, Don’t Hurt Lau­rie, Steffie Can’t Come Out to Play, Dicey’s Song, Bridge to Ter­abithia, and oth­ers that fea­ture trauma.

Feinberg’s views spark con­tro­ver­sies. She rails against children’s books as teach­ing tools. “As a tool to fur­ther the notions of, say, mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, an approach that could be deli­cious­ly rich, but which seemed nev­er able to move freely, since the strict humor­less watch­dog of Polit­i­cal Cor­rect­ness was always nip­ping at its heels.” 

When her sev­en-year-old daugh­ter invites Fein­berg to her school for a pre­sen­ta­tion of class writ­ing, Fein­berg exam­ines the Writ­ing Project then head­ed by Lucy Calkins at Colum­bia University’s Teach­ers Col­lege.  Her daughter’s class had been instruct­ed by a grad­u­ate from that pro­gram, who had the stu­dents write mem­oirs.  Each child’s first-per­son sto­ry was in the vein of, “My moth­er always cooked vanil­la pud­ding for me” or “My father put me to bed every night.” The past tense made the sto­ries sound like eulo­gies, as if “this moment we are shar­ing togeth­er has van­ished.” Young chil­dren don’t nat­u­ral­ly reflect on their pasts. One boy said he’d rather write about haunt­ed hous­es than his ter­mi­nal­ly ill sister.

Com­ments on Lizard Motel range from “poor exe­cu­tion” to “delight­ful.” Some argue the mer­its of a par­ent writ­ing about children’s lit­er­a­ture, appar­ent­ly for­get­ting the book is a mem­oir and why shouldn’t par­ents dis­cuss what their chil­dren are read­ing? Sand­wiched between prob­lem nov­els and the Writ­ing Project is Feinberg’s own child­hood, the books that “pulled her out from some shad­ow I hadn’t known I’d been hid­ing in,” and, best of all, a pro­gram she began called Sto­ry Shop.  I longed to be one of those lucky kids who came week­ly to the rent­ed church base­ment to write and create. 

Should this book be in children’s lit­er­a­ture col­lec­tions? Maybe, if you enjoy prose like this: “I was charmed that the tiny chairs [from her Sto­ry Shop room] cast their own shad­ows, and each time I left and came back, I felt that some­one had just been, a moment before, sit­ting in the chairs. Once or twice I won­dered if it might be the chairs them­selves that were alive …” Maybe, if you believe an “out­sider” can express the view that not all chil­dren want to read sad, real­is­tic fiction. 

This book remind­ed me that when I was a kid, we had no assigned books, only the free­dom to choose what­ev­er we want­ed. I browsed the library shelves, avoid­ing any book with an N stick­er, indi­cat­ing a New­bery win­ner. To my nine-year-old self, those books were like medicine.

As a children’s writer, Feinberg’s book made me want to write a Valen­tine to all the books I’d loved as a child. So, I wrote my own mem­oir for my master’s the­sis in children’s lit­er­a­ture. Yet my Valen­tine, begun in joy, turned dark as my trau­mat­ic child­hood crept in. I didn’t write the book I want­ed to. After re-read­ing Wel­come to Lizard Motel, I hope one day to pay prop­er trib­ute to the books that changed my life, minus the doom and gloom.

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