Welcome to Lizard Motel: Children, Stories, and the Mystery of Making Things Up

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Welcome to Lizard Motel is a completely original memoir about the place of stories in children's lives. It began when Barbara Feinberg noticed that her twelve-year-old son, Alex, who otherwise loved to read, hated reading many of the novels assigned to him in school. These stories of abandonment, kidnapping, abuse, and more-called "problem novels"-were standard fare in his middle school classroom. Alex and his friends hated to read these books. As one of them said, "They give me a headache in my stomach." So ...
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Welcome to Lizard Motel is a completely original memoir about the place of stories in children's lives. It began when Barbara Feinberg noticed that her twelve-year-old son, Alex, who otherwise loved to read, hated reading many of the novels assigned to him in school. These stories of abandonment, kidnapping, abuse, and more-called "problem novels"-were standard fare in his middle school classroom. Alex and his friends hated to read these books. As one of them said, "They give me a headache in my stomach." So Feinberg set out to discover just what these kids were talking about.

She started to read the books, steeping herself in novels like Chasing Redbird, Bridge to Terabithia, The Pigman, and more. She consulted librarians, children's literature experts, and others, trying to get a handle on why young-adult novels had become so dark and gloomy and, to her mind, contrived.

What she found both troubled and surprised her. "In the middle of the 1960s," observed one children's literature expert, "political and social changes leaned hard on the crystal cage that had surrounded children's literature for ages. It cracked and the world flowed in."

Welcome to Lizard Motel documents this dramatic change in the content of young-adult novels but does so in a uniquely touching memoir about one family's life with books, stories, and writing. Feinberg's examination of the problem novel opens her eyes to other issues that affect children today-such as how they learn to write, how much reality is too much for a young child's mind, and the role of the imagination in children's experience.

Quirky, moving, serious, and witty, Welcome to Lizard Motel is one of the most surprising books about reading and writing to come along in years. Not only does it explore the world of children and stories, but it also asks us to look at how our children are growing up. Feinberg wonders if, as a society, we have lost touch with the organic unfolding of childhood, with that mysterious time when making things up helps deepen a child's understanding of the world. This memoir will reacquaint readers with the special nature of children's imaginations.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
When her son's seventh-grade teacher said a "good book should make you cry," Feinberg started to wonder. After she noticed her son's reluctance to read school-assigned novels-Newbery Award-winning books like Creech's Walk Two Moons or Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia-she read them herself and discovered the "problem novel," a "subgenre of the realistic adolescent novel," which often features a youngster facing horrible difficulties-incest, domestic abuse, rape, death or disease of parents, etc.-without the aid of any sympathetic adult, without "recourse to fantasy." Educators push these parables, Feinberg says, believing children need to abandon fantasy and learn to "cope" with reality. This campaign starts quite young, as Feinberg found when her daughter invited her to her second grade's "publishing party." Listening to these children reading their "memoirs"-as if eulogizing their own childhoods-Feinberg began to question the philosophy behind the Calkins writing workshop system used in so many schools. Why do children need experts to tell them how to write about the world, she wondered? Yes, it's good to learn to observe the world closely, but Calkins's "orchestration of the poetic moment" struck Feinberg as too didactic. Rarely can teachers reject the curriculum's "problem novels," nor can they refuse the Calkins system. But Feinberg, who's spent years working with children in a creativity workshop she designed, has the independence and experience to raise important questions. Her critique, delivered in the palatable form of a chatty parenting memoir, should stir some much-needed controversy, especially among "progressive" educators. (Aug.) Forecast: The implications of this small book are quite large. Parents will want to read it, as will writers, publishers and educators. A blurb from Mary Pipher could help sales. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Children's Literature
Feinberg, the creator of Story Shop, a writing and arts program, was led to write this memoir by parenting two children. When she noticed her twelve-year-old son, usually an enthusiastic reader, sitting "stiffly" over an assigned middle school book and her questioning prompted him to disparage the literature, she discovered a grim variety of problem novels chosen bent on teaching life's hard realities with "traumatic themes" and with " a relentless earnestness." Her memoir mixes parenting, philosophy, psychology, reviewing and poetry in a readable book that makes you think. Feinberg gives convincing arguments based on keen observations at home, in her workshops, as well as her research and experiences with the literature. Feinberg's observations about how children create offers the most powerful arguments against a literature that force-feeds reality. She describes calming herself and her daughter with a student story about a mystical, mysterious hotel run by a lizard and contrasts with a joyless writing session she observed in her daughter's classroom. This book is strong and insightful, but not perfect. The author sometimes indulges herself in extraneous, distracting details. And while she is adamant that children find their own way in creating and reading stories, she's often invasive in asking her children's opinions. "Leave me alone!" her son cries. Reading, I felt as annoyed as he did. 2004, Beacon, Ages Adult.
—Susie Wilde
School Library Journal
This is a sweet memoir by the mother of a 12-year-old boy who began to wonder why her son didn't want to read what he was assigned for school. These were critically lauded books like Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia and Sharon Creech's Chasing Redbird. So, with some time off during the summer, she decided to read some of them and do some research into the current "philosophy" of children's books. Feinberg started with Terabithia and discovered that although it is beautifully written, the conclusion left her with a feeling of bleakness and despair. Then a children's librarian gave her a copy of Children's Literature in the Elementary School, which says that "Realistic fiction helps children enlarge their frames of reference while seeing the world from another perspective." At first, Feinberg spends a lot of time deconstructing this concept, but she soon digresses to subjects like the after-school program she runs called Story Shop, and her daughter's ear surgery. The digressions are entertaining, and are eventually connected to the theme of children's literature, but in a wordy and roundabout way. This is a very personal story, more exploration than analysis, and though it's a quick read, it leaves readers wanting more substance.-Marlyn K. Beebe, City of Long Beach Public Library, CA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807071441
  • Publisher: Beacon
  • Publication date: 8/1/2004
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.75 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Barbara Feinberg is the originator of Story Shop, a creative arts program for children ages three through fourteen. She has won awards for her writing, including a grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts. Feinberg lives with her husband and two children in Westchester County, New York. This is her first book.
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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 30, 2004

    A lovely, unusual book

    This fascinating book addresses two issues close to my heart: reading AND writing by kids. Long before my children were assigned 'problem novels' to read, they were asked to conform to the writing system Feinberg criticizes, to write non-fiction 'memoirs' and rewrite and edit them, starting in first grade. This was the entire focus of their writing experience in elementary school, and it was engineered by adults from beginning to end. The emphasis was entirely on the PRODUCT and certainly not on a playful, imaginative process. The result is that my two wonderfully imaginative kids despise 'writing', and are convinced they can't 'do it.' I wish they could have been nurtured in the author's Story Shop instead. As for the problem novels, which for my older son began in earnest in 7th grade, he soon came to identify English class with unbearably depressing reading assignments, with very little relief for years to come. Feinberg correctly recognizes that while some of the books are very well written, more variety in assignments is in order. I am thrilled that she has finally challenged the status quo in such a beautifully written book.

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