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You can't blame Feinberg for her alarm, but '' Welcome to Lizard Motel'' (titled after an art project created by one of her students) turns out to be more than a diatribe against the dark subject matter of Y. Her childhood favorite, '' A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,'' in which the loving but alcoholic father dies halfway through, is a prime specimen of the realistic vein in children's fiction, from which problem novels evolved.
AN avid reader growing up, I decided that there were two types of children's books: call it '' Little Women'' versus '' Phantom Tollbooth.'' The first type was usually foisted on you by nostalgic grown-ups.
These were books populated by snivelers and goody-two-shoes, the most saintly of whom were sure to die in some tediously drawn-out scene.
Some of them may classify the books by their genre, and some of them even classify their books by the thickness of the books.
As for me, I classify my books according to their uses in my life.
She sees the memoirlike problem novels as symptoms of ''the drastic fall from grace that the imagination has suffered in popular understanding'' and her generation's insistence on ''making our children wake from the dream of their childhoods.'' Adults, she suspects, secretly resent the sheltered, enchanted world children inhabit and under the pretext of preparing them for life's inevitable difficulties, want to rub their noses in traumas they may never actually experience and often aren't yet able to comprehend.
All the better to turn them into miniature grown-ups, little troupers girded to face a world where they have no one to count on but themselves.
'' They win all the awards.'' Most of the books chosen by the English committee at Alex's school are problem novels, and the curriculum proves inflexible.
'' We can't ever say we don't like the books,'' Alex tells his mother, because, according to his teacher, ''if you're not liking the books, you're not reading them closely enough.'' The books are so depressing -- '' ' Everybody dies in them,' he told me wearily'' -- Alex insists on reading with his bedroom door open. Feinberg finds herself enjoying some parts of many of these books, even though they leave her, like her son, feeling ''unconsoled.'' Her efforts to sort out why are fascinating, if also sometimes muddled, because Feinberg herself is a lover of '' Little Women'' novels.
When the characters weren't dying or performing acts of charity or thawing the hearts of mean old gentlemen, they mostly just hung around the house, thinking about how they felt about their relatives.
The people in the other kind of book, however, were entirely different. Barbara Feinberg's '' Welcome to Lizard Motel: Children, Stories, and the Mystery of Making Things Up'' (Beacon Press) conjures up memories of such youthful literary predilections.