Study Guide

John Neufeld

John Neufeld Essay - Critical Essays

Neufeld, John

Introduction

John Neufeld 1938–

American novelist for young adults and adults, editor, playwright, short story writer, and television scriptwriter.

Behind each of Neufeld's works for young people is his strong confidence in the perceptiveness and capabilities of young people, in contrast to the general ineffectuality of adults. "Adults are in many ways simply chicken," says Betsy, the narrator of Lisa, Bright and Dark: Neufeld's treatment of adult society's reaction, and lack of reaction, to issues such as the acceptance of minorities and the handicapped, mental illness, and the understanding of love and sex underscores this philosophy. Neufeld's works center on how the lives of his young characters are changed by their confrontations with such thorny issues.

Neufeld's first novel, Edgar Allan, deals with the unsuccessful adoption of a black child by a white suburban minister and his family. It describes the inner turmoil and lack of unity within the family which lead to the failure of the adoption, and explores the themes of racism, intolerance, and the effect of community pressure.

With Sleep Two, Three, Four! Neufeld moved into the area of fantasy, weaving his own thinly veiled political commentary into this futuristic story of a freedomless society where young people are surrounded by excessive governmental restraint. Neufeld's most recent novels have explored the search for the meaning of love in the lives of their characters. As in earlier works, adults are again ineffectual in providing information or comfort. Despite criticism that Neufeld is overly sympathetic to his teenage protagonists at the expense of his adult characters, his works are popular with both adult and young adult readers for their success in showing the need for sensitivity and tolerance in society. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed., and Something about the Author, Vol. 6.)

Richard Horchler

["Edgar Allan"] is a novel about a white family that adopts a Negro child. But it is not a novel about prejudice or race relations or brotherhood, or anything so simple. It is about parents and children, young people, and older people, about love and failure, loss and discovery, coming to terms with oneself and others. In short, "Edgar Allan" is really a novel, a serious work of art, and therefore about what it means to be a human being.

The story is told, quietly and believably, from the point of view of a 12-year-old boy….

What [the failed adoption meant to the family], how they were all changed and wounded, is probed and pondered. Many of the questions raised—about the complexities of motivations, about responsibility, about judging others, about the suffering of the innocent—are not finally answered, because they cannot be. Better than easy answers, "Edgar Allan" offers an experience in the growth of compassion and understanding.

Richard Horchler, "Stories for Ages 9 to 12: 'Edgar Allan'," in The New York Times Book Review, Part II (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 3, 1968, p. 33.

Jean C. Thomson

Edgar Allan is a success for many reasons, and one of them is that it describes an adult failure, a rare occurrence in children's books…. Michael's credible narrative is touching in its harsh examination of his father's Christianity and its criticism of [his sister]. Edgar Allan himself, sweet, bright, mute in his own defense, is innocent of any fault save his skin color, but his symbolic presence provides a test which the family has failed. Such irony, perhaps, will not touch children at first, but this book about a family on trial is one to save and to share and perhaps to discuss; certainly its reflection of reality will be noted and praised by the young people who read it.

Jean C. Thomson, "The Book Review: 'Edgar Allan'," in School Library Journal, an appendix to Library Journal (reprinted from the December, 1968 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co./A Xerox Corporation: copyright © 1968), Vol. 15, No. 4, December, 1968, p. 47.

Virginia Haviland

Issues and relationships more complex than those commonly found in literature for young readers are presented in depth and with conviction [in Edgar Allan]…. What happens after Edgar Allan's enrollment in nursery school and Mary Nell's threat to leave home is handled provocatively—to lead young readers into thought and debate over the conflicts. It is the very provocation to argument for white children that is the value of the admittedly purposeful book.

Virginia Haviland, "Early Spring Booklist: 'Edgar Allan'," in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1969 by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), Vol. XLV, No. 2, April, 1969, p. 172.

From the outset both glib and ingenuous, [Lisa, Bright and Dark] becomes the prototypical girls' story: Lisa's quandary could be any crisis, how will Lisa get help could be translated into how will the school play be saved. Or, perhaps, how will the Prince find Cinderella. With Betsy's father as witness, Lisa walks through a glass door; while she's hospitalized, Elizabeth summons "absolutely technicolor" psychiatrist Neil Donovan…. After much negotiating, the good (looking) doctor arrives at Lisa's bedside, unloosing a salubrious torrent of tears. The girls celebrate and, before Lisa leaves for treatment, they're assured she'll be well enough to come home for a Christmas visit. Which might be the most precarious prognostication of any year; [Hannah Green's] I Never Promised You a Rose Garden is far wiser.

"Older Fiction: 'Lisa, Bright and Dark'," in Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1969 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), Vol. XXXVII. No. 20, October 15, 1969, p. 1124.

Zena Sutherland

[Lisa, Bright and Dark] ends on a hopeful note, which seems not quite warranted. There is enough girlish prattle from Betsy to keep the book from being morbid; in fact, the writing has considerable flair and vitality. Although Lisa's condition as it develops is convincingly pictured, and her parents are so characterized that their obtuseness is believable, it seems dubious that the entire faculty of the school (in which a good deal of the action takes place) would refuse to take action and that only Lisa's friends do so.

Zena Sutherland, "New Titles for Children and Young People: 'Lisa, Bright and Dark'," in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (© 1970 by the University of Chicago; all rights reserved), Vol. 23, No. 6, February, 1970, p. 103.

Sada Fretz

[Lisa, Bright and Dark is the] story of a teen-aged girl who is losing her mind and knows it…. The story does not delve into the gruesome details of mental illness but it does present a serious subject previously untouched in children's books, and its disintegrating heroine is convincing in her desperation. Despite some faults—the adults are either shadows or stereotypes; the girls' conversations about movies, boys and diets often lack authenticity, the doctor's final emergence and acceptance by Lisa's parents constitutes too pat a solution—this story is superior to most junior novels, is skillfully constructed and more exciting than Neufeld's previous, highly praised Edgar Allan….

Sada Fretz, "The Book Review: 'Lisa, Bright and Dark'," in School Library Journal, an appendix to Library Journal (reprinted from the February, 1970 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co./A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1970), Vol. 16, No. 6, February, 1970, p. 90.

Harry Walsh's first experience of Twink, his cerebral-palsied stepsister, is a shock and, when he finds he can divine her meaning, something of a tonic; [Touching] is not Harry's story, however, though he is the nominal narrator of half of it, but Twink's as he draws it first from his stepmother on the drive home to Chicago and then from another older...

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Jean C. Thomson

[Touching], designed to disperse ignorance about and fear of cerebral palsy, has an enormously sympathetic central character. But it is less a novel than a personified tract, written in a distracting patchwork narrative style and featuring two-dimensional supporting characters…. The portrait of a sad, superbly brave human being, not an object, has emerged here; however, Twink, the heroine and focal point, deserves a story more steadily told as well as more believable associates. Harry's occasional peripheral remarks about his life as a student aren't enough to give him completeness as a character; so too with his stepsister Whizzer…. The story is replete with honesty, but lacks the stylistic integrity to...

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GEORGESS McHARGUE

The first part of ["Touching"] has the force, economy, and strongly realized characters which marked [John Neufeld's] noteworthy first novel, "Edgar Allan." But Part Two, in which we learn of the harrowing operations which added blindness to Twink's other difficulties, is oddly compressed and unsatisfying. Taking the form of a scrapbook of Twink's childhood, as captioned for Harry by her older sister, this section is inherently rather relentlessly informative. Though the book's humanity indicates it has aimed at being much more, this near-perfunctory sparseness reduces "Touching" to the level of dramatized socio-medical documentary. As such, it is quite effective, but one regrets the limitation.

...

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John W. Conner

Occasionally a novel is so moving that this reader abandons all pretense of composure. The result of such physical catharsis is usually a second reading with emotions held severely in check to determine how the author structured the story. An exceedingly fine line separates the truly maudlin from romantic reality. I was not cheated by John Neufeld. A second reading of Touching revealed his tightly structured style and sparse but brilliant language. The author often breaks his account at the point when a reader can imagine eloquently for himself. It was at these times when my emotions took over, stimulated by the carefully chosen language of the author. This author telescopes ideas in a manner which should...

(The entire section is 479 words.)

John W. Conner

Neufeld's masterful use of simple language [in Sleep Two, Three, Four!] to build suspense enhances the reading. The author rarely wastes words. His descriptions of events collide with one another or smoothly overlap, creating varying degrees of tension in a reader. Only once does the author's description of political events and feelings threaten to slow the pace of the novel. At this point Rafe, a nearly blind Indian, has provided shelter for the group in a secret cave. Rafe's explanation of political facts unknown to these young people reveals more background for their actions than the reader really needs to know.

The simple purpose of the group's journey keeps the plot trim and direct. But...

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Carol Starr

[For All the Wrong Reasons is another] teenage-pregnancy/early-marriage story with the obvious moral. Seventeen-year-old Tish cooly decides to lose her virginity but carefully selects the male. Peter McSweeny. When she becomes pregnant, Tish decides, independently, to have an abortion. Peter convinces her that marriage is the adult solution to the problem…. Split between wanting to be responsible and wanting to be free, he has a nervous breakdown and regresses to an earlier age. Peter is more believable than Tish, whose ability to face the problems of motherhood and her husband's mental illness develops too quickly. Similar to Ann Head's Mister and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones …, the subject is popular and is...

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Lou Willet Staneck

[Earlier] adolescent novels included adults who were often types and sometimes ridiculous such as Jane Purdy's father in Fifteen, who barked when her boyfriend called, but they were only peripheral characters. In Lisa, Bright and Dark, the adults do not play the typically remote roles. Lisa's parents are the villains and are as overdrawn as are their counterparts in a melodrama. Certainly ignorant and cruel parents do exist in the world, and I do not feel that adolescents should be shielded from reality. However, the credibility of characters is a traditional expectation in literature. (p. 22)

It is with Lisa's parents, however, where Neufeld loses his credibility as a recorder of...

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Zena Sutherland

Although there are some very funny moments in [Freddy's Book], it isn't quite convincing in constructing a situation in which so many people do a bad job of giving information; that enables the author to make a long story out of Freddy's quest, but the contrivance weakens the story, and it's noticeable that all the female characters are remarkable for their ineptitude. Although purposive, this sex education book may be of comfort to youngsters (Freddy seems to be about 11 or 12) who are embarrassed because they don't know what it's all about—but how many boys of this age don't?

Zena Sutherland, "New Titles for Children and Young People: 'Freddy's Book'," in Bulletin...

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MICHAEL McCUE and EVIE WILSON

The impact of her parents' divorce on 14-year-old Tessa O'Connell is the subject of [Sunday Father]…. Seen through her eyes, the difficult adjustments confronting divorced parents and their children become real and immediate. Young adults can identify with Tessa's effort to understand the role of love in each person's life. Her inner dialogues reflect Neufeld's ability to capture teenage parlance. He has depicted Tessa's conflict of loyalties and emotions with sensitivity, and the interrelationships among characters are well drawn. This contemporary novel should enjoy wide readership among YAs. (pp. 674, 687)

Michael McCue and Evie Wilson, "Elderly Books for Youngerly...

(The entire section is 400 words.)

Margo Alexander Long

Several controversial questions arise [in Edgar Allan]. Should people adopt children of another race just to be flying their "liberal" flag? What are our responsibilities to the Black child who is adopted? And to the other children in the family? What are the consequences of our actions? Perhaps it was the author's purpose to raise these questions. If so, mission accomplished. However, Edgar Allan is a painful account of people's inhumanity to one another. (p. 911)

Margo Alexander Long, "The Interracial Family in Children's Literature" (copyright 1978 by the International Reading Association, Inc.; reprinted with permission of the International Reading Association...

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Samuel Kaplan

The less said about [The Fun of It] the better…. John Neufeld has written a soap opera about a 37-year-old recent male divorcee who finds happiness with a 23-year-old former flower child "with a dark past." The writing is simple and the story is simpleminded. Among the cliches of singlehood abused here is a grasping former wife, desire for a child, reliance on a faithful confessor-secretary, female of course, and a romance with a woman/child….

Families and couples step aside. It is now apparently time for singles to be exploited. (p. 4)

Samuel Kaplan, "Single for Better or Worse," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1978, The...

(The entire section is 110 words.)