Barbara Wersba Essay - Critical Essays

Wersba, Barbara


Barbara Wersba 1932–

American novelist, poet, and dramatist.

Although she began as a children's author, Wersba has been writing mainly for young adults since the publication of her novel, The Dream Watcher (1968). This story of a teenager named Albert, who learns to accept his eccentricities despite alienation from his peer group and family, is thematically representative of Wersba's later works. Like Albert, Steve in The Country of the Heart (1975), J. F. in Tunes for a Small Harmonica (1976), and Harvey in The Carnival in My Mind (1982) are all misfit adolescents who gain confidence in their individuality.

In order to become more independent, Wersba's protagonists often reject their parents' values. For example, in Run Softly, Go Fast (1970), Davy leaves home to pursue his idealistic goals. However, like most of Wersba's teenage characters, Davy discovers that even those values which seem outdated, such as the importance of familial relationships, have significance in his life. Because most of her protagonists resolve their identity crises and are better able to understand the point of view of their parents and role models, Wersba has been characterized as an optimistic fiction writer.

Critics are mixed in their response to Wersba's novels. Some find her characters too stereotyped; others consider them well-rounded and believable in their responses to problems that arise in their lives. It has been suggested that her characters' development is strengthened by their struggle with ethical decisions in morally ambiguous situations. Many reviewers argue that her topics of interest to young adults, which include sex, drugs, and counterculture lifestyles, are included only for their sensationalism and add little to the advancement of plot. Critics generally agree, however, that Wersba's dark humor and her accurate portrayals of upper-class lifestyles add much to her fiction.

Wersba has also written Twenty-six Starlings Will Fly Through Your Mind (1980), a poetic ABC reader which has been commended for its sophisticated and melodic verse.

(See also Children's Literature Review, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed.; and Something about the Author, Vol. 1.)

Susan A. Roth

Anti-hero [Albert] Scully [in The Dream Watcher] broods unhappily and self-consciously about not fitting into the readymade social forms espoused by his hyper-tense mother, but most of all about not actually living anything…. Scully's a young Thoreau without self-trust until 80-year-old Orpha Woodfin enters early in the story…. When, at her death, Albert finds that she's been lying about her glamorous past, all he knows is that she made sense. Most young readers will take nicely to Scully, and many boys will delight at seeing sensitivities usually reserved for the other sex encompassed in one who, very much his own man, represents the more contemplative segment of the Now generation.

Susan A. Roth, in a review of "The Dream Watcher," in School Library Journal, an appendix to Library Journal, Vol. 15, No. 1, September, 1968, p. 160.

Kirkus Service

[Albert Scully's situation in The Dream Watcher is] the All-American Nightmare … and he's the Perfect Failure ("my trouble was simply being a total failure")—lousy in school, no friends, odd tastes, odd interests. Well, what happens (the only thing that happens) is that he meets this little old lady who lives in a dilapidated house smack in the middle of the development and they talk and they talk and she tells him about her fame as an actress in Europe and her brother who became a Zen Buddhist monk and her poet husband who died of consumption … and then she dies—destitute and divested of her legend. It might be the ultimate betrayal but he still has "what was good and beautiful" and all the quotes from Thoreau and Shaw and Rilke and the rest of Bartlett's…. The whole Scene, from the East Village to a pregnant schoolgirl to the Vietnam War in a long semi-literate soliloquy with no real maturity and no new message.

A review of "The Dream Watcher," in Kirkus Service, Vol. XXXVI, No. 17, September 1, 1968, p. 988.

The Booklist

[In The Dream Watcher Albert] is losing a lonely battle with society's materialistic criteria for success, of which his mother is number-one advocate, until friendship with an eighty-year-old self-designated actress gives him the courage to be himself. The author crowds so much social criticism into the narrative that Albert sometimes becomes a representative of protest; but his story, told in first person, is real enough to be moving.

A review of "The Dream Watcher," in The Booklist and Subscription Books Bulletin, Vol. 65, No. 5, November 1, 1968, p. 304.

Polly Goodwin

[In The Dream Watcher] the author, with skill and compassion, has created a good, honest human being, an individualist who needs his dreams and will have the strength, you feel sure, to be himself. She has written an unusual and very fine book about an extraordinary friendship, a book that is thoughtful, often funny and with a hero to remember.

Polly Goodwin, in a review of "The Dream Watcher," in Book World—The Washington Post, November 3, 1968, p. 18.

Laura Polla Scanlon

Rarely does an author manage to capture the suburban scene with the painful fidelity achieved [in The Dream Watcher]…. [Albert Scully] is constantly being urged to "get with it." "It" is the Pepsi generation life in his development, "Blitherwood, New Jersey."… Readers will be reminded of The Catcher in the Rye. The theme is similar and the same bitter-sweet humor runs through it. But this is no imitation. It's an eloquent restatement of the old plea for the individual. (pp. 288-89)

Laura Polla Scanlon, in a review of "The Dream Watchers," in Commonweal, Vol. LXXXIX, No. 8, November 22, 1968, pp. 288-89.

(The entire section is 99 words.)

John Rowe Townsend

The basic story of Barbara Wersba's ["Run Softly, Go Fast"] is good—and at times moving. It is about a destructive, loving-and-hating relationship between a young man [Davy] and his father [Leo]…. After a series of rows, Davy takes wing to the East Village. Two years later Leo dies in a hospital. There has been no reconciliation. Davy can't feel anything—or so he says. The story is recounted by him in a narrative written after the funeral; and having put it all on paper he begins at last to understand and forgive.

Yet the book does have failures which come from a consciousness that it was being written "for" young adults. It has chapters on hippie life, drugs, sex and the rest that give the...

(The entire section is 321 words.)

Sheryl B. Andrews

Books about alienated youth, the drug scene, and Middle Class America seem to abound these days. And at first glance, it might appear that [Run Softly, Go Fast] should be classified as a fluently readable story but one that dwells on what are becoming trite conventions in books for older teen-agers. Such an assumption would be a mistake…. There are no sympathetic characters in the book, with the possible exception of Maggie, the girl Davy is living with in The Village. But there are many convincing ones. And the strength of the book is that it rings true. In spite of its preoccupation with the Establishment, hippies, drugs, and sex, the book succeeds in clearly and forcefully conveying basic human weakness...

(The entire section is 168 words.)

Jean C. Thompson

[In Run Softly, Go Fast] Davy, 19, begins writing to analyze why he hardly seems to care about his father's untimely death. In a disjointed style appropriate to his youth and confusion about his reaction to the loss, Davy chronicles his struggle with his father, Leo…. On reading his ruminations at the end of the book, Davy discovers what most young readers would have sensed earlier: he'd left things out, the story had two sides! The introspective style is more irritating here than entertaining. The emphasis is on feeling over action and the result is often tepid. This is participatory literature over-obviously designed to make youngsters see to the other side of the generation gap. The author's scheme is to...

(The entire section is 171 words.)

John W. Conner

[Run Softly, Go Fast] is overwritten. Barbara Wersba's descriptions of events tend to slow the ultimate action of the narrative. David Marks is a kaleidoscope of artistic intentions rather than a flesh and blood boy…. David's mother becomes the only real character in the novel when she enters her son's East Village pad and challenges him to try to make amends with his dying father. The other characters, Maggie who shares David's East Village pad, and Rick who shared David's love for art, are really only supporting players who reflect David's current feelings.

Despite these flaws, I believe this will be a very successful book for older adolescents. The fact that the author has created types...

(The entire section is 228 words.)

Publishers Weekly

[Barbara Wersba] has written a memorable story of a sensitive young boy who discovers a miniature circus in his backyard…. "Let Me Fall Before I Fly" generates a mystical, dreamlike quality that will enchant readers.

A review of "Let Me Fall Before I Fly," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 200, No. 10, September 6, 1971, p. 51.

(The entire section is 51 words.)

Doris Orgel

[In Let Me Fall Before I Fly a boy watches a make-believe circus] for hours on end in the grass, until he knows each feature of every performer by heart. And the more he grows to love the circus, the farther he drifts from his own, the real, world.

Then comes a storm. The circus disappears. Now both the child and the book are in terrible trouble. For the child has "lost the desire to live." And the book is up against the single subject which, to my mind, cannot be dealt with in children's literature—namely, total, unrelieved despair.

At this point the child's parents and a doctor intervene. They restore the child to normality, unconvincingly so. Meantime some highly...

(The entire section is 258 words.)

Diane Gersoni-Stavn

Can a boy in a boy's book have a mother who isn't vapid? Yes, but usually only if she's cruelly domineering or lax in her maternal obligations. In Barbara Wersba's The Dream Watcher, for example, there are two important women. One is a poor, alcoholic spinster on welfare whose poetic allusions and fantasized stories of her glorious past on the stage inspire the terribly normal, average Albert Scully to appreciate his own capabilities and potential…. But, what about young Albert's mom, the really significant woman in his life? She is a castrator who constantly puts down her unsuccessful hard-drinking insurance man of a husband … while Wersba treats Mr. Scully sympathetically (he had always wanted to be a...

(The entire section is 229 words.)

Publishers Weekly

[In The Country of the Heart] Hadley is a famous poet, aged 40, angry and dying. Steven is in college, an aspiring poet full of pat answers and puppy-like devotion to his "idol," Hadley, who has miraculously rented a house in his hometown. Predictably, she repulses his advances, mocks him mercilessly but softens, at first, grudgingly. As their relationship grows, Hadley and Steven … become lovers—finally, briefly. The author's insights are admirably original and comprehensive. A story that could have been insufferably maudlin is rescued deftly and elevated—to excellence.

A review of "The Country of the Heart," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 208. No. 2, July 14,...

(The entire section is 104 words.)

Karen Harris

[The Country of the Heart is an] extended cliché about an 18-year-old would-be poet who falls in love with a middle-aged successful woman poet…. The novel, which takes the form of a statement by the aspiring poet addressed to his now dead love, is written in the pretentious and overblown style common to daytime soaps.

Karen Harris, in a review of "The Country of the Heart," in School Library Journal, Vol. 22, No. 1, September, 1975, p. 128.

(The entire section is 74 words.)


It is hard for a writer to write about writers. In respect of that, at least, Barbara Wersba's The Country of the Heart … is something of a tour de force. Here we have two writers: a famous, caustic, self-absorbed woman poet of 40 and an unformed, vulnerable, aspiring young man of 18…. (The two literary types are not new, either to fiction or to history.)

Steven makes all the mistakes. He blunders wide-eyed into the life of a woman who wants only to work and be alone, blathers about the sublimity of art, tremblingly proffers his poems, and is crushed when, having initiated him into sexual love and given him excellent, if disillusioned, professional advice, Hadley deliberately antagonizes...

(The entire section is 254 words.)

Publishers Weekly

A honey of a story, laced with humor and tender feelings, [Tunes for a Small Harmonica] boasts characters made truly human by the author's expertise. J. F. (Jacqueline) is a rich 16-year-old, the despair of her soignée mother and a worry to her best friend, Marylou. J. F. dresses like Steve McQueen and chain smokes. Her mother sends her to a shrink and Marylou buys her a harmonica to help her cut down on cigarettes. To her surprise, J. F. becomes expert on the harmonica and falls in love with her poetry teacher, Harold Murth…. The complications which follow are many, merry and a constant string of surprises to say nothing of delight.

A review of "Tunes for a Small...

(The entire section is 129 words.)

Diane Haas

Occasional stylistic weaknesses [in Tunes for a Small Harmonica] fail to mar this entertaining tale of a tomboy's first crush…. J. F.'s parents are a bit stereotypical, but the action is fast paced and J. F. is winning and believable, even as she matches wits with a quack psychologist.

Diane Haas, in a review of "Tunes for a Small Harmonica," in School Library Journal, Vol. 23, No. 1, September, 1976, p. 127.

(The entire section is 69 words.)

Human—And Anti-Human—Values In Children's Books: A Content Rating Instrument For Educators And Concerned Parents

[The Country of the Heart's] strongest asset is Ms. Wersba's realistic depiction of the hard work involved in writing, which destroys the myth that artists lead glamorous lives of leisure. However, the book is seriously flawed overall.

In a style that is flowery to the point of pretentiousness, readers are fed the concept of the "driven artist." States Hadly: "Artists can't have both life and art." By failing to question the validity of this elitist view of the artist, the book reinforces the notion that art and social commitment are necessarily opposed. The extreme individualism implicit in this view is further supported by Hadley's martyr-like desire to suffer her painful dying in...

(The entire section is 272 words.)

Zena Sutherland

Funny, frank, and sophisticated, [Tunes for a Small Harmonica] has—despite such exaggeration as the inept, neurotic psychiatrist—memorable characters, brisk dialogue, and a yeasty style. It is consistent and believable as a first-person account, and it faces many broad concerns of all adolescents.

Zena Sutherland, in a review of "Tunes for a Small Harmonica," in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Vol. 30, No. 6, February, 1977, p. 99.

(The entire section is 67 words.)


It is never really clear [in Let Me Fall Before I Fly] whether the boy's imaginary world should be considered fantasy or hallucination, but as a fantasy, the story is unsatisfactory because of the presence of the psychiatrist and the child's death wish. The author contrasts the boy's generosity and selflessness while hallucinating with his selfish, belligerent, and dishonest behavior needed to accommodate reality, leaving the reader to wonder if the author is suggesting that a world of irrationality is preferable to the real one. The format suggests a child's book, but the confusing and quasi-surrealistic style renders it an unlikely choice for that audience. (p. 338)


(The entire section is 149 words.)

Margaret Parish

[In Tunes for a Small Harmonica, a] sixteen-year-old tomboy, J. F., struggles to define who she is against a backdrop of adults who mostly succeed in giving her remarkably little help and encouragement.

Readers who wonder what became of intrepid heroines of juvenile fiction like Pippi Longstocking, Harriet the Spy and Queenie Peavy might find their reincarnations in J. F., five years older, a lot wealthier, and perhaps a little wiser. (p. 89)

Margaret Parish "Of Love and Sex and Death and Becoming and Other Journeys," in English Journal, Vol. 67, No. 5, May, 1978, pp. 88-90.∗

(The entire section is 93 words.)

Lance Salway

[Tunes for a Small Harmonica] is laced with eccentric characters and a slick narrative style that made me laugh out loud. It's a good, amusing read but I felt that Ms. Wersba's central character was somewhat strangled by the author's sophisticated humour: I cared about what J. F. said and did, and not about the character herself. And the book's ending seemed too neat and contrived to be altogether convincing. Still …, this is splendid entertainment.

Lance Salway, in a review of "Tunes for a Small Harmonica," in Signal, No. 29, May, 1979, p. 111.

(The entire section is 91 words.)

Maggie Parish

Positively-portrayed mothers—the kind whose parenting readers might someday want to emulate, seem to be in the minority in … works of contemporary realistic fiction…. (p. 101)

What of the mothers in contemporary realistic fiction for young adults who are shown to be mostly destructive influences on their sons and daughters? The Dreamwatcher … is one good example of this phenomenon. The mother in The Dreamwatcher seems to have no redeeming features. A compulsive consumer, obsessed with her house's appearance and her own, she literally seems to drive her husband to drink and her son to the brink of despair. Then the protagonist meets an old woman dressed in shabby velvet, who...

(The entire section is 232 words.)

Publishers Weekly

Inseparable as they fly far beyond the imagination, Wersba's lyrics and Palladini's pictures [in Twenty-Six Starlings Will Fly Through Your Mind] seem like the creation of one astonishingly gifted person…. The paintings and powerful drawings mesh perfectly with the poetry to describe characteristics inherent in the shape of each letter, not just words they embrace; to combine letters in harmonies and dissonances; and to use nouns and verbs and adjectives that stretch the mind, never the predictable or simple term. The book is a revelation, a treasure for adults too.

A review of "Twenty-Six Starlings Will Fly through Your Mind," in Publishers Weekly, Vol....

(The entire section is 107 words.)

Patricia Dooley

[Twenty-Six Starlings Will Fly Through Your Mind] is an idiosyncratic, surrealistic paean to the alphabet rather than an alphabet book. Each letter is arbitrarily characterized ("A, secret and determined…. B, glancing shyly"); but readers inevitably begin to wonder why "H" is "the uncle of I," or why "I" is "pale and discouraged."… Why is S "the good letter … bringing silver and silence" rather than a bad one bringing sadism and sin? The dauntless anthropomorphism and imperious tone raise the expectation of logic when there is none. Readers who like either sense or nonsense may be baffled by a book that falls in between. Another question arises over the potential audience. This "alphabet" could be read...

(The entire section is 216 words.)

Janice M. Bogstad

[As] much as I like [Twenty-Six Starlings Will Fly Through Your Mind], I have to make some criticisms of its content. There is far too much reinforcement of passive-female imagery, especially in the illustrations, but in the text as well. "A, the secret and determined guide," is pictured as a man with moustache and feathered hat, while "C, the moon's cousin," is female where the text indicates no gender distinctions. "G is an old-fashioned girl" while "I is pale and discouraged," and also female, as is "V, pointed and shy," in opposition to "W," who is male and who "wanders the woodlands." In roughly half the cases, gender is not assigned to the letters by illustration or text even when activity is associated...

(The entire section is 248 words.)

Nicholas Tucker

[A] rare but … frank mention of what now seems to have become a forbidden topic occurs in Barbara Wersba's quite delightful Tunes for a Small Harmonica. Here, the 16-year-old heroine J. F. asks her best friend Marylou if they could try kissing "in the name of science" to establish whether J. F. was properly gay or not. But although the kiss is passionate, J. F. feels nothing, and concentrates instead on her new love for her weedy English teacher, Harold Murth. When all her efforts fail in this direction too, she again decides that "Only sex could make us forget that we were teacher and pupil, adolescent and adult. In my mind's eye, I saw us lying in bed smoking cigarets and talking about our lives, sharing...

(The entire section is 220 words.)

Kirkus Reviews

Unsuccessfully bittersweet but sometimes funny, [The Carnival in my Mind] tells of 14-year-old prepschool misfit Harvey Beaumont's brief, smitten interlude with Chandler Brown, 20, a shabby-elegant would-be actress who seems cast from a worn-out Sally Bowles-Holly Golightly mold. Harvey, who feels unlovable because he's short—and because his mother is devoted to her Irish setters, but barely acknowledges his existence—is delighted to be taken seriously by the rakishly glamorous Chan (or so he sees her); and when the dogs that crowd his mother's Fifth Avenue apartment get too much for him, he moves into Chan's apartment…. Harvey and Chan get along well, enjoy their domestic routine despite her heavy sherry...

(The entire section is 250 words.)

Alice Digilio

Humor in the young adult novel is often overdone, applied in great dollops suited to the taste of 10-year-olds. Not so [in The Carnival in My Mind]. Barbara Wersba's new comic novel is the literary equivalent of a New Yorker cartoon….

Wersba, also a playwright, has a knack for setting her scenes, and delivering the punch lines in a manner worthy of Woody Allen….

Beneath the comedy—the antics of the setters, Harvey's efforts to stretch his tiny frame, the formality of Holmes the butler amidst the craziness and chaos of the Beaumont apartment—is a poignant strain. Harvey feels unloved…. Clearly, his attraction to Chandler grows out of this need for a bit of...

(The entire section is 230 words.)

Jack Forman

Wersba realistically paints New York life and writes as usual with verve and skill [in The Carnival in My Mind] but it is difficult to believe in Harvey who is conversant with [George Bernard Shaw, composer Gustav Mahler, and Franz Kafka] and in the other exaggeratedly drawn characters in this message-laden story.

Jack Forman, in a review of "The Carnival in My Mind," in School Library Journal, Vol. 29, No. 1, September, 1982, p. 145.

(The entire section is 71 words.)


I believe the butler, the dogs, the tragicomic trials of being young, male and short [in The Carnival in My Mind]. But can I believe a mother who literally doesn't notice when her kid moves out for a period of months? And can I believe a physically normal adolescent boy who daily shares a bed with a beautiful female without once having "anything happen"? Similarly skeptical readers will wish Harvey's carnival were one in which the games weren't rigged. (p. 63)

Georgess McHargue, "Coming of Age," in The New York Times Book Review, November 14, 1982, pp. 48, 63.∗

(The entire section is 94 words.)

Paul Heins

In a fluent, literate style with effectively economical dialogue and with a considerable amount of sympathetic humor, the author has created a gallery of unconventional characters [in The Carnival in My Mind]. At the same time, she has been unabashedly frank, avoiding the sordid and evoking the surprising emotional experiences which endowed a hitherto despondent adolescent with joie de vivre. (pp. 662-63)

Paul Heins, in a review of "The Carnival in My Mind," in The Horn Book Magazine, Vol. LVIII, No. 6, December, 1982, pp. 662-63.

(The entire section is 84 words.)


[The Carnival in My Mind] is a disappointment for this Wersba fan. Despite interesting characterization, it reads like a formula novel; teenage boy who has problems finds an older female friend who also has problems. They help each other overcome these and live happily ever after. I do not recommend this one.

Gerry McBroom, in a review of "The Carnival in My Mind," in The ALAN Review, Vol. 10, No. 3, Spring, 1983, p. 21.

(The entire section is 71 words.)