Emily Cheney Neville Josh Greenfeld - Essay

Josh Greenfeld

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Once a domesticated preserve of games and whimsey and fancy, the new children's literature now deals with all the subjects that were once labeled "For Adults Only."

Emily Cheney Neville is certainly one of the better practitioners of the new children's literature. Her "It's Like This, Cat" won the prestigious Newbery Medal in 1964. In "Fogarty" she has an honest ear, a penchant for sharp simile ("He'd forgotten that city water tasted like warm Clorox"), the ability to encapsulate an endearing truth simply ("'Why,' he thought, 'is it so hard to tell someone you don't love them?'") and, moreover she knows how to underwrite a dramatic scene so that it reverberates with overtones ("He said, 'Don't cry.' Then, a little later, 'Why are you crying?' She broke away from him and said, 'If I knew why, I wouldn't be doing it!'"). Then why does her treatment of Fogarty, a young man caught in the drift of our times, finally seem so disappointingly tame and tepid?…

Indeed, there is something second grade and second hand about it all, like most simplistic television drama, tinted with condescension, coming up with stale, pat poses instead of trying to provide some exciting insight into the dynamics of neuroses. Compare Fogarty, with say, Benjamin, of "The Graduate" and one can easily begin to see the difference between old adult literature and so much of the new children's literature. Sex can overwhelm Benjamin, but Fogarty can't even be undermined by it: Charles Webb seems to be following his character, while author Neville seems to be leading hers toward predescribed moral direction with a didactic point of view. The result is that though "The Graduate" like any work of literature may ultimately only serve as a substitute for life, "Fogarty" like so many children's books seems to have as its justification only that it is a substitute for adult literature.

The whole process reeks to me of cultivated cop out. Children's Literature ignores its own potentialities, author Neville denies herself a legitimate literary quest, and kids—or young adults—are short-changed again, asked to settle for less just because they are no more than children. (p. 26)

Josh Greenfeld, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 11, 1970.