Zibby Oneal Essay - Critical Essays

Oneal, Zibby


Zibby Oneal 1934–

(Born Elizabeth Oneal) American novelist.

Oneal's two novels for young adults, The Language of Goldfish (1980) and A Formal Feeling (1982), are praised for their candid, unsentimental portrayals of teenagers with emotional difficulties. Struggling to preserve her childhood sensibility, the adolescent protagonist of The Language of Goldfish suffers so much internal tension that she attempts to commit suicide. In A Formal Feeling the central character contends with the conflicting emotions brought about by her mother's death and her father's remarriage. Oneal has also written three books for children.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 106 and Something about the Author, Vol. 30.)

Linda R. Silver

[The Language of Goldfish] is an intelligent, meticulously crafted book on a theme that, though fascinating to young people, has not been well handled in YA novels. Thirteen-year-old Carrie, the middle child in an affluent and happy family, is full of fears about herself and her relations with other people. More precisely, she is afraid of becoming a sexual being—although the underlying sexual basis for her mental breakdown is suggested rather than stated…. Why she is so afraid is not explained. The carefully selected, precise details of Carrie's life, including realistic and compassionate character portrayals, establish a tension between external reality and the chaos of Carrie's mind. A serious but not dismal book, enlivened by flashes of humor, this draws out readers' empathetic response and enlarges understanding. It is remarkably good writing!

Linda R. Silver, in a review of "The Language of Goldfish," in School Library Journal, Vol. 26, No. 6, February, 1980, p. 70.


The Language of Goldfish deals with a somewhat touchy subject, the insanity of a child. Although written about and for a thirteen-year-old, it reminded me of nothing so much as Judith Guest's Ordinary People, and it is nearly as good, too. Carrie Stokes, good in math and art, plagued by a precocious and attractive older sister, resists the changes of growing up. Her resistance results in a gradual breakdown, including a beautifully depicted suicide attempt seen entirely from the victim's point of view, a hospitalization, and Carrie's painful return to the world of school and daily visits to a psychiatrist. The book operates on many levels; thus, her family's refusal to accept the seriousness of her illness reverberates in her friends' lack of understanding and her own unwillingness to understand why her beloved art teacher would leave her husband for another man. So too Carrie's eventual acceptance of growth and sexuality is marked by her first bra, her first dance class, her attempts at realistic drawing, her ability to accept her mother's refusal to acknowledge the reality of her breakdown. The story is believable and heartwarming. It offers reasonable hope, calm moments of joy, and the possibility of a future, without deviating from a serious appraisal of the problems today's young people face as they try to fit themselves into worlds they don't understand.

The book's technical strengths are many. The dialogue is very good, its terseness reflecting the teenage milieu. The symbols (the island, the bra, the dancing class, Carrie's development as an artist) are there for the reader to find but are never forced. The characters are neither fiends nor angels, just real people doing their flawed best in a flawed world.

Loralee MacPike, in a review of "The Language of Goldfish," in Best Sellers, Vol. 40, No. 1, April, 1980, p. 39.

Joyce Milton

At 13, Carrie [in "The Language of Goldfish"] is old enough to know that the "magic island" in the pond behind her house is really just a pile of moss-covered stones and that the goldfish she summons by whistling across the surface of the pond's waters don't really understand her private language. Her older sister, who once shared these fantasies, long ago dismissed them as kid stuff, but Carrie, overwhelmed by the changes going on inside her own body and by the messy world of sexuality and moral uncertainty she sees ahead, desperately hangs on to childhood.

"The Language of Goldfish," Zibby Oneal's first novel for young adults, chronicles Carrie's emotional breakdown and attempted suicide. This subject matter is bound to attract some attention for its own sake, but it would be a mistake to include this novel in the wave of pop-sociological fiction about teenage trauma. Certainly, its profile of an achieving daughter of a well-to-do family, panicked at the thought of competing socially with her more outgoing sister, would be recognizable to any clinician. And Carrie's attempts, as an art student, to translate her anxiety into studies of line and movement are entirely believable. For the most part, however, the people and events in Carrie's life are a bit flat and a bit hazy around the edges, which is entirely how she perceives them. In contrast, her inner turmoil—even during her dizzy spells when reality "slips sideways"—is conveyed in language that is poetic and precise.

No doubt many young readers will be drawn to this story because it promises to show "what it's like to go crazy." In fact, this promise is fulfilled, largely because the author has resisted the temptation to use Carrie's disordered thoughts as a vehicle for self-indulgent writing. But most readers will also see a good deal of themselves in Carrie. Her search for the magic island, which she can see in her imagination but no longer recognizes in reality, is a resonant metaphor for the lost illusions of childhood. This is a loss that sentimental people bemoan, but Mrs. Oneal reminds us that pretending is the work of childhood—and often very hard work at that. (pp. 52, 65)

Joyce Milton, in a review of "The Language of Goldfish," in The New York Times Book Review, April 27, 1980, pp. 52, 65.


In [The Language of Goldfish], a perceptive novel which avoids clichés and exaggeration, evocative images create a sense of Carrie's inner experiences: the gaps in her consciousness, her whirling terror, and her longing for a safe place—a place like the island in the goldfish pond, a sanctuary of childhood. With strong characters, convincing scenes, and accurate, consistent dialogue, the author explores Carrie's journey and recovery and the remoteness of her affluent family. The story is not suddenly dramatic; Carrie's illness moves in an unpredictable, gradual downward spiral until the girl begins a cautious, tentative rebuilding of her life. Carefully crafted with delicacy and control, the book presents a moving portrait of a vulnerable child on the brink of young adulthood.

Christine McDonnell, in a review of "The Language of Goldfish," in The Horn Book Magazine, Vol. LVI, No. 4, August, 1980, p. 416.

Jean Ducan

[In The Language of Goldfish readers] recognize Carrie's growing bewilderment and her muted cries for help as the pressures and tensions of suburban adolescent life threaten to overwhelm her. But the adults around her are too involved in their own concerns to respond. The themes of alienation and lack of communication are skillfully woven throughout the novel, until Carrie's attempted suicide seems inevitable.

In Carrie, the author has created a person that young readers will identify with, as she gradually learns to understand her own failures and her strengths. The novel rings true in every aspect—from the glowing imagery of Carrie's fantasies as her grasp on reality loosens to the mundane details of her long and difficult struggle to accept the harsh facts of the grown-up world.

Jean Ducan, in a review of "The Language of Goldfish," in English Journal, Vol. 70, No. 4, April, 1981, p. 77.

Publishers Weekly

With the insights and literary style that mark the award-winning "The Language of Goldfish," Oneal now tells the story of emotionally battered Anne Cameron, 16 [in "A Formal Feeling"]. Emily Dickinson's poem that starts "After great pain, a formal feeling comes" strikes Anne as an expression of her state. She adopts a formal feeling, a shell, when she goes home from boarding school for Christmas vacation. A year after her mother's death, Anne's father has remarried and she won't allow herself to come close to, or understand, her stepmother Dory…. The girl's worst pain, however, arises from guilt over memories of fighting with her late mother, a perfectionist who demanded the impossible and whom Anne fears she had...

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Zena Sutherland

There is little action in this sensitive story [A Formal Feeling], but there is growth and change, so that when it is time for Anne to go back to boarding school after her unhappy vacation, she can accept the status quo and can weep for the person her mother really was rather than the idealized woman she had been trying to remember. A candid story, this unfolds and grows smoothly, with a perceptive meshing of personalities and relationships that are strongly drawn.

Zena Sutherland, in a review of "A Formal Feeling," in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Vol. 36, No. 2, October, 1982, p. 34.

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Laurie Bowden

Sixteen-year-old Anne [in A Formal Feeling] arrives home on a vacation from the private school her mother had chosen—her mother who has been dead just over a year. Anne avoids dealing with her life, past and present…. Anne's reactions are understandable: How can everyone act as if everything is all right? How could Dad marry again so soon, and to someone who is so different from Mom: Stepmother Dory's a nonintellectual who leaves dirty dishes in the sink and neglects the rose garden. Anne pursues a state of numbness, which she achieves by running, perhaps to avoid the pain of remembering the truth about her mother: that her mother's high expectations and standards were perhaps not worth living up to. A...

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Linda Barrett Osborne

Anne [in A Formal Feeling], though reserved and difficult, is not self-pitying. She is so human and so in need of loving that she is sympathetic and engaging from the beginning, and the other characters balance her with a warmth that is genuine and free of sentimentality. A Formal Feeling is straightforward, absorbing, and perceptive, true to an adolescent's feelings about mothers and about grief.

Linda Barrett Osborne, "Learning to Live without Mother," in Book World—The Washington Post, October 10, 1982, p. 6.∗

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Robert C. Small

Anne Cameron's mother [in A Formal Feeling] was clearly an unusual and talented person, artistic, musical, and literary. Dead for a year as the book opens, she still haunts Anne, and, through her, her father, his new wife, and Anne's brother, Spencer. Although all of the family except Anne want to throw off the oppression of that memory, Anne's return from school at Christmas brings her mother's memory back into the house. Anne is frozen—the "formal feeling" of the title—by her obsession with her mother. She does not, however, seem to have loved her mother so much as been in awe of her and her many talents…. The book is upper class, literary, cultured, and very intellectual. It is also thoughtful and...

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Paul Heins

Despite the academic background [of A Formal Feeling], the atmosphere of the story is redolent of middle America; and although the texture of the narrative is tightly woven, the style—self-consciously descriptive and allusive—tends to be antiseptic. Centering on Anne's state of mind more than on her emotions, the novel not only lacks intensity but fails to attain the power of effective understatement. (pp. 173-74)

Paul Heins, in a review of "A Formal Feeling," in The Horn Book Magazine, Vol. LIX, No. 2, April, 1983, pp. 173-74.

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Marion Glastonbury

It takes nerve in a novelist to construct a story which depends largely upon the posthumous influence of an invisible character. In [A Formal Feeling] …, the device works: we care about the outcome of retrospective disclosures because only the truth, complex and ambivalent, seems likely to set Anne free.

Marion Glastonbury, "Missing Persons," in The Times Educational Supplement, No. 3492, June 3, 1983, p. 41.∗

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Dorothy Nimmo

American children's books are admirably aware of the real world; they tend to deal directly with the problems that face adolescents, rather than obliquely through fantasy or symbol. There is something of a return to the didacticism of Victorian children's books. Out of this background of therapeutic literature on how to deal with menstruation, sexuality, colour prejudice, or alcoholism [A Formal Feeling] is a book dealing with bereavement but offering something more: a subtle and moving examination of how Ann, returning from boarding school to find her father remarried, comes to understand and forgive the past.

Dorothy Nimmo, in a review of "A Formal Feeling," in The...

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