Young adult "problem novels"

There’s an interesting article in Salon about the prevalence of “problem novels” in young adult literature. Barbara Feinberg has written a book aruging that these novels can be too traumatic and provacative for young teenagers, but that librarians and teachers love them, more so, in fact, than the kids who are assigned them as reading. (I haven’t actually read the book, just the article, so I maybe misrepresenting her thrust.)

I’ll admit that as a young reader, I didn’t care for novels like Dicey’s Song or The Bridge to Terabithia (“problem novels” that I remember from my youth), but that I loved Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, L.M. Montgomery, etc. I’m fully aware that this is a matter of taste, though. As an adult, I still prefer historical and speculative fiction to realistic fiction.

I was curious as to what librarians and/or other YA fiction readers thought about this. In reading the article, I wasn’t clear what Feinberg thought the solution should be. I would argue that the answer (if this is really even a problem) would be to recognize the literary merits of other kinds of YA literature–fantasy, adventure, etc–and to promote those as equally valid books for kids to read.

I’ll have to read Feinberg’s book. From an outside glance, though, I’d have to say that I disagree with her that the books are contrived and have no real impact. As a kid, I read just about anything I could get my hands on from any genre (still do). I liked the ‘real’ stories - Dicey’s Song and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry were two of my favorites - both ‘problem’ stories. Books like these taught me how to deal with issues in a constructive way - whereas the fantasy books were a great escape. The fact is, kids relate to them whether they see it or not at the time.

I’m currently finishing up a young adult novel that would be considered a ‘problem’ novel and getting ready to shop it around for publication. My ‘heroine’ (I hate that word) has some extenuating circumstances in her life, but what kid doesn’t? While a kid may not identify exacrtly with her life, my hope is that they’ll take away a little piece of her with them and apply it to situations in their own lives. If all they get out of it is a good read, that works, too. But I hope it goes beyond that for them. I don’t consider it a lesson, I consider it a story. But if they take some sort of advice from it, even better.

I read a young adult novel as an adult that actually helped me come to terms with an event in my childhood. The novel was called “Speak”, about a teenaged girl who’d been raped. While our situations were similar, they were not exact, but to see it put into words that this character was thinking things I’d always thought, I finally believed that I hadn’t done anything wrong. I’d always been told that I hadn’t done anything wrong, but being told by someone who’d never been there, and seeing my thoughts in the book, I finally felt validated. A fantastical story wouldn’t have been able to do that for me.


It sounds like she wants us all to shit sunshine and rainbows, if you’ll forgive my language. I read plenty of these books as a young girl and loved them. I loved “Tiger Eyes” and “Forever” and “Bridge to Teribithia” and “Old Yeller” and “Where the Red Fern Grows” and “The Chocolate War” and “I am the Cheese” and all those teen tearjerkers/gutwrenchers. Kids are curious about the pain and suffering in life, but adults are reluctant to tell them about it. These books allow kids to explore these feelings. I think the theory that these are bad for kids is full of shit. However, I do think that only good can come from educating yourself about what your child is reading.

I’m with avabeth in her assessment that the books are neither contrived nor without impact.
As both a former “problem” adoolescent myself and someone who currently provides therapy services to adolescents, I would say that these books absolutely have their place. I, too, read “Speak” and appreciated its message, as well as feeling that young girls facing similar issues would appreciate it.
There are so many young women facing problems that they can’t or won’t speak about (incest, cutting, body image problems—just to name a few) for fear that they are “weird” or to blame or whatever, that I think anything which helps them feel less alone is beneficial.
My only caveat to this is books which may somehow glamorize problems. When I was in high school, the book The Best Little Girl in the World (about an anorexic teenager) made its rounds, and I think there were more than a few cases of wanna-be anorexics for a perod of time. But that’s going to happen no matter what, IMO.

Judy Blume’s books were sort of nothing but “problem novels.” I’m sure one of the first times I read about the Holocaust was in Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself; Deenie was all about a girl with scoliosis and her special washcloth; Blubber was mainly about bullying and body image**; and It’s Not the End of the World was about divorce. While I also read a lot fantasy novels (Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, Tolkien, etc), I felt that the Blume books in particular (and I’m sure there were others around like Bridge to Terabithia that I can’t remember now) provided some honest and truthful depictions of what the world was like for a typical young girl. And while I may not have been going through the same things that some of the protagonists in those novels were (my parents were and still are married, but I certainly had friends whose parents were getting divorced or were divorced; and we all knew bullies and had probably been on both the giving and receiving end of that kind of behavior), the Blume books did give me perspective on what other people might be going through.

I’m also intrigued about reading Feinberg’s book.

From the feedback I’ve seen, Sandra Scoppetone’s problem novel, Trying Hard to Hear You, was extremely important and influential to a lot of gay teenage readers. It was one of the first YA novels to feature gay characters, and for a lot of young people, it was a revelation.

It’s a favorite of mine, but for different reasons: I’m in it. :smiley:

Good points all. It also occurs to me that much of the current adult literature can also be classified as “problem novels”–people dealing with divorce, death, family trauma. If they’re popular with adults, why wouldn’t they be popular with teenagers?

I do think that critics, both of YA and adult literature, tend to place a higher value on realistic rather than fantastic fiction, which I find wrongheaded, but that may be a rant for another thread.

I haven’t read her book, and I probably should, although I disagree with her arguments as they are presented in this article, as well as another review I read in the NYT.

I think it is nothing short of hilarious that Feinberg rails against Walk Two Moons, yet mentions that her favorite book growing up was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I think ATGIB is an excellent book, really, one of my favorites as well, but it’s far from a sugary sweet book free of problems. On the other hand, I’m a little amazed at her negative view of WTM, which also contains many “problem” situations, but is one of the best written YA books of the past two decades, in my humble opinion. I could understand her position a little better, I think, if she were looking at YA problem novels that were all problem wrapped up in poor writing, and there are some of those around. But WTM? The quality of the writing is excellent, and it uses a very tightly crafted reverse reveal structure that most authors probably wouldn’t bother with for a YA audience. I think it works remarkably well. And I say this as someone who isn’t a huge fan of the book – there are other books I enjoy more, but objectively looking at the quality of the literature, I have to give it extremely high marks.

Big snicker at the line in the review that mentions that YA problem novels are “often the recipient of the American Library Association’s annual Newbery Award – the highest honor given to children’s chapter books.” I have been meaning for a while now to start a thread about this – are problem novels over-represented in the Newbery Awards? I don’t think they are … I mean, they ARE represented but so are non-problem books. It’s like saying “Books are often the recipient of the Newbery Award.” Well, yeah.

I guess at the end of the day, I think there might be some merit in looking at how often so-called problem novels are assigned in schools. But Feinberg’s tone throughout the article just makes me think she’s crabby.

What, exactly, is a “problem novel”? If it’s just “novel where the protagonist faces a problem”, then you’re pretty much at “every damn novel ever written by anyone but Hemingway”. I mean, in some novels, the problem is that someone’s parents are getting divorced. In some novels, the problem is classmates make fun of a kid’s weight. In some novels, the problem is that the evil arch-wizard wants to kill the protagonist to further his plan of world domination. Now, personally, if you ask me, I’d consider that Voldemort guy to be a lot bigger problem than someone snickering at me on the playground. What’s the distinction, here?

Problem novels are what adults think teens should be reading. Generally, that is the only opinion that matters in the classroom. Librarians don’t have a stake in the instructive use of the problem novel, we simply make note of the trend and stock the books next to fantasy, comic books, horror, non-fiction, series, and romance. Scholars (English majors, teachers, and librarians) like to study problem novels because they’re so obviously meaty, but they’re not the defining mark of YA. Perhaps a little over-represented, but my Ph.D. student was doing her dissertation work on Sweet Valley High. I did some work on hurt/comfort romantic structure in YA horror. A librarian’s job is to understand what kids want to read and give it to them. Long gone are the days when librarians cared about the should.

Problem novels have plenty of detractors, myself included. I hated them growing up. Bridge to Terabithia and Where the Red Fern Grows were scarring and haunting, and even reading The Chocolate War as a graduate student revolted me. That doesn’t mean I think they should be pulled from the shelves–obviously, some kids liked them. I read my share of traumatic stuff I did like, such as Go Ask Alice and all the books about kids dying (Lurlene McDaniel). So there’s no accounting for taste.

Chronos, consider it more of a “coming of age” novel. Here is a pretty good definition, which has the problem novel as a subgenre of realism. Yes, almost every YA story is a coming-of-age-while-facing-a-problem tale, but I think the setting and style matter more than the plot. So realism is the delineator.

From the article:

I’m out of touch with what they’re asking kids to read these days, but when I was a kiddie, I recall having quite a variety of reading material presented to me.

I loved Bridge to Teribithia. We watched a tv program in class where you watch a guy draw pictures that illustrate the story as it is read allowed (Anybody know what show I mean? I can’t seem to hit the right keywords at Google. Damn, that was a good show.) and I checked it out from the library at least three times after that. And I’d never had to cope with death and dying in my life, actually. It was just an amazingly good book.

Some of them, particularly the more badly written of the genre do promote imitative behavior - I’d roll my eyes and never say that, but after Slam Book made the rounds we all made our own for the express purpose of saying cruel and nasty things in them. :wink:

On the whole, I both agree and disagree with the article to the extent that teachers and others seem to think that heavy books are more valid young adult literature choices, while fantasy and other choices are maybe seen as more childish. Which is silly. (How many times have I reread Susan Cooper over the decades?) But I see these books as a way for young people to deal with issues that nobody wants to talk about, and I’m all for them - I’d just hate to see them emphasized as “better literature” than the rest of what’s out there.

It seems to me that “young adult” literature is a terribly mixed up genre to start with - there’s a lot of excellent books in there, and a lot of total and utter crap. Some of the best really ought to be in the younger set, but gets stuck up there because it’s “controversial”, and some of the rest of the best of it gets put in the general stacks because that’s too “controversial”. I love that they still read Go Ask Alice, though - I saw a woman buying it for her daughter in the bookstore a few weeks ago and thought, no! No, no, no, it’s no fun if your mother buys it! You’re supposed to pass it around in secret, what’s wrong with you people? :slight_smile:

My friends and I totally did that! At slumber parties in elementary school, we’d read passages to each other, and knew we could all end up like her if we weren’t careful. Discussing it with my mom would have been so uncool.

We read that in school (in German,) in seventh grade I think. Around that age learning about German literature wasn’t a priority yet, so a translated book with an obvious message that allowed some discussion was just fine.

With apologies to Theodore Sturgeon, 90% of YA literature is crap. :slight_smile:

Just like my copy of Forever, where I highlighted all the saucy bits and paper-clipped the pages for easy reference when we surreptitiously passed it around class! Until we got caught, that is, and I was ratted out.

Oh, yeah, we passed “Forever” around too with the sex bits highlighted. (Actually we folded down the bottom corners of the pages with the good stuff.) I picked it up a year ago to see if it was as racy as I recalled.

Answer: no. It’s depressingly responsible and upbeat. I think any kids reading it today would totally roll their eyes at that being a Naughty Book.

Ralph: lamest phallus-naming ever.

Either Storybound or Cover to Cover. I think the same guy was on both.

I never even bothered reading Forever. I wasn’t allowed to by my mother until I was already reading Judith Krantz and Harlequin romance, so what was the point?