Part 1: First, some background on the problem novel…
In recently thinking about the children’s problem novel for another project, I also wondered: what is happening on the YA problem novel scene these days, since teens were the original target audience for problem novels? Are problem novels increasing in popularity? Are the problem-topics in YA fiction growing in variety and frequency, and how are authors and publishers dealing with censorship concerns from the public? And what is the opinion of the youth who are reading these books? Do they criticize the writing? Praise it? Find it engaging?
The teen problem novel, a sub-genre of realistic fiction, is also referred to as the social problem novel, the American problem novel, new realism, and problem fiction. Sometimes problem novels are viewed as ‘coming of age’ novels. But no matter what they are called, the primary criteria is that the core of the plot involves the protagonist facing a substantial problem, conflict, or dilemma that must be dealt with and cannot be avoided. Sheila Egoff (1980), a critic of young people’s literature, suggests that in the typical problem novel, “conflict is integral to the plot and characters, and resolution of conflict has wide implications growing out of the personal vision or experience of the writer” (p. 67). In an interview with Aurora Online, Egoff offers some further reflections on the problem novel, including her opinion that problem novel writing has improved over the years: Interview with Sheila Egoff.
Here are a few problem novels you may have heard of: Queenie Peavy (Richard Burch), The Summer of the Swans (Betsy Byars), Forever (Judy Blume), Dicey’s Song (Cynthia Voigt), Dear Nobody (Berlie Doherty), Homecoming (Cynthia Voigt), We All Fall Down (Robert Cormier), The Chocolate War (Robert Cormier), Throwaways (Ian Strachan), Stone Cold (Robert Swindell), The Silent Storm (Sherry Garland), A Summer to Die (Lois Lowry), Tell Me Everything by Caroline Coman, I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This (Jacqueline Woodson), Peter (Kate Walker), and Out of Control (Norma Fox Mazer).
A bit of history on the problem novel: While many children’s problem novels are being published in today’s literature, the problem novel was originally aimed at the youth audience, and dates back to the 1960s and 1970s. It has been suggested that the birth of the problem novel occurred in 1964, when Emily Neville’s It’s Like This, Cat was awarded the Newbery Medal. These novels introduced a trend towards a new level of ‘hard reality,’ or a painfully honest and truthful portrayal of life problems, such as divorce and separation, nontraditional families, alcoholism, drugs, sexuality, alienation, illness, death, poverty, homelessness, foster care, domestic violence, abuse, and so forth. Many problem novels began to portray parents more honestly, letting go of the “Leave it to Beaver” and “The Brady Bunch” portrayal of parenting, and recognizing the reality of abuse, abandonment, divorce, and other family problems and dysfunctions.
What do problem novels offer youth? A chance to feel connection with other youth experiencing similar problems, an opportunity to build empathy and compassion toward other youth with problems, and a chance to identify with the protagonist’s emotions and struggles. In dealing with the subject of death, for example, the problem novel allows youth to encounter grieving patterns and realistic emotional responses and coping strategies. The problem novel can also be praised for its ability to subvert the idea of teens as passive and powerless, and show them instead as resourceful, resilient, and active individuals who are capable of coping with their problems.
But, does everyone share a positive attitude towards the problem novel? No, definitely not. There is an undeniable controversy surrounding the content of some problem novels; opinions and reactions are varied, depending on the writing style, types of problems, and extent of detail discussed in each novel. Barbara Feinberg, for example, has posted an article online which takes a more critical approach to the problem novel, in which she states her concerns that some problem topics such as incest, domestic abuse, and death are simply too difficult for young readers to deal with, and that these readers are being taught to abandon fantasy and are instead led towards a stark and difficult reality before they are ready (Barbara Feinberg: Reflections on the problem novel). Of course, Feinberg is writing more about children here, but many parents share similar concerns about their teens’ reading choices. In Publishers Weekly, the novel Junk (about teenagers and drug/heroin addiction) was criticized by parents who found it “frightening and even morally wrong that a children’s book should deal with these issues.” For further reading about opinions on the problem novel, check out the ALAN review article “The Problem Novel in a Conservative Age.”
Much literature written about the problem novel is written from the perspective of adults, but leaves out the readers themselves; what would teens have to say on some of these topics? Much of the current research does not seem to take their opinions into account, and focuses more on what parents, librarians, and educators feel is best for young people to read about. What about the teens? They are active readers, they are information-seekers, and they are creators of experience. Does this not also apply to their interaction with the YA literature?
It seems that one of the important factors to remember is that there is a difference between a poor sub-genre of literature, and poor writing itself. As Egoff (1980) points out, it’s not the problem novel or the problem topics she is opposed to, but the poor writing that they sometimes contain. It can be difficult to mimic real-life problems and achieve successful verisimilitude in fiction, and to write a deep, sensitive, and honest portrayal of today’s youth’s problems. Problem novel writing that is overly-dramatic, simplistic, or naïve, with a lack of realistic emotion, believable plot, strong setting, and in-depth characters is never going to be able to realistically portray problems in a way that will be engaging, believable, and deeply moving for youth.
One of the most frequent bits of advice found in the literature about problem novels? Don’t be didactic! Teens don’t want to be lectured and they don’t want to be talked down to. Chris Lynch, author of Shadow Boxer, Iceman, Gypsy Davey, and Blue-Eyed Son, suggests that “writing about the great lurch from childhood to adulthood is just as frightening, exhilarating, complicated and dangerous as living it was (remember that?). If you talk down to your audience it does not matter if you get ten pages of glowing press. They will reject you. Soft-pedal your message, and they will reject you. Think for one moment that younger readers will accept dishonesty or half-hearted work, and see what happens to you. Anyone who thinks that writing for younger readers is an easy way of breaking into the game, should just stay on the bench” (Donelson & Nilsen, 1997, p. 100).
Here are some interesting websites that offer further perspectives and information on the problem novel:
http://aurora.icaap.org/index.php/aurora/article/view/42/55 (Aurora Online)
http://www.aft.org/pubs-reports/american_educator/issues/winter04-05/problemnovel.htm (Barbara Feinberg)
http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/ALAN/spring98/lemieux.html (ALAN Review)
Stay tuned for Problem Novel Part II: A closer look at Newbery Medal winner Richard Peck, who offers a personal perspective about his writing process and views on the problem novel…
Burch, R. (1973). The new realism. In V. Haviland (Ed.), Children and literature views and reviews (pp. 281-287). Dallas: Scott, Foresman, and Company.
Donelson, K. & Nilsen, A. P. (1997). Literature for today’s young adult (5th ed.). NY: Longman.
Egoff, S. (1980). Thursday’s child: Trends and patterns in contemporary children’s literature. Chicago, American Library Assocation.
Hamilton, M. (1988). Aurora Online with Sheila Egoff: Outspoken critic and companion of children’s literature. Aurora Online. Retrieved March 4, 2008 from http://aurora.icaap.org/index.php/aurora/article/view/42/55.
Peck, R. (1992). Problem novels for readers without any. In Monseau, V. R. & Salvner, G. M. (Eds.), Reading their world: The young adult novel in the classroom (pp. 71-76). Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook Publishers.