Sunday, March 10, 2013

The "Problem" Novel

Okay, this post is based on how I remember things, not on how they actually were.

So, back a little past the very break of the dawn of time, I studied Children's Literature. I wasn't much older than a child myself, but I had missed reading It's Like This, Cat by Emily Cheney Neville and other books of that ilk.  Judy Blume may or may not have been on the scene back then.  This was, after all, a LOOONNG time ago.

So, we approached books that dealt with parents fighting, divorce, any kind of abuse, any kind of economic struggle or family difficulty - dead or dying parents, alcoholism, (gasp!) drugs!!!, even sexual awakening as if the books dealt with "problems".  That's what we (or maybe just I) called them, "problem novels". 

As opposed to what?  Dull boring, diaries of someone's life in which they never have problems?  Who would even read a book like that? Look at Nancy Drew!!!  Her books are teeming with snaky problems. 

My granddaughter's favorite lift-the-flap book, Where's Spot?  BEGINS with a problem.  Spot didn't eat his food and Mom Dog can't find him.  Huge problem.

Anyway, even today when doing reader's advisory, I approach some titles with the caveat, "This is a problem novel.  The main character has some really gritty issues to deal with."

And most of the books in this category of mine, fall into the deeply dramatic, heart-wrenching, oh-my-gosh how-will-this-poor-kid-survive description.  Think of Vanessa Diffenbaugh's The Language of Flowers , a cross-over title, whose main character barely survives foster care, homelessness, and a surprise pregnancy before a hopeful ending.

But SOME problem novels approach their subjects with sympathy and a sense of hope.  Almost Home by Joan Bauer saddles poor Sugar Mae Cole with an absent, gambler father, a fragile - though not at first - mother and homelessness.  And yet, because this is Joan Bauer who is writing, we know that Sugar will find friends wherever she goes and that the people who help her will be genuinely helpful, not ineffectual or snakes in disguise.

In Pregnant Pause by Han Nolan, the 16 year old heroine has a problem growing in her belly and the problem's father, her now husband, is an even bigger problem.  All the prospective grandparents, in their attempt to...actually I don't really know what they thought they were doing.  I learned that prospective grandparenthood can be a problem in and of itself. - Anyway, they didn't help much. 
That said, this book was fun to read and it had an upbeat ending.

I know that real life is gritty and painful.  I know that kids suffer; some die.  I also know that these books are written to open young readers' eyes to the problems that others suffer; and to show those young readers who are suffering that help is out there.  Both kinds of "problem" novels are needed - the ones that hit hard and make us gasp with the cruelty of life; AND the gentler books that show us the wounds and then offer a salve that will leave the smallest scar.

Right now, I want the latter.  Death has become all too real to me.  I want my tales of woe with a huge serving of hope on the side.

Did any of you refer to certain teen books as "problem novels" or did I make that up?  Let me know.

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