Problem Novels

Pixelfish wants to know what a problem novel is. My own definition until fairly recently was: “a contemporary realist YA novel that I don’t like because it’s preachy and condescending and defines teenagers in terms of their ‘problems’ (which half the time I would not define that way) and most teenage readers hate.” (Here is a more useful definition.)

The problem with my definition, other than it’s way too personal, is that it’s not true. During the past few years of talking to teenage readers and school librarians I’ve learned how incredibly helpful many find problem novels. Readers told me over and over again that they were able to find someone like themselves in the main character dealing with abuse, with an alcoholic mother, a drug addicted father, or what have you. Librarians talked of being able to put the right book in the hands of a struggling teen, which not only got them reading, but every bit as important, gave them a way to talk about what was happening to them and thus get help.

When the reader finds the right problem novel for them it does a world of good. I am now for these novels even though I still find some of them overly preachy and boring. But, hey, what genre is a hundred per cent fantastic? None of them.

Also something has happened to the problem novel since I was a teenager. They’ve gotten so much better. Books like M. Sindy Felin’s Touching Snow, Coe Booth’s Tyrell, Varian Johnson’s My Life as a Rhombus touch on abuse, teen pregnancy, drug addiction, and an assortment of other “problems” and they are brilliant, moving, funny, touching, wonderful books that I highly recommend.

I still have a knee jerk reaction against them. What can I say? I have a deep fear of preaching. But I have come around so much that I would actually argue that my latest novel, Liar, is a problem novel.

What do youse lot think of them? I’m particularly interested in stories of how problem novels have helped you or your students.


  1. Diana Peterfreund on #

    I used the term “problem novel” in a conversation the other day (I believe I was saying ‘Caroline B. Cooney is probably most famous for THE FACE ON THE MILK CARTON, which is a problem novel’) and the other person in the conversation, not in the YA industry was all, “jargon alert.”

    So I defined it as “if it were a movie, it would be an after school special” though that’s very limiting and a bit dismissive. What I mean is that the high concept of the book (and problem novels are almost exclusively high concept, though they are also so very character driven) is something that’s an “issue.” It’s about rape, or familial death, or teen pregnancy, or anorexia, or domestic abuse, or etc.

    Jodi Picoult for teens?

    These all sound so glib, when really, some of my very favorite YA can be defined as “problem novel.” SPEAK, or MY LIFE AS A RHOMBUS, or THE FACE ON THE MILK CARTON.

  2. Malinda Lo on #

    Problem novels can indeed be helpful, but one area in which I think they are becoming a bit passe is in LGBT YA fiction. I think this is a good thing, because in the past the LGBT problem novel started from the place where being gay was a problem. Now, increasingly, being gay is not at all a problem. Which means the teen characters who are coming out can deal with OTHER problems instead of homophobia. I think this is a great sign of progress.

    For example, Julie Anne Peters’ RAGE is, I think, a problem novel. But the problem is not that the teens in it are gay; the problem/issue is abusive relationships. So this is a step forward.

  3. AudryT on #

    It may be that we need a separate term for poorly-written books of this sort. THE FACE ON THE MILK CARTON could be called a “problem novel” while a book that even teens consider preachy and condescending could be call a “lecture novel.” 😉

  4. Amanda Coppedge on #

    I would like to second AudryT’s suggestion: bad problem novels should be called lecture novels!

    Well-written problem novels help teens actually going through similar problems, yes. I also think there are an awful lot of teens who read them who have good lives and whose eyes are opened by reading. Suddenly you realize that the people in your school who seem eaten up by anger, who sleep with every boy or who seem to show up hungover every day might be acting this way for a reason. The blinders of high school can sometimes make sheltered or privileged teens not understand why everybody isn’t like them. That they might start out at 0, or 25, or 50 every day but their classmates might be starting out at -75 the minute they open their eyes, for various reasons.

    I work as a teen librarian in an affluent area and I get both–teens who identify and teens whose eyes are opened, and who become more understanding and compassionate because of this. And from my own memories, I identified with problem novels for both reasons when I was a teen myself.

    However I would say that more than half of my teens prefer the escapism and fun of manga and fantasy when it comes to reading. And I firmly believe that manga and fantasy are equally as helpful and therapeutic because though the problems are otherworldly, showing strong characters making mistakes and eventually learning to deal with their problems effectively (all in a non-preachy way) is the important part. And I think fiction is good for this because it shows that the definition of “effective” changes, depending on the circumstances and the characters.

  5. susan on #

    I have a knee-jerk reaction to the term ‘problem’ or ‘issue’ novel because it is dismissive. And in my experience with girls who are struggling with issues the least of their concerns or my concern to help them is if the work is preachy or passe. Teens won’t read books that ring false. And the teen reading these books isn’t reading it to evaluate its merit, she’s reading it for identification.

    As adults are we forgetting who the audience is? The girl who is seeking out a book on rape or cutting is often a girl who has been raped or is self-abusing and she’s not ready to talk about it. My first year running our community library, I received several requests for books dealing with rape, drugs and teen pregnancy because this is what my population was dealing with.

    As a teen I was far more interested in realistic fiction than fantasy. I was not the least interested in bumble gum fiction (Valley Girls and their ilk) and I didn’t like fairy tales either. The adult me, later revisited these genres (not the bumble gum stuff) but I digress.

    Problem or issue books are like all other genre books: there are those that are well written and those that are not. For the longest time, I wrote off hip hop and rap because what little I heard, I didn’t like. My prejudice against the music meant I didn’t bother to look nor to ask those who did like it what they thought I would like. I’m glad I eventually met cool young people who steered me in the right direction. I’m still no big time fan, but I now better than to dismiss an entire genre of music.

    I think we forget how isolating and lonely teens can feel. Everything is magnified and as a teen you don’t have the benefit of experience that tells you you will get to the other side. Writers who write problem novels write them in part because they know there is some teen out there who needs it.

  6. Q on #

    I see a “problem” novel as one meant to just address a social or personal problem, a novel that wasn’t written to have excellent characters and compelling writing. Good novels that discuss problems have compelling plots and characters, and I don’t think of them as problem novels.

    In other words, problem novels are a problem. Good novels with problems in them are good.

  7. claire on #

    i agree with folks upstairs who have said that problem novels open kids’ eyes to the variety of problems and issues that other kids have to deal with. and of course they are wonderful for kids who are actually having those problems.

    there’s another effect, though. around the time i started hitting puberty, the problem du jour in afterschool specials and problem novels was sexual abuse and molestation. it was a sensational topic, and we all read the books and saw the movies out of a partly salacious/partly horrified interest.

    right around this time, i was um … well i won’t go into detail, but i got into a situation where i was in danger from a potential molester. i say “potential” because i recognized the situation from the books i had read and was able to get myself out unharmed, although not un-creeped-out.

    let me emphasize that none of these books or films were intended as self-help, or self-defense manuals, and shouldn’t be treated this way. but my parents hadn’t really warned me about this issue, so it was the books that made me aware, and it was the awareness that helped to protect me.

    some kids can’t protect themselves, and i don’t think that any kids should be scared straight or anything, i mean, prevented from doing what they do out of fear. but i do think that greater awareness of these sorts of problems helps kids to take reasonable action to protect themselves in a variety of ways.

  8. rockinlibrarian on #

    Well, I would probably define problem novels the same way. Actually, I might include all serious (ie, not funny) realistic fiction in that definition. I’m probably WRONG, but I don’t deny that these sorts of books have an audience and are good for the people who like them to have. I just don’t like them myself. I don’t enjoy them… usually.

    Because, if Diana Peterfreund says The Face on the Milk Carton is a Problem Novel… um, I LOVED that one. But I would have defined it as a mystery/suspense novel. But maybe that’s just because I’ve always loved mystery/suspense novels, so those were the elements I saw.

    Then a few weeks ago I was blogging about recent books I had read and mentioned loving Marcelo in the Real World, then a paragraph later I said I hated and had no interest in “realistic problem novels,” then I immediately had to correct myself that I KNEW Marcelo in the Real World technically is a Realistic Problem Novel, but, um, it’s a problem I’m INTERESTED in so that’s okay! (I summed up finally). Yes. Lame. So I guess I’m good at making excuses…

    But on the other hand, there are Realistic Problem Novels that it seems everybody loves and reveres, like Judy Blume’s YA books, that I don’t like at all. In the face of that, I more confidently say I don’t like Problem Novels. Because they may be good and mean something to other people, but they don’t do anything for me.

  9. lili wilkinson on #

    I think you could probably say that ALL YA, and maybe even all fiction, deal with “problems” and “issues”, regardless of whether it’s realistic or fantasy or something else. So the Problem Novel is something else. I always think of it as when a book is written in order to explore a problem/issue first, and tell a story second.

    Which, as you point out, often results in a crappy preachy novel, but sometimes results in something awesome.

    But I would say that Liar isn’t a Problem Novel. It’s a novel that does explore problems/situations/issues, but that it’s secondary to telling a cracking story.

  10. susan on #

    We don’t all have to sing praises for all kinds of books. What rubs me wrong is when we dismiss books simply because we don’t like them.

    Let me go back to the rap analogy. I was convinced it was all junk. It seemed all I heard was crap I didn’t like. I wonder if that similarly happened to readers who don’t like problem books, were they exposed only to the preachy, poorly written ones? Does Ellen Hopkins write crap?

    Speak recently celebrated 10 years. And the hoopla was huge. My daughter is required to read it for school. One of the most popular books in our library is A Boy Called It. I think the writing is average but it is the most popular book among my girls who do not consider themselves readers. And I think Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings falls under problem books. Why? Because most girls who read it don’t know it’s a true story. They think it is fiction and they identify so strongly with the author.

  11. Cristina on #

    I don’t like preachy books. But I DO like novels where the characters deal directly or indirectly with problems.

    Back in high school, I came across with what I guess can be called “Problem” novels with characters dealing with rape/drugs/self-harm/depression/drinking/abuse/etc which lead me to tell my friends about them. At points, just mentioning a situation I had read about would make a friend open up and confide with me their problem. Admittedly, I was probably not the best person to go to, but I think just having someone to talk and at some level understand kind of relived them. I’m not saying the books totally equipped me to solve anything, or that by reading them my friends miraculously were OK, but I think they did open both, the channels of communication, and our minds to the fact that we have problems and sometimes we need help.

    I must say, I’m double majoring with one degree being Psychology, and I’m especially fascinated by Abnormal Psychology. So that might count for my strong attraction to [good] problem novels. OR conversely, problem novels [since I start reading them first] might count for my attraction to Psychology. Mmm…

  12. wandering-dreamer on #

    I’m not sure that I’ve read that many problem novels to be honest. I remember really liking The Outsiders, I think I read Face on a Milk Carton (but that one didn’t strike me as a problem novel), and I absolutely loathed Catcher in the Rye. I guess what my problem with some of these books are, and this can apply to some of the realistic fiction genera as well, is that the books were so different from my life. I wasn’t falling in love, sleeping around, interested in drugs or alcohol or even going to parties and so I just couldn’t get how the characters would be so stupid in the books. I really enjoy a good fantasy book better, straightforward characters who realize when they are being dumb and set out to fix it.

  13. Pixelfish on #

    Thanks for explaining.

    I too have a knee jerk reaction to the problem novel, particularly since most of the ones I read were very rigidly moralistic. The literary equivilant of Reefer Madness, so to speak. Nice to hear that the new crop seems better.

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