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.