“The Problem Novel” is a dismissive term for a realistic young adult story which focuses solely on the worst aspects of life: murder, eating disorder, discrimination, imprisonment, rape, drug abuse and similar.
The following draws heavily from Lecture 03 of Fiction For Young Adults, delivered by Prof David Beagley at La Trobe University. Lectures are available on iTunes U.
I had a teacher I liked who used to say good fiction’s job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.David Foster Wallace
A Brief History Of The Problem Novel
Little Women is sometimes regarded as the first teen novel. A group of girls try to live their lives as normal. But it’s the middle of the American civil war. Their father is away and they are desperate for his return.
In this vain we have light mysteries such as those by Enid Blyton, The Three Investigators, Nancy Drew and so on. Those stories are cosy. The children return to their normal lives after they have neatly solved the mystery at hand.
The problem novel developed after this. Instead of living a normal, everyday life, the unusual, the danger, the disruption IS the normal situation. Ironically (given that these are called ‘problem novels’, rather than solving the problem of poverty or whatever the dramatic element is, the characters must simply learn to cope with their situation and survive through it. The protagonist is the victim. In other stories for children, the protagonist tends to help the victim.
The mid 1960s marked a guide change in the world as well as in children’s literature. The 1970s and 1980s gave rise to problem novels, in which the world flowed in to fiction. These are about death, loss and trauma, which test a child’s ability to cope. They focus on rites of passage.
The (Modern) Problem Novel can probably be traced to something like My Darling, My Hamburger by Paul Zindel in 1969, which is about teenage pregnancy. (The title comes from the health counsellor who tells the girls that to derail a boy from sex is to encourage him to eat a hamburger instead.) The subgenre of problem novels about pregnancy are called ‘Preggers Novels’. We also have A Girl Like Me by Jeannette Eyerly, published 1966, or Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones by AnnHead, published 1967. The formula for a preggers novel:
- Worry. Am I pregnant? Oh no, I might be pregnant!
- Discovery. Oh my god. I’m actually pregnant.
- Revelation. Young woman tells her boyfriend/parents.
- What do I do now? There are three alternatives: abortion, keep the baby, adoption.
The authors of these 1960s preggers novels approved the last option. It’s interesting, therefore, that a liberal minded writer like Diablo Cody followed the 1960s preggers novel script when she wrote Juno, which screened in 2007. That said, Juno is far more progressive in its attitudes. That’s because the Preggers Novel continued to evolve throughout the 1990s. The books themselves were better written and eventually we even started to see some preggers novels written from the point of view of the young fathers, e.g. The First Part Last by Angela Johnson, 2003.
The 1976 book Open The Doors was the first novel about sex which was not aimed at an adult audience. This book was difficult to get hold of (either because librarians didn’t want it on the shelves or because it was always on loan).
I Came Back To Show You I Could Fly (1990) deals with another unmarried teenage pregnancy but in this case the girl is a drug addict as well.
At the moment in YA fiction some storylines are reminiscent of the Problem Novel, but without quite the same intensity. There are currently many books which deal with:
- sexual abuse
- physical abuse
- school gun massacres, prompted by the Columbine High School shooting
- alienation in general
- overturning bullies
Sleeping Dogs by Sonja Harnett, Tiff and the Trout… in all of these books the key character is the victim.
This is what Sheila Egoff was referring to in 1980 when she wrote her article The Problem Novel.
Criticism Of The Problem Novel
Egoff is not a fan of this style of story. In her essay she has a go at the very formulaic way these novels have become a construction industry, in a way. She identified several key elements in this type of YA book. She argues that:
- These stories are not well written, pumped out because they are sensational.
- Most feature a shocking ‘rite of passage’ which changes the character from a carefree child to a careworn adult. There is some specific thing which causes a change.
- Therefore, these books focus on externals, and how things look to others – oh dear, I’ve been thrown out of society. S.E. Hinton’s book The Outsiders: ‘’Oh dear, there’s been a stabbing! I must run away!”
- The protagonist is laden with grievances and anxieties, focusing on the alienation from the adult world, to which he or she is usually very hostile. The narrative is almost always in the first person, and its confessional tone is rigorously self-centred.
- This focuses on a childlike concern about ‘me’. These are all very egocentric books.
- The biggest problem in all of these novels are adults, who rarely if ever offer a loving, constructive solution.
- These books have to almost outdo each other by becoming more and more sensational.
- Writing style: Trite, stereotypical, patronising, presuming the readership cannot understand the real problems, wanting only the sensational aspects of the real problem.
To be clear, Egoff does not have a problem with such problems being dealt with. There are two quite separate issues we need to consider when evaluating a YA novel with grim subject matter:
- Are the topics appropriate for the readership of the books?
- Are the books actually well-written?
Other authors and critics have weighed in on The Problem Novel. Below are some quotes:
There is a plethora of very fine children’s books that mainly portray the writers’ disappointments, phobias and depressions, tales of punishment, injustice and loneliness. But one thing he always owes his readers is a happy ending, some kind of happy ending. Or a way left open for the child to spin the tale further.
– Tove Jansson
I remember thinking how refreshing it would be to read a book about young people who enjoyed life, did well at school, had happy relations with their parents, and neither became nor made anybody pregnant. But fictionally, I suppose, that would be a dull life.
– John Rowe Townsend
I agree that children need to be — and usually want very much to be — taught right from wrong. But I believe that realistic fiction for children is one of the very hardest media in which to do it … You get ‘problem books’. The problem of drugs, of divorce, of race prejudice … and so on — as if evil were a problem, something that can be solved, that has an answer, like a problem in fifth grad arithmetic. If you want the answer, you just look at the back of the book. That is escapism, that posing evil as a ‘problem’…
But what, then, is the naturalistic writer for children to do? Can he present the child with evil as an insoluble problem … To give the child a picture of … gas chambers … or famines or the cruelties of a psychotic patient, and say, ‘Well, baby, this is how it is, what are you going to make of it’ — that is surely unethical. If you suggest that there is a ‘solution’ to these monstrous facts, you are lying to the child. If you insist that there isn’t, you are overwhelming him with a load he’s not strong enough yet to carry.Ursula Le Guin
Pretending that there are no choices to be made — reading only books, for example, which are cheery and safe and nice — is a prescription for disaster for the young. Submitting to censorship is to enter [a] a seductive world … where there are no bad words and no bad deeds. But it is also the world where choice has been taken away and reality distorted. And that is the most dangerous world of all.Lois Lowry, when The Giver caused controversy
Although there is still much hand-writing about Problem Novels, the trend is largely over. You know what put an end to it? They got more and more sensational until Daniel Pinkwater couldn’t resist writing a parody called Young Adult Novel in 1982. In fact, the era of The Problem Novel only lasted about a decade, mostly in the 1970s. The main body of YA literature continued to grow during and after this time in scope, material and diversity of topic.
Examples Of Problem Novels
Martin Waddell (Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear?) also wrote The Beat Of The Drum, set in Belfast at the height of the troubles. The protagonist is faced with the problem of whether he should become the leader of the annual parade after someone is injured. Will I, or won’t I? Will I take sides in blame? Will I just leave? This is quite a confronting book, first written under the name of Katherine Sefton. There is some suggestion that he needed to do that because he’s a Northern Irishman himself, and might have been seen to be taking sides.
Once, Then and Now – three stories following a boy Felix through the second world war and the Holocaust.
Looking for X by Deborah Ellis is largely set in a single night where a girl is desperately trying to find an old homeless woman who can help her family, because her younger siblings are autistic. The family is trying to stay together.
Pervana is set in Afghanistan. Pervana is the name of a girl, whose father goes missing. This means her mother can’t leave the house, so Pervana has to dress as a boy. There are two sequels.
The Heaven Shop by Deborah Ellis
Tiff and the Trout is an interesting study of family dynamics dealing with divorce. Tiff has to decide between her mother and her father. The father is a quiet teacher, the mother is an active social figure who wants The Gold Coast. Dad wants the mountains. Set in a small town a bit like Mount Beauty of Victoria. The mountains and the sea symbolise the two extremes in the family.
Helicopter Man by Elizabeth Fenchem won the younger reader’s book of the year award, unusual because it deals with an adult theme of schizophrenia.
Dear Miffy some years ago shocked John Marsden’s readership when it first came out. This time, unlike previous ones, it’s not a teenage girl dealing with problems but a boy, and has sex, drugs, strong language.
You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented… but then you read. It was Doestoevsky and Dickens who taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people…who ever had been alive.James Baldwin, 1963.
Sheila Egoff’s set of books called Only Connect which she edited over several decades. Rather than just being an updating of the previous editions each one is really a completely new text (which should probably have different names). See The Problem Novel. This is quite hard to get now.
Pam Harvey, Australian Journal of Teacher Education 2010, Bibliotherapy used by welfare teams in secondary colleges is a very different way of looking at the role these problem novels play for the readers. Who constructs the meaning? The author, fixed in the text, or is it totally the interpretation of the reader?
Hawks looks at Sonja Hartnett’s The Midnight Zoo, looking at the environment and the writing style.
Maureen Nighman from South Australia looks at the selection of texts by adult mediators (parents, teachers, librarians, booksellers) from ACCESS Realism in young people’s reading: the line between selection and censorship. At what point can kids choose for themselves?
Pattee, A. S. (2004). Disturbing the peace: The function of young adult literature and the case of Catherine Atkins’ When Jeff comes home . Children’s Literature in Education, 35 , 241–255. Pattee looks at a novel which came out about 1999 called When Jeff Comes Home by Catherine Atkins, a very confronting story. Pattee highlights the criteria by which so many of these adult mediators make these choices, about what is or is not appropriate for child readers.
What’s Going On inside of Me? Emergent Female Sexuality and Identity Formation in Young Adult Literature by Evelyn Baldwin talks about sexual assault.
Realism Is Requisite
The characters in a so-called Problem Novel are people you could meet in real life, set in a place you might visit (even if the place isn’t actually real). There are no magic or supernatural elements. These settings will quite often directly influence the plot. The plot is often driven by the situation of those characters – how the character approaches, faces and makes choices. The key characters develop as a result of those choices.
Even stories set in other worlds, of fantasy, must begin with the probable, then later moves into something disrupting that. Even a movie like Shrek starts with the mundane, everyday world before moving into fantasy/adventure.
What is the point of The Problem Novel?
Sheila Egoff would argue that most Problem Novels are simply trying to achieve sensationalism as a marketing tool.
Patty’s article about When Jeff Comes Home (Disturbing the peace…) makes a similar argument to that of Egoff. It’s not only a stereotype of the story but of the YA as well. A template defines the reader as this standard teenager.
When Jeff Comes Home is told in the first person (surprise, surprise!) about a 16-year-old boy who has been held prisoner after being kidnapped at a bus station by a sexual sadist, kept as a sex toy for three years. This is not an uncommon story – there have been several cases of it, particularly in Europe over the past few years. The American Library Association immediately put it on a best book list, which raised a lot of hackles.
Harvey argues that these stories give young readers coming from an unfamiliar environment strategies to understand and deal with all these nasty things.
Patti quotes Michael Cart – The Problem Novel is an exercise in iconoclasm, taboo busting, shibboleth shattering. (Iconoclasm refers to the tackling of the boundaries. A shibboleth is a password at the boundary.) The problem is, in order to be realist, there is the implication that these taboo topics are normal – that it is normal to be kidnapped, to become pregnant while very young, to be abused.
Does Problem Literature create the stereotype, or does it reflect the reality? As each book pushes a boundary, the next ones have to go further. Where are the boundaries and how do we define them?
Bibliotherapy is used by welfare teams in secondary colleges in Australia. ‘We read to know that we are not alone’ is from C.S. Lewis. The aim of bibliotherapy is to elicit change in the attitude or behaviour of the reader. The prescribed book is deliberately aiming to change the reader in a cognitive way, to the reader’s benefit. There are no bones made about its intention. The aim is for the reader to have a physical/emotional reaction to something fictional. When it becomes too confronting simply shut the book, returning to it when you’re ready. Literature is thought to serve a purpose – it implies that there is somebody who knows better than you do and that they have the right and the tools to make that change that needs to be made. So what is the difference between bibliotherapy and propaganda?
This is a contentious issue, because it rests upon a premise that this time of life is a particularly dangerous and destructive period.