Social Issues In Realistic Children’s Fiction

In Sweden, a critic has coined the notion of idyllophobia, a fear of presenting the world of childhood as idyllic. Children’s and juvenile literature becomes more and more violent, not necessarily in actual depictions of violence, but in the general attitude toward the essence of childhood. The narrative strategies which writers use, most often the autodiegetic unreliable young narrator, amplify the tone of the novels as uncertain, insecure and chaotic. In many novels, notably Cormier’s I Am The Cheese, we see a total disintegration of character, narrative and structure. YA novel as a narrative which goes beyond the point of no return to idyll also transgresses all conventions which are normally ascribed to children’s fiction.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature

Adam Farmer is on a journey – he has to get to Rutterburg with a parcel for his father. But as he travels, he starts to remember the events leading up to this point, memories which are also being prised out in gruelling psychiatric interviews. What is the secret of Adam Farmer? And what will happen when he finds out?


  • Only Connect by Sheila A. Egoff. In the second edition is a very good article about the ‘Problem Novel’, which was starting to become prevalent in YA fiction. [I’ve also heard ‘Issues Novel’ a lot.] Rather than an adventure in which the MC goes away on an adventure, the problem exists at home.
  • Robin Sheahan-Bright talks about this [exact work not given in the audio]
  • Maureen Nimon (retired 2004, University Of South Australia) looks at the idea of censorship — what are the boundaries that adult mediators (especially librarians) set for children? Where do they draw the line? (John McKenzie disagrees with Nimon’s position quite strongly.)
  • Robin Klein’s Came Back To Show You I Could Fly is about a young boy who moves into a new house. Something has disruped his family and he meets the next door neighbour who is a bit of a rebel/streetkid. She is teenaged, heavily tattooed, pregnant, heavily into drugs. The 12 year old boy learns to deal with what he has discovered.
  • Dear Miffy by John Marsden caused a huge furor and a lot of people changed their attitude towards Marsden. Marsden is very good at portraying female characters. All the voices in his other works are spoken by a teenage female — very direct, very good. And then this one is a diary by a boy. People were surprised at the drugs/sex content, but also the language, which people saw as ‘un-Marsden-like’.
  • Morris Gleitzman’s Boy Overboard and its sequel Girl Underground — issues around boat people and detention centers. Two Afghan boys are desperate to play for Australia in WC soccer. But they’re in a detention camp. As with all Gleitzman’s stories, there is a wonderful surface of humour, but underneath is a tough story.

The Child Within The Adult

  • John Marsden’s made the following point at a conference: As adults, we’re very happy to accept the notion of the ‘child within the adult’ and people are allowed to be as young as you feel. Once past the age of 18 you spend the rest of your life revisiting that part of your life. But what we’re not comfortable with is people who haven’t reached adulthood yet.
  • Now we have an age-group called ‘tweens’. (For Hallowe’en costumes that means up to five feet in height. Ten to twelve year old girls. [See ‘Sexy Hallowe’en Costumes — there has been a lot more about this over the past few years as costumes get sexualised for ever-younger girls, in particular.]
  • Obviously, the realistic must begin with the ‘real’.
  • Childhood and adolescence is a time of change. Childhood and adolescence are made up of continual change, physically, emotionally, intellectually. Adults look for stasis: a regular income, a house, a steady relationship etc. The adolescent’s life is continual change. So why write about the everyday? Because everything will be different next year. Adolescence is turbulent, so therefore the fiction ought to be turbulent.
  • What a lot of writers do is take the extreme end of that turbulence: the bad. The Bad initiates the change: sex, drugs, abuse, war, AIDS, violence — all those sorts of things.
  • The Resilience Centre has resources such as Rosy and Jack, which deals with bad touching.

A Brief History of Issues Novels

  • When did these stories start? Treasure Island, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Little House On The Prairie... In most of these stories, if they’re not just like the Anne stories — explanations of everyday life — they are stories where the hero with a relatively stable home life goes away to an adventure. This is usually a big change. Something happens from outside. As in The Little Princess, the big event affects the everyday life at home. The child protagonist becomes the hero who deals with this issue, overcomes the situation and changes it. The adventure is outside the expected norm.
  • In the late 20th century (the 1960s and 70s) this sort of story changed. Colin Thiele, Storm Boy, Blue Fin, Paul Zindel’s My Darling My Hamburger, Judy Blume’s books which depict teenagers actually having sex, Sonya Hartnett’s Sleeping Dogs about incest (1995), David Metzenthen’s Tiff and the Trout is not quite as extreme, being about divorce and the break up of a family. Instead of the normal being stable and nice, the normal is the problem. Nothing has come from outside. So instead of being the ‘hero’, the MC is now the victim. This is a big change in how a story is told.
  • The Dickens stories featuring children were about protagonists who started off with stability, were cast out, and then come back to stability. In Oliver Twist’s case, the normal is before he’s born, his mother’s situation — he eventually finds his way back to that.
  • When nasty is the normal state, ‘escape’ is much, much more difficult. Sometimes, survival is the best an MC can hope for.

IDEAS: You went back and reread children’s books from throughout history for your research. Did those books become more violent and realistic over time?

ABATE: It’s actually the opposite of that. I was also surprised by the level of specificity and by the sensational nature of what I was reading. We tend to think of today’s young adult books as being more realistic. But the earlier books were incredibly graphic and violent. Edgar Rice Burroughs’s “Tarzan of the Apes,” which was first released as a magazine serial in 1912, is a great example. There are tons of killings—people killing people, people killing animals, animals killing people. All of them are really gruesome and gory. The same thing’s true of “Alice in Wonderland” and a bunch of other classics, books that would never be challenged today. These examples are all conveniently forgotten when there’s a public outcry about a particular book for being so graphic and so violent. It’s almost a kind of literary amnesia.

Murder For Young Readers

Issues Around Issues Novels

  • Didacticism: preachy, teaching. The reader is expected to absorb a clear message. To what extent should kidlit be instructive rather than just entertaining? It’s an interesting exercise to google search for lists of banned books. This is a big issue in America. A lot of it comes from the nature of the school system in America. Here in Australia, the NSW school system is pretty much the biggest school system in the world because most countries run their systems on a local basis. When education is run by local people, those local people are very responsive to pressure groups. So if someone gets a bee in his bonnet about a particular book, it’s more likely to be opposed. Local people can kick up a fuss.
  • And Tango Makes Three is an interesting example of a banned book. At a zoo in the United States two penguins paired off. They were both male, so the keepers put an egg there because they were getting really stressed without one. They hatched the egg and brought up the baby and the baby was called Tango. (This is a true story.) But people of course raised objections to it, for ‘promoting homosexuality as normal’.
  • Are children even old enough to connect the behaviours of two male penguins with the behaviour of two male humans? Children are defined by a ‘deficit model’: They are defined by what they are not. They are not old enough. They do not have experience, they do not have the vocabulary. They are not ready to make moral decisions. They therefore need a mediating adult.
  • Is children’s literature the place for warts-and-all reality? Can’t they live in that rosy-glow we associate with childhood, running around, climbing trees? Should literature reflect what is already there, or should it lead children into the new and unknown?
  • If we accept the necessity that there is a need for some mediation — as most people would — perhaps simply because they don’t have the language to deal with particular things, or (in the Piaget model of childhood development) that they don’t have the capacity to think further than the concrete until about the age of 12 — if we accept this sort of model the books need to be mediated.
  • There are two ways of mediating. The first, protection. The reader is shielded, by limiting access to this particular great mess of the adult world. The alternative, vaccination. By giving the child small doses of awfulness we can prepare them for when they encounter horrible things in real life.

Various Attitudes Towards Issues Books

  • The protectionist view (from The Lion, The Witch and the Drug Addict from Egoff’s book): Children are helpless. They need someone else to do things for them. But they live in an adult world, which sees them not only as helpless but also as a good market (‘pester-power’) — just look at what is at the cash register in the supermarket, at child’s eye-level. Susan Smith says it is more important than ever to give them models for them to learn from. On the other hand, if children are spending so much of their life surrounded by exhausted parents working long hours, Smith wonders if it’s really necessary to give them all this for their bedtime reading as well? Can’t we just give them warmth and security at bedtime? Is this the normal we want children to accept and therefore perpetuate?
  • The vaccination idea works on the basis that the reader needs to do as much work as the author. The reader comes up with potential solutions to the problems presented by the story.
  • Realistic fiction will always be contentious because real life is contentious.
  • Nimon’s view is that we should trust the reader.
  • The real ‘you’ is kept private. We never really know what’s going on in the ‘inner life’ of another person. The ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ lives of characters are an important dichotomy. In Terabithia, the outer realities (Leslie’s death) cause the inner realities (the emotions, the responses: denial, anger, self-pity, blame, depression, and the gradual realisation and acceptance, and the choice to let someone else into Terabithia).
  • Each reader is different. As readers read, though, we follow a similar trajectory of emotions. We may look at Jessie’s turmoil and apply it to similar situations/emotions in our real life. Although reading is a vicarious experience, the feelings we have while reading are real nonetheless. By feeling these emotions and learning them, is the child therefore better equipped to deal with them when they become real in our outer realities of real life?
  • Nimon looks at how we find the balance between the inner and the outer reality. Where do we intervene? The mediator does and must, therefore when and how? There are two points at which we could intervene.
  • First, by looking at the maturity of the reader. We label: child, tween, YA, adult. When does a child become an adult? When they are able to make their own moral judgements and take responsibility for their decisions. The rules around sexual activity reflects our ideas of teenage-ness. But if we’re going to vaccinate them, they need the stories before they reach the situation IRL.
  • Second, we can mediate by defining the literature itself, by looking at it in terms of its quality. Is it good literature? Nimon talks a lot about this. Does the story simplify the topic? Does it preach and judge right/wrong rather than letting the reader do the work? Does it smack the reader in the face with a message? Does it suggest that extreme problems are simply normal?
  • After all, stories are still just stories. The genre label of realism is actually talking about the author’s approach. It’s not an instruction manual they’re writing. Fiction writers are not journalists. The stories are not documentaries.
  • Morris Gleitzman, Elizabeth Honey, Christobel Mattingley are good authors who deal with reality without making the stories too nasty.

This lecture reminded me of teaching English in a low socio-economic girls’ high school in New Zealand. The New Zealand curriculum allows teachers to choose their own novels, movies, short-stories and poems to teach to the kids in front of them, which is a wonderful freedom not afforded in countries with government approved reading lists. At the school where I was a young teacher, one of the films chosen for study, for 16 year old girls, was Once Were Warriors, based on the book by Alan Duff. This story is one of the few to star a New Zealand Maori girl, and until Whale Rider came out, it may have been the only one. Bear in mind that at this school, a larger-than-you-may-think proportion of the students had been abused in some way, often by a family member, as these things go. However, the (entirely white, middle-class English department) took ‘The Literature As Vaccination’ view — that by studying this story, the students would be better prepared for it in real life. However, when the Year 10 Dean found out about it, she was shocked. She took the Protectionist View. This was no doubt due to the fact that in her role as Dean, she had a better idea of what these girls were dealing with at home, and she predicted the film would be triggering  rather than any kind of comfort. She felt that school should offer protection from ruptured and dangerous home lives.

The film (and book) continued to be studied, because final decisions come down to the head of English. But that film, along with some of the short stories of Witi Ihimaera, deal with issues very close to home for those students and to be frank, I’m glad I don’t have to teach those any longer. In any classroom, a single story can be a ‘vaccination’ for some students while being ‘traumatic’ for others, and we never know exactly who is who. It is also very difficult as a teacher to mediate classroom discussions around such delicate issues as rape and suicide, and I noticed that certain students fell silent, while others (most always white and middle class) were the most vocal, and often ill-informed.

All of this shows how very important it is to train and retain the best of the best to work as teachers in our schools.


Dimensions of YA Literature, a paper by Hallman and Schieble argues for the coverage of relevant and sometimes difficult social issues in young adult literature.

Header image made with Midjourney AI.


On paper, things look fine. Sam Dennon recently inherited significant wealth from his uncle. As a respected architect, Sam spends his days thinking about the family needs and rich lives of his clients. But privately? Even his enduring love of amateur astronomy is on the wane. Sam has built a sustainable-architecture display home for himself but hasn’t yet moved into it, preferring to sleep in his cocoon of a campervan. Although they never announced it publicly, Sam’s wife and business partner ended their marriage years ago due to lack of intimacy, leaving Sam with the sense he is irreparably broken.

Now his beloved uncle has died. An intensifying fear manifests as health anxiety, with night terrors from a half-remembered early childhood event. To assuage the loneliness, Sam embarks on a Personal Happiness Project:

1. Get a pet dog

2. Find a friend. Just one. Not too intense.




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