Storytelling Tips From Juno (2007)

I’m no great fan of many traditional rom-coms, but I do love this off-beat romantic comedy drama blend precisely because it takes the regular, conservative storyline of: mother almost loses her baby and then reunites (to live happily ever after), and the usual movie tropes (geek = Bleeker, but he’s also an athlete, stepmother is not wicked) and inverts them at every opportunity. The dialogue of Juno is witty, in keeping with Diablo Cody’s distinctive voice, seen also in The United States of Tara and in her books.

For more stories about kind stepmothers, see this Goodreads list.

Juno

Notice the orange and white banding which make up the main colour scheme of the Juno movie poster. See this article which is an interesting insight into colour and movie posters. Rom-coms are generally white whereas the colour orange tells an audience we won’t know quite what to expect.

Since this is a comedy there is a happy ending, and a uniting rather than a separation, but the happy ending is not necessarily what we expect. This is a satisfying story.

Where does Juno fit in the taxonomy of rom-coms?

Juno Taxonomy

Unsurprisingly, Juno pretty closely follows the 22 steps of great storytelling as outlined by Truby. More surprisingly, Juno also follows the script of a 1960s ‘Preggers Novel’. For more on that, see here.

Juno’s Crisis

At the beginning of the story Juno already knows she’s pregnant. In fact, she’s already been to the convenience store and peed on several sticks, leading to comedy about ‘etch a sketches’ and how pee sticks can’t be erased. We see her walking about with a huge container of juice. We soon find out why she’s been drinking so much juice — she needs to make pee for the pregnancy tests.

Weakness & Need Of The Hero

Juno’s moral weakness is that she is sardonic — this is part of her sense of humour, but it needs to be tamed a bit, because she is going through life connecting with no one in particular. She apparently had sex with Beeker because she was ‘bored’. If she had any feelings for him she refuses to admit it. Bleeker is just the sort of boyfriend she needs to grow emotionally, because for all his vagueness, Bleeker comes from a loving family and is himself quite emotionally mature.

Juno’s psychological weakness is that she doesn’t know who she is yet. In fact, when her father tells her he thought she was the sort of girl who knows when to say when, she replies, ‘I don’t know what sort of girl I am.’

i don't really know what kind of girl i am

She’s drifting through life trying things on. She’s not quite as mature as she seems. In some ways she has an acidic wit and precocious insight. On the other hand, she can’t see what her step-mother sees about Mark Loring — that he is unreliable and flirty and that going around to his house to ‘rock out’ with him is going to cause problems and is inappropriate. In short, Juno is immature, and this is her coming-of-age story.

In order to have a better life, Juno needs to grow up (preferably without the noose of a baby to care for), find a boyfriend who fully accepts her for who she is (as her father explains in his fatherly advice) and take time to explore her passions (singing and song-writing). This being a comedy, there is a happy ending, and she indeed has achieved these things as the credits roll.

Ghosts and Backstory

Juno’s ghost is that her mother abandoned her, sending her a cactus every year as the only point of contact, and she seems to be on medication, probably for ADHD. (“I can sell you some of my Adderall.”)

Characters around Juno have ghosts: Her father doesn’t have a good track record with relationships (though he’s in an excellent relationship now, and has been for the last 10 years.) The most significant ghost plot wise is that of the Lorings — an adoption arrangement has fallen through for Vanessa in the past, which explains her nervousness, and Mark has a history of being flaky, and perhaps of getting with other young women (implied), which would explain why Vanessa is uncomfortable with Juno and Mark rocking out together in private. Sure enough, details of the ‘ghost’ are withheld from the audience. It’s not until the second half of the movie that we learn the Lorings have been let down before, and that we get a glimpse of Mark coming on to Juno.

Juno herself is no stranger to all things sexual — her best friend has been having sex and her peers have been having abortions. This film takes the usual high school girl story and inverts everything possible. Instead of this story being about the moral outrage of teenage sex (or ’sexual intercourse’ — a phrase that is repeatedly mocked by Juno and Leah), this is puts all the outrage into the background and shifts the story beyond the drama of procuring an abortion, confessing to parents, being scorned by the community.

juno confession to parents

The scorn is depicted by one interaction between Juno and the office lady, who is giving her a late pass or something. The parental outrage we expect is not there — Juno’s stepmother (another inversion — the step mother is as loving as a mother) immediately jumps into practical caregiver mode (we later see her up late sewing new waistbands on jeans). The story leads us to believe Juno is going to keep her baby when she gets back together with Bleaker and when Vanessa breaks up with Mark, but that would be too trite: Vanessa gets the baby anyhow.

Storyworld of Juno

The story world is suburban Minnesota: two different kinds of suburbs — Juno lives in a more chaotic, non-traditional household whereas the Lorings live in a new development, St. Cloud.

St. Cloud is more of a “small town grown into a large town”, with a friendly Midwestern feel but an expanding role as a commercial and educational center and commuter suburb to the northwestern reaches of Minneapolis-St Paul.

In a series of cuts we see that all of the houses around the Lorings are new, well-maintained and manicured, but we also see that everyone who lives here is basically the same. We expect (and soon have it confirmed) that Vanessa is the sort of woman who takes her life advice from What To Expect When You’re Expecting (the white middle class mother’s bible)and her main problem seems to be what shade of cheesecake to paint the baby’s room. She is pretty much the opposite of who we expect Juno will turn out to be. Juno, at this point, looks more likely to live in a converted office block decorated with industrial waste. Juno lives an hour’s drive away from St Cloud, which is just far enough to be in a separate world, but which allows her to see the Lorings. Minneapolis is a typical American mid-western town with generally conservative attitudes, though abortion is indeed possible in this part of America. It would be a different sort of story again if this were set in, say, Texas, where an abortion wouldn’t necessarily have been an option for Juno.

Juno’s world revolves around school, home and the odd outing to necessary places such as the pharmacy.

Juno looks here, in her red hoodie, a bit like a modern-day version of Little Red Riding Hood, a reference which was used in another movie -- horror -- that Ellen Page starred in.
Juno looks here, in her red hoodie, a bit like a modern-day version of Little Red Riding Hood, a reference which was used in another movie — horror — that Ellen Page starred in.

Stories set in American schools almost always have a number of locker/hall scenes. I guess that’s because where the school’s true hierarchy is seen best, with the corridor functioning like a forest. Juno is shown several times battling against the flow of students walking from the opposite direction, symbolising her alternative personality.

juno school hall

We also see Juno and Bleeker interacting as science lab partners, and this couple is contrasted against the annoyingly immature couple they share a table with. By comparison, Juno and Bleeker look like a great couple, and this is probably the point where we start to root for them working out, and is why we’re disappointed — as Juno is — when we learn that Bleeker is going to the prom with someone else.

juno physics lab

The story follows the seasons, which is a ‘feminine’ way of storytelling — stories for girls, for example, tend to be cyclical in nature.

The seasons can be seen in a graphic of the film’s colours.

Juno film colours
Juno film colours

Since this story is about a pregnancy, breaking scenes down by seasons in which they occur is a convenient way of signalling to the audience how close we are to the climax: Will Juno give the baby to the Lorings or not? And when is the baby due?

juno seasons

Some details of the setting: We see the track and field boys running in their gold and maroon uniform no matter what the season. This adds some humour, especially when we see a close up on their shorts, with Juno’s comments about their penises jumping around, accompanied by a slo-mo close up — an inversion on the usual objectification of female characters in coming-of-age movies. The athletes’ training is almost a metaphor: things keep happening. Seasons don’t stop for anyone. The baby is definitely happening, and it’s as sure as the track and field athletes keep on truckin no matter the weather.

Juno and her friend Leah are often seen together in unusual places, signalling their ‘weird’ status and general confidence. They eat lunch in the ‘prize nook’, where you’d expect them to be told off by a teacher in a different kind of high school movie.

juno huge lunch

Juno’s bedroom is introduced (like most teenagers’ bedrooms are) with a slow pan and zoom — we see she has decorated her room with some very unusual objects, and the point of comedy is that she’s calling up for an abortion on a hamburger phone, leading to the juxtaposition between pregnancy and eating, which seems to be inherently funny.

juno bedroom

The food/pregnancy is an extended gag throughout: “I don’t know, it’s not seasoned yet”, the huge big gulp type drinks she’s carrying around to emphasise how big her belly is compared to her usual stature, the ‘food baby’ response she gets when she tells Leah she’s up the duff…. She even has to shake the hamburger phone mid-call in order to get it to work — shaking is another gag. (She has also been seen shaking the pee stick — another riff on the etch-a-sketch joke made by the Rainn Wilson character who works in the pharmacy.)

hamburger phone

Juno is surrounded by props which add humour and convey her eccentricity.

juno chair pipe

Inciting Incident

This would have been a very simple story if Juno had simply called up for an abortion and got one. But Juno has a bit of a moral crisis when she is told by Su-Chin that her baby already has fingernails. This leads to subsequent problems: if she’s not going to have an abortion, what is she going to do? This is an excellent crisis because Juno thinks she has just overcome the crisis incited at the very beginning of the film. In quirky Cody style, this moral crisis is camouflaged a bit by witty dialogue:

juno moral crisis

Desire

Juno’s new desire is to find the perfect loving family for her baby. Not just a ‘loving’ family, though. She wants to find a ‘cool’ family, by her teenage definition of cool. 

She tells Leah that she basically wants parents just like her idealised version of her older self, but in the end, she will realise that a woman quite different from her original idea of cool will do just as nicely, if not better. This is a perfect example of a desire line, because the desire doesn’t change completely (that would lead to a new story), but veers off course a little after a revelation.

Allies

Juno’s father, step-mother and friend Leah are all her allies. Each of these characters at some point have a conversation with Juno in which we see Juno’s weaknesses challenged. Leah play the main confidante, in which we learn what Juno is thinking.

Opponent

Bleeker is both ally and opponent, being the love-interest in a romantic comedy. He doesn’t actively stand in her way, but he does start seeing another girl and Juno gets jealous. Rather than Bleeker being an opponent there is the issue of Bleeker’s mother, who doesn’t want to see them together because she finds Juno too alternative for her own conservative tastes. Bleeker’s mother’s desire: For her son to find a nice, conservative girl, like the one with the ‘permanent stink eye’ (who he plans to go to the dance with.)

This one line of dialogue lets us know that Juno doesn't think all that much of Carol.
This one line of dialogue lets us know that Juno doesn’t think all that much of Carol.

The community itself is an opponent. Though we don’t see the kick-back Juno gets for being pregnant, we do have a few insights: “They call me the cautionary whale.” We see the way the school office lady looks her up and down with disgust, and then there’s the argument with the woman doing the ultrasound, who stands in for every middle class person looking down on teenage mothers. (This scene also allows us to see the extent to which the step-mother is an ally.)

The audience, too, is possibly Juno’s opponent, and in this film we’re being asked to consider what a good family really looks like. The traditional idea of the nuclear family with two parents in the suburbs is challenged at various points. When Juno gives her friends the middle finger, she is really giving us the middle finger in a good-humoured fashion.

juno middle finger

Fake-Ally Opponent

Mark genuinely enjoys Juno’s company but he isn’t admitting to himself or to her that he doesn’t really want her baby, and he isn’t emotionally mature enough to even tell her, let alone his own wife, about his misgivings. Juno’s about to give birth, which functions in the plot like a ticking clock (often used in thrillers) to add a bit of tension. The plot turns at the point when Mark conveys his misgivings after their slow 80s dance: Juno then has a crisis about whether she really does want to give her baby to the Lorings. They’re not as perfect as she imagined.

Revelation and Decision

Juno lies on the hood of her car, obviously thinking about something. She drives back to St Cloud and leaves a note on Vanessa’s doorstep. She doesn’t find out what the note says until the end of the movie, when Vanessa has framed it and put it on the baby’s wall, but Juno has said that she’ll still give Vanessa the baby even if she’s a single mother. Juno has seen Vanessa at the mall interacting with a friend’s child and knows Vanessa will make a good mother no matter what.

Plan

Juno realises, after feeling her jealousy, that she really does want to be Bleeker’s girl friend so her plan is to get him back. She buys 100 boxes of his favourite orange tic-tacs and leaves them in his letterbox. Then she apologises to him on the track and tells him she really does love him.

juno declaration of love

Opponent’s Plan and Main Attack

This film doesn’t seem to have this. There is no obvious line of attack against Juno. Unless we count Mark’s plan — he’s going to break up with Vanessa. Perhaps this is the worst thing that could happen for Juno, even worse than Bleeker not accepting her back, because in this story Vanessa and Juno are linked by being ‘mothers’ to the unborn baby.

Drive

Juno’s decision to give her baby to Vanessa despite Mark’s abandonment means she has won out against Mark’s immaturity. He’s going to be alone and single and middle-aged and living in a loft.

Attack By Ally

An attack-by-ally scene is the conversation between Juno and her step-mother about Juno going around to Mark’s unannounced. Juno reveals her callous side by dissing her stepmother’s hobby of making collages out of dog pictures when she ‘doesn’t even have a dog’. 

ally confrontation juno
Junos’ massive drinks symbolise the big issues she’s dealing with. Yet the actress is tiny. The juxtaposition is therefore both thematic and humorous.

Juno attacks her back for cutting out pictures of dogs even though she doesn’t have a dog (because of Juno’s allergy). This is probably the conversation which helps Juno to understand who Mark really is, though she doesn’t realise it immediately. Only after he expresses his misgivings about taking her baby, in which case her step-mother’s advice probably was at the back of her mind.

Apparent Defeat

It seems for a while as if Juno giving her baby to a couple breaking up is not going to happen. She’s going to be stuck with this baby because she’s due to give birth very soon. Sure enough, there is only one apparent defeat. Up until now, Juno has been sure that she wants Mark and Vanessa to have her baby.

In the plotline where Juno wants to be with Bleeker (subconsciously at first) she is also defeated when she finds out Bleeker is going to the prom, and then to someone’s log house, with another girl. The argument they have tells the audience that Juno still likes Bleeker, and that Juno herself doesn’t yet realise it. We also realise how great Bleeker is when he tells her the absolute truth  about the other girl (comically using the exact words Leah did).

juno bleeker argument

Obsessive Drive, Changed Drive and Motive

Juno has the obsessive drive to find good parents for her baby. We know that Juno keeping the baby is not the best outcome. She’s very much a young, free spirit who isn’t at the point where she takes life seriously. Although Juno initially wanted a couple, she has decided that a single mother is fine, if that single mother happens to be Vanessa. Until recently Juno has connected far more with Mark (because they’re on the same maturity level) but she has garnered enough human insight now to know that the cool guy isn’t going to make as good of a parent as the anxious woman.

Steps are sometimes used as a metaphor -- here Juno sits on the bottom step near the beginning of the movie, signifying her as-yet immature status. Unlike Mark, Juno grows.
Steps are sometimes used as a metaphor — here Juno sits on the bottom step near the beginning of the movie, signifying her as-yet immature status. Unlike Mark, Juno grows.

Audience Revelation

juno born to be a mother
Earlier in the film we see Vanessa *say* she’ll make a great mother but an audience is naturally suspicious of such a perfect-looking suburban couple. What is the rot that lies underneath every single suburban story?

This is the part where the audience learns something Juno does not, but mostly in this story we’re right there alongside Juno for the ride. For example, we realise how good a mother Vanessa will make at the same time Juno does — when we see her in the mall playing with the toddler. But we do realise before Juno does that all is not well in rich-happy-married-couple land. We see Mark and Vanessa at a stalemate over the colour of the paint for the baby’s room. Mark thinks it’s ‘too early’ to be worrying about that, and we learn he hasn’t been reading the baby books Vanessa has been asking him to read.

Juno cheesecake scene

Third Revelation and Decision

This is the bit where Juno realises Mark is a fake-ally opponent: He tells her he isn’t ready to be a father and he’s thinking of breaking up with Vanessa (though doesn’t have the balls to have actually done that yet).

Visit To Death

Shown by Juno lying on her car bonnet late that night, trying to decide what to do. This is a modern story, so the visit to death is psychological. She’s in turmoil: can she bear to give her baby to a single mother?

Battle

The audience, along with Juno, is witness to the big explosive argument between Mark and Vanessa. We see how much better Vanessa would be at parenting than Mark. We may have suspected Vanessa of being a fake good person — that in fact she’ll be a terrible mother — over anxious and obsessive. But now we see that whatever her faults are, she’s a hell of a lot better than Mark. Interestingly, Juno is a lot like her main opponent — Mark. They are both not ready for a baby.

We’ve already seen that Vanessa has a lot more maturity than Juno.

juno difference in maturity levels vanessa juno

Self-revelation

Juno perhaps realises that, like Mark, she is not ready for a baby, even if she is with the father as a young couple. She realises that Vanessa will still make a great mother, that a typical nuclear family isn’t the be all and end all — that relationships end all the time, but babies come along despite this sad fact. We see her making these revelations in the comical talk with her father, in which the father thinks she’s asking about him, but she’s really thinking about Mark and Vanessa.

juno dad advice

Moral Decision

The two courses of possible action: Give her baby to Vanessa or keep it.

The audience has been expecting Juno to keep her baby, or at least find a new couple at the last minute. The traditional ‘happy ending’ is seeing babies with their natural mothers, loved and adored and brought up beautifully. The revelation is that Juno has decided to give her baby to Vanessa despite her recently broken relationship. The film withholds this information by refusing to show us what’s on the note. The thematic revelation is that babies don’t need a typical happy rich couple in order to thrive. Alternative family set ups can be just as fulfilling, as evidenced by Juno’s own family set up, in which her relationship with her stepmother is as good as any typical relationship between mother and teenaged daughter.

New Equilibrium

This is pretty hokey in any other genre, but we see Juno together with Bleeker playing the guitar outside a picturesque suburban house. Perhaps Juno has left home — her step-mother has got a dog, which Juno is allergic to. There has been a reference earlier in the movie about how the step-mother can’t have a dog until Juno leaves home because of her allergy to dog saliva. Bleeker and Juno are singing a duet, suggesting they are a very happy couple. In fact, they’re becoming the very couple Juno looked for in Vanessa and Mark.

The Problem Novel: A constructed, artificial society?

“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.

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:

  1. Are the topics appropriate for the readership of the books?
  2. 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.

 

Academic Reading

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

(See the Realism lecture from Genres in Children’s Literature.)

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?

YA Violence and Abuse Problems – a Goodreads List

Best Teen Books About Real Problems – a Goodreads List

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

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.