"Life is rough, and kids should know that." Readers debate the merits of "problem novels" for teens.

By Salon Staff
October 22, 2004 11:20PM (UTC)
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[Read "The gloom and doom canon" by Whitney Joiner]

So let me get this straight: Feinberg dislikes "problem novels" because the lesson they contain is "Life Is Hard?"

News flash: Sometimes, it is.

"Bridge to Terebithia" spoke to my sister. And well it should: when she was 9, a girl in her ballet class went home one day, lay down to take a nap, and quietly died of a brain aneurysm. Six years later, a classmate of hers was fatally shot (ostensibly by accident, but we'll never know for sure) during a Super Bowl party. And we didn't live in the projects, either. We lived in a safe, quiet, suburban neighborhood where nasty surprises like that aren't supposed to happen.


Would that our lives were always as emotionally satisfying as a Harry Potter novel. Until then, bring on a range of YA novels that deal with the agony and the ecstasy.

-- Rich

I look forward to reading Feinberg's book. My 12-year-old daughter cringes when she sees a Newbery sticker. "I know how they pick those books that get the awards, Mom," she said. "They pick the most depressing ones." How are we supposed to teach our children, as we are continually exhorted to do, that reading is "fun" and an acceptable alternative to TV or video games when everything they're assigned for school is "Tobacco Road Jr."?


-- Del Sultzer

I believe young adults should have greater freedom to choose their reading material than they have historically been offered. At 16, I was forced to read the mature musings of 40-year-olds from previous centuries. Today teens are apparently forced to read YA dreck written by smug know-nothing professional authors informed by the latest psychobabble. Aren't both of these alternatives equally screwed up? Just let the kids pick from the huge pool of available reading -- letting young people come to their own literary selves has got to be more beneficial in forming the adult personality than force-feeding selected messages.

-- Steve Fletcher


Feingold's right when she says that putting way too much Young Adult lit on mandatory reading lists is like beating up your kids. Here were the highlights of my high school reading list: "Crime and Punishment," "Lord of the Flies," "Brighton Rock," "Under the Volcano," "Slaughterhouse Five," etc. It's a wonder English students didn't slit their wrists en masse, or turn into blubbering psychotics.

I don't object to some dark or violent themes, but if other high schools were like mine, reading lists are overly skewed in favor of them. It's time to let in a little sunshine and fresh air.


-- Hannah Lermontova

As a survivor of incest, I haunted my library in search of fictional and nonfictional support to augment my group, individual, art and pharmaceutical therapy. The adult section yielded helpful nonfiction, while the Y.A. section offered such a compelling fiction selection that I returned several times to make sure I hadn't missed anything. Thank God that today's young people might encounter this support concurrently with their abuse.

-- Jennifer Anne


As a mother of two, I had always loved the "problem" novels that are popular in contemporary YA literature, and assumed that my children did, as well. Imagine my surprise when my 16-year-old daughter told me that these novels were adding to her clinical depression, rather than making her feel better. She said, "There aren't enough uplifting stories, Mom. I think I deserve to read a happy book for once." When I asked my son how he felt about the novel "Holes," for example, he expressed the same feelings: he was tired of this genre of literature that always had a problem or crisis front and center. Both of them agreed that these novels are fine as augmentation to the YA cannon, but expressed the feeling that they were being cheated out of reading about all of life's experiences by only having tragedy and gloom thrust upon them in the library. So, in my personal experience, it was my children who didn't appreciate the doom and gloom cannon, whereas I loved them! Go figure.

-- Susan Paulson

What about "Black Beauty"? What about "Diary of Anne Frank"? What about "Animal Farm"? Trauma galore. "Bridge to Terabithia" is upsetting?! Barbara Feinberg's take on what is satisfying in problem novels is out of whack.


What about the amazing expansion of one's life, mind and consciousness through reading? We read to understand and make sense of ourselves, our home, the world, our parents, our friends, etc. Life is disturbing, for God's sake! Books offer possibilities, understanding, comfort and empathy.

-- Mary Kaye Scheldt

Thank you for your intelligent discussion of the "dark" YA fiction currently being published. Obviously, people have different takes on this genre and whether it, in fact, helps kids in trouble or drags them down. As a victim of sexual abuse when I was quite young, and as a writer of poetry and books for all ages, including "dark" subjects for YA (see my 2000 Scholastic book about my abuse, "Learning to Swim," a memoir), I can attest to the power of such stories. Countless times I have had young women come up to me after a presentation, and say, "Now I have the courage to tell my mom" or "Now I don't feel so alone."

Thomas Lynch, the undertaker and poet, writes in his book "Bodies In Motion and At Rest," "seeing is believing; knowing is better than not knowing; to name the hurt returns a kind of comfort. The grief ignored will never go away."


Why isn't there room for all sorts of novels for young people? Why must it be either/or? And why are adults amazed and shocked to find that many teenagers are confronting problems and darkness of which adults have only dreamed? We honor our young when we speak the truth; it is our job to stand as witnesses with them and let them know they are not alone.

-- Ann Turner

The problem isn't that these YA books deal with tragedy (good literature often does), it's that there is little else besides tragedy in the books that are inflicted on younger students. They present a skewed and nightmarish depiction of the world outside the classroom.

Life is rough, and kids should know that. But how about some balance? Ancient drama fans were also treated to comedies and satire plays. Our students deserve some levity too.


-- Mike Baugh

As an adolescent in the late '80s, I remember reading many Young Adult novels of the "Problem" genre referenced by Ms. Feinberg. They were immensely popular among my (largely female) classmates. Now, almost 20 years later, I have a hard time remembering titles, and an even harder time remembering plot points. What I do remember is the voyeuristic quality of reading about death, suicide, abuse, neglec, and desolation wrought explicitly upon adolescent protagonists. Reading it sort of felt like reading pornography: I hungrily turned pages, waiting for the next horrendous devastation. Would the protagonist survive the car accident after being beaten by her psychotic stepfather? Would she have to panhandle to buy her costume for dance team auditions? And what of the drug pusher she was secretly dating on the side? Would he impregnate her before the end of the eighth grade?

It's no secret that most Young Adult literature bears a marked resemblance to soap opera. Sometimes it's the fluffy, sun-tanned soap opera of "Sweet Valley High" and all its descendents; sometimes it's the darker variety, equal parts melodrama and pulp, to satisfy the most graphic middle-school imaginations.

Feinberg is incorrect in assuming 12-year olds don't want to read about horrible things. Most 12-year olds encounter horrible things every day by nature of their age. Even if you have the great fortune of coming from a reasonably functional family, you still have to deal with the unfortunate social hierarchy of middle school, the uncomfortable limbo of being not quite a child and not quite a teenager, and the always ill-timed disaster that is puberty. The exaggerated (and occasionally pulp-y) horrors of Problem Lit merely deflect the more banal misery of being 12 years old, and by so doing, serve essentially the same function as the after-school special. It's not so much cautionary as it is validating. You find yourself thinking: "Well, it may suck that I'm a school pariah because I'm chubby and weird, but at least I'm not a drug-addled child prostitute dying of incurable brain cancer."


For many of us, Problem Lit wasn't realism (realism would have looked a lot more like "Welcome to the Dollhouse," which would have been even more excruciating to watch in middle school); it was an escape, a dirty little secret to be treasured on the way to guilty pleasures of a more grown-up variety.

-- Alison Fields

A lot of ALA -- and teacher -- recommended YA literature is bleak and hopeless. Read some of it sometime and see for yourself. The truth is that while a lot of experts talk about how valuable it is, a lot of kids don't like to read it. It is written by adults remembering their pain-filled adolescent years. This is not necessarily what kids want to read about while they are living through these years. They may indeed want to write about these years as they get older (see also the pervasive memoir genre) but kids and teens -- like most adults -- want something escapist, hopeful, and/or possessing some humor. And what is wrong with that?

I agree that the reading of many of these books is the equivalent of swallowing cod liver oil. Children and teen book awards are chosen by adult readers, remember, and they are as opinionated in their contemporary mindset about what's "good for children" -- in this case, painful, realistic stories -- as was the beadle and his minions in "Oliver Twist."

-- Stephanie Brown

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