Diversity Roll Call: The Problem Novel

The current Diversity Roll Call addresses the problem novel as inspired by a Justine Larbalestier post.  More specifically:

Did you read these kinds of works when you were an adolescent? Did you think they were silly or did you gain something from them? Do you enjoy them as an adult? Do you recommend them to students or other teens you’re in contact with? Which titles and to whom would you recommend them? What issues or circumstances would like to see address in YA? What are your recommended best reads and which would you honestly say are poor examples in this genre?

First things first.  I think it’s important to define what a problem novel is to me.  Someone in the comments section over at Color Online said they would call it realistic fiction, but I honestly kind of like the Wikipedia definition of an adolescent’s first confrontation with a social or personal ill.  Which, yes, realistic fiction.  But I would take it a little further.  Since most realistic fiction deals with problems, I’m thinking more specifically of novels I would describe by the social or personal ill first as opposed to, say, the quest the character is on.  Like Monster is about a boy in jail or Out of the Dust is about a girl surviving the Dust Bowl. Because most books require characters to have personal ills on whatever level for the sake of conflict, a problem novel would be more about a social ill than anything.  Meaning that when I think about the novel, I think about it first in terms of that social ill and recognize the ill as a social problem.  (I’m trying to think of realistic fiction, I don’t define as a problem novel, and so far I have True Confessions of a Hollywood Starlet [her sobriety is a big part of the novel, but I first think of it as her leaving her old life behind for a small town], Story of a Girl [double standards, family issues, teen pregnancy, but I first think of it as about a girl who did something and now is trying to figure out what that means for her–maybe the title has something to do with that], and A Northern Light [which, I know, murdered pregnant woman, but I think of it more as about Maddie trying to decide if she should go away to school or not].)

At Color Online, Susan says:

The problem novel isn’t designed to fix life’s ills, but it can help a young person realize they are not alone and possibly find the courage to seek help or gain understanding. The problem novel is sometimes the first time a young person finds identification.

I would go a step further and say that it’s also to help teens gain understanding of people who are not like them that may have stories they don’t understand.  So if you know someone in jail or who has been raped or has an abusive parent, these kinds of books would benefit you.  And if you don’t personally know anyone facing these issues, you’ve probably heard about them on the news or whatever, so the books can personalize the story.

As a teen/adolescent, I read pretty voraciously, but I often don’t remember the books I read back then.  The only novels I remember that dealt with problems, honestly, are the SVH Very Special Topic books:  the one where Regina o.d.’s, the one where Robin is  anorexic, when Ken goes blind, etc.

jacob-have-i-lovedThose, and Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson, which is one of my favorite books ever of all time.  I would count it as a problem novel because it’s all about how Wheeze feels slighted by her family, and Catherine is the preferred sister:  she’s prettier and more talented, and more importantly, she almost died at birth.  I haven’t read the book in years, but Louise’s pain is just as palpable to me now as it was then.  Also, I never forgot the ending where Louise makes sure both twins she helps deliver receive equal attention so those babies won’t go through life the way she and her sister did.  OH MY HEART.

monsterIt’s only now as an adult that I can identify that most of the books I read now are problem novels–or realistic fiction.  And for me, the gold standard of problem novels is Monster by Walter Dean Myers.  Not only is it about a boy in the system, it’s also about the problems with the system. It also addresses all of the issues in a non-didactic way.  Everything is just put on the page for you to decide what to do with it.  (I wrote a whole paper on the book, so I’m trying to be concise.  Basically, the heteroglossia of the novel lends itself to the reader making up his/her own mind about the issues in the book.)  I also love that, in any of the classes I’ve taught on the book, there is never any agreement about whether Steve is innocent or guilty, but everybody can agree that the system is messed up.

In fact, I’d classify most of WDM’s books as problem novels:  Shooter (school shootings), The Beast (heroin), etc.  His most didactic book is the one on recidivism (A Handbook for Boys), and while I like it, I can imagine it’d be pretty annoying to a teen (as evidenced by the reaction of my students when I taught it).  The topic is still well handled, but, yeah, didactic.

Anyway, there are lots and lots of books I’ve read and like that fit this topic, but I’m going to narrow it down to five other books I’d recommend that all deal with different societal ills.
queen make_lemonade_new2 living-dead-girl inexcusable hopewashere

The Queen of Everything by Deb Caletti is about a girl whose dad kills his girlfriend’s husband.

Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff is about a girl who babysits for a teen mom in their impoverished neighborhood.

Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott is about a girl who is held captive by a pedophile.

Inexcusable by Chris Lynch is about a boy who rapes a girl.

Hope Was Here by Joan Bauer is about a teen who joins a campaign to fight political corruption in her town.

I’ll be honest.  I don’t exactly like Living Dead Girl or Inexcusable but I think they’re doing something different and are worth a read.  LDG is extremely disturbing (so very disturbing, so very VERY disturbing), but I seriously could not stop reading it once I started.  Inexcusable is not even a very good book, and it left me with a feeling of incompleteness at the end (needed more something), but it’d make a good companion to Speak.  As for the other books, I’ve taught them, and my students have liked them.  Hope Was Here is probably the least depressing of the books just because it’s so gosh darned upbeat and uplifting even when it’s dealing with heavy issues, which is why I’ve included it on the list.

whaletalkI also feel that any list of books about problem novels without a mention of Chris Crutcher, and specifically, Whale Talk is incomplete.  All of his books are, on some level, about abuse and its effects.

And then there are all of the other books that I’m not going to spotlight, but that I think fit this category.  So, a list:

  • The First Part Last by Angela Johnson (teen pregnancy/parenthood)
  • Shattering Glass by Gail Giles (bullying)
  • The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler (fat acceptance)
  • Looking for Alaska by John Green(death–although, as my students pointed out in one class, it is rare not to have death in YA lit)
  • Big Mouth & Ugly Girl by Joyce Carol Oates (media hysteria)
  • Just Listen by Sarah Dessen (rape)
  • Dreamland by Sarah Dessen (partner violence)
  • Don’t You Dare Read This, Mrs. Dumphrey by Margaret Peterson Haddix (neglect)
  • North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley (disfigurement/emotional abuse)
  • Don’t Think Twice by Ruth Pennebaker (teen pregnancy)

Nostalgia: Girl Friends #1: Draw the Line

“You know, if you had told me two weeks ago that I’d be involved in a rally and have a whole new group of girl friends, I never would have believed it…I don’t know whether it’s the rally that’s making me feel so good, or the girls…It’s…I don’t know how to explain it.”


“Yeah, but that’s not really strong enough,” Stephanie said. “It’s just…the best.”

Last month I said I was rereading the first book in one of my favorite series, Girl Friends, and I finally finished. This is a book I’ve read lots and lots of times, and what I find most interesting is that, of course, as I reread, I notice different things that I hadn’t before.


When I first read the series back in 1993, I related most readily to Natalie and Cassandra, since they’re black cousins.  Natalie is a lot like girls I knew in school and her situation with a deadbeat dad and knowing pregnant teens is something I could easily grab on to.  Cassandra is a ballet dancer, and since I took dance, though not as intensely,  I totally got that part of her.

I also related a lot to Janis who has a big mouth.  There’s a part in one of the later books (book 3 maybe?) where Cassandra laments that Natalie and Janis have found each other since they’re the two biggest antagonists she knows.  It’s a small detail that I’ve always loved because, yes, Janis and Natalie would have been my friends.  And me and my friends were totally obnoxious and loud in high school.

I had a huge crush on a guy who got high all the time, so I got Stephanie and her relationship with Phillip (although, my pothead was not in love with me, sadly).  I was also writing an epic novel/series of my own, so I loved that Stephanie always referred to Frances, the heroine of all her stories.  Stephanie frequently rewrites scenes she’s living in her head or on paper, and that still is awesome.

I never much related to Maria. I mean, yes, I was on the pom squad in high school, but she’s pretty and popular and her family has money. However, on reread, I find her story the most fascinating. I remember most of the details of her story, of course:  she bucks the popular crowd to hang out with the girl friend; her brother is the front man of a local band; her boyfriend assaults her and then brands her a slut.

What Grey does with Maria that I didn’t catch back then or even five or six years ago is pretty thoroughly deconstructs societal pressures on girls.  Maria stays with her boyfriend that she hates because she is terrified of what will happen in her circle of cheerleading friends if she chooses to break up with him.

This is how she describes Leif:

He was in her way, like a thick, brick wall, preventing her from escaping, making her feel trapped and anxious and she wouldn’t be sorry if she never saw him again.

This comes on page 52, which is pretty early in the book, and is the beginning of an exchange when she realizes she should break up with him because she doesn’t really like him, but it’s nice to have someone to date who is in her circle.  Right as she’s about to tell him she doesn’t want to date him anymore, this happens:

“Leif,” she began, then stopped as an image of Vanessa rose in her mind.  ‘You what?’ the image shrieked, clutching its chest in horror. ‘You broke up with your only squeeze less than a month before Homecoming because he tried for serious sugar? What’re you, nuts?’

Maria then “surrenders to the familiar logic” and instead of breaking up with Leif, politely says good-bye.  And the thing is Maria HATES Leif.  He completely disgusts her.  When they go on dates, she dresses in what is essentially armor because he has grabby hands, and if he can’t get his hands inside her clothes, she ends her dates with a sense of triumph because she’s bested him.  It is pretty thoroughly disgusting, but Maria is all about appearances.  And not only appearances but maintaining the status quo, keeping things on an even keel. She would rather go out with Leif who is disgusting and who makes her feel anxious than risk not having a date for the dance or having to explain herself to her cheerleading friends.  It’s just easier for her, socially, to go along with it all than to dump him.  Because if she breaks up with him, she’ll be bucking expectation, and worse, she’ll have to explain.  Which she says!

Leif would be showing up anytime now and she hated the thought of dealing with him in front of everybody.  Driving home with him after the game on Friday had been a bad move but everyone had expected it, so what was she supposed to do? They were, in a way, a couple and blowing him off now, for no good reason, would be social suicide.

Everyone had expected it!  She knew it was a bad move, but she knew what was expected of her, so she did it.  Way better to deal with Leif and how gross he makes her feel than to commit social suicide.

Then there are Maria’s parents and brother.

Her parents had always taken great pains to protect her.  They had rules regarding what was acceptable and if her rules were stricter than Jesse’s had been, it was, her parents explained, because more harm could befall a girl.  Having fun was one thing, but once a girl got herself in trouble, it would follow her forever.

Jesse, by the way, is a huge slut.  And that’s what the books call him with no qualifiers (i.e, he is not a “male” slut, just a good old slut) who sleeps with groupies who he describes as a “nameless, faceless way to work off energy.”  He also tells his sister not to be like the girls he has sex with.  And Maria knows and understands it’s a double standard, but she can’t help living it.  Her reputation IS everything to her.  And not just sexually, because she knows the boys lie and say they have gotten something from her, but socially.

So Maria plays by the rules.  She doesn’t break up with Leif. She tries to maintain appearances.  And in the second book, Leif assaults her.

SHE DOES EVERYTHING RIGHT.  She tries to please everybody.  And it fails.  And what I think is brilliant is that Grey clearly shows WHY a girl would stay in a relationship with someone who makes her anxious and suffocates her and who she hates kissing and doesn’t want to touch.  I mean, no, Janis or Natalie wouldn’t do that, and even Stephanie has Phillip who loves her, but Maria wants to fit in and wants to belong and wants to not rock the boat.  And she knows she should like Leif, on paper at least, and she doesn’t really have anybody else right now, and isn’t it better to have someone to go to the dance with than not?  ISN’T IT?

And if Maria is doing all of this with a boy she doesn’t even like, what about the girls who love their abusive boyfriends?  (And let’s be clear here: even if Maria doesn’t think of his relentless pawing of her as assault, there is clearly something about him that threatens her and makes her feel panicked and anxious around him–basically fear.)  Taking out the question of love, erasing whether or not she likes him, makes it even clearer how sometimes there are these unspoken expectations for girls.  It’s better to have a boyfriend than not.  It’s better to have a date than not. It’s different for boys.  Boys want it, girls don’t. Etc.  Of COURSE Maria would put up with Leif then.  Of course.

Anyway, that makesgirlfriends1-back the books sound super heavy, and they do deal with some pretty serious topics (like racism, school shootings, HIV/AIDS, homelessness, death, bulimia, drugs), but oh my word, they are delicious to read.  Here it is sixteen years later, and I’m just now getting how freaking brilliantly a lot of these topics are handled.

Another thing I like is that these girls are isolated or loners and it makes perfect sense, but they all have someone to talk to so that they’re not friendless.  Janis is all about her causes, but she has her friend Simon.  Cassandra is all about dancing, so doesn’t really interact with anyone at school…except Natalie.  Natalie is new to the school, but she has befriended Gus.  Stephanie works to take care of her family and maintain straight A’s so she can get a scholarship, but she has Phillip.  And Maria, while a cheerleader, doesn’t really feel comfortable with them or count them as her actual friends.

So, yes, they have these relationships, but none of that compares to the five of them coming together.  Empowerment through female friendships.  I’d be lying if I said that this series hasn’t inspired my dissertation topic focusing on female friendship.  If I didn’t love these books with all of my heart, I doubt very seriously that I would even think about or consider friendships between girls as much as I do.

I am so sad they are out of print.  Because I want to make other people read them.

Book Review: Every Soul a Star

soulEvery Soul a Star by Wendy Mass is book about three kids (I’m sensing a trend in my reading here) whose lives change forever when they go to the Moon Shadow Camp Ground to witness a solar eclipse.  Ally (12), Bree (13), and Jack (13) are vastly different and their lives intertwine in an interesting way.

Some people might think my parents are crazy for doing what they did–up and leaving their jobs to build a campground in the Middle of Nowhere, USA. But they had a plan. They knew that a decade later, hundreds, maybe thousands of people would travel to this exact spot to be a part of something that hasn’t happened in mainland America for over seventy-five years and won’t happen again for a hundred more. And this flock, this throng of people, would need a comfortable, safe place to stay, wouldn’t they?

What I Liked

– Great premise. A book about an eclipse is a pretty fantastic idea and a great way to get some scientific facts in without it being all heavy-handed and science-y. Let’s be honest. I totally want to go to a planetarium now and see Saturn.  It’s unusual and different, and that automatically made me want to finish the whole book.

– Great characters. Ally is completely herself, having grown up in the middle of nowhere. There’s nothing affected about her; she doesn’t know nor care about being “cool.” She takes a bath in a hot spring! (Okay, I am maybe a little jealous of that.) Then there’s Bree who is a social climbing mean girl on the rise who is absolutely appalled by being out in dirt. Jack is a loner and outcast at school, who’d rather sit alone in his treehouse than be around people. Then there are Bree and Ally’s siblings, Kenny and Melanie, who are both little geniuses, and Ryan, the cute boy who comes to the campground every summer. And all of them are just weird enough (Ally has imaginary friends on planets, Jack flies in his dreams, Bree is completely shallow and proud of it, Kenny loves bugs, Melanie loves to cartwheel, Ryan is working out so he can join the football team.) Throw those kids together and there are some great interactions. Very nice.

– The setting. Did I mention the hot spring? Also, there are Unusuals on the campground like a labyrinth and gold panning, and I totally want to visit there now. Even if it is a made up place.

What I Didn’t Like

Honestly, the only thing I didn’t like about the book is that the turnarounds of Bree and Ally weren’t quite fleshed out enough for me. Jack was great because we got to see the other characters notice the change in him, and his interactions with other people. With Bree, she all of a sudden has an inner geek, and I feel like I should know more about that.  Yes, she’s obsessed with modeling in the beginning, but how/what is her inner geek? Is it science? Math? Just the fact that she’s interested in something other than herself? That just needed more. Same with Ally.

I think the book is long enough; I just felt like more could’ve been done with those two characters.

In conclusion: It’s alright. I breezed through the book pretty easily, and it was definitely interesting. The fun facts about the stars and galaxies and how to find them fit effortlessly in the narrative. I wouldn’t strongly recommend it, but I wouldn’t say stay away from it either.

Book Review: Girl Stays in the Picture

GirlGirl Stays in the Picture by Melissa de la Cruz is about three girls with varying degrees of fame or access to fame and their adventures in Saint Tropez one summer. Devon’s a television, movie, and pop star; Livia is the formerly overweight daughter of a mega producer; and Casey is personal assistant to Devon’s co-star Summer Garland.

Devon wasn’t used to having a posse of girls she could count on for fun and support. She wasn’t used to having anyone she could count on. How funny that the three of them had become so close; they were so different and came from such different worlds, it was improbable that they ended up being friends.

What I Liked

– I love, love, love the cover of the book. I think it really captures the whole jet set, rich, fancy pants lifestyle the characters are involved in. Devon (for, lo, that is who is represented on the cover) looks like a true movie star, and I totally want to know more about her and her life. She looks exactly like someone who plays to the cameras and is confident and OWNS that. So, yeah, fantastic cover.

– The format. Before each chapter are gossip articles about the girls (mainly Devon), and it’s interesting to see what the rags/websites are reporting versus what actually happens to the characters. I think it’s a great way to introduce that things aren’t always what they appear or seem to be even if you have pictorial evidence. It’s also a good way to introduce the characters (mainly Devon) as both product and persona versus an actual person.

– The characters. I like that the three girls are very different and therefore have different Saint Tropez experiences. As an assistant, what Casey sees is very different from what Devon the actress sees or Livia the producer’s daughter sees. For example, when Casey goes shopping, it’s not for herself, but for Summer. When Devon goes shopping, it’s to pick up a custom dress. And when Livia goes shopping, she can fit the clothes because she has lost so much weight but she can’t feel comfortable in some of them because she still sees pre-surgery Livia in the mirror. So that’s kind of cool. They also all have different homes and home lives. Devon is a recovering alcoholic/party girl living with her formerly famous hanger on mom and her mom’s skeezy boyfriend, Livia lives with her parents and older sister, and Casey is staying with Summer and Summer’s mom.

– The issues introduced. Again, Devon is fresh out of rehab, Livia is post-surgery, Casey is…Casey. I dunno, not a lot going on there with her. But there’s other stuff like that Devon’s mom can be exceptionally cruel, Livia’s family seems to be disappointed that she can’t/won’t eat the food she used to eat, Casey has to deal with the fact that Summer has changed a lot since they knew each other in school. Then there are the boys, of course.  Devon’s ex is also in the business and super competitive. Livia’s boyfriend is hot and shallow, and she is getting closer to her French friend, Bruno. Casey keeps running into Summer’s co-star that Summer is dating. So that stuff isn’t easy.

– The setting. I want to go to Saint Tropez.

– What the book says about female friendship. The point of the book is that these three girls from different worlds and places are able to come together and connect. In the end, they’re all very good friends because they support each other throughout the novel.

– The diversity. Devon and Livia are Not White. And Devon is the teen queen. Bonus.

What I Didn’t Like

– The plotting. Everything happens super fast, and I almost have whiplash from getting from one point to the other. The quote above is EXACTLY where the book lost me. Look, I very obviously am all about female friendship and enjoy stories about said friendship. At the same time, it has to be earned. When Devon is all, “How funny that three of them had become so close,” I am like, “TELL ME ABOUT IT.”  Because, seriously, where did that come from? They went on exactly ONE shopping trip together, talked for a little while, and now super secretive and closed off Devon who is careful not to confide in Livia too much suddenly can count on them absolutely? Especially when Casey works for Summer who is basically Devon’s arch-nemesis. And then a few pages later, Devon is basically like, “Y’all don’t know me!” when the girls try to give her advice.

I don’t have a problem with them being friends or even Devon being excited about having people to hang out with. It just felt completely out of character for her to be able to count on these girls after one shopping trip. Not only that, but there are so few scenes of the three girls actually interacting together that I just don’t buy it. I mean, yes, they do look out for each other and, while off in their separate plots, remark that they should share something with one of the other girls, but they rarely talk to each other, all together. Heck, even one-on-one!  So I’m not buying that.  Why is all of the friendship stuff happening off-page?

– The boy stuff. I don’t mind when books are about romance. But I do mind, again, when the romances feel unearned. And while I think that Casey and Livia’s romantic stuff makes sense, once again, I’m not buying Devon’s. Like I can SEE what de la Cruz is trying to do and the book is predictable enough that I knew where everything was going, but it still didn’t feel earned. Also, please do not try to sell me “WHOO FRIENDSHIP IS ALL WE NEED” and then have everyone partnered up at the end. Boo.

– The issues introduced are never fully explored. Again, great stuff, but it never comes together. I wanted more with Devon and her mom, more with Devon dealing with her sobriety besides “just having one drink” more than once (!!!! – great message to teens there when she is fresh out of rehab), more with Livia and her food issues, and way, way, WAY more with Summer and Casey.

– Speaking of which, Summer was just poorly handled all around. Such a flat villain. Ooh, she’s ambitious AND mean AND petty. Surely, there is a reason that she and Casey were friends before she became famous, right? And, yes, I get it, Summer treats her horribly as an assistant, but there was nothing there at all to suggest why these two were friends or why Casey put up with the bad treatment without saying anything. Summer was just, you know, mean. Even Regina George knew how to make her friends feel special while treating them feel like crap. I’m just saying.

– The back cover. Livia and Casey are on the back cover, and they both look a little too glam. I just felt it was worth mentioning since I lauded the actual cover.

In conclusion: Meh. It was engaging enough that I finished the book, but the flaws way override anything the book has going for it. I am pretty sure this is the first in a series since it’s called “a GIRL novel” on the front and ends with a cliffhanger (which is too stupid to get into), but I’m pretty sure I won’t be reading it. At least, I know I won’t actively seek it out.

I am such a nerd

Of note:

1.  A friend linked me to this awesome article:  Hogwarts Is a Terrible School.  I’ve been trying to think up a response to it, but other than “NERDS!” (and I mean that in the most affectionate way possible), I got nothing.

2. I checked out The Book Lover’s Cookbook from the library.  Why?  Because the subtitle is “Recipes Inspired by Celebrated Works of Literature and the Passages that Feature Them.”  NERD NERD NERD.  Will I cook anything from it?  Probably not.  Will I read the whole thing?  Most definitely.