Young Adult Lit/Crit

February 6, 2008

Reflections on the “Problem Novel” or Why are so many YA books so depressing?

Filed under: Adolescent Readers/Reading — sostrom @ 4:45 pm

A few years ago, I read this article from American Educator, a quarterly magazine published by the AFT (American Federation of Teachers).  It basically asks the question I posed in the title of this post.  Having just finished Touching Snow and having recently read Sold, I was reminded of this article.  The author questions the effect of reading books about trauma, violence, abuse, etc. on children.  She refers to a variety of books, shares her son’s reactions to reading books by Sharon Creech and They Cage the Animals at Night by Michael Burch Jennings (a story of a boy abandoned by his mother and his ensuing experiences in the foster care system), and offers responses of teachers and parents to these books. 

I think it’s an interesting article.  I have found that students love reading “problem novels.”  In fact, the memoir, A Child Called “It” has not yet failed to engage every student I recommend it to.  Over the years I have had to purchase five copies of this book because students beg to keep it for themselves.  However, I have avoided reading the book myself precisely because of its graphic, true story of abuse.  After reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved last semester (which dealt with slavery, rape and infanticide), I felt emotionally wrung out – and the feeling lasted several weeks.  How do you think reading this type of literature affects students in both the long and short term? 

What do you think?  Is YA lit depressing?  Is it realistic?  Why do you think the “problem novel” has such appeal to students?  How does reading this type of book affect you personally? 




  1. Hi Sarah,

    I’ve found over the years that my students like to read ‘problem novels’ as well. I want to say that this is because students have problems but this doesn’t exactly answer the real question. Everyone has problems, but adolescents sometimes feel more intensely about their problems. Maybe reading about other adolescents who struggle somehow make students feel better about their own lives- not in the misery loves company sense- but in the sense that they feel like they are not alone. To me, the feelings of isolation that adolescents experience, that no one understands them, that they have no one to talk to about their ‘real’ feelings, make them desperate to connect. Thankfully, there are some wonderful novels that they can connect with- that show how young people just like themselves have struggled, but have also overcome and eventually prospered in their lives.


    Comment by scrollman — February 6, 2008 @ 7:44 pm

  2. Interesting your posting on this article Sarah–one I usually plan to discuss in YA Lit. Also interesting what both you and Jon say in light of the most recent discussion on one of my YA Lit listservs which has been focused on books that feature teens’ experience of loneliness, depression and suicide. We’re reading one of those titles–THIRTEEN REASONS WHY. There is also some interesting research (name of author/book escape me right now) that looks at teen girls who want just the opposite in their reading–that is an escape from their own “problems,” a way to fantasize, experience adventure in another world, etc. etc. I need to locate that book..or at least recall the title. KES

    Comment by sunyprof — February 6, 2008 @ 9:39 pm

  3. I am completely in agreement about Jon’s explanation that reading about the problems of someone else is in some way comforting, essentially that we all suffer and these novels are proof.

    In an optimistic setting I would suggest that the very foothold of these “problem novels” is that they remind us to forgive ourselves and one another because we aren’t perfect. But that would be specious.

    On a sadder note, I might guess that we are drawn to the dark side of human nature. Maybe children who have had no prior experience with horrible situations seek these disturbing books out as a right of passage, as a means of proclaiming a maturity to the world that often invalidates their feelings based upon “inexperience.” We sometimes hear “you’ll understand when you get a little older,” or, “you’re young; you’ll get over it.”

    Just an idea.

    I think your question leads me to censorship, which was touched on in the Lesesne reading. I loved Carolyn Meyer’s account of the librarian Mrs. Stuckenrath, “the lion who fiercely guarded the gates of the library […] protecting me and my curious friends from improper, if not evil, influences” (10).

    Is there a “Problem Novel” that you would refuse to let your students check out of your classroom library, if you thought they would be corrupted by it?


    Comment by joycehansen — February 7, 2008 @ 12:55 am

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