I recently read a quote that went something like this: Problem novels are to YA literature what soap operas are to legitimate drama.
What is a problem novel?
In traditional realistic fiction, characters face personal problems—however, those problems are not the major thrust of the story. For example, the main character works to solve a mystery, while struggling at the same time with her father’s alcoholism.
In a problem novel, the problem will control the plot.
Children’s literature specialist Sheila Egoff gives problem novels the following characteristics:
1. They focus on externals, they tend to show rather than tell because of their limited aim—as if the writer had begun with the problem rather than the plot or characters. Often the title of the book says it all.
2. The protagonist is laden with grievances and anxieties that stem from alienation with the adult world.
3. They find some form of palliation from an atypical adult, usually outside the family.
4. Narrative is usually first person and self-centered.
5. The vocabulary is usually limited, the words of a child.
6. Obligatory inclusion of explicatives.
7. Sentences and paragraphs are short.
8. Sex and other controversial topics (drugs, obesity, homosexuality…) are discussed openly.
9. Usually an urban setting, although this is changing.
It’s amazing how many of the contemporary realistic novels fit this format. Is it really just a soap opera? Should young readers be taught to look outside the home for help? Does this present to young adults a true reality, or one that is enticing to teens because they live in a self-centered world?
Of course, every problem novel is different and all cannot be lumped universally into a label of good or bad. But still, it’s something to think about.