Mindy Hardwick's Blog

Author Mindy Hardwick Muses about Writing

Issue Books

on March 9, 2011

Today, there is an interview with  Ellen Booraem at Cynthia Leith Smith’s blog, Cynsations.

The topic is issue books, and Ellen says,

But people deal with alcoholism and weight issues all their lives—it’s part of their routine, like brushing their teeth and walking the dog. There’s much to be said for simply incorporating the big issues, even racial relations and sexuality, as part of characters’ lives but not the focus of their stories.

And I’m going to disagree with her comment.I don’t think dealing with alcoholism is “like brushing your teeth or walking the dog.” Dealing with alcoholism, yours or a family member, is not simply a part of the routine–ESPECIALLY as a teen or a pre-teen.  That issue becomes the focus of a teen’s life. If you’ve ever known a teen who is struggling to stay sober, then you’ll know that once sober, that teen has to recreate their lives. No longer can they spend time with their friends who are using, the places they used to go while using, and half the time, this can make going to their same school next to impossible. This is not a “walking the dog” event that takes place. Sobriety is a major shift in how a teen lives their lives. And that, is exactly where a story starts. What opposes that teen? Their addiction. What is at stake? Will that teen stay sober? (And a lot of them don’t), And what will be the things which come up to try and veer that teen off their path to sobriety? Peer pressure. Family influences. Etc.

This idea of issue books  not being in favor has existed for awhile.

As a teen growing up in the 80’s, I read a lot of issue books. Issue books and problem books were big in the 80’s. Some of my favorite’s included: The Late Great Me (alcoholism), and Tiger Eyes (Divorce).

The main reason I was reading issue books was to try and figure out what was going on at my house.  I wasn’t a kid who would go to the guidance counselor or a trusted teacher and spill my family secrets. I was a kid who skated through school and did not want to be noticed. I also wasn’t a kid who wanted my friends to know about my crazy family, so I made up a lot of lies. For about six months, every time a friend spent the night, I told them, “Dad is on a business trip.” Not, Dad is across town in a small apartment because he and Mom are separated.

I identified with those issue books. They were the way I found out that my feelings were valid. The characters were having the same feelings as me. I also saw how the characters survived things like their parent’s divorce, and this gave me hope that I would too.

When I run the poetry workshop at the juvenile detention center, what books do the kids like best? The issue books.  The girl’s favorite books have been the ones by Ellen Hopkins. Crank and Glass. Why? Because these are the books which are telling THEIR stories.  Like me, these are the books where the juvie kids see themselves as the characters. These are the stories that show how the characters move through their issues and emerge on the other side. These are the books which give them hope.

These issue books aren’t preaching. They aren’t moral books. These “issue books” are books about real life issues the kids are facing, and it is through the character’s eyes that the reader understands that issue. Issue books do not deliver heavy handed “messages.” In fact, issue books, or any book for kids, should not be delivering heavy handed messages.  They should be delivering meaning.

Liz B, at A Chair, A Fireplace, and A Tea Cozy posted about “Message Books” today. In her posting, she wrote:

I was NCTE a few years ago and a panel of authors was speaking. A few members of the audience were talking, in a positive way, about the great messages in books and the impact of those books on their students. At that point, one of the authors (I forget which one so cannot give proper credit) speak eloquently about the difference between writing a book to “deliver a message” and writing a book with “meaning.” She spoke about how an author should strive for meaning, not for messages. Meaning can infuse a book and the plot and characters remain their integrity; and the meaning can result in the reader walking away having learned something. Or not.

When I sit down to write, (and yes, I do write books with issues) what I hope is that I am giving my teen readers what was once given to me: books with characters who provide clarity and hope for a way out of the darkness of those issues which can consume a teen’s life.


2 responses to “Issue Books

  1. Rhay says:

    Well said!!!!!!

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