Appropriately Tackling the Harsher Themes Through Fiction:

Each of the novels we have discussed thus far has to some extent-whether intentional or not- addressed a variety of hard hitting, tough topics such as death, trauma, homelessness, suicide, and lack of identity. This is often done in YA lit as a way to expose young people to a wide range of topics that they either might be experiencing themselves, could experience in the future, or should be exposed to simply because they are important issues. Whether or not these topics are appropriate for YA readers is highly debated however for the purpose of this discussion I would like for us to assume that they are both appropriate and necessary in the texts we are studying. With this assumption I would like to pose the question: Were each of the authors effective and honest in their portrayal of these bigger issues?

This is a valuable question because why bring up the issues if you are not going to address them effectively and in a way that your readers can profit in some way? I am not saying that all YA novels need to have a didactic lesson or take a controversial stance; in fact reading action-packed and ‘fluffier’ novels can be quite fun and is often necessary to get kids interested in reading. However, if the author is attempting to bring up some of these issues they had better do their research and present it as authentically as possible otherwise they are doing a great injustice to all those experiencing these matters in their own lives.

After some consideration I determined that I typically ask myself four questions when determining if an author was able to properly address some of the hard-hitting topics often brought up in YA lit:

  • Do the characters, their feelings and the situations they are in feel authentic and realistic?
  • Does the discussion of the issues seem meaningful or does it feel contrived and rely on clichés?
  • Can we see ourselves in the characters position?
  • Do we gain anything valuable concerning the issue, and if not would the intended readers?

Overall, after thinking about each of the novels in regards to these questions I am of the opinion that all of them address their issues quite well… except for Blink and Caution. This of course is simply my own personal opinion and I encourage you to ask yourself these questions in regards to the novels and come to your own conclusion. Here is a brief description of my own opinions and thoughts about how a few of the novels handled these issues.

  • In The Shore Girl I was exposed to a lifestyle that I myself never experienced, one that I had not considered in relation to my own home. It made me think about the possibility of child homelessness in Alberta and the implications that might have on a child’s identity and personal growth. Kimmel was able to address these issues in an authentic way because she did not imply that she always knew how Rebee was feeling, instead we get a fragmented understanding from other characters perspectives.
  • In Swimmers, Amy Bright was able to provide the reader with an accurate depiction of how a person may act and feel with depression without relying on angst and clichés. Furthermore, the way she presented suicide was both respectful and honest without being contrived and glossy. I was able to compare my own experience with both suicide and depression to the characters experiences and did not feel slighted by her depiction.
  • The Lesser Blessed takes a huge host of issues that are often avoided such as abuse, the effect of residential schools, Native American identity, and drugs and addresses them in a way that is both candid and sincere. Van Camp does not gloss over these issues but they are also not romanticized in any way. And though we may not be able to place ourselves in Larry’s shoes it opens up an important dialogue about these issues in an honest way.

In comparison to the three novels I just mentioned, I feel that Blink and Caution was incredibly two-dimensional. I did not find it to be thought provoking and it did not provide me with a new understanding of youth homelessness, death, grief, or any of the other issues “addressed” in the novel. Ultimately, I am of the opinion that Blink and Caution is not meant to be examined at great depth. It is an action packed teenage love story with an unrealistic plot line that perpetuates the banalities and stereotypes surrounding the bigger issues. I would even go so far to say that Wynne-Jones did not intend to discuss these major issues or provide his readers with any profound ideas; the topics and the clichés surrounding them were simply convenient for the advancement of the plot.

I hope that you all find this topic of effectiveness and authenticity in YA lit to be as important and interesting as I do and I would love to hear your thoughts!



4 thoughts on “Appropriately Tackling the Harsher Themes Through Fiction:

  1. Danielle Schmold says:

    I agree with your findings for most of the novel, I really think that The Lesser Blessed did the best job of looking at issues and showing them authentically. However, I think that some young adult readers would need some type of guidance to understand what the author is saying about these issues. I think that the issues posed in Blink and Caution are there for the shock factor. I know a lot of young adult readers would love reading this book for its entertainment value, but personally I don’t see this being used in a classroom setting. It is a more shallow text than the ones we have previously looked at and finding tons of meaning in these issues would not being the easiest task. For instance, I have read entire books dealing with internet predators and child sexual exploitation, but her sex tape is a brief mention in the book that never comes back to haunt her. I think that this is an unrealistic portrayal and the only way to talk about this issue in the book would be to share how its a bad example of what could actually happen.


  2. Peyton says:

    I agree. All the novels we have read thus far in the class address their harsher themes well, except for “Blink and Caution.” I think this is because “Blink and Caution” is more about the plot than about the characters, so we focus on the action (or lack there of), rather than the background situations/themes. When we get to “This One Summer” I think we will find that it does address some themes well, and others not so much (SPOILERS: specifically, I feel the miscarriage is not well addressed).


  3. I think it is crucial that YA fiction addresses the harsher themes of the world. I think that it is at the teenage portion or young adult age level that a lot of people go through these struggles and it is important that they can use these types of books to identify with. It is calming to know that, even as a fictional character, you are not the only one going through a hash moment in your life. Young adult hood is characterized through attempting to find out who you are and therefore the harshness of reality ultimately interferes. The fact that YA literature addresses these realities is really important.
    Megan Peters


  4. I absolutely agree, as a young adult I faced some depression-like issues and I found myself so MAD that Caution was ‘depressed’ throughout the book without actually seeming depressed at all. It bothered me that she brushed off her cousin’s offer to get her professional help and that her emotions really didn’t line up with what I expected her depression to look like.
    On the other hand I really thought that the other novels thus far were excellent at addressing these issues in a more realistic and purposeful manner… buuuut of all of the books we’ve read thus far, I can honestly say I would have probably only read Swimmers as a young adult if I had a choice. The other novels were almost too issues focused with little in the way of plot. So are issues-based novels really helpful to young adults if they aren’t naturally inclined to read them? Are plot-driven novels like Blink and Caution harmful to readers because they might be more popular but don’t effectively deal with these issues?


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