Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Issue with Issue Books

As someone who tries to read as much disability-oriented fiction as possible, I often come across issue books. Like Follow My Leader these books often deal primarily with a protagonist whose goal is to deal with their "issue". In this case, it's blindness. Sometimes it's drug addiction, homosexuality or something other "taboo" subject. Frequently, as in books like Luna, the protagonist's sibling has the "issue" and the viewpoint character is nothing but a lens.

A lot of people dislike books like these. I have my problems with them--usually due to the stereotypical depictions of characters--but I think they're necessary. Having read From Romance to Realism: 50 Years of Growth and Change in Young Adult Literature, and other books dealing with the history of children's lit, I see them as part of a pattern. The issue books emerge before the "problem" can become mainstreamed in literature without question. They serve a purpose, they give immediate satisfaction, immediate I'm-not-alone, how-this-can-be-dealt-with, this-is-what-this-looks-like. After all, often in a teen's life, the issue is everything. But they are NOT enough.

I read Follow My Leader so many times that my copy may fall apart. I have low vision, the fear of blindness is real to me and I use some of the MC's techniques to deal with life without my contacts. But I'm also aware of how rare it is to have a secondary character who is blind. Just an MC's friend, or an MC with a whole other set of problems who happens to be blind. The issue hasn't been solved with the issue book.

LGBTQ characters are doing better. They exist in the back and foreground without the whole book focusing on this element. We're not there yet, by any means, but the issue books have opened the doors. The toys are out there and can be played with. It's the job of authors now to utilize these things and weave them into larger narratives.

After all, would you want your life to be depicted only in the issue books?


  1. You've inspired me to read Follow My Leader.

    And I agree with what you're saying-- you're often dealing with stereotypes. If you haven't yet, though, check out the Perks of Being a Wallflower. It treats a prevalent issue so adeptly that you actually don't even know what it is until the very end.

  2. Great question. No I wouldn't. I'd rather be a person in a book with a goal like everyone else.

  3. I think you make a good point. Personally I think that having people write about issues is better than not writing about issues, but it's also a little pretentious to try to portray something you have not lived. Like that lady who wrote the black characters in The Help.

    How could she possibly know what it was like to have lived through that time?

  4. Matt, that's a barrel of monkeys you may not want to open. It's a question that's easy to extrapolate from. At what point do you say you can't write this if you haven't lived it?

    I've never lost my leg, but my character has.

    Jennifer Donnelly was never a girl living in 1906 Minnesota.

    At what point can we "not write" things?