What Makes an Issue Book Work?

‘Oh,’ I said to a public relations representative the other day. ‘I usually avoid issue books, but I’ll check it out if you really feel strongly about it.’

Of course she does–it’s her job to sell books, and to get me interested in promoting them for her. I have a great relationship with the PR reps I work with: they give me books, and I write about them, and get a chance to interview the authors and talk with them about what’s going on in the book world, the details of their books, and the issues they encounter. Since ‘issues’ in a floating generic sense are sort of my beat, it makes sense that I read, and love, a lot of YA that is, well, issuey.

Except that as a general rule, I prefer to read books about characters who happen to be gay, who happen to be disabled, who happen to be people of colour. I want to read a book about a Black girl in a fantasy world being a badass, as a reminder that yes, Black girls belong in fantasy. I want a disabled hero in space, doing cool space stuff, being disabled. I want queer characters being queer all over the place, because, hey, queer people are super-awesome and wonderful, so, really, why not have more of them?

I have a tougher time with what are sometimes known as ‘issue books,’ those that are definitely set up to Tell A Serious Story About A Social Problem. You may be familiar with some: Thirteen Reasons Why (suicide, depression), The Fault in Our Stars (cancer, disability), The Miseducation of Cameron Post (being queer), Speak (rape),  Shine (queerness…and something more complicated). You’ll note that all four of these examples are actually books I’ve read and spoken very highly of, because they’re all great books. They’re all outstanding works of fiction that stand on their own as great stories, and they’re also stories that confront some serious issues head-on.

So what makes some issue books work, and other issue books not work? They’re both fundamentally about the same thing, in teen literature: a complex transformative experience that’s often emotionally traumatic, and often comes with significant personal and social fallout. They’re about fault lines, and ‘issues,’ in contrast with books that are supposedly about ‘stories.’ (One might argue that all stories–all good ones, at least–have issues.)

But here’s the thing. The Fault in Our Stars is a love story. It’s a story about two people and how they met and the ups and downs of their relationship and the shitty, terrible things that happened along the way. It’s also a story about cancer, and how cancer steals people you love and doesn’t really care about what it wrecks and leaves behind. What makes this work as an issue book is that it’s not about the cancer: the cancer is there, it’s like another character in the story, it infuses the relationship and the choices the characters make, but this isn’t a book that sets out to tell a lesson or a story about cancer. It’s a story about people.

Likewise, The Miseducation of Cameron Post could easily be a queer coming of age novel where the protagonist is sent to a reform school to straighten out, and it is, in some respects. But it’s also about a young woman coming of age and discovering her sexuality and finding out what betrayal looks like and making friends and learning that there’s a huge and complicated world around her. It’s a story about her journey, not a definitive commentary on queerness. The fact that it appeals to many queer people of all ages is a testimony to the strength of the character and the story, not to whether it’s issuey enough.

As a general rule, I don’t like to trash on books that I didn’t personally enjoy, so I’m not going to single out specific issue books that didn’t work for me–there are a variety of reasons not to like a book, and not all criticism is constructive or useful. Just because I didn’t like a book doesn’t mean it’s bad or that other readers won’t get something out of it. But I don’t usually like books that hammer me over the head with Messages About Humanity. What I like are stories. Well-told, beautiful, elegant stories. And if those stories happen to engage with and interweave social issues, then I tend to like them even more, because these are issues many of us experience, including storytellers, and they have a place in the tales we tell ourselves and each other.

What makes an issue book work for me is putting the story first, as I’ll be discussing in my review of We Were Liars coming up tomorrow. The driving force of that book isn’t issuey, it’s about the protagonist and her journey as a person. The question isn’t so much ‘which issues are we checking off?’ But ‘who is Cady, and where is she going?’ It can sometimes be difficult to strike a fine and workable balance with a text that deals with social issues, but when an author does it well, it shows in the careful construction of the story and the characters.

What makes an issue book less exciting for me is the constant reiteration of the issues, and the continual reminders that this is a Serious Novel. It sometimes seems challenging to toe the delicate line between telling a story and telling a story beneath the story, but contrast the different treatments of issues like teen pregnancy, rape, or mental illness; is a book filled with moral lessons and instructions? Or is it the quiet, firm story of one character’s journey?

Because I’m more likely to hand a book like Wild Awake to a teen struggling with mental illness than I am to provide a preachy narrative on the subject, even though both could technically be considered issue books.