The problem novel

In general, I don’t like to go after people’s beloved authors, and Margaret Peterson Haddix is certainly one of those. She has established a constant and abiding presence in Young Adult Literature over decades, mostly through the popularity of her two long series, Shadow Children and The Missing, and the Just Ella books, that all seem to hold their appeal for subsequent generations of young teens.

Last week, I picked up a 2018 stand-alone book of hers (of which she has also written close to 20), and was immediately transported back to the 1980s. That would be fine if the book had been set in the ‘80s, but unfortunately its timeframe was present-day Ohio and Spain. The reason I was feeling the ‘80s vibe was that The Summer of Broken Things is such a typical example of the “problem novels” of the 1980s that took YA Lit from being innovative, gritty, and real to being contrived, preachy and smug.

I teach YA Lit at UCLA in the masters program for librarians, and its history, stretching from the saccharine Seventeenth Summer to the lively and realistic On the Come Up, is a specialty. So I recognize a problem novel when I read one.

Michael Cart, author of Young Adult Literature: From Romance to Realism (2016), says that the success and innovation of the gritty realistic novels of the 1970s bred pale imitation and that “The problem novel is to young adult literature what soap opera is to legitimate drama.” The definition of a problem novel is that the book is more concerned with a condition or social concern, and the characters are manipulated to work out the “lesson” that is the subject of examination.

The initial premise of this book might have been okay. I say “might have” because it was so obviously a set-up for something that it also might have been doomed to failure from the start; but I can see how someone could make this story work better if they tried hard.

The Armisteds are a fairly well-to-do family (David is a business tycoon of some kind, and Celeste is an interior designer) with one daughter, 14-year-old Avery, who has been raised in an atmosphere that satisfies her every whim. David travels a lot for work, and has decided that this summer, instead of Avery going to soccer camp as she would prefer, she will accompany him to Spain for 10 weeks, spending half-days during the week (while he is working) in a Spanish immersion class for teens. He realizes that this is not good news to Avery (even though most teenagers would be stoked to travel in Europe over the summer), so he decides that Avery will bring a friend along. Avery then feels better about the trip—until she realizes that the friend has already been selected for her, and it’s a girl she used to play with as a young child but hasn’t seen in years.

Kayla Butts and Avery were best friends back when Avery was five and Kayla was seven, but although the families have stayed in touch with Christmas and birthday gifts over the years since, there has been no real contact between the girls. Kayla is now 16, and has grown up in circumstances far different from Avery’s: Her father was in an auto accident just after she was born, and has been completely disabled—unable to speak, move, or function—ever since. She and her mother live with her maternal grandparents, and Kayla’s mom works at the nursing home where her husband lives. Kayla has grown up hanging out there, with the result that most of her friends are in their 70s and 80s and, while she is an expert on black-and-white TV reruns such as Gilligan’s Island and The Beverly Hillbillies, she is awkward and baffled when it comes to contemporary culture. It doesn’t help that the family lives essentially paycheck to paycheck and Kayla’s best clothes come from Target (the others are from Walmart or the thrift shop).

Now, suddenly, Kayla has this amazing opportunity to go to Spain for a summer, and she should be glad—but she’s not sure about her role as Avery’s “companion,” she’s uncertain about and made uncomfortable by the accepting of constant “favors” from the wealthy Armisteds, and to put the icing on the cake, Avery is every flavor of spoiled brat and taking out her petulance on Kayla. And while Kayla is well used to being bullied in school for being tall, awkward, and fat, not to mention poor and shy, the prospect of putting up with Avery’s special brand of entitlement all summer is such a disincentive that she’s tempted to jump out of the cab to the airport and go home again.

As I said, this sounds like a set-up that might work: It’s definitely a “learn this lesson” kind of theme, in which Kayla gains confidence and a broader experience while Avery learns to be more generous and think of others as well as herself, but if a story like that is done with subtlety and humor, why not? The unfortunate truth here is that these girls are all kinds of cliché and, not satisfied with setting them up that way, the author continues to punch up every aspect of their personalities that caters to those clichés until they become grotesques.

(Parenthetically, why is it that the poor girl is always the fat, awkward one with mousy hair, and the rich girl is blonde and physically fit? And why do authors feel the need not just to point out these differences but to somehow make it a “redemption” when the poor fat girl steps up her physical activity and “actually” starts to look better? I’m so tired of the fat-shaming, the poor-shaming, the idealization of physical perfection. In this book, it takes the form of Avery bouncing along wherever she goes while Kayla and Avery’s dad arrive sweaty and out of breath. The number of staircases climbed—in the airport, in the Spanish apartment, in the school building—are endlessly and daily enumerated, with the fit girl impatiently urging everyone on and the two out-of-shape people panting and taking rests on the landings. Enough already!)

Further, not satisfied with creating the “problem” of Avery’s entitled snottiness and Kayla’s crippling self-doubt as the theme of the book, Haddix then reaches out for an additional “problem” for both girls that is so obviously manufactured as to be painful. One wonders (because one is constantly coached to do so) from the beginning of the book how these two families became friendly and stayed in touch so relentlessly, considering the material differences in their lifestyles, and this little nugget proves to be the tie that binds, but the way Haddix has the girls react to it is completely over the top. Yes, it’s something they probably both should have known about sooner; yes, Avery has every right to feel somewhat betrayed that her parents didn’t let her in on this secret, and ditto Kayla; but to create such drama around this factoid that doesn’t essentially have any lasting effect on anyone is absurd. Avery spends days in floods of tears. Kayla won’t speak to her mother or read her emails, and contemplates leaving the Armisteds to their just desserts (i.e., each other) and seeking out a youth hostel. The drama ramps up so precipitously and for such an extended period as to become ridiculous, and that’s all before the specter of divorce pokes up its head (that’s a spoiler but you know it’s coming all the way through, so I don’t care).

As if that weren’t enough, a final dramatic moment ensues that insures we get a meet-cute resolution to multiple issues, and by this time all you want, if you are any kind of reader who enjoys realistic character development and a plausible story line, is to throw the book across the room or, say, drop it in the bathtub and leave it there.

There were a few fleeting moments when the story was saved by tertiary characters: The two Bulgarian boys who are taking the Spanish immersion class and who are enthusiastic about Kayla and fairly indifferent to Avery’s charm; the snotty British Susan, who gives both Kayla and Avery good advice and some perspective in the midst of a soccer game involving all their classmates and some Spanish players; and some of the old people at the nursing home whose conversations with Kayla are pretty amusing. But these only make it more obvious that this is a talented writer who could do better but has instead opted for the ultimate in stereotypes to make a story few will fail to see as both flawed and overwrought, right down to the title of the book, which looks at two girls experiencing a European country for the first time and can only focus on what’s wrong with the picture and not what’s right. The only thing I liked unreservedly about this book was its cover, and not because it was relevant but simply because it was pretty.

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