Children’s literature (middle grade and YA) has seen a wealth of “important” books lately. Once called “issue books,” these types of stories typically address serious and relevant topics such as substance abuse, eating disorders, mental health concerns, sexual harassment or assault, racism, bullying, and more. While, in years past, the “issue book” generally only focused on one issue at a time, contemporary authors tend to pen stories where several of these issues intersect–so one might, for instance, read a book about a girl experiencing homelessness, sexism, and body image concerns all at the same time, instead of experiencing only one. This has all been amazing. Many important issues are being highlighted and represented in literature, where young people can see that they are not alone. But what happens when someone writes an “important” book about issues that are serious and relevant–and the book just is not that good?
The difficulty with reviewing books that focus on issues that people think are important is that, quite frankly, not every book is a five-star read. A book could feature something readers have greatly been desiring–perhaps a protagonist living with a specific, under-represented medical condition, for example, or maybe a character living through a historical moment that is not often depicted. Readers may greatly want to support and love this book because it features something close to their hearts. But, in reality, some books are not that well-written. The prose might be choppy, the dialogue unrealistic, the characterization flat, the pacing uneven, or the plot nonsensical. No matter how much readers want to support the representation of a certain issue, they might have to recognize that the book simply could be better.
Reviewing such a book proves a terrible dilemma, however. How can one take a book that features something like a protagonist struggling with an eating disorder and then give it a less-than-stellar review? What if the book is based on the author’s own life experiences? It can feel more than a little awkward to read a story about a very serious issue, an issue that may be very close to the author’s own heart, and than not call it absolutely amazing. And, of course, other readers who may feel strongly about the issue in question may take umbrage that anyone would even consider critiquing the writing style, the dialogue, the characterization, or the plot, when the All Important Issue is being represented. For some, the mere fact that an issue has been depicted should supersede all other considerations.
However, reviews are meant to help readers make informed choices about how to spend their time and money. And that usually means that, even if an important issue is represented in a book, readers of a review will still want a well-rounded picture of the book–what the prose, pacing, characterization, and plot are like, as well as what issue is being focused on. It is possible to be sensitive to the fact that people will be excited to support a particular issue in a story, while also recognizing that some stories are more effectively told than others. Reviewing an “important” book and noting the places that could use improvement, as well as the places done superbly, may be uncomfortable, but perhaps that is just part of what it means to be a reviewer.
What do you think? Does it feel awkward critiquing a story that focuses on an “important issue?”