Wednesday, September 21, 2011

In Trouble

Much has been written about the difficulty Ellen Levine had in finding a publisher for her novel In Trouble. It seems that even in this post Roe v. Wade world, during an era when nearly any topic can be explored in young adult fiction, publishers still shy away from the subject of abortion. Obviously the "back story" of how Ms. Levine's novel came to be published has no bearing on its quality or whether it will receive consideration from the Printz committee. Yes, even though the Printz criteria state "controversy is not something to avoid. In fact, we want a book that readers will talk about," it's clear that "literary excellence" will always trump controversy in award selection; otherwise the committee would merely pick the book with the most contentious subject matter and go home.

Set in 1956, In Trouble is narrated by high schooler Jamie Morse whose father has just been released from prison because he refused to testify in the McCarthy hearings. Meanwhile, Jamie's best friend is getting serious with her college-age boyfriend and, from the moment she states, "He says it's a sign I don't love him if I won't...," we know that Elaine is going to end up "in trouble." Jamie is also troubled by an event from her own past: visiting her cousin for the weekend she was date-raped. She soon realizes that she too is pregnant.

The coincidence of two best friends both finding themselves pregnant under very different circumstance gives In Trouble a narrow, claustrophobic feel. Despite Elaine's dream that her boyfriend will marry her and they'll raise their baby together, she is sent to a home for teen moms where she is expected to give the child up for adoption. Jamie, with the support of her understanding family, seeks out an illegal abortion. The novel does a good job exploring the limited options of pregnant teens in a 1950s milieu, but its limited characterizations (Elaine, in particular, seems defined only by her pregnancy) and tight focus prevent In Trouble from fully rising above the ranks of a solid, but unexceptional, issue-oriented novel.

PRINTZ WORTHY? Probably not. At a time when many young-adult books are overinflated to four and five hundred pages, this two-hundred-page work of historical fiction actually could have benefited from presenting its story on a broader canvas, instead of within the confines of an old-school problem-novel format.

What do YOU think?

1 comment:

  1. I nominated this one for the Cybil, myself. To be quite honest, I did it because I want more people to read it. It has a strange time-warp feeling that stretches beyond the setting and into the style. I'm not sure that will appeal to many readers, in fact it will probably put people off, but I considered it an accomplishment. I can't imagine the Printz going to this one.