I’ve read two YA books lately which I can best describe as message-y. One in particular felt like the characters opened their mouths and out came the author’s opinions on the subject. With facts to back it up. And citations. It was like reading an essay, only I think I would have enjoyed the essay more. It’s not that I didn’t want to hear the author’s opinions, or that I disagreed with them (I was in whole-hearted agreement), but it all felt a little forced.
I tried to think of a message-book where the message didn’t get in the way of the story, and at first could not think of one. There are issues books (“problem novels” in the old parlance), where the issue is front and center, but I think an issue-book is different than a message-book. True, image-books can also be done badly. They can also be done really, really well, like Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak.
As I kept trying to think of message-books that worked, my mind went to the classics: The Great Gatsby (the dangers of excess), The Lord of the Flies (why order is important in society), To Kill a Mockingbird (the importance of justice). I’m still struggling to think of modern, YA books that have a message — a definite point of view — without feeling like the message was all that was there. Part of the problem, of course, is that you can never really know, without asking, what the intended message was.
I have struggled with this in my own work. I am a feminist. One of the few things that makes me sad about “kids today” is that so few identify themselves as feminists. So, in an effort to show why feminism is important, and my views on what it means to be a feminist, I inserted a scene into Secrets of Truth & Beauty in which a teacher questions Dara’s participations in pageants. Dara responds that people do pageants for all sorts of reasons, and if it’s a choice you aren’t being objectified (yes, I know what else that is used to defend, and yes I felt it was a specious argument even as I wrote it). Dara’s big point in the scene was my central belief which is that feminism does not mean exchanging one set of rules for another. It means that there is enough freedom in our society that both women and men can make choices without limitations. A good point, I think, but the scene fell flat. It was too message-y, and I cut it.
Then I read E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks and realized she had captured the sentiment so much more naturally. And yet I am hesitant to label it a message-book because it is so much more than that. Maybe the message is something that just seeps in, as you are writing, and the more you try to force it, the worse the situation becomes.