Sunday, November 27, 2011

When a "Problem Book" Transcends Its Problem

I hate to admit this but I kept putting off reading my advance review copy Emily M. Danforth’s debut novel The Miseducation of Cameron Post. I’d read the back cover, so I knew what it was about, something to do with a girl coming to terms with being a lesbian. Several months ago there was a big discussion in the YA publishing industry about this very topic. I won’t go into all the details here, but the gist came down to this question: how much of a market is there for books featuring gay characters? The issue exploded when an agent (there is dispute about whether this actually happened or not) suggested to a writer that a manuscript would be more palatable to readers if she changed a gay character into a straight one.

From a business/marketing perspective, I suppose that’s a safer choice. On the other hand, controversy can be good for sales too. There are some books that are called problem novels. I imagine them being cooked up in a marketing department. Someone throws out a hot controversial topic. In the past it might have been abortion or anorexia or incest. More recently it might be meth abuse or cutting. The books that are created this way are rarely good. The issue is the whole point and often it’s handled in a lurid, sensationalistic way. Sometimes these books sell very well but they quickly disappear from the shelves.

So this is what I was afraid of with Cameron Post. That it would be one of those books with a tag line like, “an important book on an important topic, blah blah.” Then I was hesitant when I read the first page and realized that it had that nostalgic-adult-looking-back-on-defining-teen-moments tone to it. You know what I mean—a book that’s not a YA book at all but more of a memoir. But I got past that because the voice of Cameron was so real and honest and funny.

When we meet her, she and her best friend Irene are hanging out like they always do in the summer in Miles City, Montana. Swimming at the lake, watching reruns of Murder She Wrote with Cam’s grandmother, daring each other to do crazy stunts like swipe a pack of gum from the minute market. Later they share a kiss in Irene’s barn, and it surprises them both. But what really turns Cam’s world upside down is the death of her parents. When her ultra conservative Aunt Ruth moves in to take care of her, you can guess that life is going to get pretty stifling for Cam.

Here’s another confession: I thought the book was going to disturb me. And it did. But not because of the occasional girl kissing a girl. What was disturbing was worrying about Cam. Her crushing guilt that her actions were somehow responsible for her parents’ death. Her heart being broken. Her struggles to conform. Her earnest attempts to change herself.

This book isn’t about homosexuality.

It’s about growing up. About fitting in (or not fitting in). About the painful and horrifying realization that sometimes the people in charge truly don’t know what’s best for you. I hope that kids who struggle with this “issue” will find this book. And I hope that others will read it for the reason that they would read any book.
Because it’s really really good.

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