Catalyst by Laurie Halse Anderson

catalyst.jpgWhat’s on my mp3 player? Catalyst, by Laurie Halse Anderson.

I consider Laurie Halse Anderson to be a Queen of Problem Novels. Now, what is a Problem Novel, you ask? Good question. I doubt I have a good answer. They’re vaguely defined, I think, but I have my own idea of them. To me, a problem novel is one in which the main character confronts a rather big and serious internal or social problem. A Problem Novel doesn’t merely present these problems as background material, but, rather, climbs right into the mud and wrestles with them. These books strive to be honest and reach the target audience on their level.

Now, pretty much all middle grade and young adult novels revolve around a problem. That’s the first rule of writing. For the most part, these are not Problem Novel problems:

No date for the prom
Convincing the ‘rents to adopt a pet
Spying on neighbors

These, on the other hand, are:

Mental health issues

My tolerance of Problem Novels is rather low, I’m afraid. I’m not especially sympathetic to teen angst and drama; I find it annoying. And then there’s my doubt about how many people actually live similar real dramas. My own middle grade and teen years were pretty much serious-problem-free. Even if I wanted to write such stories, I’d be unqualified.

Laurie Halse Anderson, however, is the Queen of these kinds of stories, and best of all, she writes them in such a way that even I can appreciate them; i.e., language and technique not over the top, even if I think the Problems are. I think she nails the part about reaching her audience on their level. In other words, even if the Problems aren’t real to me personally, the writing is.

So I read and listen to her books, and I can not only tolerate the drama, I can enjoy it. I suspect teens looooooove her and her books.

If you want a review of the book itself, rather than my experience of it, click on the title at the top of the post. It will take you to Laurie’s Web site has book blurbs and summaries.

Categories: Reading

9 replies »

  1. Hmmmm. Here I go picking on your words again. “And then there’s my doubt about how many people actually live similar real dramas.” So you doubt how many folks, young folks especially, live lives involving *problems*. Yikes, Jen, you don’t really doubt that, do you? Not to focus on my own real life dramas, but merely to contradict your mindset, let me list just a few *problems* one of your closer friends (me) lived with and through: parent with cancer when I was 13 and then 18 (same parent), long-term chemotherapy of parent (18 months, mind you, when today’s chemo lasts a mere month or two), alcoholism of other parent, abandonment by other parent who lived just a few miles away and did NOT attempt to contact me in any way, step parent and the usual struggles with step parent, and oh, here’s a shocker, chronic eating disorders (lasting 13 years), along with a sexual assault at age 19 (which thankfully was not a rape).

    Crazy woman. You deserve a gigantic bonk on the head. That list was not a self-pitying list; on the contrary, I love my life and feel blessed to have it, blessed enough to be moved to tears. Contrary to your mindset, I think I’m far from being unusual. My list does not make me special. My list makes me human. There are many, many people who experience real life struggles.

    It’s you, Jen, who is unusual NOT TO HAVE HAD those real life *problems*. I know that other close friends of ours had problems easily as big, and bigger, definitely, than my own.

    Teen angst and drama is real. I find myself drawn to those kids in our church’s youth group who are struggling. And they definitely do struggle.

    I can only imagine how Problem Novels may have helped me when we were young. I think there weren’t nearly so many books in that genre back then. Being an avid reader, I think those books could have been a haven for me. I love the fact that they’re more prevalent today.

    So I kindly ask that you at least reconsider your stance on the topic.

    Take that, you big meanie!! Much love.

  2. Go, Shelly!
    I can’t say that I have read many Problem novels, but my difficulty with teen angst relates to the “I don’t have a date to the prom” stuff. I’m guessing that many Problem novels don’t address the Problems effectively and get way over the top.
    But the problems are real, Jen. Not routine, not common, but way more frequent than you might think.
    So my take is- Round 1 to Jen, Round 2 to Shelly. I can’t wait for Round 3.
    By the way, it’s very clear that you are dearly good friends and that there have been many Rounds in the past.

  3. Hmmm. The offending sentence is “And then there’s my doubt about how many people actually live similar real dramas.” Truth be told, I could probably clear this up pretty quickly and simply, but where’s the fun in that?

    I know I’m removed from the problems kids’ face today; I’m removed from many things human, but I hope I’m aware of them.

    I spent four summers at a camp for what were then called “socially emotionally disturbed” kids. We had kids with mental and chemical disorders, from autism to schizophrenia, and many kids who were simply dealt really crappy hands in life. I had the opportunity to love a little boy who had watched his father beat his sister to death, to love a girl who was sexually abused beginning at the age of seven, to love countless kids who were victims of poverty, neglect, and violence. And I loved them with everything in me.

    I also worked with 15- to 17-year-old boys in a detention facility. Talk about problems.

    If I had more than one life to live, I’d still be doing work along those lines. I don’t personally know those kinds of horrible problems, but I’ve touched kids who do personally know them.

    And, of course, I’ve known and loved you, Shell, since seventh grade.

    I know that serious real-life dramas exist for kids. However, I don’t think the majority of kids experience them. Yet the joke is, “All YA books are Problem Novels.” The point is that a disproportionate number of Problem Novels are published compared with non-Problem novels.

    I don’t know if that’s actually true or not (I have precisely no data to support that claim, only the running joke), but it can seem that way. Maybe it’s because non-Problem Books are considered boring. (That’s another post altogether.)

    That’s Beef #1: I think Serious Problems are perhaps over-emphasized (and maybe over-dramatized, too) in YA lit.

    Another beef I have is the piling on of problems in novels. I know my tolerance for drama is substantially lower than other readers’. My critique group points this out to me regularly.

    We all have problems. You can’t be alive and not have problems. How we rate them on the Serious Scale varies, but even I am not immune to problems.

    Let’s take a look at Catalyst. I don’t like to pick on any book, and I suppose that’s what I’ll be doing, but I think it’s a good discussion. Plus, Laurie Halse Anderson can more than take it. I’ve already said I liked Catalyst, and I’ve liked everything I’ve read of hers: Speak, Twisted, Fever 1793, Turkey Pox, The Big Cheese of Third Street, and I’m sure I’m forgetting some. Props to Ms. Anderson.


    Okay, you’ve got an overachieving MC (Kate) whose mother is dead, which forces her to take care of her minister father and asthmatic 14-year-old brother. Kate’s impressive GPA puts her third in her class, and she’s a strong long-distance runner. She wants to attend MIT, and is so determined to do so she doesn’t apply to any other colleges. She is also tormented by a nasty girl at school, a poor and tough girl named Teri. Teri beat Kate up repeatedly in pre-high school days. Friends and a boyfriend round out the cast.

    Kate is rejected by MIT. Kate is also forced to share her home, bedroom, and life with nasty Teri and her toddler brother when Teri’s home is damaged by fire.

    Those are the makings of a fine story, don’t you think? Totally believable.

    We see Teri being tormented by jocks at school, and learn that her father died in prison, that he beat her mother with a baseball bat to the point of mental illness, and that Teri takes care of her toddler brother and her mother on the very limited resources they have.

    Now Kate’s trouble has new perspective.

    Great story. Gripping but still believable. I’m there 100%.

    But it doesn’t stop there. The todder–which turns out to be Teri’s son (the result of sexual abuse) and not her brother–dies just when we think things with Teri are improving.

    And, well, that death was just one too many serious problems for me. I was at my tipping point, and that pushed me over. I don’t think the story needed it; I know I didn’t.

    It’s the piling on of serious problems that turns me off most Problem Novels. We all have problems, some of us have Serious Problems, and they do tend to pile up to some degree–you’ve heard the saying that bad things happen in threes–but in Problem Novels, bad things seem to happen in twenty-threes.

    Maybe the question is: How many problems does a character have to have to make a story interesting? Is there a maximum number of problems that will be believable, and does piling on more make a story unbelievable? Do readers require stories be believable?

    As a reader, I want my stories believable. That’s why I’m not a sci-fi/fantasy fan. (Though there are sci-fi and fantasy books I love. I’m just picky!) For someone who claims to be a dreamer, it’s shocking how grounded in reality I can be.

    Problem Novels too often go over the top for my tastes, and, yes, I question how many people actually live similar real dramas, the piled-on ones, the ones in these stories.

    That was my intended question: How many kids live the lives depicted in these stories? That’s what I question and doubt. (See? I could have said that at the beginning and spared you all this chatter.)

    I’ll never know.

    And maybe I’m just plain wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time.

    And who says books need to mirror real life?

    One last thing: I believe with all my heart that Problem Novels deserve shelf space. I know they help some kids cope, expand horizons, and do all the great things books do. They’re just not generally my favorite reads; Laurie Halse Anderson’s books are an exception for me. She’s the Queen!

  4. Okay, I’ve had my fun.

    I don’t disagree with either of you. For whatever reason, I find a lot of Problem Novels unbelievable and inducements to eye-rolling and sighing. They’re awfully popular, though, and I suspect they appeal to teens in part because of the teen propensity toward angst and drama, whether they live it or not, whether it’s based on serious problems or non-serious problems.

    I was once a teen. Remember Go Ask Alice?

    I’m complaining about Problem Novels, but I just downloaded a new one that I’ve been eager to read/listen to. Go figure.

  5. I know just what you mean and don’t disagree. It’s a case of, “Enough already!! You had me going when there were problems galore, but now that last one just took me over the edge!”

    I’ve seen similar things in kids movies. Finding Nemo was one…there were way too many near-death scenes. Nemo’s mom is eaten by a baracuda, as well as all of his hundreds of siblings…he was the lone survivor. Sharks torment him. He’s nearly brought up in a fishing net. He’s caught and put into a goldfish tank. Doesn’t he ever get to just laze around with his friends and play in the kelp?

    And then there’s Harry Potter. Don’t get me wrong…I’m beyond thrilled that an individual author was able to get millions of kids and adults that excited about books. Come on…thousands of people waiting in line at midnight to get the next novel.

    I’ve never read any of her work (I don’t *get* fantasy and don’t really want to) and I’ve not seen any of the movies. But I’ve listened to several of them as the kids watch them in the car and I’m driving. I’ve talked to the kids about it: Don’t they ever get to have fun? It seems like everything the kids do is scary and life-threatening. It sounds like it’s always dark and spooky. Someone is always out to get them. Don’t they ever just grab their towels to go swimming in the bright sunlight? Don’t they ever go turn over rocks in the creek to find crayfish?

    Levity and normalcy are good things. We all need healthy doses of that.

  6. Yes, yes, yes! I’m going to adopt the “Enough already!” phrase and theory. I want to have that in my arsenal of descriptions.

    I’m right there with you on Nemo and HP, though the colors and setting in Nemo hold my interest.

    I get a similar feeling during action scenes in movies. I love Ice Age, but the sliding-down-the-ice-chute scene goes on about a half-hour too long for me.

    I hate that action scenes like that seem to be *required.* Similarly, I think uber-drama is to some extent *required* in YA fiction, hence the Problem Novel genre.

    Aside: You know the kids-being-chased-through-the-woods action scene in The Incredibles? The look on Dash’s face when he discovers he can run on water makes that my favorite action scene, maybe ever. I love The Incredibles, but Enough Already! with that last action scene. (I just wanted to use that phrase.)

  7. All right. I agree with both of you 100%. What I had meant to say, and didn’t do it well, was that while problems are real that I suspect most books about them don’t manage very well. I have seen the problem on top of problems phenomenon and the tower just has to topple eventually. It comes back to the Tony Hillerman quote that fiction needs to be believable.Books like this could lose me quick, but I’m sure teens in their craving for angst and drama love them.
    In defense of Harry Potter-1. The characters are young adults, but J.K. Rowling didn’t specifically intend her book for young readers. 2. The movies are no replacement for the books. In the books there are moments of fun, romance, happiness and “normal” teen angst and drama. 3. The books are about the fight against an absolute evil and are in no way supposed to reflect an average kid’s childhood experience. It isn’t so much problem on top of problem as Really Huge Problem that is only revealed a chunk at a time. (Yes, I do “get” and enjoy fantasy. It just has to be believable fantasy.)

  8. Indeed. Very fun.

    Believable fantasy is *hard* to create. I love Lord of the Rings, but I can pick at that, too. I don’t need perfection, just a really good effort.