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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

YA fiction on addiction: raising a touchy topic

Realistic YA novels that deal with tough subjects in kids’ lives can be welcome resources, for schools that hope to open up those issues. But there are issues, and then there are issues.

Many schools these days want to talk about bullying, which is great — this is very often huge in kids’ lives, and it’s especially potent and dangerous in the Internet age. I’ve been involved with hundreds of schools that have worked, often very powerfully, with my two novels on the subject, The Revealers and its sequel on cyberbullying, True Shoes.

But if you write about addiction ... that, I'm discovering, can be a much tougher nut to crack.

I had a chance to explore this topic with the other day, at the annual conference of the New Jersey Association of School Assistance Professionals. SAPs work with middle and high schoolers on substance-abuse issues, and often these days on bullying issues too. About 500 of them attended the New Jersey conference, where I gave a couple of workshops — and after sharing a number of examples, in various media, of creative ways that schools and educators have engaged students with my novels on bullying, I turned to The Prince of Denial.

This, my newest book, is narrated by a seventh grade boy whose parents have divorced. Casey is living with his dad now, and he’s been pressed by his departed mom into the role of cleaner-upper and cover-upper for his dad’s increasingly intense drinking and weed-smoking problem.

When the story starts, Casey is the prince of denial. “My dad and me, we do fine together,” he loyally assures us, even after he has rushed home after school to pick up the bottles in the living room; after he’s finished doing the breakfast dishes and the laundry for him and his dad; after he’s laid down his homework in the early evening, to come finish cooking dinner after his dad disappears into the garage to get high.

People are often so leery of this issue, I said to my workshop participants, and no one disagreed. If the story looks at the impacts of an adult’s substance abuse on teenagers in the house — well, that can bring up some real resistance. So many of us, myself included, would rather not talk about how our own struggles may have influenced or affected our kids; yet young people most often learn these behaviors from their parents. I did: growing up in a two-alcoholic household, I absorbed that what grownups did for fun was party. And it was important to be good at that.

So, knowing that this subject in a novel can elicit strong resistance, I told my ASAP workshops that I don’t expect schools to snatch up The Prince of Denial the way they have my bullying books. But what if someone like a school assistance professional, a guidance counselor, or a brave teacher wanted to work with this story?

I showed a few examples of how one Vermont high school teacher has already worked with The Prince of Denial — and then I shared one scene. When he goes out for dinner with his dad, Casey almost unconsciously counts the two beers his father has before going, then the several mixed drinks he downs fast at the restaurant.

Then his father waylays a waitress. As she pleads for him to let go her elbow, he says, “See, now that’s the trouble with life ... You always gotta let ... GO!” And he yanks her elbow, and the full tray of drinks balanced on her other hand tilts, then spills all over Casey. After his father silently pays for the drinks, and they silently leave the restaurant without dinner, the scene shifts to the car.

All the way home he didn’t say anything. I was so scared he was mad at me. I finally said, “I’m sorry, Daddy. I’m sorry.” My voice was trembling. “I’m really sorry.”

He didn’t say anything. He pulled into a convenience story, and came out with a twelve-pack. Those come in a box.

If, I asked, you were working with a group of young readers, or an individual student, what questions might you ask about this scene? Here are the ideas that came up:

Why does Casey apologize?
Why doesn’t Casey tell his dad how embarrassing that was for him?
Does Casey think this is his fault? Why would he think that?
What do you think Casey is feeling, at this point?
Can you understand why Casey says these things? Can you relate?

When I visit a school that has read one of my books, I’m considered to be the person in the room who knows about creative work — but I often witness the well-aimed ideas that teachers, counselors, and librarians bring to connecting young people with books that might be meaningful to them, that deal with things they may be wrestling with.

Without that creative connecting, a book may just sit on the shelf. It may never come alive for a young reader, or for a classroom full. This, I think, is a good example. About a very touchy subject.

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