Let’s Talk About: ‘Issues’ Stories, Happy Stories & Why We Need Both

issues-and-happy

Earlier this month in October, T wrote a thread on Twitter about criticizing problematic portrayals that are ‘realistic’. The idea of today’s discussion post came to me after reading T’s tweets, and I felt compelled to reflect on my preference of books that tackle marginalized social identities.

In today’s Let’s Talk About, I talk about the importance of reading books that explore social issues, particularly those relating to people of marginalized identities and what they may face and experience, as well as why it is important – in fact, necessary – to have happy stories too.

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The importance of ‘issues’ stories

I define ‘issues’ stories as books that have a thematic focus of social issues or explore negative experiences that people may face. For this discussion, the negative experiences I discuss adhere to the shades of sexism, racism, ableism, classism – or all types of oppression. Depicted can be a character affected on an individual level – instances of blatant or subtle prejudice – to also encompass systemic and structural violence. Reading such narratives can be awfully difficult to read sometimes, but it’s important to read these stories.

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1. An opportunity to empathize and understand

I’d like to think that books that contain instances of violence (from physical to structural) are there to show the effect such violence has on the character affected. Narratives that portray struggle and difficulties faced by people with marginalized identities should implore the reader to empathize with the characters having the negative experiences. For those who have not experienced the struggles depicted in a story or have privilege, it is an opportunity to see, understand, and learn.

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2. An opportunity to understand your identity

For those who have experienced prejudice and discrimination, it can be an opportunity to locate identity and struggle within these narratives and thus in our own lives. For some young people, it can feel impossible to give certain feelings vocabulary – you know how it makes you feel, but you can’t find the words to describe it. It can be very confusing, and that dissonance can create emotional barriers.

More so, hurtful experiences affect people psychologically and emotionally – there can be anger, guilt, self-doubt, blaming yourself, and all sorts of terrible things. Books that explore negative experiences, especially those that reconcile or address the experience itself, can provide an avenue for understanding, reconciliation within the self, and validation of one’s experiences. Books can, and do, help with the healing process.

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3. You are not alone

Pure and simple: stories that portray negative experiences convey that you are not alone.

I am certain that some of you can agree that seeing a negative experience in a book, one that you’ve experienced too, can be a strangely liberating and profound experience, especially if you felt alienated from the experience or confused by it. Seeing stories that mirror your personal one can mean: this is written because I acknowledge this experience, or have had it happen to me; what happened was not okay; you are not alone in this.

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Examples of books that explore negative experiences

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The flip-side: the importance of happy stories

Up until this year, I didn’t read a lot of stories that explored identity and had happy characters. It sounds ridiculous in hindsight, but back then, I fell for the idea that if we wanted to explore identity, we had to be honest in how pervasive, cruel, and hurtful it was. It had to be a slap on the face, or it wasn’t good enough. Needless to say, I was wrong.

I owe a lot of my new perspective to Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda, which opened up a new world to me. Not only was the romance fluffy, adorable and just good, it showed me that it is possible to write a happy story that explored coming-out, high school, being gay, and falling in love. That’s not to say that portraying a Simon’s sexuality and coming-out experience in a positive way negates negative coming-out experiences; what Simon Vs does is offer an alternate narrative, a portrayal of a different experience that could be real too.

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1. Normalizing happiness and happy stories

The more books we read that portray positive representation, the more our worlds open up. As I said above, the only books with people of colour that I read were books that explored social issues and negative experiences. For the longest time I believed that all stories with marginalized identities had to explore struggle with identity, or it wasn’t ‘realistic’. I cannot emphasize how wrong I was to believe this, and how it isn’t true at all. Because I only consumed such stories, in my mind, they were normal to me and seeing otherwise was unusual.

Happy stories should not be something that is rare or perceived as ‘unrealistic’; seeing happy, fulfilled characters with marginalized identities should not feel jarring or impossible. We need to normalize happier stories, so that we are shown over and over again, that marginalized identities do not equate to sadness and pain. We need to normalize happier stories to show that they are possible, that struggles may be a part of us but we are other things too. Happy stories affirm that people are complex and can have a wide range of experiences.

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2. A celebration of identity and diversity

It may sound strange, but it’s something we take for granted: sometimes we need to be reminded that we are beautiful for who we are, and that diversity and differences should be celebrated.

While struggle is inherent in many stories, I want to see books that explore the many facets of identity and why they are wonderful things that can bring joy — things like self-love and helping others find their self-love, empowering each other, achieving a sense of solidarity and unity, creating networks of support and friendship, and celebrating each other’s differences. Books that portray struggle in its raw form could very well elucidate these positive things, but happy stories have a place to convey the same core messages and stories too.

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3. Most importantly: happiness exists; it can be and is real

Stories that feature people with marginalized identities do not always have to be about struggle; our lives can be more, are more, than enduring, surviving, and suffering (even if that is a big part of our lives). Our lives can be also be wonderful with beauty, joy, and love, because those things exist too. We rarely see this in (Western) media – people with marginalized identities are often absent or removed from the show, or if they do find happiness, it is fleeting and followed by tragedy.

I want to read about characters with marginalized identities that are happy, accepted, and loved. (And I hate how it needs to be said, but also alive.)

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Examples of books with happy stories

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The good and the bad: why we need both

I want to acknowledge that ‘issues’ stories and happy stories are not mutually exclusive. There are stories that explore negative and harmful experiences but are ultimately happy and fulfilling stories – and vice versa. Life is complex, diverse, and full of ups and downs, and I want books to reflect this. 

A large part of my reading experience, especially when I was younger and new to YA fiction, was reading a lot of books that were dark, ‘problem novels’, or devastating in some way. I actively sought books that depicted struggle and pain, because I sought validation for my own experiences. Reading such books put how I felt into words, gave them voice, and tangibility. Reading books that explores issues and negative experiences taught me much and helped me develop my own self-awareness and empathy.

This year, I started reading happier stories about characters with marginalized identities who also found happiness, love, friendship, and everything good in the world. And why not? Everyone, including people who have suffered, struggled, and have experienced terrible things, deserve happy stories – stories where their identities are accepted, where they are loved, where there is a better society. I also feel like these books give us something to aspire to and something to hope for. 

Right now though, I want to see more happy stories with PoC, queer, disabled, and/or neurodiverse characters. By wanting happy stories, it doesn’t mean I want these characters to have problem-free lives, but I want to see characters with marginalized identities overcome obstacles unrelated to their identity. I want to see PoC, queer, disabled, and neurodiverse characters fight dragons and win, be the Chosen One and save the world, or even small things like fall in love or pursue their passions – I want them to succeed and emerge victorious in whatever they pursue.

So, we need both: we need books that explore negative experiences and social issues, and we also need happy stories. Both contribute important things, their narratives possessing the ability to help people learn, understand, and grow.

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Let’s talk about it!

Without further a do, let’s hop straight over to the discussions! I would love, love, love to hear your thoughts on the topic. I acknowledge that my perspective is shaped by the books I have read, so I’d love to hear your experiences and what you would love to see!

  • What do you think we need more of? Issue narratives, happy stories, or a balance of both?
  • What are some narratives or identities would you like to read about?
  • What have you read more of – issue stories or happy stories? Why do you think you’ve read more than the other?
  • Do you have any recommendations of good social issues books or happy books?

Again, thank you all so much for reading! (You’re all the best.)

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42 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About: ‘Issues’ Stories, Happy Stories & Why We Need Both

  1. I LOVE THIS POST!! I definitely think that we always need a balance of both problematic and happy stories. You already detailed very well as to how both forms of storytelling are valid and necessary, so I don’t see a point in just repeating that. However, I do have to say that I agree. And it very often depends on my mood or what I am currently going through in life. Sometimes I need upbeat books to help me through something and other days I want doom and gloom, simply because I want validation in my own feelings. So, I wouldn’t really be able to say of which one I read more.
    I am very sensitive when it comes to the topic of bullying, so when I want a book that portrays the consequences in a blunt and not pretty way, I turn to Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult. That book broke me.
    As for happier reads, I obviously like Simon vs. too! Other happy LGBT+ books I like to recommend though are You Know Me Well and Everything Leads to You. I often turn to David Levithan and Nina LaCour when I want to read something in that area I guess …

    • Hi Kat!

      Eeeeep, thank you so much!! <3
      I'm a BIG mood reader, so I completely agree with you and understand your POV. I mentioned this in another comment, but life outside my blog has been SO busy lately, so I've been reading more happy books to keep my mental state centered. And I think we need that sometimes, and there's no shame in it at all!

      Oh gosh, Nineteen Minutes was my first Picoult book, and I loved it. I think I read it when I was in high school and it just opened my eyes to so many ideas and concepts. That book broke me too, especially the ending. It was so sad and bittersweet.

      Ooh, I've heard of those books but if you're recommending them, I'll definitely add them to my tbr!! Thanks Kat! :D

  2. I adore this post and will signal boost it to the moon and back. I also need to review More Happy Than Not at some point but I swear, that book broke me. Though I am all for recommending books like it.

    Simon was such a lovely book (I take long reviewing hiatuses filled with awesome books) and we definitely need more of those books in the world too. Alternate narratives is such a perfect way of putting it. Les Normaux is my favourite LGBTQUIA slice of life/fantasy webcomic. It follows some supernatural young adults in Paris, and it gives me the same sort of feels as Simon Vs. with a lot of cultural diversity too: https://tapastic.com/episode/74429

  3. Oh this happiness exists is such an important thing to understand, especially for younger readers! I grew up with the message that anyone not rich isn’t happy and I think it’s one of the main reasons I found the negative in everything and if I had read more happy books (i’m glaring at you lemony snicket) I think it would’ve been great! That being said you’re right. Very few people read stories that are about “others” and it’s time we started! Great post!

    • Hi Vicky!

      I absolutely agree with you there! It’s so fascinating, and sometimes sad, what people can believe through what we learn in the media.

      Yes that’s true! I hope all of us can read books that have diversity. It’s something that I’ll always promote. :)

  4. Cw !!!! <3 I really genuinely think that your discussions are my favorites to read. You just know how to dig deep and get your point across, loud and clear. And it is the case with this post too.
    I was the same as you, for a story with marginalized characters to feel "real" to me it needed to be hard to read, make me sad/angry and eventually send me into fits of sobs haha. But as I started being more aware of the importance of stories of all kinds, I realized that not all marginalized struggled with their identities and a lot of people got over their struggles and live a life with "normal" issues and it is important to read about BOTH. A balance of the two is the perfect amount we need for it to be a TRUE representation.
    What I want more of are books that portray both the good and the bad of being a muslim, I know there are some -that I yet have to read to be honest- but it is not nearly enough. as well as more happy LGBTQ+, most of the ones I read until now (which is not a lot, but working on that) are more on the heartbreaking side of the spectrum.

    • Fadwa!! <3 Hello!

      Oh gosh, that means the WORLD to me. Thank you so much for your kind kind words. :')

      I understand that completely. If it didn't make me feel, I'd question its authenticity! Which was a little flawed, but. XD

      That's so true! I really came to grasp that when I went through university too. People are so different. But yes, I agree! We must read stories that explore all kinds of themes and ideas – that, to me, is great representation.

      Oh yes, I understand what you mean. Same with you, I want to read more stories with Asian characters that explore the things I have experienced or are thinking about.

      If you want a happy LGBTQ+ story, read Seven Tears at High Tide by C.B. Lee, or Not Your Sidekick – which is also by C.B. Lee! ^_^ Both are lovely books with queer POC rep!

  5. OMG GREAT MINDS THINK ALIKE!! (because i just did a post similar to this, but of course i love yours so much more—CW YOU ARE SO ELOQUENT!!) I have never understood how someone could criticize and issue in books. How can we bring about positive change without exposing negative realities?? <— that's the very reason literature is so powerful and even HOLY.
    This post is so eloquent and clever CW YOU ROCK

  6. I love, love this post! This might be your best discussion post yet, Chooi! 💕💕

    I’m in agreement with you; I think we need a general balance of more heavy and happy reads. For me I gravitate towards reading more of the happier ones just because my heart can’t take the gloom too much. However, you’re so right they both can be equally important and insightful.

    And you can guess the depressing, thought provoking book I’m going to remind you that you should pick up someday… A Little Life! Really, that book reached a whole new level of sadness.

    • Hi Summer!

      Oh my, thank you so much!! I’m so glad that you love it! ^_^
      I know what you mean. We need the occasional happy book to de-stress and bring us back to our center. My life outside blogging has been stressful lately, so I’ve been shying away from the heavier stuff for now.

      I haven’t forgotten about A Little Life and how much you love it! I see it every time in the book store and its manymany pages stare at me. XD I’ll read it one day… but I feel like I have to mentally prepare myself for it!

  7. i always love reading your discussions, really <3 I agree with everything you said, and I do think we need both kind of stories to make us think about life, about ourselves, it's important not only to focus on happy things, but also on the sad parts. I guess it also makes us understand things better, if in a worse way, but it's still like a shock when you're reading it and it makes you feel things, like crying, or everything. Anyway I am ranting, but I really love this post <3

    • Hi Marie!

      Oh goodness, you are wonderful. Thank you as always. <3
      That's so true, and you make such a good point! Reading a variety of books can encourage us to reflect, and I think that's so important in building empathy and self-awareness!

      You're not ranting at all! Or, I welcome all rants! <3 Thanks Marie!

  8. We totally need both. Positive representations are very important. For people with these issues/conditions/situations, if we don’t relate to them through fiction, too, it does make the gap bigger in real life/community/understanding.

  9. You are so, so right about needing to see diverse characters doing things unrelated to social issues. The hardest part for me, is trying to write a diverse character into something I’m working on, and make them… normal? I want to talk about some of the ‘everyday’ things that a POC does that a white person doesn’t (like getting hair braided at a salon). But every time I write it, it feels like I’m doing something… wrong, you know? Like that’s not the way YA should be written or something. It sucks, even though I know it’s not true, sometimes I can’t help feeling like it. Anyway, great, enlightening post!

    • Hi Jordyn!

      Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with me. I can understand your struggle there. As a fellow WOC, I can empathize how difficult that may be. I think the best way is to overcome this feeling is to keep reading more books that have POC characters – or maybe even talk to other POC who may have similar or different experiences to you? I think the dissonance that you feel may be because of what is predominantly out there, maybe?

      Don’t be disheartened! <3 Write it anyway, and one day when it's published, people will read your book and think, HEY I DO THAT TOO, I see myself in this book!
      You can do it! :)

  10. OKAY I LOVE THIS POST SO MUCH. Anything I say will only be redundant, so I’ll just leave plenty of waffles and chocolate syrup here.

    That said, I think neither is also an option. Partly because I’m writing the neither. My fantasy stories are super dark, and they don’t necessarily discuss the /issues/, but the world falls apart anyways. Y’know, everyday YA-protagonist struggles XD

  11. WordPress swallowed my comment >.< *Paws at memory.*

    I adore this post and will signal boost it to the moon and back. More Happy Than Not broke me in the best way. On the other hand, I love Simon Vs. for its warmth. We definitely need more books like them in the world. Though I think alternate narratives is the perfect way of putting it. A lot of what I read and love can get quite dark, so I appreciate a lighter book every now and again to normalise that experience too.

    My recent favourite is Les Normaux, a supernatural YA fantasy webcomic, which gives me the feels as Simon Vs, with the most culturally diverse LGBTQUIA cast of characters I've ever read: https://tapastic.com/episode/74429

    Juliet Takes A Breath, A History of Glitter and Blood and Sorcerer to the Crown manage flit between bleakness, confusion and hope in an amazing way. I think at the core of most stories, most sit in grey areas but I do think it's important to have a balance of experiences too.

    • Hi Glaiza!

      Ahhhh thank you; you’re wonderful. <3 More Happy Than Not had the same effect on me! And yes, absolutely agree. We need books that comfort and give hope, and books that remind us of the work that still needs to be done.

      Ooh, thank you for that! I'll check out Les Normaux tonight before I sleep. :D

      I've heard so many good things about Juliet Takes a Breath. And of course, I love Sorcerer to the Crown! (I can't wait for the second one!) <3

      Thank you so much for your wonderful comment, as always. <3

  12. This is such a wonderful post!! It’s so important that we have a balance of both types of stories– there’s nothing inherently bad about either type of narrative, it’s when one overshadows the other.

    Personally, I stay away from “issue” books because I feel like in regards to the functions of issue books that you mentioned, I’m able to get elsewhere through people I know, activism and my studies. I primarily read for fun escapism so I stick to stories (happy or not) that star marginalised characters in non-issue narratives.

    My favourite issue book that I can think of right now is probably More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera. As for happy books, you already know about my love for C.B. Lee books. I’m also really liking Robin Steven’s Murder Most Unladylike series, which is a MG historical murder mystery with a girl from Hong Kong at a British boarding school as the narrator!

    • Hi Daisy!

      Thank you so much! I agree – there’s nothing wrong with either. :)

      That’s a good point! I haven’t read an ‘issues’ book in a long while now, probably for the reasons that you’ve described. My social circles/experience is saturated with those narratives, so I do want to take a break from it all. So I share your stance there!

      I remember you recommending Murder Most Unladylike to me! I really love the idea of that story – thank you. (WHERE CAN I FIND THIS BOOK??)

  13. Lovely post Chooi!! :) It also seems that a lot of stories with “issue” main characters always have to be about the issue rather than the character. Like the character is just a platform to talk about homosexuality or racism but I want, like you said more happy books, books where there’s like a superhero who just happens to be gay or whatever but doesn’t have to deal with like homophobia. It might not be realistic persay but I think it’s good to think of the possibilities of such a world haha

    • Hi Carolyn!

      Thank you so much! That is true to a degree. Personally, I don’t mind so much if characters aren’t the focus of a story, though there must be a very good story or theme to make up for it! But yes, you make a very good point.

      Agreed! I think you’d really like Not Your Sidekick. It does exactly that, re: a queer character that doesn’t have to deal with sexism. I think it’s important to focus on the possibilities too! It helps pave our way forward, or towards the future we want to see, especially for younger readers!

  14. <3 <3 <3 Yup, I've had the exact same experience – unfortunately issue novels aren't always the most positive. For me it was Not Your Sidekick that reminded me that marginalised characters can be happy/I can read outside these depressing issue narratives without sacrificing diversity! I think another one that could be added to the positive list is Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged, it is definitely worth looking at anyway :-)

    • Hi Wendy!

      Yes, agree. Unfortunately so.
      AHH I’m so glad Not Your Sidekick reminded you of that. It reminded me too, and I just love all the characters and the *inclusive vibes* I get from reading it.

      I’ve never heard of that one, but thank you so much for bringing it to my attention! Have you read it? Did you like it?

      • Oh god me too! It is definitely one of my top reads of 2016 just for this year.

        I haven’t read it (yet) but it is firmly on the TBR! I have heard very good reviews about it though :-) There were a lot of comparisons to Bridget Jones, but with an actually diverse cast!

  15. I love to read books about issues… actually I think that is my #1 read preference. Those books just feel so much more meaningful and I LOVE the feeling like you’re not alone…. when I have those moments with books, it’s always super emotional and awesome. BUT I really do need to read a happy book every now and again or I’d probably just melt onto the floor in a pile of feelings. I can’t read the happy ones ALL THE TIME, but whenever I throw one in here and there– they feel refreshing.

    • Hi Michelle!

      I know what you mean! I completely relate to that feeling. I like the punch it gives; they’re very memorable to me – in what the ideas they’re tryng to emphasize and how it makes me feel too.

      Agreed! I think we need a balance of both. They give to us differently. :)

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  19. To be honest, I want a book that doesn’t have a happy ending. Too many books and stories, even movies, nowadays have happy endings and while fantastic and satisfying, it’s not fun in my opinion. I don’t want to know it’s all gonna end happy (partly because the story to get there isn’t enough to keep me interested when I know the ending.) An ending can still be sad, but satisfying. That is something I feel we need to work more towards. After all, the bad in the world is how we recognize the good and it allows us to see the silver lining.

    • Hi Melanie! So sorry for the late reply – I’m finally catching up on all the backlog!

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me. I have to say, I think a few years ago I would’ve agreed, but if the book has characters with marginalized identities, I’ll definitely want a happy ending. We’ve seen too many sad endings that end in tragedy. If it wasn’t about marginalized people, then I don’t mind the occasional sad, tragic, unexpected, or ‘realistic’ story!

      • I hear that, CW! Today’s my catch-up day. :p

        Ah! So you think we need to have happy endings as a statement, perhaps? As a means of saying that everyone can have a happy ending and not just the majority populous? I can understand that and agree with it.

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