The Issue With Issue Books by I.W. Gregorio
When I was a kid, I read for ALL the reasons. I read to escape, to travel to places real and imagined that were far beyond the insular Central New York town I lived in. I read to be entertained, and to laugh at the jokes and hijinks of characters who were far more daring and witty than painfully shy, teenage me. I read to find friends who would share their most intimate secrets with me, and to feel the tingling in my toes when I read a heart-stopping romance.
Since this is the Nerdy Book Club, however, I can make a singularly unsexy confession that I never would’ve admitted when I was a teenager: I also read to learn. Some of my absolute favorite books growing up were assigned: To Kill A Mockingbird is the no-brainer example for so many people, offering a glimpse of racial prejudice in 1930s America. I will carry the knowledge of the Dust Bowl that The Grapes of Wrath gave me forever. To this day, I feel a singular rush of delight when I learn a new factoid, or when a book shows me insight into a time, place or phenomenon that I’ve never experienced. I love the headiness that comes with the expansion of my world.
Of course, not everyone does. Somewhere, somehow, required reading become something to dread.
At a certain level, I don’t understand why, because shouldn’t all people want to know more about their world? If so, why is there such a stigma associated with so-called “issue” books?
Quick definition: For the purposes of this essay, I’m defining an “issue book” as a novel that tackles a specific, often serious topic (e.g., suicide, anorexia, date rape, or a coming out story). If you’re thinking that this definition sounds like an Afterschool Special, well, I guess that’s part of the problem: When done poorly, when the topic of a book takes precedence over character development, pacing, and language, issue books can be dull indeed.
These are the words that are often used in reviews (both trade and informal) when issue books go wrong: Didactic. Heavy-handed. Preachy. Lecture.
One of my biggest concerns as I wrote None of the Above (about a girl who discovers her senior year of high school that she was born intersex) was that I really, really didn’t want it to sound like a textbook. At the same time, I felt a heavy responsibility to inform readers because intersex is such a taboo and oft-misunderstood subject. It was absolutely crucial that I get the details right, because I know from personal experience that even medical professionals don’t understand what intersex is.
The challenge, of course, was to inform without sounding like a pedagogue. Every reader has a different tolerance for info-dumping, and as a writer I know that no book pleases everyone. That knowledge didn’t stop me from doing my best to make my book more pleasant to consume than cod liver oil, yet more nutritious than marshmallow Peeps. Basically, I wanted None of the Above to be a literary blueberry: a novel that’s both enjoyable and good for you.
So here’s the flip side of reviews about issue books—words like: Enlightening. Life-changing. Important. Fascinating. Eye-opening. These are words that make me proud to exploit people’s love of reading to educate, because as all Nerdy Book Clubbers know, teaching is the most gratifying profession on earth.
If you’ve got knowledge, flaunt it.
Browse Inside & read the first seven chapters of None of the Above at HarperCollins.com
I. W. Gregorio is a practicing surgeon by day, masked avenging YA writer by night. After getting her MD, she did her residency at Stanford, where she met the intersex patient who inspired her debut novel, None of the Above (Balzer & Bray / HarperCollins). She is a founding member of We Need Diverse Books™ and serves as its VP of Development. A recovering ice hockey player, she lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two children. Find her online at www.iwgregorio.com, and on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and Instagram at @iwgregorio. For more information on intersex, please watch this amazing Buzzfeed video from Inter/Act Youth.