Although ideologies might be slow to change or manifested in children's and adolescent literature, there is no question that literature written for young readers has undergone numerous transformations in the last two hundred years or so. Some of those transformations are more evident than others, notably the development of the "New Realism" or "Problem Novel." However, during the same era that New Realism and the Problem Novel flourished, another type of novel-Social Realism-also surfaced with less fanfare. While the Problem Novel and Social Realism have a great deal in common, they are also distinctly different. Perhaps one of the earliest texts that demonstrates the difference between the Problem Novel and Social Realism is Virginia Hamilton's 1971 novel, The Planet of Junior Brown. While it might be tempting to read Planet as a Problem Novel, I suggest that it provides an alternative to the solipsistic, often hopeless, Problem Novel.
Unquestionably, Planet is similar to the Problem Novel. Indeed, it can be comfortably
situated within nearly all of the parameters set forth by those who define the
Problem Novel and New Realism. However, I suggest that The Planet of Junior
Brown reinvents the Problem Novel and marks the rise of Social Realism,
a genre not yet fully acknowledged but certainly deserving of recognition. Thus,
I outline the characteristics of Social Realism and explain how The Planet
of Junior Brown powerfully reflects a shift in political agendas for adolescent
literature, which is indicative of a synthesis of the Problem Novel and new
social realities. Indeed, I consider Planet a cornerstone of contemporary
Social Realism. Ultimately, I suggest that Social Realism in general and Planet
in particular contribute to an awareness of the world in which young readers
live, including the knowledge that this is not a perfect nation and that social
injustices do occur but that young readers can make a difference that contributes
to a different world view. It thus serves particular political and ideological
agendas and potentially fosters a sense that young people can (sometimes must)
do something about the imperfections and that they can be agents of social change.
This suggests that the focalizers have some degree of agency or empowerment
and further suggests that readers can become empowered and agents of change
as well. I argue that, unlike the New Realism, Social Realism is a genre of
hope that individuals can transform their worlds into better places, but it
is articulated in a far different form than one might expect.