Themes in Young Adult Literature: Substance Abuse

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2787

Titles Discussed

Beneath a Meth Moon by Jacqueline Woodson

Go Ask Alice by Beatrice Sparks

Stoner & Spaz by Ronald Koertge

Thematic Overview

Substance abuse became a prominent topic in young adult novels during the 1970s. In part, the sudden interest in drugs and alcohol reflected the cultural shift that...

(The entire section contains 2787 words.)

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Titles Discussed

Beneath a Meth Moon by Jacqueline Woodson

Go Ask Alice by Beatrice Sparks

Stoner & Spaz by Ronald Koertge

Thematic Overview

Substance abuse became a prominent topic in young adult novels during the 1970s. In part, the sudden interest in drugs and alcohol reflected the cultural shift that began in the 1960s. While experimentation with drugs and alcohol was not unheard of prior to the 1960s, the rise of the counterculture that accompanied the Vietnam War meant both that an increasing number of adolescents were using substances like marijuana, LSD, and cocaine, and that mainstream culture was more aware of the realities of substance use. Popular countercultural books written for adults, including Jack Kerouac's influential 1957 novel On the Road and the poetry of Beat writer Allen Ginsberg, centered drug usage as formative aspects of youth counterculture. The success of these and similar works extended the popularity of illegal drugs among youth cultures while furthering the anxiety older generations often had about adolescent substance abuse.

For YA novels, the 1970s were also defined by the popularity of the problem novel—realistic fiction that explored adolescent protagonists navigating social problems such as physical abuse, poverty, teenage pregnancy, and substance abuse. Problem novels often functioned as morality tales, intended to educate adolescent audiences and to dissuade young readers from following the paths of their main characters. Because of this, the many novels that featured substance abuse rarely included nuanced characters, complex plots, or artful literary techniques. Instead, one-dimensional characters and unsophisticated plot lines dominated the genre, resulting in sensationalist novels that sold well but lacked depth and were not relatable for teens who might already be struggling with these issues. The 1971 novel Go Ask Alice, for instance, is a graphically explicit account of one girl's descent into drug addiction and prostitution, its plot given over primarily to sordid and shocking details rather than character development.

In the 1980s and 1990s, however, YA novels increasingly shifted their focus away from the morality-based structure of problem novels and into more sophisticated plot and characterization. During this time, substance abuse began to appear more regularly not as a central concern of a novel, but as one of a number of issues with which main or secondary characters might contend. Depiction of, for instance, social drinking or casual marijuana use might occur over the course of a narrative without receiving heightened attention. At the same time, the social fabric of drug use shifted, with popular attention focusing more on the use of crack cocaine and similar stimulants in urban populations than on the use of psychedelics among suburban youth. As the specifics of drug usage in the United States continue to shift over time, new versions of problem novels are also published, addressing the realities of popular contemporary drugs, yet with more nuance and sympathy than their earlier counterparts. This can be seen in Jacqueline Woodson's 2012 Beneath a Meth Moon, which deals frankly with addiction to crystal methamphetamine while also employing poetic literary devices and complex character development. Increased public awareness about substance abuse has also meant fewer shocking portrayals of severely damaged teenagers, as seen in Go Ask Alice. Instead, novels like Ronald Koertge's 2002 Stoner & Spaz feature intelligent and kind-hearted characters who struggle with substance abuse as only one aspect of their adolescent experience. Still recognized as difficulties for many adolescents, substance abuse or experimentation with drugs are also presented as problems that might be overcome with sensitivity and determination.


Wildly controversial and popular among readers, Go Ask Alice purports to be the diary of a young girl who succumbs to drug abuse and, as such, was originally published as an anonymous work. After significant controversy surrounding its truthfulness, however, it began to be billed as fiction, and Beatrice Sparks, who at first claimed to have edited the diary for publication, was credited with authorship. (Other writers may also have contributed, but Sparks is the sole copyright-holder.)

The story follows a fifteen-year-old girl (unnamed in the book, but often referred to as Alice due to the book's title) who is lonely and depressed after her family's move to a new town. When she is tricked into drinking a soda laced with LSD at a party, she begins to spiral out of control, experimenting with amphetamines and promiscuous sex. While Alice has some anxiety about what her family (and particularly her ailing grandfather) will think of her behavior, she quickly abandons herself completely to the countercultural world where she first found drugs, selling LSD to elementary school children in order to make money and fleeing to San Francisco to begin a new life. There, Alice begins to use heroin with her new friends, suffers the trauma of a violent rape, and is arrested for drug possession. Attempting to become sober again, Alice travels around the country, but in no time begins using while turning to prostitution to support her habit. After another attempt to quit and a psychotic break due to an LSD overdose, Alice is institutionalized and sent to counseling. The novel ends with a note that, three weeks after her final diary entry, she was found dead of an overdose.

Go Ask Alice is unequivocally an antidrug novel, intended less to explore the complex realities of drug use and abuse and instead to frighten teenage and adult readers, presenting the countercultural world associated with substance use as a nightmarish place. The fact that the novel is written as a diary (and that many readers believe it to be a true account) goes a long way toward accomplishing this goal. The first-person narrative is immediate and uncensored, with Alice relying on obscenities and crass language to a degree that was rarely seen in YA novels of the 1970s.

As her entire journey is constructed through the lens of her first accidental encounter with LSD, all of her subsequent experiences are presented as the result of that unfortunate event—Alice's rape and her decision to turn to prostitution, for instance, would in theory have never occurred had someone not tricked her into using LSD. The effect of this narrative device is to conflate a number of social issues under the overarching theme of substance abuse, which sensationalizes Alice's struggle with drugs and addiction and further scares readers away from any experimentation with illicit substances. At the same time, Alice is provided with a loving and respectable family, which wants nothing more than to help her get past her new addictions and is waiting to welcome her with open arms no matter how many times she runs away. These characters, however, are rendered with minimal detail, and appear more as generic sketches of “good” people—the effect, again, is to demonize experimentation with drugs while suggesting that no amount of good might save a teenager like Alice from the tragic end she faces. The heavy-handed morality is made most explicit with the closing note of the diary—although Alice has committed herself fully to recovery and received the support of professionals, friends, and family alike, the temptations of drug use prove too much, and her final overdose is described as being somewhere ambiguously between an accident and suicide.

In contrast to the narrative of doomed Alice and her unavoidable death, the main characters of Stoner & Spaz have a more nuanced understanding of the dangers and pleasures that drugs bring into their lives. The story is told from the point of view of Ben, a boy who lives with cerebral palsy and who has no friends, relying instead on movies and the companionship of his overprotective grandmother to fill his life. One day, however, he meets Colleen, a girl well known in his school for using and selling marijuana, as well as other drugs. While at first Ben is shocked that Colleen even talks to him, the two quickly form a tight and romantically charged friendship. While Ben makes Colleen feel like a normal teenager and encourages her to use fewer substances, Colleen forces Ben to become more social, bringing him to see bands play and getting him to try marijuana for the first time. With each other's support, Ben begins to work on a short film and Colleen begins to cut back on her substance abuse, and eventually they engage in a short-lived sexual relationship. The novel ends on a somewhat ambiguous note, with Colleen slipping and beginning to use drugs again and Ben declining to join her as she heads to the club, preferring instead to stay at the opening for his film. While the two part ways, however, their bond is also affirmed, with both characters having learned about themselves from their connection.

Colleen's life, like Alice's, is defined by her dependence on illicit substances and the countercultural world that surrounds them. Unlike Alice, however, her choice to use these drugs does not guarantee a doomed future of violence and death, but rather represents an unhealthy choice that she must navigate in order to become a happier version of her true self. Because of this, the narrative itself makes a clear distinction between experimentation with drugs and addiction. Early on in their new friendship, Colleen offers Ben a hit of marijuana, which he accepts despite never having considered experimenting with drugs in the past. Ben's experience is entirely positive, with the marijuana both alleviating the discomfort of his cerebral palsy and allowing him to experience freedom from the social anxiety that usually defines his interactions with others. While Ben does not choose to become a regular user of drugs, he does understand marijuana to be a potentially beneficial substance, albeit only if he uses it sparingly and does not go on to try other drugs (he regularly declines Colleen's offer of cocaine, for instance). At the same time, Ben's grandmother displays a more conservative take on drug abuse, reminiscent of that of Alice's parents—she does not understand why Colleen would rely on drugs and feels that her choice to do so makes her friendship unfit for Ben. By the novel's end, Colleen is returning to her old, unhealthy patterns, making it clear that ending an addiction is not a simple task. At the same time, however, it is Ben's ability to engage with Colleen without judging her choices (and indeed to explore those choices for himself) that allows them to connect in the first place. Thus, acceptance, rather than demonization, of drug users might be the healthiest choice and might have the most to offer teenagers who encounter substance abuse as part of their daily social lives.

Contemporary novels may still rely on the narrative of substance abuse destroying lives, but they often display more nuanced and sympathetic views than those of Go Ask Alice, as can be seen in Beneath a Meth Moon. This novel tells the story of fifteen-year-old Laurel, a girl who loses her beloved mother and grandmother during Hurricane Katrina, then relocates to a new town with her single father and younger brother. Soon after relocating and before being able to properly process the trauma of the deaths, Laurel is offered crystal methamphetamine by one of the most popular boys in school. The drug offers Laurel both a reprieve from the pain of the hurricane and a rush of acceptance and love, as she begins dating the boy and finds her social status rising. Soon, however, she is addicted rather than casually using, and eventually she runs away from home in search of the drug. Living on the street in a nearby city, she scrounges for whatever meth she can find, making friends with a teenage boy named Moses who paints the sides of buildings with figures of teenagers who overdosed on the drug. Laurel ends up hospitalized and near death because of her addiction, and her father brings her back home after a long, painful period of recovery. Again surrounded by her surviving family, Laurel is both aware of the incredible challenges ahead of her and determined to survive into a better future.

Beneath a Meth Moon shifts back and forth among three different time periods: Laurel's life on the street, the trauma of Hurricane Katrina, and her introduction to meth and addiction. This narrative structure makes clear connections between the events Laurel experiences while avoiding a direct causal relationship. While the tragedy of the death of her mother and grandmother contributes to her desire to escape into substance abuse, Laurel herself never suggests that she is an addict because of this trauma, nor does she entirely blame the boyfriend that introduces her to the drug. Instead, readers are given a realistically complex set of motivations—the harsh and addictive reality of the drug, the fabric of teenage social life in her small town, the emotional anguish of Hurricane Katrina, and her own personality all conspire to create the circumstances in which addiction becomes her reality. While Alice has a happy life that is immediately destroyed when she accidentally ingests hallucinogens, Laurel is able to recognize drugs as a malicious force while also understanding some of the reasons she might have turned to them in the first place, a subtlety that does not place the blame for addiction on any single cause. In this way, Beneath a Meth Moon operates somewhere between the tradition of the problem novel and the trend for more sophisticated and complex YA novels that have emerged during the twenty-first century. It employs explicit and realistic prose in its exploration of the social problem of crystal meth abuse, yet it resists any easy answers or morality lessons, favoring instead the development of complex characters who describe their own experiences with honesty.


A 2014 survey from the University of Michigan shows that use of most illegal drugs has fallen among teenagers from the rates it reached in the early 2000s. While roughly 35 percent of twelfth-grade students had used marijuana in the past year, fewer than 5 percent of students the same age had used hallucinogens, MDMA, cocaine, and almost all other illicit or prescription drugs during that time. At the same time, fewer than 40 percent of twelfth-grade students considered marijuana use to pose any significant risk to their lives, a view that corresponds to a larger societal shift in attitudes toward marijuana.

Overall, these trends suggest several realities that are reflected in YA novels that depict substance abuse. While a number of adolescents will experiment with substances during their lifetimes, and some of those will begin lifelong struggles with addiction during their teenage years, the majority of teenagers are relatively well-educated about the risks and realities of substance use compared to the generation that grew up reading Go Ask Alice and similar sensationalized novels. This does not mean that substance abuse is not a problem among teenagers, as indeed the realities of increased social pressures, adolescent anxiety and depression, and similar challenges associated with the teenage years can significantly increase risk for substance abuse and addiction. It does mean, however, that teenagers are much more receptive to novels in which substance abuse is rendered with complexity and nuance. Characters like Colleen, lovable and problematic but ultimately a positive influence in the lives of her friends, are becoming commonplace. The specifics of drug and alcohol abuse change with every generation of young people—different drugs are introduced or become popular, and generational attitudes toward use and addiction shift rapidly. Regardless of these changes, however, contemporary novels are increasingly able to face new realities with honesty and compassion, providing tools in understanding the emotional complexity of drugs and alcohol for readers who are sensitive and attuned enough to receive them.

Further Reading

  • Garbett, Ann D. “Ronald Koertge.” Guide to Literary Masters & Their Works (2007): 1. Literary Reference Center. Web. 30 June 2015. <>.
  • Quina, James. “Go Ask Alice.” Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Fiction Series (1991): 1–2. Literary Reference Center. Web. 30 June 2015. <>.


  • “DrugFacts: High School and Youth Trends.” National Institute of Drug Abuse. Natl. Institutes of Health, Dec. 2014. Web. 30 May 2015. <>.
  • Gershowitz, Elissa. “What Makes a Good ‘Bad’ Book?” Horn Book Magazine 89.4 (2013): 84–90. Literary Reference Center. Web. 30 June 2015. <>.
  • Mathys, Cécile, William J. Burk, and Antonius H. N. Cillessen. “Popularity as a Moderator of Peer Selection and Socialization of Adolescent Alcohol, Marijuana, and Tobacco Use.” Journal of Research on Adolescence 23.3 (2013): 513–23. Academic Search Premier. Web. 30 June 2015. <>.
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