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READ LIKE A WRITER, a teaching blog


St. Augustine was one of the earliest to write autobiographical confessions in a journal. This cover is by Penguin Books.

by Christine Kohler

I have a lot of confessions to make in writing this article about “Confession Literature in YA novels.”


I never use nor recommend using Wikipedia for a source. However, there are different definitions for Confession and Confessional Literature, and the Wikipedia entry works best for what I plan to open a discussion on in this article. The following is a condensed version of a fluid (as opposed to concrete) definition of Confession, or Confessional, literature, according to Wikipedia:


In literature, confessional writing is a first-person style that is often presented as an ongoing diary or letters, distinguished by revelations of a person's deeper or darker motivations.
Originally, the term derived from confession. The writer is not only autobiographically recounting his life but confessing to his sins.

Fictionally, the confessional story is a story written, in the first person, about emotionally fraught and morally charged situations in which a fictional character is caught.
With the advent of the magazine True Story in 1919, the confessional (and later Romance) magazine was created, containing such stories. The formula has been characterized as "sin-suffer-repent": The heroine violates standards of behavior, suffers as a consequence, learns her lesson, and resolves to live in light of it, not embittered by her pain.


I found examples in YA lit where someone close to the first-person protagonist was caught instead. Also, in the adult market stories the confessor didn’t always repent. And in the YA novels the resolutions were to reveal the mystery of who the real culprit (sinner) was who committed the crime, usually murder or theft. The one thing all of these stories seemed to have in common besides the first-person confession, dark subjects, and deep emotional self-analysis, was a surprise twist at the end.


This year I have been reading novels in the adult market, mostly mysteries. Recently I read short stories in a collections of Edgar winners, in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. I noticed some of the stories were told in a confession style, but it was writer Samantha Allen whose story “Some Kind of Lonely” in EQMM that moved me the most. Allen’s essay about Confession Literature clarified for me this specific style. Check out her thoughtful essay “Weight of the Words”.
This is what led me to think about what YA novels are written in Confession style.


I have read all the YA novels I’m going to cite as possible examples of Confession Literature. However, it has been years ago since I read them. I also have no idea if the authors themselves would classify their stories as a Confession style. So, if you don’t agree, please speak up and tell me why any of these books don’t fit the Confession criteria. Or is you know of a YA novel that you feel does fit the Confession criteria, please add the title and author in comments. Here are four novels with links and summaries from Goodreads so you can look them up and judge for yourself if you haven’t read them:

[Note: The Monster summary is from one by reviewer Medeia Sharif and part of the Harpercollins book summary on Goodreads because the original summary is very long and I wanted to mostly highlight the mixed media methods author Walter Dean Meyers—oral confession, jury trial with witnesses, film, journal. (Note: Check out my earlier blog article on using mixed media in novels.)]

CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth Wein (Egmont, 2012)

1943 -- When "Verity" is arrested by the Gestapo, she's sure she doesn't stand a chance. As a secret agent captured in enemy territory, she's living a spy's worst nightmare. Her Nazi interrogators give her a simple choice: reveal her mission or face a grisly execution.

[My note: I remember this story as a mystery being told from Verity’s point of view inside an interrogation room where German SS officers are trying to get a confession from her.]

DOVEY COE by Frances O’Roark Dowell (Atheneum, 2001)

My name is Dovey Coe and I reckon it don't matter if you like me or not. I'm here to lay the record straight, to let you know them folks saying I done a terrible thing are liars. I aim to prove it, too. I hated Parnell Caraway as much as the next person, but I didn't kill him.

[My note: This story is told from a courtroom with Dovey on trial for murder.]

THE SILENCE OF MURDER by Dandi Mackall (Knopf, 2011)

Seventeen-year-old Hope Long's life revolves around her brother Jeremy. So when Jeremy is accused of killing the town's beloved baseball coach, Hope's world begins to unravel. Everyone is convinced Jeremy did it, and since he hasn't spoken a word in 9 years, he's unable to defend himself. Their lawyer instructs Hope to convince the jury that Jeremy is insane, but all her life Hope has known that Jeremy's just different than other people—better, even. As she works to prove his innocence—joined by her best friend T.J. and the sheriff's son, Chase—Hope uncovers secrets about the murder, the townspeople, her family, and herself. She knows her brother isn't the murderer. But as she comes closer to the truth, she's terrified to find out who is.

[My note: This story is told during a trial, some scenes in the courtroom, and some elsewhere in flashbacks and outside the courthouse where Hope tries to solve the murder mystery to clear her brother. SILENCE OF MURDER is an example of the protagonist not being the accused. But her mute brother’s life is so entwined with hers that she speaks for him.]

MONSTER by Walter Dean Meyers

Steve Harmon is a teenager on trial for allegedly being an accomplice in the murder of a drugstore owner. The author makes use of not only the courtroom, but also Steve’s journal and a movie that Steve’s film club is making of the crime. As a way of coping with the horrific events that entangle him, Steve, an amateur filmmaker, decides to transcribe his trial into a script, just like in the movies. He writes it all down, scene by scene, the story of how his whole life was turned around in an instant. – summary partially by reviewer Medeia Sharif & Harpercollins; see Goodreads for Sarif’s full review


I am convinced that most of the readers of this blog are introverts. Not that I mind, but I would love for you to discuss this topic in the comment section so we can have a dialogue. Confession Literature is something I have not written in fiction, only in poetry and my own journals. It’s not a genre or style I’m experienced with. And I was surprised how I fumbled at coming up with YA novels that could be considered Confession Literature. So, please comment, your opinion counts.  Read More 

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