Young Adult Fiction: An Acknowledgement of the Price and Pain of Growing Up
(This article first appeared at www.urbantimes.co on 5 April 2013)
‘Coming of age’ books are punching way above their weight. In the context of our lives the actual period when we cross over from childhood to adulthood is a mere punctuation point; and yet this moment forms the subject matter for what has become a literary juggernaut—the genre known as young adult fiction.
The explosion in the young adult category is well documented. In 1997, 3,000 young adult novels were published. 12 years later, that figure rose to 30,000 titles. These sorts of gains can’t possibly be fuelled solely from within the adolescent population—and indeed the truth is that the genre appears to be becoming astoundingly popular with adults as well.
The reason for its skyrocketing popularity is not clear. Certainly some of it has to do with a recognition of the genre’s potential, and its subsequent exploitation. Some of it might also have to do with an actual improvement of the genre: it is debatable whether any generation has been able to match the irresistible package of psychological honesty and adventure that characterises young adults today. These writers know how to hook you.
Beneath the question of its increasing popularity lies the more profound question of why this period of our lives fascinates us at all? Some say coming of age is just a time when our hormones run wild, or when we come into sexual maturity, and to an extent this is true. The resulting awkwardness is the source of a lot of the humour in the genre. But if this was all there was to it, it would not explain why these stories resonate with us on such a deep, emotional level.
The fact is there is something deeply poignant about this time of life, something bordering on the tragic. Indeed, if you think of classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird, and Catcher in the Rye, tragedy is not far from the surface. More recently Susan Collins’ extraordinarily popular series The Hunger Games is unflinching in its depiction of the toll that coming of age takes on its wonderful teenage heroine.
In between there have been other fine books such as those by S.E. Hinton, whose first novel The Outsiders arguably kick-started the young adult genre. It includes the saying “Stay gold Ponyboy”, which has become part of the modern lexicon: it means don’t give away all your innocence whatever life tries to do to you. These are high stakes, and it pretty accurately identifies why this transition period is completely serious when you are in it.
Hinton’s is a rare admission, which may have something to do with the fact that she was just 17 when she wrote it—it’s hard to talk about lost innocence after you no longer have your own. Instead we normally fob away this period with superficial explanations like “it is just hormones”, or else with euphemisms such as “you’re just finding your place in the world”, or simply “growing up.” indeed young adult fiction is about the only place that acknowledges the price and pain of growing up. When it comes to real explanation, i.e. scientific explanation—it is almost non-existent.
The contemporary biologist Jeremy Griffith recognises the anomaly of this when he says that coming of age “has been the most important psychological event to occur in human life and yet it has never been explained and only very rarely acknowledged before now.”
One of the first and only studies in existence is the psychologist G. Stanley Hall’s landmark work ‘Adolescence’, which he wrote at the turn of last century. Hall explained the internal turmoil and upheaval of adolescence as being due to a type of ontology, where adolescence is a stage in an individual’s life that mirrors a stage in our species’ evolution as it transitioned from a primitive to civilized state. Whether this has anything to do with the angst a teenager feels is an open question. An adolescent might well read it and shake their head—‘just more adult rubbish’ they would probably think.
Griffith also has an explanation, and it might be one that resonates slightly more than Hall’s. Griffith describes the point of transition from adolescence to adulthood as ‘Resignation’. He coined this term because he believes that all children reach a point where they have to ‘resign’ themselves to giving up on the important questions in life (such as why we aren’t all ideally behaved), because until now there has not been a genuine scientific defence available for our non-ideal behaviour.
In effect, he says, we have all had to resign ourselves to just living out our lives without thinking deeply ever again. This was necessary he says—because it was just too depressing to continue thinking about life without a defence available—but the cost was enormous, and as a result adolescents resisted the inevitability of it mightily.
A brief look at young adult fiction would seem to bear out Griffith’s view about the seriousness of this psychological transition. Despite their apparent target audience (ostensibly) being ‘just’ teenagers, ‘coming of age’ books usually far exceed adult ones in their honesty about the human condition. Because they can write from the perspective of someone still outside the adult world, they are able to show up just how stultifying and numb adulthood can be. They are also honest about the internal wrestling we all went through at that point in our lives—indeed reading young adult fiction can remind us of insecurities that make us feel distinctly uncomfortable, even after the passage of many years.
As an adult this can at first all seem a bit alienating—more often than not we are the villains, and that time in our lives seems an eternity ago. This feeling of alienation is reinforced by a look at the dust jackets that line today’s bookshops—books about vampires and dystopic futures and something called steampunk. You might well scratch your head and wonder what has happened to our youth that they read about such things.
If you dip your toe in though, you will quickly realise that you are in a world that you remember. Sure the metaphors and settings are new, but they are just being used to represent the internal struggles of adolescence, and the antipathy teenagers feel for the adult world. These essentials haven’t changed.
If the trend is anything to go by, you just might find yourself hooked and buying that book; and if you do cross that threshold, you will find yourself reliving a time in your life when you never hurt so deeply, but never lived so deeply either.