Saturday, October 25, 2014

How Old is that Young Adult?

Two nights ago Gaston the dog woke me up at 12:15 a.m. I let him outside. I didn’t feel like going back to sleep, so I grabbed a book from the teetering stack next to my bed and started reading.

The book was Girl, 15, Charming but Insane, by Sue Limb. The title is perfect. It’s about a 15-year-old girl dealing with being a 15-year-old girl, a not insignificant undertaking. By the time the dog returned from his midnight adventure, I was hooked.

Shortly before 4:00 a.m. I finished the book and set it down, thinking, When was the last time I read a book about a teenager being a teenager?

It had been a while. I read a fair amount of “young adult” fiction—books written for a teen audience, usually featuring a teenage protagonist. Very few of those books are about being a teenager. They are about being an adult.

In Girl, 15, the main character, Jess Jordan, acts and thinks like a 15-year-old. She tells unnecessary lies, blurts inconvenient truths, performs spontaneous self-destructive acts, and caroms from one emotional extreme to another. She is charming and maddening, stupid and smart, silly and profound, cruel and kind. I found her altogether refreshing. She reminded me of Holden Caulfield.

If The Catcher in the Rye were published for the first time today, it would not be well-received. The writing would be noticed and admired, certainly, but Holden’s character would be deemed unacceptable. Holden thinks like a teenager, he acts like a teenager, and if we could see him, he would certainly look like a teenager. Just check out the current customer reviews on Amazon. Today, Holden is perceived as too immature, too self-absorbed, too whiny, too irresponsible, too…too flat out irritating. Today, we want our YA protagonists to act like grownups.

For example, Katniss Everdeen is a compelling and engaging character who serves The Hunger Games beautifully, but she does not for one moment think or act like a teenager. The characters in Elizabeth Wein’s excellent thriller Code Name Verity hardly even pretend to be teens. In Jasper Fforde’s entertaining YA “Dragonslayer” series, 15-year-old Jennifer Strange acts like a 40-something man. John Green’s characters are always well-drawn, intelligent, and likeable, and they wrestle with issues important to teens—but they think and act more like twenty-somethings.*

In part, this is because most of today’s YA fiction is about adolescents who, faced with adult-size challenges, are forced (or choose) to put on adult-size armor, and deal. This is what YA readers want. As our 15, 16, or 17-year-old protagonists face their antagonists, we want them to make grownup decisions, and we want those adult strategies to prevail. We find this reassuring, inspirational, and sometimes instructive. Such characters act the way we (both adults and teens) think teens should act. They are our avatars.

In real life, teenagers are children learning how to pretend to be adults. Eventually they will forget they are pretending, and the label “adult” will become them. In the meantime, they are highly intelligent creatures struggling with real and important issues which they sometimes deal with by using mature, adult-style strategies (Yay!), and sometimes by employing foot-stomping temper tantrums, self-destructive skateboard stunts, or armpit farts (Boo!)

I still wasn’t sleepy after finishing Girl, 15, so I got on the internet and looked up Sue Limb. Turns out she’s written lots of books, several of them featuring Jess Jordan at ages 15, 16, and 17. I was mildly surprised to see that they’re marketed as “middle grade” books, for ages ten and up. It shouldn’t have surprised me. Fifth and sixth graders want to know what it means to be a teenager. Teens have their radar dialed in on “adult.”

I downloaded the next book in the Jess Jordan series. I read it last night.

* In this sense, The Fault in Our Stars film adaptation was perfectly cast.

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