The Advent of Young Adult Fiction

First, an explanation: in the midst of studying for the Bar, it seems that all my previous neurotic tendencies have exploded into a frenzied ball of non-stop crazy: which I didn’t really notice until discussing it with a friend today. I’ve always liked to keep myself busy, and part of that is managing and prioritizing time effectively. Unfortunately, with the Bar, there isn’t a lot to do: my day is benchmarked by how many topics I cover. So in exchange for the lack of regiment, I’ve created my own, carefully observed, routines: Wake up at six, drink a cup of coffee while reading a book, feed the cats and clean up the apartment, head to the gym, work out, shower, and then study until six or seven, at which time I make dinner, clean up, post a blog post, and then go to bed. There’s been a one hour gap at the end of my day that I’d been idly filling with tv, rewatching movies, and just idling around the internet. And that’s when it occurred to me: I’m too worn out and mentally exhausted by the end of a day to really sink into a piece of literature, but there’s a whole body of easy reading out there — the young adult genre.

So, after asking some of my friends for recommendations, I eagerly downloaded “Divergent” by Veronica Roth and got to reading yesterday. When I get a bit further, I’ll post a review of that, too, no worries.

Anyway, my knowledge of the young adult genre today is somewhat limited. I effectively aged out of the books in third grade, when I had read the entire section that my local library had. My poor librarian was forced to begin vetting adult fiction novels to make sure that she didn’t recommend anything with content that was too extreme or sexual for a nine year old (and bless her for doing so!) I left in the age of Lois Lowry, the Boxcar Children, and the Baby-sitters Club: these, relatively mundane series existed alongside Lloyd Alexander, whose books today looked dated and musty in the library here. I loved Tamora Pierce, and Patricia Wrede’s “Dealing With Dragon” series. Still, that was it: with the exception of those two women, the line was drawn: if you were  a boy, there were adventure and thriller series, and if you were a girl, there were stories about baby-sitting, and American GIrls, and writing in diaries about your period. There weren’t many gender neutral books, and it was the time of long, unending series of books (think of R.L. Stine and the unending Goosebumps and Fear Street series).

ImageImageImageBut anyway, I left, so I can’t begin to say what happened between that and Harry Potter. I’m a little older than the craze: I was in sixth grade when the first book came out, but I had been reading adult books for years, and I disdained the idea of reading below my advanced reading level. I gave in around eighth grade, with the third book, when my brothers were eagerly reading them — and my brothers, growing up, were the kind of jocky lunkheads (I used to compare my family to that of Madeleine L’Engle’s in “A WRinkle in Time” — my younger brothers, who are twins themselves, perfectly represented Sandy and Dennys).

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Harry Potter was that perfect, transition book: it started out as a fantasy story for young readers, lacking depth but making up for it with engaging storytelling, compelling characters, and the elements of great fantasy novels. It provided an “in” to the fantasy world: Harry starts out like the reader himself, in the Muggle world, before slowly being initiated in. As the stories progress, Harry grows up, and so do the stories, tackling darker themes. It becomes a Coming of Age Story, and it’s a romance, it’s an adventure at times, a comedy at others, and each book continues the unifying theme of courage, friendship, and love. Perhaps most importantly, it was an entirely gender-neutral story. Harry was himself a boy (of course!) but the most neutered form of it. Harry is, really, a blank slate. He’s flanked by a girl who is smart and strong, and who carries the bulk of the romantic story on her shoulders; and a boy who likes sports, and gets into wacky shenanigans. Everybody could relate to something or someone in the stories.

And then there was Twilight, which was kind of the inverse of Harry Potter. Instead of a male main character, it was a female one, flanked by two male secondary characters. Just as Harry Potter was a revival of Tolkien-esque fantasy, so Twilight reintroduced the tropes of the vampire to a new generation. Of course, it also introduced themes of emotional abuse, dangerous co-dependence, and abandonment of dreams, but hey: it taught young girls to remain celibate until marriage, right? (I may not be a huge fan of Twilight. . .though I made extensive use of the theory when I was teaching –great way to teach critical analysis skills while reading while simultaneously pointing out that emotional abuse can be as damaging as physical).

Now it seems like there is a deluge of Young Adult novels, and in particular those starring female protagonists: there’s the Hunger Games, and the Divergent series, Mortal Instruments, Beautiful Creatures, Matched. . .I don’t even now how many others. There’s Percy Jackson, and apparently sequels to “The Giver.” There’s been a resurgence of writers who want to write for young adults, and a market that no only wants to publish, but also to market the works as movies.

It’s a great thing, if it makes kids want to read, and from what I’ve heard, there are some quality books being written (John Green’s name comes up repeatedly when I hear about YA fiction — I’ll have to add him to my list). My only fear is that they’ll lose some of the great novels that we always had in our back pockets: Gary Paulsen’s wilderness books, Judy Blume, “The Outsiders”, Madeleine L’Engle. . .it’s hard to even find some of those books in bookstores anymore. And, while I’m enjoying “Divergent” as a “turn off your brain before bed” it doesn’t have the resonance of “Where the Red Fern Grows” or “Island of the Blue Dolphins.” Harry Potter is great, but if it leads to kids just reading exciting dystopic novels that focus on plot but not theme, on bland love stories at the expense of consistent characterization, I worry that we’re teaching kids to read pure pulp.

The value of reading is not just in seeing words across the page: it’s in the way it forces us to imagine, to think, to reflect and apply to our own lives. It used to be that television was pure pulp: but now there are tv shows that surpass any number of published books, and I would have a kid watch a Pixar movie to learn nuance before handing over a Twilight book.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh. I haven’t taught in years, and I don’t have children of my own. I know, though, that when I do, I will focus on filling the bookshelves not only with the newest, hottest reading craze, but with those classics from my own youth. And, of course, with the seven Harry Potter books.

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About splashfromabove

I believe firmly that through reflection, we gain in appreciation. My blog is all about taking a step back from what I read, view, or discover, and looking at it slightly askance.
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