My problems with YA literature

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See, I don’t exactly dislike YA books. In fact, I read them frequently – Twilight, The Hunger Games, Guardians of Time, and most recently the first part of the Delirium trilogy, to name a few (just started the last one, so no spoilers, please). Some of them are great, some are outstanding examples of badly crafted modern literature, but what they have in common is that I genuinely enjoyed reading them.

What they also have in common is their teenage protagonists. And this is where the problems start.

I’m not gonna rant about how dangerous Bella’s and Edward’s relationship model is, or how Katniss is a tiny bit too passive to be a real ‘hero’, even in terms of literature. I have issues with something else entirely: the characters themselves. Let’s make a list to keep it simple. They all

-are teenagers

-are ‘rebels’ or ‘fighters’ in some way or another

-act way too mature for their age to convince even me

Let’s face it. I’m twenty-three. Of all the books I pick up at the bookstore or put on my wish list on Amazon, ninety percent either combine all three of the above listed ‘problems’ or are written for an educated audience between about thirty and sixty. For the record, there’s nothing wrong with either. What I miss is an in-between.

Most of the time I choose the YA books, because it’s still easier for me to step into their protagonists’ shoes and identify with them. I’m not that old yet, neither physically nor mentally. And most of the time, the books are saved by a story that would work for either a teen or a twentysomething or whateverthehellyouare. So, where in the name of all the dead trees on my bookshelf are the stories with protagonists who already reached legal drinking age? Very few protagonists (especially the girls) ever reach their eighteenth birthday in the book itself, and even fewer turn twenty at some point. Actually, in Breaking Dawn, Bella is thrilled that she was turned into a vampire just before her nineteenth birthday and could be “eighteen forever”. Seriously; in the stages of human development, “young adult” is roughly defined as “people between twenty and forty”. If we are generous here, it could be from twenty to thirty as well. But when was the last time you read something with a thirty-two year old protagonist who didn’t suffocate from a truckload of issues? I mean, the teens have enough problems as it is, but many writers make it seem like it only gets worse after you turn twenty, ending with your life falling apart around the age of fifty, prompting you to either kill yourself or set off on a journey to find you new self. Yeah, right.

Which brings me to the next problem: Each and every one of these teenagers is portrayed as insanely mature and “wise beyond their years”. This is actually spelled out in Twilight, and more or less directly shown in The Hunger Games (somewhat justified, but still) and Delirium. As I said, I only just started the latter, but a few chapters in I already have the distinct feeling that Lena will be exactly that: mature enough to make life-changing decisions, intelligent enough to question everything she ever learned just because she met a boy (that would be like me turning into a devout Muslima within a month because I fell for some crazy fundamentalist; just sayin’, these huge changes in character happen in so little time it’s ridiculous). What I’m trying to say is that, in this case, Lena, the protagonist, learned that The Government Knows Best for almost eighteen years. She apparently believes in the system and is willing to follow the rules because she thinks they are there for a reason. Still, for reasons yet to be revealed, she already has doubts about this system.

Where the fuck did those come from? It’s not like she’s part of some resistance group or anything; some family member seems to be (or have been), but she has no contact with him. Basically, it’s like she was struck by inspiration that prompted her to start questioning everything around her just because. I think we are supposed to believe this is because she is actually way more mature than she initially lets on, and is politically and socially educated enough to express doubts based on genuine reasons.

I feel like I was just whacked over the head by the author.

We grow up in certain societies. We learn certain things and believe in a certain system. For me, this would be a democratic government making choices based on what the populace demands. I know there are other systems, other ways of living your life, but I am unashamed to say that I think this democratic way is one of the best, if not the best. I have no reason whatsoever to doubt this until someone proves me wrong. So why does Lena?

I’ll go out on a limb here and say that this would be way more believable if she was at least five years older, better ten. When did she have the time to develop a political conscience like this? During lunch break? Hell, I just started to develop some interest in politics a few years ago, and so did quite a few of my friends. Lena’s thoughts and doubts just don’t seem justified to me.

Same goes for the ‘rebel’/’fighter’ thing I mentioned above. They fight for something, a worthy cause – fine by me. They are seventeen and risk their lives for something they just learned about a few months ago – screw you, author! That’s just not believable. How many people actually do that, or would, hypothetically? If I am supposed to fight for something, risking my health, my life or those of people I love in the process, I need to genuinely believe in the cause. But how does spending a couple of weeks with a handsome guy or in a hidden rebel base make me believe in something I’ve never even heard of before?

Right. It probably doesn’t. So please, for your sanity and your readers’, give me a reason to believe this rebel-with-a-cause crap. Show me how the hero’s life was negatively affected by the system. Show me how the heroine’s dream was brutally crushed by arbitrary actions of the government. Show me something that might cause the protagonist to join the rebellion. I believed Katniss could become a rebel because of her experiences in District 12 and the arena. I did not believe Bella fighting for the love and the life of a dude she met mere months before; seriously, look it up, it’s just a few weeks between Edward’s Sparkling Confession of Love in Twilight and the point when Bella freely admits that her life is worth nothing without Edward (paraphrased, but that’s the gist of it).

These are just a few examples of something that occurs quite frequently. Thus my question to the authors: If you want a mature protagonist who acts like a grown-up – why the fuck don’t you write one? I’m pretty sure that teenagers won’t mind if the hero or heroine is a couple years older than they are. Many older readers don’t mind if they are younger. “Young adult” doesn’t mean everyone has to be young while acting like an adult. If you need the former, write a teen, but if you want the latter, write a fucking adult. It’s that simple. Now go on and try it. You can do it. I believe in you.

 

 

-Ricarda

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2 responses »

  1. Thank you. Because I feel YA is becoming more about premises than writing that stirs profound emotion. In all truth I favor adult writing because I feel more adult writers are true to their craft and a certain poetic and/or mind provoking reading experience. In all honesty I hate where the YA market has gone so as an aspiring part time writer I’d rather write and read adult. So true smh. Kudos for writing a post most publishers definitely need to know that pov exists.

  2. I had to face this early on in the books I’ve been working on. They’re YA, but my female protagonist is eighteen-going-on-nineteen, an old lady in terms of YA fiction. She had to be; she needed a little bit more maturity, and in all honesty, I was not comfortable with a sixteen-year-old falling for someone a dozen years older. You can probably guess my feelings on 100-year old vampires and high school girls…

    I also needed her to be questioning her own society before she even met Tall Dark and Evil; I think she’s got good reasons for thinking differently from her parents and peers (specifically, she wasn’t even raised by them), but even then she’s on the brink of giving in to their expectations when everything gets turned upside-down. Because really, in her society, she had no choice, and had no reason to actually expect to find what she’d always wanted, and every reason to fight it when it showed up. I didn’t want to write another rebel-with-a-cause-of-indeterminate-origin, and I didn’t want everything to be great just because a like, suuuuper hawt guy showed up.

    Does that make it OK? I don’t know. You’re absolutely correct, it IS a tough situation, especially in YA books. I absolutely adored the Hunger Games, really didn’t like Katniss. Maybe this is part of the reason why.

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