Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Stigma of Adolescence

Young Adult literature, otherwise known as YA lit.  Many, when they think of the genre, immediately think of books like  Twilight, and Gossip Girl, or other series that have been turned into wildly popular television shows and movies (I’m looking at you, Pretty Little Liars and The Mortal Instruments.) And they also probably don’t think very good things about these books.  There’s a popular notion of the YA novel as trashy, typically age-appropriate fluff, and aimed at airhead teenage girls, but this is usually the perception of someone who had never really read a YA novel, at least not recently. Yes, books like Twilight—books written for a mass audience whose writing seems to have been motivated more by satisfying their readers’ desire to know what happens next—exist, but they’re not the only YA fiction available. What’s more important, perhaps, is that even though they do exist, these particular, “non-challenging” YA novels follow important facets of the category, guidelines that are seen in more comprehensive, fleshed-out books, of varying genres. 
YA fiction does have literary merit, and its stigmatization is unfair. It is wrong to assume that a book in the YA category is written for a female audience only, and an unintelligent one at that. Doing so robs young women of the agency they have in choosing what to read for themselves, and implies that they cannot read “real” books. Additionally, this further stigmatizes the young men who read an YA novel, whether or not that particular book is deemed “girly.” It is vital that society realizes YA isn’t just for teenage girls, and has equal importance for teenage boys. The lack of recognition of YA novels that appeal to young men is part of the problem, suggesting that “boys don’t read” or if they do they’re not reading the same “low-quality” books young women read.
What defines young adult literature? Books that are written about people ages thirteen to eighteen and that are also aimed at them. An obvious criterion maybe, but an important one to keep in mind, particularly when examining the subject matter in YA literature. This can range from a romantic or sexual awakening or experiences, dysfunctionality in some form—most often in the family life of the protagonist, or a conflict with an authority figure. Most commonly and importantly, however there is a discovery or quest for discovery of self. Believe it or not, when examining books like Twilight and its sequels, you will see these aspects of YA there: Bella is an awkward teenage girl who has never had a boyfriend before she falls in love with a vampire who’s adopted, and together they rebel against the ruling vampire government, finally giving Bella a place where she fits in.
As I’ve said earlier, YA is not limited to books with entertaining but societally –deemed psychologicaland irrelevant content.  There are young adult novels that have much more breadth and deal more deeply with issues such as drug use, homosexuality, suicide and death, and divorce, to name a few. And while the popularity of YA novels seems to be a recent trend, it’s actually not. Go Ask Alice, published in 1971, Catcher in the Rye in 1951, and The Outsiders in 1983, are all young adult novels. This suggests a need for young adult literature, at least in the twentieth century. YA is important because part of being a teenager is feeling isolated, as if there is no one, or almost no one who understands you, at least in the real world. But pick up a YA novel, and you will find yourself confronted with a character who likely feels just as isolated, if not more so than you. Even outside the realm of reality-based YA fiction, moving into genres such as fantasy or dystopian, characters teenagers can relate to exist within their pages.  Isn’t finding your own truth in someone else’s words one of the most beloved pleasures of reading, no matter the genre? More importantly, not only teenagers relate to characters in YA stories. Adults who choose to read young adult fiction are not indulging in immaturity or a lack of challenge, but choosing to experience raw, relatable storylines.
Take Veronica Roth’s Divergent, for example. Even in a world where society is split into five factions based on ruling values, and each sixteen year-old is given an aptitude test which tells them which faction they belong in, the main character, Beatrice struggles with her identity. She can’t be placed in her aptitude test, which makes her dangerous and a threat to the structure of the society. Beatrice makes the decision to leave her family behind and join the most fearless of the factions, keeping her status as a divergent a secret, falling in love with one of her tutors and getting caught up in a sinister coup d’etat. “It’s important for teens to have something that matters, ” YA author Maggie Stievfater says, rather than something that’s theirs. While perhaps not every teenager can relate to being a part of a government conspiracy, surely anyone can relate to feeling, somehow, like they’re not fitting in.
Additionally, YA novels have gained relevancy even beyond their pages. The interaction between the authors and their readers is one that has been expanded with increased use of social media. Perhaps the most well known example of this is with popular YA author, John Green. Green, who has written several novels, most notably The Fault in Our Stars and Looking For Alaska, has an incredibly huge fan base, in part due to the Youtube channel with his brother. The Green brothers make videos, directed towards each other, but with topics and questions that they direct that their viewers, a community that has grown and is known as Nerdfighteria, with its members called Nerdfighters, who do not fight nerds, but rather are made of awesome. This community is made up of teens and adults, and they not only pose questions to the brothers and watch their Youtube videos, but also interact with other Nerdfighters in the comments sections, on Tumblr, and in forums on other various websites. It is important to note that this community is not built around Green’s books, but rather that his books drew in many of the people who make up the community, and that it has grown far beyond his books. These connections that Green has facilitated weave a web of human strands that move beyond his books’ stories and into the real world.
Other authors, such as Rainbow Rowell (Eleanor & Park, Fangirl) use their own life experiences to touch on difficult themes such as poverty or body issues, but in a way that promotes connectivity, and share these experiences with their audience through discussions and readings as well as through social media, giving fans the ability to connect in a way that feels authentic. The authors write YA novels that, in a sense, help teenagers learn how to be adolescents, and remind adults what it was like, maybe not so long ago. Authors that move beyond the pages of their work further facilitate these experiences are working to strengthen the credibility of the genre in the eyes of those who write it off.

In short, young adult literature is not something that can be easily written off as flighty or insignificant. It is a medium that allows for real conversations and relationships to develop around topics and feelings that everyone experiences at one of the most turbulent, transitory times in their lives.

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