This weekend, I am heading up north for a mini-vacation (first one I’ve had since June 2012). While it’s technically a vacation (away from work, life, etc), it’s also a “writer’s retreat” of sorts, so it’s not like I’ll just be sitting around actually relaxing. 7 coffee-fueled days in the frozen, internet-less north… eh, we’ll see how it goes.
Anyway, point is, the part that immediately concerns this blog is the internet-less-ness, so I figured I should wrap up some of the ideas I started to cover in my previous post on young adult literature and the idea of YA as a genre.
I left off with the assertion that the coming-of-age story arc tends not to work very well when applied to adults, which therefore makes YA unique, which in turn, justifies its label as a “genre.” I’ve been giving it some thought, and I think it boils down to the idea of permanence (or lack thereof).
In the adult world, decisions we make have the ability to change our lives in very permanent ways. For example, if a character in a book decides, in the end, to move to a different city, we are meant to understand that when the book ends, his life “goes on.” It’s the more realistic version of “they lived happily ever after.” So maybe sort of a “they lived in relative stability for the foreseeable future” (wow, that’s… bleak). Or maybe there’s a marriage or something in the end and you really can say “they lived happily ever after.” Whatever. Point is, at the end of an “adult” novel, it’s common to find that a character has arrived at the end of his journey (physical or metaphorical) and life is now, if not better, than at least more meaningful than before.
Young adult novels, on the other hand, operate differently. There is, I think, an implicit understanding that no matter where we end up at the end of the book, this isn’t it. For example, any YA novel that takes place in high school operates under the implicit understanding that the main characters still have big changes in their future: going off to college, entering the workforce, etc. Even if two characters who love each other end up together at the end of a young adult novel, you know that it’s not a simple matter of “living happily ever after.” What will happen when they go off to college? What happens if they got jobs in two different cities? You may not consciously ask these questions, of course, but I think it’s part of the implied framework under which most young adult novels operate.
Take a book like 13 Reasons Why, for example (no spoilers ahead). The premise of the book is that a girl–Hannah Baker–has committed suicide and has left behind a set of tapes explaining the steps that led to her decision. It’s a tragic story (obviously), but why is it tragic? You could say, well, she killed herself–obviously it’s tragic. Fair point. But the driving force behind the tragedy is more than that. What truly tugs at your heartstrings (or tugged at mine, at any rate), is just how… unnecessary it is. She’s in high school. And no matter what happens in the story, you just can’t shake the feeling that after high school, things could have been different simply because she’d no longer be in high school.
You see what I mean? There’s almost a “guarantee” in young adult books that there is another stage in life the characters have yet to reach. There is always something to look forward to (whether it’s good or bad), and, of course, that’s not to say that there can’t be drastic changes in adult lives, but it’s not an implied part of the adult narrative. When you reach the end of a book about an adult, you can’t simply assume that the future will be any different than where the author chose to leave you. But with YA novels, you absolutely can (and should!).
What does this all mean, though? How does it affect our reading of young adult books? What it does is it heightens the… immediacy of all the characters’ decisions. It means that Hannah Baker chose to take her own life, even though she must have known that it won’t last forever. It means that she was suffering so much that she traded the guarantee of a different future life for the suffering to stop now. On the flip side, it means that when Charlie fights for love in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, he’s fighting for something that he knows he might not have in the future, but is still worth fighting for all the same. Whatever happiness he finds may not last the rest of his life, but if he can have it, just for a little while, then as he says, “in this moment, we are infinite.”
I have a very strong suspicion that it is exactly this lack of permanence that makes young adult books so popular with adult readers. I think that as we grow up, we think about the future a lot more, and we make a lot of our decisions based on making sure that our future selves are secure and comfortable. I think adults like to read about characters who make decisions based on what they want in the moment, even though they know those moments can’t last forever. And I think that’s the defining trait of young adult books and why it’s its own genre.
It is always now.
That’s what young adult novels are about.