Not too long ago, I read about an interaction between an author friend of mine and a dissatisfied reader who seemed to blame young adult protagonists for the unrealistic expectations of our youth today. Yep. You read that right. I wish I was joking, but sadly I’m not.
This particular reader was obviously a lover of the contemporary classics that once used to the norm within literary culture. Jane Austen, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mary Shelley, and even Harper Lee have each left an indelible mark in the world. These authors created strong characters, interesting worlds, and subliminal moral end-games that still stand on their own, even today. There are some in the world that will argue that only serious works such as these merit any kind of praise in the literary world.
But the world of young adult literature doesn’t contradict what these great authors worked hard to achieve. In fact, I truly believe that YA…good YA…is something that can create a movement of its own if given the chance. Much has changed since Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, and not enough has changed since Harper Lee penned her classic To Kill a Mockingbird. But what it comes down to is that each generation has its own trials, difficulties, and hardships to get through, and these are the very things that push authors such as myself to find a way to give our readers the ability to escape reality, if even only for a few hours at a time.
While having a conversation with my 12-year-old, I began to realize a correlation between the tribulations of the world today and the books that I write. At some point during our discussion, I told her, “It breaks my heart that I’m having to raise you in a world filled with so much hatred. I don’t understand how folks can live with so much hate. It must be exhausting to be filled with such animosity toward others all the time. If people were more accepting of each others’ differences, this world would be a much more peaceful place to live.” And it was in that moment that I had an epiphany.
Let’s take a look at some of the biggest successes in the young adult world today. There’s the series about a capitol that controls its citizens by forcing children to kill each other. Another series tells the story of a boy born with magical powers who, in the end, must defeat the evil that killed his parents. There’s one about a teenage girl who fights off aliens to rescue her brother, and yet another one that tells the story about a teenage girl who falls in love with a sparkly vampire. At first glance, these books may not appear to have any kind of deep, moral meaning. In fact, some of them may come off as shallow and self-serving.
But once you delve into the storylines, each appears to contain a deeper meaning such as a cautionary tale of pride, power, and ego. YA isn’t always just young, teenagers in love who recklessly traverse the world of high school by falling in love with the first person they meet. YA can be thought provoking and life changing, and at times can stab us in the heart as we fly through a box of Kleenex.
It’s unfair to group YA as a whole and say that it’s ruining literature and dumbing down its readers. While it’s true that there are plenty of books out there where you can turn off your brain and just enjoy the story, there are many YA authors such as myself that try to ensure that the story contains something of substance – something that will make the reader think about themselves, society, norms, and even love itself. John Green and James Dashner have mastered the art of subtext, forcing their readers to reconsider what teens actually go through and what they’re truly capable of. And while their books can make you cry, gasp, and hold your breath, their strong, brave, and optimistic protagonists can remind you that anything is possible if you want it badly enough.
I’ve chosen to write YA because the world is a scary place to grow up. Violence, hatred, poverty, and heartbreak are a part of a teenager’s world in this day and age. Good doesn’t always defeat evil, humanity doesn’t always do the right thing, and people die. And no matter how old you are, whatever you read should speak to you in some way. It can make you think, inspire you, or leave you questioning what you thought you knew. But sometimes just escaping reality for a few hours is good enough. So to blame young adult protagonists for unrealistic expectations of society’s youth is, I believe, unfair. If anything, a good YA protagonist will inspire today’s youth to be more than they imagined. Strong, brave, and optimistic.