When I grow up

“Young adult” is one of my favourite oxymorons, right up there with “cautiously optimistic” and “authentic replica”. I’ve been addicted to young-adult novels long before my body grew up, long before I knew it was a genre.

When I was 10, I smuggled one of Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers books out of the school library under my shirt – not that I was stealing it, just that I was quite mortified when the librarian sweetly enquired if I had a sister. I did, but at that age she was rather more concerned with impersonating Whitney Houston.

I get a flat rate for this column, otherwise I would happily fill up a paragraph listing titles I no longer have to conceal beneath clothing*. But – given that I’m still devouring them a year or two after turning 30** – I thought it might be fun to examine their enduring appeal.

In the Guardian, the author Maureen Johnson claims that the Harry Potter novels started a surge in young adult popularity. While I think it’s true that J. K. Rowling’s excellent novels (and the multi-billion dollar performance of the films) put the genre in hearts, minds and shop windows around the world, I would argue that their themes have long been a part of written and visual culture.

Consider the tropes of a young-adult novel. You’re likely to have protagonists dealing with alienation, isolation and identity, struggling to understand themselves and the world in which they live. The best authors skilfully weave the two together, for there are few things more thrilling than the parallels between internal torment and external adventure.

More than this, some writers recognise that a theme can swell to fill an entire book, in the same way that a feeling or an event or a person can seem to occupy the entirety of a young life. Kathleen Paterson’s magnificent Bridge to Terabithia does just this with friendship and tragedy; the inescapable Twilight series does it with love and lust.

Then, of course, there are the trials. There’s a reason that Spider-Man’s origin keeps coming up in adaptation after adaptation; he’s most fun to watch or read when he’s trying (and, more often than not, failing) to juggle superheroics with family commitments, burgeoning relationships and a budding career. Take away the ability to climb up walls and that’s an accurate summary of most of our lives; and it certainly makes him more relatable than any of the deities or demigods in Marvel’s’ pantheon.

And J. R. R. Tolkien knew exactly what he was doing. Sure, The Hobbit and its more famous sequel grew from bedtime stories Tolkien would tell his children, but think of the brilliance of the point-of-view characters. Hobbits are small, often overlooked, and generally unimportant in the grand scheme of things; that is, until they save the world. Their age has no bearing on their size or maturity; they are the eternal children, hence their eternal appeal to children of all ages.

When you view literature through these filters, there is an abundance of work that fits into the straitjacket of genre. That includes some of the most beloved works in the English language, everything from The Catcher in the Rye to Peter Pan. Both those books feature protagonists who refuse to grow up; one quite literally, the other disdaining the accoutrements of maturity.

Each occasion is a sly middle finger to the abandonment of childish things that seems to be the goal or end result of much young adult fiction***, which may prove very relevant to the generational generalisations that are currently in vogue.

Readers in or around my age bracket will be familiar with pressure from two directions; from above, the evergreen boomers, resolute in their need to remain in charge, in control, on top, and from below a crop of technological savants. Too many words have been spent examining these categories and the layer in between, discussing the man- and woman-children and spawning horrible compound labels like “kidult”.

So could this perception of a newfound interest in all things young adult be the result of a need to embrace an inability to to change? Could it really be that simple?

I’m going to have to say no. It isn’t just that young-adult fiction explores a period when hearts and hormones are in flux – it’s that this is the age when doubt is allowed and encouraged, when the fundamental questions that determine who we are and how we interact with our environment are asked. The implication is that once this teething is over, adulthood can freely and happily commence.

But what if those questions are never answered? For some of us it does get easier, but for many it doesn’t. Heartache and insecurity know no age. Maybe the label “young adult” is a prophylactic for perceptions of immaturity – it’s as if admitting that some of these struggles never go away is tantamount to admitting that we’re all kids. Which may not be entirely wrong. Perhaps there is precious little difference between young adults and old children.

*Please go out and read the Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness. They’re smart, savvy novels that look at everything from gender relations to the cost of maturity by way of contrasting terrorism with fascism. You will also find romance, spacecraft, aliens, and one each of the best dog and horse characters ever written.

**It’s not too late to send me presents.

***Much in the same way as Jason Reitman’s deliciously bleak
Young Adult, if you will allow me to briefly stray into film.
>The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

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young adult fiction , books


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