Teenage boy reading a book in nature
Recently we’ve witnessed a clear trend of the young adult novel and its increasing popularity. For my generation these novels seem completely conventional; it’s what we’ve grown up with. But this hasn’t always been the case. Many people date the birth of today’s young adult fiction, which lies between children’s literature and adult literature, back to S.E. Hinton’s classic, The Outsiders, published in 1967.
The Outsiders is a grim tale: the account of a 14-year-old well-intentioned misfit named Ponyboy who deals with young gang-like violence, death, and feelings of marginalization in society. He writes the book as a way to deal with the resulting grief. Though it deals with dark issues, the story is something of a reasonable tale. Ponyboy and his brothers represent victims of a violent, unguided lifestyle that is all too real.
Reality in adolescent literature has become scarce though. Consider the mega hits of the past decade in this category- The Hunger Games, Twilight, and Harry Potter (all series) are perhaps the top three. The Hunger Games series details a tradition of a battle reality show, for lack of a better phrase, between young men and women as well as the resulting revolution in a futuristic society. Twilight and its sequels are about the conflicting love between a young lady and a vampire, followed by a werewolf that is allegedly equally as charming. Need I provide a synopsis for the 7-piece Harry Potter series? For those who’ve spent the last ten years in a desert cave, JK Rowling’s “masterpiece” chronicles the coming of age of a young boy in a small English town, turned wizard at an institution for the magically oriented.
Maybe what is so distinct about these young novels isn’t the unrealistic circumstances, but instead the obvious power and special qualities of the main characters. Young Harry is dubbed “the boy who lived,” after surviving an attack from a deadly foe, and later receives the title “the chosen one,” meant to destroy this foe who would otherwise take over the world. He is the fastest broom rider at his school, and the most naturally gifted when it comes to performing spells. Hunger Games’s Katniss Everdeen is a prolific bow hunter with the courage to volunteer for her village’s spot to fight in the battle, which typically produces one survivor… the champion.
The bottom line is that these titles sell. They sell like a wildfire burns. The question is, why? Perhaps young readers need a hero; they crave to behold power, skill and triumph in the face of unbeatable circumstances and antagonists. What concerns me, and what I believe we should ask ourselves, is why everything short of magic and glory fails to satisfy young readers to the extent that they adore characters like Katniss and Harry. Not only were the champions of The Outsiders and Catcher in the Rye normal young adults—you might also argue that neither of them succeeded by the end of the novel. That would be the surface impression. Their triumphs were subtle and largely internal. Holden reconnects with his sister in the final scene as the only tangible result, but the reader concludes that he has become comfortable with his place in the world. Ponyboy isn’t as fortunate, but in the process of his hardship comes to terms with the cold realities of adult life.
The latter novels are distinctly less glorious, but they add value to society through their contemplative nature. These books force young readers to question their own impressions of happiness, ethics, and inspire thinking on the challenges and pleasures of growing up. This isn’t to say that these themes don’t extend to today’s young adult literature as well; in fact, each that I’ve mentioned is permeated by these topics. But, they aren’t the focus. They are presented in circumstances that make their verity a doubt. We cannot appreciate the lessons within for their simplicity and applicability to the real world.
Young readers today demand their life lessons with a side of fantasy, and a generous serving of victory for desert. Moving forward, let’s hope that the temptation to eat the carbs and the sugar before the steak doesn’t translate to literature, and more importantly, to learning life lessons at a young and impressionable age. The beauties of our world are simple, and for a generation prizing unrealistic achievement in magical lands, let us hope that they may continue to appreciate—to cherish—all the things they may actually encounter in their lives.