“We accept the love we think we deserve ” – a profoundly beautiful remark made by a central figure in The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, a novel meant for 18-year-olds, rings strangely pertinent even beyond sweet sixteen. The pejorative connotation to young adult fiction often signifies an impetuous nonchalance and disengagement with the world when more often than not, it goes beyond frivolities into investigating a particularly vulnerable period of life. Maybe this is the reason why young adult novels have a surprising demographic of adults above the teen years as a major chunk of its readership.
Young adult novels are essentially coming of age novels typically targeted at a demographic of adolescents (12 to 18-year-olds). Sarah Trimmer opened the discourse on seriously viewing fiction for adolescents and labelled it “Books For young Persons”, a term still in popular use till date. Although her methods were structured after arbitrary didactic models, there was an attempt made at reworking a definition of the genre. Now young adult fiction (YA fiction) remains one of the best selling genres that has most certainly overcome the bounds of associated appropriate age range.
A probable reason attributed to the popularity of YA fiction is the fact it’s a bildungsroman – a coming of age story. Etymologically the word bildungsroman or “novel of education “ deals with the moral and psychological growth of its protagonist as they gradually adopt and adapt the nitty gritties of adult living. Virginia Zimmerman, a professor of English at Bucknell university comments that, “To come of age is perhaps the most common ground there could be among readers’ ‘. As adults we continue to evolve and change as per our role requirements, thus, we never truly step out of the conduit of ‘coming of age’- always changing, always progressing towards realised agencies.
SE Hinton’s The Outsiders remains one of the best sold YA novels even after a century of its release as it delved into the underbelly of adolescent criminology, violence, gang activities and the isolation, class dissemination and of course the iconic last words of a dying Greaser “Stay gold, Ponyboy”. A dark gritty book for young adults by a sixteen year old author set off quite the ripple – to the extent of banning the publication of the book for quite some time. A chillingly moving narrative, it welcomed a change in the idea of fiction for young persons, how a palsy expectation of the book as light reading and a facetious enterprise is deeply problematic and how young adult narratives demand serious reading and serious understanding of the issues of the youth and adolescents.
The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger is touted as one of the best novels produced in the past century and a veritable classic that examines themes particularly prevalent in young adults such as isolation, mental health concerns and doubts about social roles and conflict in the same breath. The teenage angst the novel embodied became a staple of sorts for future endeavours in the genre.
YA fiction is for many, a book of firsts – firsts of many of the experiences deemed unique to the human condition- and most importantly, YA fiction does not not need to tone down any truisms of the ways of the world. Popular YA author John Green is of the opinion that the usual teenage stoicism and cynical snarky outlooks are overgeneralized and teenagers in fact are “wondrously earnest in their un-ironized emotional experience”. Teenagers have a spring in their step that adults, conditioned by the humdrum of their struggles, fail to invoke.
YA stories can be thematically viewed in the purview of forgiveness and empathy. While adult fiction will harbour cold vengeance and elaborate heists to inflict harm and pain to the perceived wrongdoer, young adult fiction locates itself in the painstaking acts of forgiveness. Nicola Yoon in her landmark novel Everything, Everything explores the politics of forgiveness through her protagonist Maddy Whittier who suffers from a genetic condition- autoimmune syndrome that renders her incapable of outside interactions , which she later comes to know was a desperate ploy of her mother to protect her daughter to the point of metaphorical suffocation. However despite this catastrophic truth that does manage to shake the tenets of her relationship with her mother to the core, she understands the loss of her husband and her son prompted her mother down this very unhealthy course of action. There is righteous indignation, resentment, hurt and blame- but there is also the salve of empathy and forgiveness.
The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas investigates into decrepit arenas of racism and a young girl struggling to grapple with the truth of her friend’s death- a casualty of police brutality. The final words of the novel ring the clarion call of commitment to social justice but not the product of vengeance. There is suitable acknowledgement, letting go and holding on to the identity of the Black community as a whole along with racism and how we have normalised this ugly denominator in our lives. John Green’s Looking for Alaska, post a chaotic spiral into the self destructive heroine’s psyche, ends on a note of hope- for the troubled misfits and the pretenders operating within the desperate plea to be grounded in teenagers. The narrator proclaims “The only way out of the labyrinth of suffering is to forgive.” There is no note of moral arbitrary high handedness neither is there snide remarks or pedantic judgement- there is simply the acknowledgement of fellow human beings is broken and in need of healing. YA fiction also brings to fore sexuality and the conundrum of gender politics that so subtly define our expectations, our very identities, and the skin we live in – beyond legislative frameworks.
It was with the release of Harry Potter that YA fiction was introduced popularly among adult readership. The Hunger Games series and the Twilight series introduced the idea of speculative fiction and the alternate realities of this world present novel elements that help interpreting our own world in different ways. It is safe to say how the YA fiction has implications above and beyond bubblegum airheaded ideas purported among the masses and in popular book lists and explores the storms of adolescence in a language that resonates with chaotic, vulnerable, suffering, turbulent, tragic and triumphant adolescent ethos.
– Bipasha Bhowmick
Picture Credits: time.com