To a person of more advanced years, the term ‘Young Adult Fiction’ can result in an upturned nose, as one dismisses the concept instantly in favour of far more weightier matters.
That would be a mistake however, for many of us fail to realise just how influential Young Adult fiction has been throughout the decades, and how much we owe to it.
The term is so ubiquitous nowadays, that we immediately think of that little orphaned wizard, owls and sorting hats. No-one can deny the power (and fun) of J. K. Rowling’s franchise, but even to limit Young Adult fiction simply to tales of curious boarding schools gives us a legacy dating back at least to 1922 and the seminal ‘Just William’ stories.
Yet despite the trials our wizard has been forced to face (and yes, we all own him, just like we all own Superman or Princess Diana), this is only scraping the surface of the genre. The one thing Young Adult fiction has in common is that the protagonist of the story is in those formative years of age ten to twenty. Beyond that, even the term ‘genre’ loses meaning; we can have school stories, science-fiction, horror, fantasy, dystopian settings, the list is endless.
But think back to those years in your own life. Everything was significant, everything gave meaning to the world around you, whether accurate or not. To see such meaning in later years is called apophenia, and is frequently considered to be indicative of a psychosis. At that age however, it’s called growing up!
It is not only the protagonist of the novel, or the reader that is growing up however; I would posit that Young Adult fiction has contributed to a ‘growing up’ of our culture or society. May I present, Your Honours, Exhibit A:
A Clockwork Orange
Written in 1962, the central character is Alex, a teenager growing up in a world of drugs and gang violence, rebelling against the world around him without understanding the consequences of his actions until he is forced to face them and learn that no matter how cruel he could ever be, the world itself is far crueller. (Of course, this is over-simplifying the theme in a major fashion, I do not presume to be an English professor).
Yet the true outcry did not arrive until Stanley Kubrick’s film, now considered to be a classic of its time. The original book contained a final chapter of redemption that was not included in the US publication and never made it into the film, on the presumption that the US market preferred the darker ending. Once it hit the silver screen however, it was presumed to glorify sex and violence, dehumanise the victims and create empathy with a vile perpetrator; criticisms that said more about the one-dimensionality of the film’s detractors than about the film itself.
In later years, even the author Anthony Burgess was led to distance himself from the book, comparing it to the controversy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
” The book I am best known for, or only known for, is a novel I am prepared to repudiate: written a quarter of a century ago, a jeu d’esprit knocked off for money in three weeks, it became known as the raw material for a film which seemed to glorify sex and violence. The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me till I die. I should not have written the book because of this danger of misinterpretation, and the same may be said of Lawrence and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”
Flame into Being: The Life and Work of D. H. Lawrence (Heinemann, London 1985) Anthony Burgess, p 205
How many times as youths have we wished we could take something back?
Adolescence and Religion
One process of reaching for adulthood is trying to establish just what our place in the world may be, and for some of us, that process never ends. It is not simply the ‘tale of the Hero’ myth that we can sink into within a story, but that sheer process of discovery.
For centuries in society, that was the role of religion, but not even the sacred institutions are safe from the explorations of YA fiction. Even as a pair of North Carolina Pastors are using the latest blockbuster, the Hunger Games, as a tool for examining the themes present in the Bible, YA fiction continues to promote critical thinking with regards to such institutions.
The Golden Compass
The recent film the Golden Compass is derived from the first book of Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy, a world, no, multiverse where the Church is the tool of a power-hungry and controlling God, wishing to enforce sameness, order and dominion upon every world it encounters.
Apparently New Line Cinema has put the dramatisations of the following books on hold, as the Catholic Church objected strenuously to the content and themes of the sequels. Seriously, Catholic Church. Are you not actually associating yourself with the dark image set forth in Pullman’s books by your protestations here? By censoring these movies, the Church has indeed compared itself to this voracious FICTIONAL organisation that stamps out individual thought and demands compliance from unthinking devotees, thereby proving the allegory? If the church wants to prove Mr Pullman wrong, it should allow or even applaud these films, as the beautiful works of art that they are.
It’s called fiction for a reason.
The Chronicles of Narnia
On the other hand, generations of us have marvelled at the expansive mythology of the Chronicles of Narnia, resplendent in religious symbolism and each one, a journey of the child into adulthood. Indeed, for at least four of the characters, this journey is undertaken more than once.
The Catcher in the Rye
Between 1961 and 1982, The Catcher in the Rye was the most censored book in high schools and libraries in the United States. In 1981 it was both the most censored book and the second most taught book in public schools in the United States. Though initially aimed at adults, the book carries themes of teenage confusion, angst, alienation, and rebellion and has remained popular since it was published back in 1951. Even if you have never read it, you may well be aware that it is known for being carried by the man who shot John Lennon, another man who shot President Reagan and a third man who shot Rebecca Lucile Schaeffer of the TV show‘My Sister Sam’, which prompted California to instigate anti-stalking laws.
Yet the book itself finishes, not exactly on a high note, but with the understanding that growing up is a process that many random events will attempt to interfere with, but there is always more, and that life is indeed worthwhile. Maybe the three shooters never reached the end of the book?
An older generation will fondly remember the books of Enid Blyton and Charles Dickens, of the Famous Five and Oliver Twist or David Copperfield, each themselves going through that journey to adulthood. Yet in an increasingly complicated world, it is only right that Young Adult Fiction delves into the many themes that we all face – the power of the state, the powers of peer pressure and the coming to terms with rejection and disappointment to name but a few. And those who sniff at such work should look at their shelf full of the ‘classics’ and realise just how much those books have in common with today’s works.
Young Adult fiction. It’s not just for kids.