Because kids are not kids, let’s not write YA books as though youth are young — and everything else that word implies: naive, lacking in experience, and requiring a certain padded version of existence.
Books are the great levelers of age. Age and experience change one’s reading of literature, but these don’t make one’s ability to relate and grow from that reading experience any more or less possible.
In fact, young readers have the most to gain from those gritty depictions of “real life” that might cause some parents to quail. I’m not suggesting that children grow up on a diet of violence or horror — but do we need to sugar coat life?
Age =/= Experience
Not everyone lives comfortable, sheltered lives. In fact, most people do not have the luxury of “childhood.”
Twelve – widely agreed to be the golden age of the Young Adult – is old enough to become pregnant. It’s old enough to die of starvation. Twelve, or even younger, is the prime age to be kidnapped by the Boko Haram. You can be a homeless American or Canadian at the age of twelve. You can lose your best friend to suicide or cancer.
Historically, girls were considered grown women at twelve, the exact right age for marriage and motherhood (Juliet Capulet is thirteen in that famous play, for example). If you are a child living in Aleppo, Syria or Port-au-Prince, Haiti, or any number of other nations, you would greet novels that pad life experience with innocence with a great deal of laughter.
These are extreme examples, certainly, but they do raise a specter that has been prevalent since the Victorian era. Childhood – with all its inherent innocence and need for protection – is a cultural construction.
This isn’t a new idea, nor even my own. There are cultural theorists out there who have documented the phenomenal rise of “childhood,” who have marked each step in its evolution through examples of Victorian-era advertising, an epoch during which magazines became cheap and plentiful and marketing learned how to build and sell cultural myths.
YA is necessary
I haven’t been all that quick to understand my motives for writing YA – except to say that perhaps this is the literature that stuck to me the most growing up, the literature that echoed in my bones. I fully credit a bevy of literary voices from childhood and young adulthood for saving my life, for guiding me towards being an independent, successful person. The moment I first became conscious of how a novelistic voice moved me is the exact same moment that I knew I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to have the same impact that books had on me as a younger reader: The Catcher in the Rye. The Outsiders. Kicking Tomorrow.
We all need those voices in the dark, those voices that speak to us in the far corners of our barely imagined souls. That’s a central concern of my first novel, The Originals, for example: the crucial need for characters that reiterate our own experience, and by doing so, might lift us out of the gritty, sometimes helpless narratives that surround us and keep us trapped – narratives such as poverty, war, violence, hunger. Hopelessness.
Let me be clear: I write to be a voice in the darkness. This is my version of giving back.
YA is for everyone
YA literature is there to teach, to deliver, to make escapes, to show the reader that his or her experiences (except, you know, with the angels and werewolves) are not unique. You(th) are not crazy. You may feel like an outsider now, but you won’t forever.
Older readers can still be charmed and transfixed by that moment of transformation from youth to adulthood. Our “older” inner lives are just as touched by the threshold of adulthood. We are not immune.
There is not “one” version of YA – that is the last thing I mean to suggest. My admiration for the plurality of voices and experiences across the vast swath of books known as YA knows no bounds. Yet that is precisely my point: YA should not be ‘bound’ by its own conventions.