It's strange that the older I get, the more I tend to surround myself with books targeting a much younger audience. And as of late, I often find myself defending young adult (YA) literature in a way I used to defend comics and graphic novels, fantasy literature or SF-shows, when most of the people around me ridiculed it or had no interest in it.
I guess what bothers me the most is that a great deal of the criticism puts down YA, calling it simplistic and without depth. That either the characters lack tenor, or the writers just aren't doing a very good job of actually writing something intriguing. But really, isn't that something you'd find everywhere in the literary field? On rare occasions do we get a Harry Potter, which crosses over and gathers readers undefined by age and instead engaged by story.
YA literature has, despite quite the array of genres and topics that it encompasses, become a genre label of its own, much like children's literature. And much like its younger literary sibling, it's struggling to find a satisfying place in the lime light.
Young adult literature has been part of the publishing world for 70 or so years. It's had its ups and downs. It's struggled, much like many of its teenage protagonists, to find its path and acceptance. YA's been everything from books for 13-19 year old teens or specifically marketed to junior high students, to what we more commonly see today: literature with a target audience ranging from 15 to 30-year-olds, depending on the needs of the publishing house, library recommendations and the fancies of blogger.
What I like so much about young adult literature is that it tends to delve into a certain time of life: the teen years or the early 20's. This is when the characters struggle to find themselves, understand their place in the bigger picture and confront the emotional turmoil of being treated as not-yet-good-enough-adults, while either running away from or longing back to a more black-and-white childhood. Like every other time in life, it's not really that easy when you're smack-dab in the middle of it. And you seldom know anything else.
As a reader, I find these portraits fascinating. And like all other well-written literature, quality YA leaves an impression, it makes you care for characters and question set orders. It gives you heroes and villains, as well as regular folk just trying to get on with their regular or irregular life. Good YA knows what it is, or at least what it wants to be. It wants to be the looking glass through which we experience all these rich, funny, silly, tragic or dark portrayals. It knows that a lot of people might sneer a bit at it, lumping it all together until what's left is a mess most easily described as "this kinda fantasy story about a girl and a zombie/vampire/werewolf boyfriend, and she's really special and maybe they'll be together forever. In space. After the apocalypse. Also, there's magic." But really, that's not even remotely close to all there is to partake of (though it should be mentioned that that specific category has quite a lot of happy shippers as well).
To me, young adult literature is about survival. It's about pulling through your parents' divorce or a recent heartbreak, trying to graduate high school with the least amount of manageable emotional damage, overcoming and succumbing to disease, or fighting fairy queens for the continued life of the human race. It's about getting through in one piece, and the price you pay for it.
So whenever someone tells me they find young adult literature unsatisfying because the plots seems plain and the protagonists lack in substance, I think of characters in books that stay with me for years. (Usually, this is said by adults who think maturity is a kind of line drawn in the sand, clear as day and easy to define by a number printed on a sign or dust-jacket). For a starter, there's Salinger's Holden, and his few lonely days of roaming in New York before he can go home to see his sister. Then there's Hazel and Gus from The Fault in Our Stars, trying to be with each other while fighting time and cancer. One that always comes to mind these days is Temple, the main character of Alden Bell's The Reapers are the Angels, a story that gathers many of the trends within young adult and crossover literature from recent years, yet manages to be utterly unique. If anyone asked me what these trends were, I'd say strong young heroines and the end of the world.
And so enter Temple, a 15-old gurkha-wielding illiterate girl, with darkness in her that coils round and round as she travels the wasteland that is America. She isn't a heroine. In fact, she's done things she rather not talks about, and she knows that where she's going no Angels will be greeting her. She's filled with loss, but she's seen and cherishes miracles in this world no one seems to remember and the fight in her rings strong way beyond the printed words on page. She sees no evil in the zombie apocalypse because the meatskins are animals to her, and they just do what they have to. "Evil's a thing of the mind. We humans got the full measure of it ourselves", she says.
Temple stayed with me long after I stopped reading. Sometimes when I watch a movie or read another book, I'm reminded of her, and I miss her and her strange Tennessee accent with a sharp pang.
It's funny to think that something like that would be called plain and without substance.