Who Put the “adult” in Young Adult?

Babies are born knowing how to cry, but they have to learn how to laugh.  Every mother knows this: by two months her baby can smile in response to attention, and by three or four months she begins making imitative noises.  But real, honest-to-goodness belly laughs don’t occur until five or six months.  Crying comes right out of the gut; laughter requires context. 

What makes a baby laugh is the essence of all humor; a sense of unexpectedness.  Her life is typically cushioned by adults who carry, feed, dress, and change her.  Grownups sometimes behave curiously, poking their faces in hers and making peculiar noises, but life is a serious business of getting one’s needs met, and grownups are the ones who meet it. 

Then one day a truly antic figure pops around the corner of consciousness, well past toddlerhood yet far short of adolescence.  He hangs upside-down, makes faces, grunts like a chimpanzee–and it’s hilarious.  Mother may say, “Stop acting silly, Johnny.”  But Baby is shaking with uncontrollable mirth.  It’s a sign that she understands congruity enough to recognize incongruity.  From such unsophisticated beginnings her sense of humor is on a speedy track to potty and underwear jokes.

Adolescence is a bit like going through a second babyhood, with zits.  From a relatively safe, womblike neighborhood, the world opens up dramatically, and it can bite.  Once again, life is serious business, which might be why teen readers often turn to grit-lit: death, despair and dystopia.  Periodically throughout the year, an especially controversial book is challenged on the grounds that it’s too much for kids to cope with.  The defense is always the same: kids today are having to deal with some pretty serious stuff.  They need literature to help them relate. 

I’m not sure about that . . .  Tender Morsels, a re-told fairy tale by Margo Lanagan, features father-daughter incest, an abortion, and a gang rape in the first fifty pages.  Is this the kind of stuff that young people normally face?  The story actually makes a good point amid the mayhem, but it might be a little difficult for an immature mind to track down that point.

Defense #2: kids shouldn’t be talked down to.  They’re a lot more intelligent than we give them credit for.  Okay, but I’m not talking about intelligence or street smarts, I’m talking about perspective.  Perspective is being able to take the long view, to face a bad spell and believe it’s going to get better, or at least that life is still worth living.  This only comes with time, and teens by definition haven’t had much time.  Teen years are difficult enough (even without incest, abortion, and gang-rape!), and most of the kids get through them okay, thank God.  They can add those years to their perspective-pool.  But a few can’t see their way past it, and they don’t need the desperation dump that some YA novels turn out to be.

So I’m just saying, writers for young adults have certain obligations.  The young applies, but not yet the adult.

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3 Responses to “Who Put the “adult” in Young Adult?”

  1. Louise Jackson Says:

    I agree wholeheartedly. (a mild suggestion: have you noticed that your webmaster misspelled “surprise” in the quote at the top of the blog home?

  2. Lizzie Hough Says:

    Wasn’t there a time when the special category of “Teenager” did not exist, when people were either children or adult? Perhaps if we did not bend to social pressure and abolished the economic market of Teenagers our perspective on that age group would change… and so would the way we write for them.

  3. Vicki Grove Says:

    Your phrase “desperation dump” seems right on to me, Janie, and I agree it’s a shame there’s so much out there for YA’s that fits that description. It seems to me that it’s possible to do something edgy without stringing together negative situations, and yet I see this so much in adult lit, as well. Jane Smiley, for instance, is one of my favorite authors, but I’ve always wondered why she had to add incest to the story in her Pulitzer-winning A Thousand Acres. I could just hear some editor saying that losing the farm wasn’t “dramatic” enough, when any farm girl knows it would have been! But back to your point regarding YA’s~ those of us who write for this amazing and vulnerable group have to take responsibility and not just hide behind the cry “no censureship.” Vicki G.

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