The puzzling theme in current YA literature – IT’S ILLEGAL TO BE A TEEN!
In a world hostile to hopes, dreams, and expectations, teen-hood seems “illegal.”
Sparked by an article in the Los Angeles Review of Books – “YA Fiction and the End of Boys,” where Sarah Mesle identifies what I call a “manhood deficit” in modern YA literature, I noted in my post “The Beginning of the End of Adulthood” a few weeks ago that when it comes to identity for boys and girls alike, it’s simply a terrible time to be a teen. But it’s bigger than that.
You don’t have to look too deep into modern youth books to see that teens face a world that is unsupportive at best and often downright hostile. YA protagonists are faced with absent, ineffectual, or harmful parents and adults, daily life in the margins, a society organized against their future wellbeing, and authority figures seeking to snuff out their spirits and their lives.
I can sum up the current literary sentiment toward teen identity with one word – “Illegal”.
The Hunger Games tournament punishes teens just for being.
Deborah Davis’ drama NOT LIKE YOU is a good example of this ethos for girls, with a disturbed mother whose chaos blocks teen Kayla from finding her identity. And in the action/adventure THE HUNGER GAMES, does Katniss Everdeen have any real chance of realizing “womanhood” in a society where every year she has to face the prospect of dying by lottery?
A teen can legally be taken apart in UNWIND by Neil Schusterman.
Boys have it just as bad. In my latest book THE LEAGUE OF DELPHI, 17-year-old Zach sneaks back into his hometown and battles a secret government that killed his parents to find out who he really is. And it gets worse! In UNWIND by Neil Schusterman, 17-year-old Connor fights to save himself from being legally “retroactively aborted” by his parents who find his teen rebellion to be too much trouble.
To be fair, this theme is a good, solid literary device. I once heard Anthony Horowitz - bestselling author of action/adventure/thriller books for boys – tell a group of kids, “If you want the young characters in a book to have an adventure the first thing you have to do is get rid of the parents.” So, yes, absent/ineffectual parents and hostile adults are fertile ground for stories where kids need to fight their own battles and overcome obstacles to grow.
But it’s not all fiction. Teens looking toward adulthood in today’s Western society see an insecure economy, a scarcity of good-paying jobs that offer personal independence, a culture in the middle of re-identifying the meaning of “family” and gender identities (the uncertainty is troubling, not the redefinition), adults fomenting war, environmental disaster, and a 24-hour bad-news cycle.
Teens can’t feel safe and strive for a positive adult identity in a world so toxic and insecure that it’s practically illegal to have hopes, dreams, and expectations. Trust in society? Gender roles? Womanhood? Manhood? None of it matters when it looks like there’s no future. This is the low-grade strain and confusion that today’s teens live with and it’s reflected in the stories written by and for them.
I suspect and so hope that amidst an atmosphere that today may feel gloomy and oppressive, our teens are redefining a positive adulthood for themselves and future generations. Making teen-hood “illegal” creates the rebels – the self-determined heroes - we need to do it.
Now, here’s the cheese on this Brain Burger.
3 positive things about teen-hood being “illegal”:
- Every grownup can now say, “Yep, I was baaaad once.”
- Free jumpsuits, free bracelets, free anklets for everyone between 13 and 19!
- Rebels not expected to have a cause – saves hassle for everyone.
Chris Everheart is author of the thriller