Sunday, May 6, 2012

Is the YA experience "universal"?

Thanks to Harley Bear Book Blog for inspiring this post.

When I was in eight grade, I attended a Bar Mitzvah of someone in the class below me. The party was held in a synagogue, and while most of the kids were downstairs on the dance floor, I was upstairs in the chapel with my friend Lisa.* I don't remember what we were talking about, but I do remember being interrupted by a boy in Lisa's class. "Jessica** said you guys were making out," he told us. (We weren't, of course.)

Most people would have been angry in this situation, but more than anything, I was confused. Sure, I knew that Jessica didn't like Lisa. Very few people did. She wasn't a bad person, but she had a number of psychological conditions that most of her classmates didn't know about. As a result, they felt no qualms about making fun of her weirdness and immaturity. They rarely said anything to her face, but the gossip was rampant enough that you couldn't ignore it.

Jessica was probably the exception to this. She was mean, and she must have enjoyed being mean, because she wasn't afraid to tell Lisa that she didn't like her. But I didn't realize that her mean-ness extended to making up silly rumors. Not only that, but she had dragged me into it. Although our middle school was small (the seventh and eighth grade had  about thirty students combined), I don't think I ever said more than two words to Jessica. We didn't know each other at all, and yet she was intending to make me her victim.

All I could think was "It's like she's trying to be that stereotypical bitch from the movies." The very thought of it went completely over my head. I mean, didn't most people at least pretend to be nice?

That was my teenage experience. I didn't believe that real bullies existed, at least not to the same degree that fiction portrayed. That doesn't mean that everyone in my middle school class was nice--they weren't, and I hated most of them, but they were at least "classy" enough to keep their feelings to themselves. (Bullying actually takes effort, right?)

Maybe that's why I could never fully relate to YA. If the protagonist was such a pathetic loser, why were mean cheerleaders actually going out of their way to tease her? Didn't these girls actually have something more interesting to talk about (shopping, makeup, boys, etc.)? And the protagonist always had at least one sidekick, so why did she keep whining about how no one liked her?

A confession: I stopped reading YA after I graduated from middle school. Why? Because all of it seemed silly. Either it presented a completely unrealistic picture of the teenage experience (popularity hierarchies, etc.), or it was badly written. Out of all of the "contemporary" novels I read in my early teens, the only one I actually liked was Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak. But all of my early teenage favorites? All fantasy. I'm referring to Tamora Pierce and Harry Potter and Artemis Fowl, of course, His Dark Materials. Why? Because fantasy novels were about more than finding Mr. Right. They were about fighting and going on quests and saving the world. Did I relate to any of that? No. (Did I want to? Hell yes.)

So this is why it puzzles me when people like Sarah LaPolla talk about how there's no market for New Adult because the "new adult" experience isn't "relatable" or "universal" like the teenage experience. (Note: I'm very much paraphrasing here.) I think my own story is enough to demonstrate that the teenage experience is not universal. It's come to the point where I never even read for relatability. That's not saying I never relate to a protagonist's struggles (hello, Kirsten Hubbard!) but it isn't my first expectation. Secondly, it seems that about half of today's YA involves protagonists who are already taking on adult roles. Whether they're fighting a war or ruling a country or trying to help their starving families survive, these characters are basically adults in teenage bodies. So is it such a big step to make them adults in, well, new adult bodies?


So what about those "New Adult" Project reviews you've all but abandoned? Umm, I'm currently reading Pamela Dean's Tam Lin. They call it a "fairy tale retelling," but so far it's a hundred pages of people talking about literature.

*Name changed to protect the identity of this person.
**Yes, her real name is Jessica. A person who acts in this manner doesn't deserve anonymity.

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