I’m an adult fan of young adult (YA) fiction, in particular YA fantasy and science fiction. To those who would suggest I’m enjoying a prolonged adolescence, indulging in nostalgia or yearning to return to my teenage years I will simply point you towards the famous words of one Cher Horowitz.
There’s been quite a bit written about the reasons adults read YA fiction and paegns to the rising quality of genre. I just like it. I love the intensity and urgency of YA fiction. The slow emergence of moral grey from a sea of black and white. The understanding that good people can do bad things. That your family shapes but does not define who you are. That sex and attraction and romance can be both scary and wonderful, sometimes simultaneously. That choices have consequences, sometimes large, life-changing ones. That bad things can happen. That life is complicated and messy and glorious and filled with great things, just waiting for you.
But one of the main reasons I like YA fiction is that it deals with identity formation in a way that more ‘adult’ books often do not. An adult novel can rely on job descriptions for cultural short hand (perky NYC publicist, West Coast computer programmer, etc). In contrast, YA novels have high school, a physical location that almost everyone attends, where the major differences are social. Because of this ‘blank slate’, there may be cross-cultural friendships and relationships that are skipped in works targeted at older readers or Taken Very Seriously. In YA, the tension and challenges faced by first generation migrants, emerging awareness of gender discrimination, teens struggling to reconcile bicultural identities and unconventional sexualities are fair game for discussion (although some characters are only granted minority feisty status).
Sadly, incorporating diversity not universally done well. Crimes range from using using ‘almond shaped eyes’ as a ‘subtle’ code for Asian ethnicity, (read this hilarious take down on the practice) to the horrific and lazy practice of describing skin colour in ‘Starbucks’ terms (read another awesome take down on why describing people as chocolate/mocha/caramel/cinnamon/nutmeg is a really bad idea). But sometimes it is done astoundingly well, in ways that challenge and enrich the reader.
Even though I have some major problems with current approaches to diversity in YA literature as a whole, I have never forgotten the jolt that Ursula Le Guin gave me around age 11 when I realized that Ged, the wizard of Earthsea was not white. From memory, the realisation hit around book 3 or 4. I felt mad. That wasn’t how Ged was supposed to be. She tricked me. But she hadn’t. Tracing back, I was confronted by the fact that despite the clear description of Ged’s red-brown skin, I had assigned whiteness to Ged. Because… why exactly? Because that way he was more like me. Because that’s the default in our culture. Because he was the hero and heroes are white, aren’t they? (The fact that my edition had been whitewashed by putting Ged in silhouette on the cover did not help). I had read at least two books from the perspective an ‘other’, without noticing, because it that world, it wasn’t a big deal. Probably because we’re all human in a world filled with wizards and demons. But realizing that you carry some racial baggage is an uncomfortable moment. And one that I’m glad I got to have in the privacy of my home as an kid. Because good YA fiction helps you grow and confront your prejudices, without having to hurt anyone in the process (or look like a dumb-ass).
I think my fascination with identity is why I also enjoy supernatural and fantasy themes. My theory is that the rise in popularity of supernatural themes can be traced back to two underlying reasons.
Firstly, emerging supernatural identities act as a coded way of exploring the tension of multiple-identity formation and maintenance that so many people experience through external social pressure (ie anyone who has a prefix or hyphen in front of an aspect of their identity eg Arab-Australian, female architect, Australian-born Chinese) . The vampire/werewolf/witch both knows our ways and yet is inexplicably alien. The newly “doubled” identity gives them the alternatives of ‘passing as human’ or completely withdrawal into a smaller social circle. The supernatural society is frequently presented as one in which the initiate must be groomed to understand new rules, rituals and norms, often by a romantic partner or social group. This group will often become a ‘family of choice‘. This echoes the experience of enculturation in a new identity as well as paralleling the teenage experience of faux pas through incomplete understanding and the gradual supplementing or replacing of family of origin through new peer and romantic relationships.
Secondly, fantasy allows us to deal with socially institutionalised fears. In particular, the current penchant for creatures of conversion (vampires, werewolves) clearly act as a stand in fears relating to sleeper agents/terrorists/religious converts. Spec fiction allowing us to explore the anxiety that someone who was one of us, who looks like us and knows what we value could turn out to be unalterably, inexplicably, potentially voluntarily other. In writing these social anxieties into a supernatural (and therefore fictional and controllable) world, there is the chance for every individual vampire/werewolf/terrorist etc to be redeemed by choosing to respect the sanctity of human life and love. This serves a double purpose: subduing fear of the other while simultaneously championing the cultural myths of individual exceptionalism, self-determination and free will.
Taken together, these underlying principles allow the reader to simultaneously transgress cultural norms (you are not wholly human/one of us) while reinforcing individual agency as the path to acceptance (but through making the ‘right’ choices we may accept you anyway).
[Incidentally, the appeal of teen dystopian fiction is much less complicated. Taken objectively, most teenage lives are dystopian: school is represented by arbitrary rules imposed by authority figures, parents either condone or are complicit in the control apparatus of the society, there are limited forms of democratic representation, the protagonist is forced to reliance on an external agent for basic food and shelter, dissent can be punished ruthlessly. The much more interesting part of dystopian fiction is the history of them. Are they based on scientific advances, resource scarcity, political chaos, population explosion, alien invasion, artificial intelligence gone wild, intelligence services out of control, corporate takeover of the functions of government, natural disasters, post-war apocalypse, ruthless militarisation of a society… What each of these look like and the unique challenges they present are awesome.]