I’m up to my eyeballs in review books this past week and, well, there’s no way to soften this: I’m cramming. Actually, I put off a trio of books to the very end because I couldn’t dredge up any real interest without a looming deadline. That fact alone has nothing to do with the quality of the books, only my lack of interest.
Funny thing, though, when your mindset is already dreading a task at hand the brain seems anxious to verify your mood. For two of these books the only thing that keeps me from hating every word on the page is the constant reminder I am giving myself: It isn’t the book, David, it’s your attitude. The downside is that all that extraneous thinking tends to put me to sleep, which slows down my reading even further.
But one book did a funny thing to me. The more I tried to convince myself that the perceived flaws in the book were actually my own, the more the book grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and shook me to rights. How old are these kids? I wondered as they tackled an entire city government with the ease and elan of a seasoned war reporter. How are these subplots going to tie together without appearing deus ex machina? I pondered as every new layer of story stretched credulity to the point snapping like a crazed sniper in a bell tower. And then right on cue, in case I was unable to nail the point that had been nagging at me from the start, the author has a main character come right out and say it:
“Are there any normal grown-ups?”
Often you hear people in charge of presenting content to mass audiences that they are merely giving the people what they want. So just exactly how and when did non-adult readers signal to the publishing world that the only adults allowed in a piece of fiction are either stereotypical exaggerations, hysterical power mongers, ineffectual obliviods, subversive allies or just plain all-around wallpaper? Where exactly are the normal grown-up characters who are as honest and confused as their child protagonists? Why are these books populated with adults whose villainy can only be seen and corrected by children, whose sole purpose is embarrassment, or whose wayward attempts at connecting with children sounds like Michael Jackson as a guidance counselor?
I get that kids like to feel empowered, that they like reading books about characters like themselves achieving great things that feel obtainable if only for a certain application of extra effort. I understand that it resonates with younger readers to have adult behavior seem at odds with their reality, and to have their explanation of that foreignness play off as humor to lighten the proceedings.
But does it have to be? Do we, as adults, believe that young readers don’t deserve solid adult characters to balance out a narrative? Do we believe the only adult they can accept in their fiction are the buffoons that make them feel better about themselves? Young readers look to books for many things, not the least of which is to better understand the world around them. If we are filling their heads with book after book of adults who are neither sympathetic nor realistic, do we expect that they’ll be able to make those adjustments in real life and not assume that all adults are abnormal?
I’ve got my eyes wide open now, a theory formulating in my head. My hypothesis comes down to a very simple question: Is the difference between a young adult or middle grade book (as a genre) and a book dealing with tween- and teen-age characters (as “serious” fiction or literature) simply a question of whether or not the author portrays adults as human beings?