For a century now we’ve been running this great experiment called adolescence. With the rise of theories on social development, we’ve come to refine the compartmentalization of childhood into such neat little slices of experience and expectation that I’m wondering if maybe it isn’t time to step back and ask ourselves if we’re doing right by the adolescents in our midst or if we aren’t doing more damage than good.
And for once, instead of my usual rants against education, I’m going to pose this question to writers of Young Adult fiction.
Time was, we used to have a ceremony for children as they reached puberty and called them adults. We’d send them on walkabouts, or give them bar (or bat) mitzvahs, administer confirmations, hold sunrise ceremonies… whatever name they are given, many cultures seemed to have in place a ritual recognition separating childhood from adulthood with nothing in between.
And for many decades we did not have a Young Adult fiction category for the same reason. At one point a child was no longer expected to need coddling literature and it was time for them to venture out into the world and learn from the “adult” side of the library.
Since then it seems we’ve created a sort of limbo where people we call teenagers or “young adults” are permitted to exist in a protective cocoon that, presumably, exists to allow for a smoother transition into adulthood. In this protective envelope we find teens yearning for the experiences of adulthood but disinterested in the responsibilities of same. We let them drive cars, but they are still carried under an adult’s insurance coverage and responsibility. We let them have jobs but don’t require they share any of the expenses that adult wage earners are beholden to.
And come graduation from high school there is another four years for them to remain fully out of adulthood, and even then we find many returning home to the roost.
My charge today is to ask: how much does YA literature foster a retardation of maturity?
I know there is the thorny issue of deciding whether fiction reflects or mirrors a culture, and whether it should. This is the uneasy territory find myself considering over and over. Should my stories mirror those experiences most teens are having, or should they, somehow, suggest that there is more to life than grades and proms and dating and shopping and dueling with adults? I look at the teen characters I create, and their stories, and I wonder “Are you nothing more than the result of too many freedoms and not enough responsibilities?”
I wonder if adolescences has created a class of entitlement.
And I wonder if YA literature can do anything about it.
In prepping for my pending residency at school (this weekend!) I am finding I wish I had more time to read. I want more time not only to digest the required reading but to delve further into the issues these books bring up. I want to brush up on my Bettleheim and explore Erik Erikson. I want to read and know more about why we think, as a culture, adolescence as a classification is such a good thing.
I have a full six months between now and graduation from school, between this moment and the one where I have to lecture on something substantive within the field of children’s literature. I have more ideas and more questions than can be answered, much less expounded on, in a half year’s time. I feel like I’m about to be told I can go into the world and build jet planes having only worked on plastic models.
This is it. There is no “adolescence” for me as a writer. My ritual is on the horizon.