Reading as a (not yet) young adult

This post was going to be titled “reading as a child”, but I was twelve once, and while I might look back now and label who I was then a child, I wouldn’t have done so at the time. Furthermore, I volunteered with middle schoolers for a brief happy period in 2013/4, and I volunteer with primary school children now, and while both age groups are charming in their own ways (and infuriating in their own ways), there’s really no way to lump them together.

Incoming: huge wave of nostalgia.

I grew up in the Harry Potter generation. One vivid memory I have is of primary school me feeling a huge amount of pity for my older brother, who was past age eleven and never got his letter from Hogwarts. I mean, I probably realised that mine wouldn’t be forthcoming either, but I did have this self-indulgent theory that JK Rowling was a wizarding world whistleblower who’d gotten away with writing the HP books because no one would believe her anyway.

(Nobody but me, and probably thousands of other hopeful children—but I digress.)

Harry Potter is one of the most visible book series in the world, and I love to talk about it because so many of us know it. You don’t ever have to explain the significance of Harry Potter to a 20+ year old; everyone’s used to the discourse. It’s harder to explain your other “young book loves” to friends.  It’s been over a decade since I was a young girl refreshing Tamora Pierce’s site frequently to see if Trickster’s Choice was going to come out any sooner, but to this day I still remember the first line of the little excerpt she had up as if it’s a prayer I learned as a child:

Nawat stood against the wall, relaxed and alert…

I think any child who grew into a “big reader” has a few dozen books like this—books read early on, that can’t be seen objectively. A preteen reader experiences many things for the first time: kisses, betrayal, loss, romantic love. When I was twelve, I didn’t want to read about twelve-year-olds; they were too young, and that made them boring. I wanted to read about sixteen-year-olds, who got to do things I couldn’t do yet, who were amazing, who were  clever and resourceful and basically non-boring adults.

This is what a sixteen year-old looks like, right?
This is what a sixteen-year-old looks like, right? (Spoiler: it’s not. I think we’ve collectively forgotten what teens look like as a society thanks to the wash of twenty-somethings playing them in films.)

It’s hard to look at young adult stories now and predict how I might have reacted to them if I’d been younger. Often, I read criticism that characters read as “too old”—adults in sixteen-year-old bodies. But would I see it that way back in my fit-the-demographic days? I never had trouble believing sixteen-year-olds could be brilliant, or could fall deeply in love with someone they belonged with, or-or-or-or. Sure, a modern-world sixteen-year-old who calls instead of texting would be absurd, unless there was some explanation, but a sixteen-year-old saving the world? Makes sense, doesn’t it?

And yet now, while I still think sixteen-year-olds are amazing and can do great things, there’s a part of me that’s just a little uncomfortable with the unintentional narrative that says you finish growing around the time you’re eighteen, once you’re done saving the world. I didn’t question this as a young teen, but now—surrounded by smart twenty-somethings who feel like failures for not having made all their dreams come true—I wonder if the boom in YA without a corresponding boom in (new) adult stories about people still growing is doing people a disservice. Still, this is mostly a question for another time, and I’m digressing yet again.

So: if an adult looks at someone 16-18 and thinks “person who is not yet fully formed and might not have the life experience to see how their decisions will affect them”, and if young adults look at people 16-18 and see “adult”, or at least “person in charge of own destiny who can make smart decisions and understand the consequences of their actions”, who are YA books written for? Should a YA writer try to move against the perception that the person you fall in love with at 14/15/16 is your forever-person? Is #veryrealisticya the way to go? (Probably not; your book would be used as a pillow more often than not if it accurately represented teenage life.) I don’t really have answers to these questions, but I know that what I read when I was 10-16 is important to me in a way no other books will emulate. And I know that teens now deserve fantastic narratives they can connect with—with better representation of race, gender, sexuality, etc. They deserve a safe place to have adventures, to experience their first heartbreak, to squirm over fictional kisses—the list goes on. These are books they will carry with them for the rest of their lives, and if the young characters are read by adults as being too mature, or too smart, is that really a bad thing?  I’m not sure. Perhaps it breeds false expectations—but it inspires, too.

In sum, there’s no substitute for what it’s like to read when you’re young, when everything is a first. Being told your growth is important by the books you’re reading is a wonderful thing. But then—and I might just be saying this because I’ve aged out of the target demographic I so enjoyed being in—I don’t think it hurts for adults to read that either.

2 thoughts on “Reading as a (not yet) young adult

  1. Your entry reminds me of watching the 80s film The Goonies. When I was young, the characters were all that little bit older than me and to my mind, they were ‘grown-up’ enough to go off on their quest alone. Then on seeing it again a few years ago, I now saw exactly how young they were and that no sane adult would allow them to have this adventure.

    I also remember reading a novella aimed at teenage girls, in which the 17-year-old characters mentioned things like boobs and what they did with their boyfriends. There were no explicit details; nonetheless, I won’t lie, I got quite a kick from seeing these older girls speak so frankly.

    But even when I was young, I did realise at the back of my mind these were works of fiction. So I think YA authors can trust that their readers know their own minds to a limited extent. I know I realised a few things about myself at 11 that hold more or less true today.

    However, I also think there’s room for a little non-preachy guidance. To use your own example, your boyfriend at 16 is likely to be just for summer, not for life. The reader – including the 11-year-old me – might not agree at the time, but it’s the way lust goes.

    1. Love this comment! Totally agree that readers can be trusted to realise these are works of fiction, though perhaps with the addendum that some works reinforce messed-up societal things. (Such as: controlling boyfriend = loving boyfriend—which is something that plenty of things reinforce, not just Twilight.) Probably the most alienating thing as a reader is feeling like the author is talking down to you.

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