Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Fountain of Youth Effect

If you've been at all watching your television for the past week or so, you've likely seen trailers for the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean, On Stranger Tides, which opens at the end of this month. Scalawag pirate Jack Sparrow is setting sail again on a journey to find the famed Fountain of Youth, said to bring eternal youth to any who drink of its waters. Why am I talking about this movie? No, I'm not going to talk about pirates (though it would be interesting to compile a list of noteworthy pirate books in YA) but rather the young adult genre's own focus on the Fountain of Youth.

True, the Fountain of Youth never plays verbatim in any YA plots (though I wouldn't be surprised if a few crop up sometime in the near future, especially post-Pirates Four), but one has to wonder why immortality and eternity are suddenly such mainstays in recent paranormal YA books. Whether it's through vampires or angels or some other supernaturally made entity, both authors and readers alike seem to be obsessed with youth and the thought of never dying.

It's not hard to see where many YA authors are getting their cues. One look at the society around us shows the glorification of youth and the scornful way age is portrayed. Women cringe at the idea of wrinkles and cellulite. Men try to subvert their youth slipping away by indulging in sports cars or motorcycles to reclaim the adrenaline and freedom they think they are losing. Our society pushes the images of flawless, almost ageless models and movie stars, and we start to think that the normal progression of age is somehow the wrong thing. Stop the wrinkles! Stop the sagging! Error, error! Must fix, must fix! (You get the idea.)

In YA books, heroines and heroes (despite being teenagers with likely whole lifetimes ahead of them, mind you) almost prematurely worry about age. Bella Swan of Twilight fame epitomizes this trend (and, in my opinion, shoved the 'immortality wish' into the YA spotlight), always bemoaning the fact that she is getting older while her vampire boyfriend is forever young. Other authors may not have made their main characters so vocal about their age prejudices, but it's sending a message that many of the characters in YA novels are in a state of some kind of immortality (whether through paranormal means, divine intervention, reincarnation, etc.) that shirks them of next to no concern for mortality's real effects of age and, eventually, death.

Don't get me wrong: youth is a beautiful thing. But it is also fleeting. Just as first loves and old teenage resentments don't often last, youth fades too. It's not healthy to embrace the one thing (youth) wholeheartedly and then avoid or dismiss the other (age) so easily. Real-life teenagers don't need any more hints to pick up on the 'youth is good, age is bad' message. They can own those ideas all by themselves, so why should the books they happen to read reinforce the stigmas and fears?

The fear of age and death is present inside every person to some extent, but everyone needs to face up to it at some point, hopefully sooner rather than later. Neither thing will go away and disappear for good, no matter what new tricks or shenanigans the world sells us to make the lines disappear and the clock rewind. But many of us keep falling for the lie, the hopeless dream, that it can be done. . .that it should be done.

To quote Bella's own words in Eclipse: "Am I the only one who has to get old? I get older every stinking day! Damn it! What kind of world is this? Where's the justice?"

There may be no justice in your eyes, Bella, but to me age and death are just a part of life. Deal with it. Be an example.

Face up to it, YA books. Death and age aren't going away -- so please do us a favor and stop making teenagers think that such things should be wished away or 'fixed.' That kind of mentality is just adding to a larger problem that, honestly, is harming our society more and more each day.

Just stop and think about it.


  1. That was one of the things that bothered me about Twilight, the constant obsession with Bella's getting older. You're 17, Bella! Enjoy it, enjoy your life! I would rather see some YA novels that celebrate life and all it can offer. But then I never had an immortal boyfriend so what do I know?! ;-)

  2. I'm ashamed to admit that this issue did not strike me AT ALL before this post! In my defense, however, I come from a society where this obsession with staying youthful is still in its fledgling stages, and not anywhere close to the mania it is in the US.

    Also, I think it's weird that authors would try to push teen immortality on people. God, I remember being a teenager, and it is NOT the period of my life I would want to keep in stasis forever! Imagine forever being that bundle of hormones and naïveté and inexperience! *shudder* I mean, it's not like being a teenager was horrible, but I enjoy who I am now, and the experiences that shaped me. And trying to tell these kids that that journey is not worthwhile is just so wrong.

    Onto the shameless plugging - Jillian, you should really read I kissed a Zombie, especially in the light of this post. It's pretty awesome how the MC really debates what immortality would mean, and whether it's worth giving up her humanity and natural life cycle for.

  3. Awesome post! It basically summed up what I was just thinking about the other day! What I realized the other day was that I was tired of reading books that had immortality in them since they all usually followed a certain theme: main guy lives forever, cue the angst, doesn't want girl to be involved with him, angst again, but I love you!, angst, something stupid happens that could have been avoided, huge cliffhanger, see you in the next volume. Basically follows Twilight.

    Now, I would totally love it if you did a post full of awesome pirate books because I love nothing more than pirates! Except maybe ninjas. They're equally awesome. XD