Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Will the Real Young Adults Please Stand Up?

Reading young adult books can often be a lot like watching romantic comedy movies aimed at teenagers. There is the high school setting. You see the stereotypes and you recognize them well: the nerdy/unpopular girl, the jock or bad boy love interest, the antagonistic cheerleader/popular girl, the supporting cast made up of quirky yet baseline stereotypical characters who add nothing to the plot but one-liners, quips, and comedic relief. You know how the story goes. Heroine triumphs with the love interest on her arm. Mean girl gets her just desserts. Happily ever after for everyone else!

It sounds stupid, doesn't it? How is that a good representation of being a teenager? Yes, everyone can relate to the underdog. Yes, everyone hates the bully or antagonist. Yes, everyone wants to come out happy in the end.

But it isn't true to life.

Here on the Book Lantern, we rant about the true love trope in paranormal YA where girl meets boy and – suddenly – the two are destined to love each other for ever and ever and ever! How does this scenario relate to real life teenagers? Do I really believe that most teenagers believe that, when they fall in love between the ages of fifteen and eighteen, they will stay together with those first loves? Heck no. First loves usually don't survive – and when they do it is a rare thing. But just because it is rare does not mean it will last, what with divorce rates always on the rise. In a world where teenagers grow up knowing the pros and cons of love, marriage, and the like, how can any of us say that most teenagers aren't disillusioned by the idea of forever love?

Then you have teenagers and sex and the two ends of the spectrum where teens are either virginal or “heavily experienced.” Girls are good if they are virgins; girls are bad if they are not. Boys don't push for sex, and there are next to no hints that they are thinking about it or wanting it. Realistic? I think not.

Of course, all of these things boil down to my main issue: teenagers are not portrayed in all their shades within many young adult books. You have either too-good-to-be-true idealism or harsh and gritty realism. The unattainable perfections are glorified while the flaws are dusted under the carpet or stereotypes reign supreme in place of true characterization and portraits of real life.

I want to see teenagers as they are in all the ugliness and beauty that they are capable of having just like any other person. Teenagers can be fickle, doubtful, unsure, hateful, bitter, and misunderstood – but they can be beautiful, insightful, creative, intelligent, constructive, and reliable. Teenagers cannot fit into the stereotype boxes we align for them because people in general do not fit into boxes.

But all hope isn't lost because there are authors out there who portray teenagers realistically and powerfully. I love when authors can convince me that their characters could really exist in real life. I love when I am able to think in regards to a character, ”You are not a stereotype! Hooray for you!” or ”You're real, and I love you so, so much for it.” I love when I can think to myself, “Yes, these are real teenagers written by people who once were teenagers.”

Idealism is a nice thing. . .but truth? Truth can be ugly and painful – but it is necessary for the sake of knowledge, growth, and understanding. To impart all those things to readers through characters who are learning and growing and understanding – what a beautiful, rare thing that is. Those stories that can achieve such heights and show such reality are the ones worth keeping, cherishing, and raising onto a pedestal.


  1.  Nicely said. I think one of the problems a lot of writers end up facing is that fictional characters are supposed to be "larger than life..." because real life is boring. So we stretch and make characters cooler, funnier, smarter, nerdier, meaner, whatever. Some take this too far and are too unwilling to make their character genuinely flawed -- they'd rather create a character who's everything they think someone would want to be and then give them all the world's happiness because they think everyone wants the happy ending.

    Or, as you said, some go the other direction and create a character who's SO deeply flawed that they're not even an anti-hero, they're just unlikeable.

    It's a delicate balance, and one I'm sure I don't always get right. Make a character too realistically selfish and whiny, and that's all people see. Make them too clever and incredible, and they're a Mary Sue. I keep on trying, though ;)

  2.  One can write books that go against that formula, but get ready for a lot of angry reviews on goodreads. The market is REALLY hung up on formula these days - the term I'm hearing a lot of is "wish fulfillment." As with anything else, we go through periods were experimentation, brains, realism, and boundary-pushing are in. Five or six years ago it felt like that in the YA world, but it certainly doesn't anymore. 

  3. Well said.  I've been thinking a lot about this topic lately in terms of defining the terms "literary" and "genre."  I'm especially interested in how literary authors use the trappings of horror/fantasy/sci-fi without somehow lowering themselves.  I think your post comes pretty close to articulating the line -- it's less a question of whether the premise/story is plausible than a question of whether the *human interactions* feel true to our experience.  By all means, take liberties with your world ... just not with the people inhabiting it. 

  4. I'd call this sort of thing a "reality check," one desperately needed in YA. Check out anything by Courtney Summers to get a "reality" check - although I guess you could call them melodramatic, the emotions packed in her books are seriously true to life. Excellent post, Jillian!

  5. I think of the problems with books these days is that real=boring in publishers minds. If it doesn't have some type of crazy hook like a girl who can talk to vampire ghost werewolves, then it won't sell. I agree with S.E., authors seem to try too hard to make their characters appealing. I guess for us older people, thats annoying, but I often wonder if I would have felt the same way 7 years ago. (probably, but I probably couldn't point out what was wrong with the book)