It’s early Friday morning and I’ve just been sitting around thinking about books. Especially books about teenagers. Because you know, I used to be a teenager a few years ago, and now I still read about teenagers, so I feel a connection. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how teens have been portrayed in YA, and whether or not these portrayals really, accurately depict teens or if they are convenient stereotypes. I’ve also arrived at the conclusion that I was a sucky teenager. Yeah, apparently, there are all these things that teens do (says the media, which in my definition includes books) that I did not do. Apparently, when I was a teen, I was supposed to party, I was supposed to experiment with drugs, I was supposed to drink, I was supposed to throw myself at every guy I came into contact with, and I was supposed to have sex, too. Hmm. I guess I fail the teen-test. Lately, it seems like there have been only a handful of authors with books that come close to portraying anything like my teen years (Lisa Mangum, Stephenie Meyer, Bree Despain… *crickets chirping*). And I can’t help but feel a little intimidated and inadequate because of that. I feel so weird to say it, because you usually don’t see this in YA literature, so apparently it doesn’t happen much, but I had a great high school experience.
To be sure, I love YA. It’s probably my favorite genre, and the bulk of what I read comes from there. That does not mean that I enjoy every book, or agree with every message, or support every author. Like other every other genre, YA is plagued with common and recurring issues, and one of those has to do with the audience. It’s one thing to entertain teenagers, but it’s another thing to enable them. So many times it seems like authors purposefully screw up their characters for no other reason or purpose than to just do it: a character is on drugs, a character drinks, a character parties, a character is sexually active… that’s why when I read a book with MCs who actually have their s--- together (my dad’s crude but honest phrase), it makes me all the more appreciative. I guess I just don’t like, can’t relate to, and have no sympathy for screwed up characters. But here’s the typical reaction: “Oh! That’s so judgmental Everybody’s screwed up! It’s normal to be screwed up!” Yeah, some teens are into the behaviors that I mentioned. When I was a kid in the good ol 90s, it was “just say ‘no’!” and “don’t do something just because everybody else is doing it.” Now, apparently, the fact that some teens do participate in these behaviors is a ‘go’ invitation for them to keep doing it. Yeah, some teens do drugs, but when have we decided that that is acceptable? If we’re talking about stereotypical activities associated with (some) teens, what about drinking and driving? Hmm, as of yet authors/screenwriters/songwriters haven’t gone so far as to glamorize that, but pretty much every other bad/delinquent/harmful behavior has just been pretty much excused. And you may say, ‘No, Amelia! Authors aren’t excusing it! They’re making the point that *said behavior* is bad!’ You’re right, some of them are. Three cheers to Sarah Dessen. But not every author is Sarah Dessen. And the majority of teen books have some kind of questionable behavior attributed to teens. And it’s not used as a lesson or teaching tool or even as something to generate discussion. It’s just a blunt ‘that’s the way he/she is!’ flare, and I can just picture a few authors shrugging their shoulders and giving me the finger. That’s the problem. Teens will read this, and coupled with the messages they’re getting from television and Hollywood (ABC Dysfunctional Family), they will begin to think that this activity is acceptable. You don’t think so? Are you more or less likely to experiment with something if you’re under the impression that ‘everybody’s doing it’ and ‘this is normal, age-appropriate behavior’?
I buy ‘age-appropriate’ behavior in some cases: body image, anxiety about the future, inadequate communication with parents, friends, boyfriends/girlfriends, etc. That stuff is usually on an internal level, though. One of my favorite authors said on her site that the best characters (as in well-rounded) are the ones with their issues below the surface, not external, physical stuff. Food for thought.
And you know, what about normal kids? Where are their books? What books can normal kids who have their uhh…crap… together read? You know, kids who actually make good grades and are involved in extracurricular sports/activities, kids who have responsible friends and get along with their parents and don’t feel the need to experiment with blatantly bad behavior? What message are they receiving from the media? I’ll tell you. They’re receiving the message that they are the ones who are not normal. And that is just sad. If you’re writing realistic fiction and you’re making some kind of point about whatever behavior, that’s one thing. But in paranormal or fantasy stories, where real-life scenarios are really not the main theme, it just comes across as callous. But for one reason, it $$sells$$. Apparently, young women find bad, delinquent boys sexy. Don’t even want to go down that dysfunctional road. But other times, it’s more personal. My professor made a blunt comment one day, and some of the kids in class got all huffy with her, but I think she’ was absolutely right. With YA authors, she said (and she was meaning more exclusively teen fiction, not so much Middle Grade/Intermediate authors), a lot of the time they’re out of touch with their target audience. They don’t write teen fiction because they have teenage children, or teach teenagers, or even come into regular contact with teens. A lot of them, she reckoned, write as a kind of therapeutic exercise, and when they do, they hearken back to their teenage years, and the scenarios they set up are ones that were true for them. For an author to write what they know is okay, but I would like them to be mindful of the message they're sending. Are you enabling irresponsible behavior and ignoring/snubbing good behavior? Because to write something and then not take responsibility for it is just low. Maybe that's just me, though. True story: earlier this year, I had one of my teen girls come up to me after class and ask me whether or not drinking (at the ripe old age of 16) is really that bad. She said that ‘like every character in every book I read does it', and it actually made her question what she thought was right and wrong. I’m sure some authors find it amusing to question your beliefs, but that just really depressed and outraged me on so many levels (not to mention the fact that the behavior in question is ILLEGAL). Now here's where I need to swing in the opposite direction a little bit, a lot of you (those who have already commented) have made a very good point: just because you may read about something doesn't mean it will launch you off the deep end and make you question everything you believe and every lifestyle decision you've made. Yeah, sometimes it can even be interesting to read about "how the other half lives" and get a perspective on characters with different behaviors or attitudes. And that's cool. But when you hear/see the same message flashing at you from all sides, it can be intimidating. And if you're living differently, it can make you feel inadequate. And that's where accountability and consideration need to come into play. But I love reading about your success stories and memories :)
I’ll swing it back to the original thought. I love YA: I think YA is the place to be if you love highly creative, imaginative, fun and fantastical books. You can tell I mostly stick with fantasy, haha! YA realistic fiction is praise-worthy, too. Sarah Dessen! But just like every genre, YA is not without its…idiosyncrasies. I’m going to make a down-the-middle statement here, so be ready! I don’t like it when people dismiss YA literature as ‘childish’ or make implications that it is beneath one’s level or poorly written or whatever. However, much as I love YA (and I do, and I really couldn’t read any other genre – I’m just a sucker for Young Adult writing), not all of its criticisms are unfounded. So I’ve come to the end of my personal post. It is a little weird to feel like you were worlds-away different from the characters you read. I'll have to do a separate post on high school and other teen subjects. I guess what I want is more variety: I'd like authors (and the other parts of the media) to really get diverse and present several teenage portrayals, not just 'teens with bad behavior' or 'teens who break the law.' Let's have more responsible teen characters (girls AND boys) and let's try and actually correct some issues, instead of just spotlighting them.
I guess I’ll have to dub Fridays ‘Editorial Day’ because this is week 2 now of personal posts. Oh well! What do you think? Do you agree with any of my long, rambling points? Or do you disagree? And if you read the whole post, I’ll give you a cookie!