Today, I turned 18.
This means a variety of things - one, I will face much harsher ramifications should I ever entangle myself in something on the wrong side of the law; two, I'm now able to buy things like scissors, razor blades and glue sticks that I was not considered responsible enough to wield yesterday; and three . . . I'm an adult.
In the eyes of society, the law, and the planet at large - I am an adult. And now that I am an adult, I must leave the world of childhood behind, embark the greater journey of life, fulfil conventional expectations of having a career, producing offspring, and entering into the slow biological breakdown that will eventually require legal documentation to prevent the aforementioned offspring fighting to the death over whatever possessions I may leave behind me.
I'm still waiting for the memo on that, but I'm pretty sure that's the gist of it.
However, during my ten-minute existential crisis upon waking up with this realisation in my head, I began to wonder what I left behind as the official constitution of my now complete "childhood".
Inevitably, my thoughts turned to books. The books I remembered from various stages of my life, the ones that had piqued interests and raised questions and shaped me into the person I am today.
And I realised something odd. There were not many "Young Adult" books on that list.
Admittedly, as the child whose reading age broke the scale at eight, I wasn't overmuch surprised by this, but it did get me thinking. I've read a lot of YA in my time - heck, I wrote and published a YA book! - but, for some reason, there aren't a lot of books from that range that have stuck with me.
Lying there in the dim pre-dawn of new adulthood, dwelling on this conundrum, I finally realised why.
The Young Adult demographic is very specific, and thus it is incredibly sensitive to the sort of themes and topics it will bring up to best engage with that age group. Taking a "young adult" to mean someone between fifteen and seventeen (just off the cuff, I'm not aware of any official figures), we're looking at people who don't yet have the life experience and range of possibilities that adults do, but are probably starting to develop an awareness and interest in those possibilities, as well as a keen-ness to explore them.
Thus it's no wonder that many YA novels feature themes that such people can relate to, and one of the biggest is a desire for elsewhere. I can't remember many YA protagonists who weren't interested in places and worlds beyond theirs, who wanted travel and experience, who faced challenges of displacement and adaptation to new places and people. There's a good reason every other hero or heroine is the "new boy/girl in town".
There, I realised, was my problem. These people yearned for things - travel, new places, new people - that I encountered regularly. Bi-annually, practically. I find it incredibly hard to find the romance and attraction in something that has been a part of my life since before I can properly remember it. What's worse, I have very little sympathy for those characters who make a big deal out of it - those wretched moody teens who spend the first week in a new place brooding in their room because they don't like the new place, all the neighbours are dweebs, no one understands them, nyeh nyeh nyeh, my life sucks, sympathise with me. Tough cookies, kid - get up and get on with it. I deal with it, why shouldn't you?
It's a little hard to engage with a story you've already lived out thirteen times.
I reckon this also explains another strange readerly quirk of mine - I find it hard to engage with younger characters. This issue wasn't so bad when I was younger, because the focus was usually on some other aspect, outside the 'coming of age' dynamic, but as I got older I became more and more aware of the fact that these characters were all aiming for things that I already knew about. Their subjects of fascination were my reality, their 'normality' that one thing I had never experienced for proper.
Perhaps that's why, to this day, I still find it easier to bond with adult characters. They don't focus as much on unfulfilled burning ambitions for a romanticised ideal of travel, and their stories don't, in turn, focus on a 'fish out of water', 'coming of age' arc. These characters had other concerns, many of which I hadn't felt before, but at the same time their extra life-experience gave me extra grounds for sympathy - I could relate to and engage with someone for whom upheaval was a regular occurrence much better than I could with someone going through it for the first time, whining and all.
Now, that doesn't mean to say I feel deprived - I wouldn't trade my life for anyone else's, cardboard boxes, culture shocks and all - but nevertheless, I feel like I'm not the only oft-displaced youngster who's felt a similar disconnection to the multitudes of conventional 'everyday' narrators of YA. What's more, I think this is a silly oversight - kids like me who constantly face the loss of friends, unfamiliar environments, and horrifically long plane flights, will often be of a greater inclination to turn to books for familiarity and comfort. I can't name a town or country of origin, but I can tell you a hundred and one fictional worlds that remain just as much 'home' to me as my current postal address.
An unconventional background has, by no means, alienated me entirely from YA - and doubtless the same is true for the other countless battalions of others like me. Nevertheless, it just goes to show how much bearing one's life experience can have on one's relationship with such a demographic-specific grouping as YA.
What about all of you? What do you think of the relationship between life experience engagement with a narrative? Are there any themes that you, like me, avoid due to either apathy or over-familiarity? Leave a comment, and let me know!
Who knows - commenters might even get a share of my birthday cake.
~ Charley R