Monday, 6 May 2013

Why I Can't Relate to YA: Celebrating 18 Years of Dreams and Displacement

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


  1. Many of the books I love are YA but I wouldn't say I read them for that reason. They're great books that just so happen to be YA.

    I haven't had nearly the travel experience you've had and I haven't really moved (it was over ten years ago and we only moved a few miles away...), so I do like the stories about new people and new places and all that. I don't really like the theme of school (usually in YA). It's not that I can't relate to it - I'm irritated when people think that as a hoemschooler, I have no idea what life is like for most kids. It's just... I dunno, there's just so much in life that doesn't take place inside a school building. I get to have that all the time and I love, so that's what I'd rather read about.

    Also, I'm confused. What does "the child whose reading age broke the scale at eight" mean? You started reading adult books at eight, or you started reading at eight? Both are a bit weird and I'm not sure what you meant... xD

    1. I can see where you're coming from on that front - and there are lots of great books that just happen to be YA, but regrettably many of them involve the themes I just taked about here, which puts me off somewhat.

      Also, allow me to explain: there's a reading test for kids, where they find out their "reading age" alongside their actual age, to see how their literacy is progressing. A "reading age" of 16 is the highest it goes - in short, I was reading at the level of competency and comprehension of a 16 year old or higher at 8.

      Sorry, must be a British thing. Should have elaborated :P

    2. Really, there's an actual test? I never did that! I feel like I should have done.

      Mind you, by the time I was eight I'd read more books than my teacher (including the entire LotR trilogy), so...

  2. OK, that makes sense. I can understand reading nerdiness - in second grade I read so much at a certain level that I won this award that they rarely even give to fourth-graders. >.>


    Ahem. Sorry.

    Happy Birthday, first of all, and I apologize for not checking yesterday, when it actually was your birthday. Second of all, what a heavy post! You and I are very different, it seems. I like younger characters, but not when they're badly portrayed as little idiots. I also like older characters, but not when they're merely focusing on love. That apathy about love is what I find interesting in younger protagonists, but the maturity and intelligence is what I like in older ones. And the absence of age levels is some of what draws me occasionally to animal fiction as well.

    Anyway, that has nothing to do whatsoever with your post. Maybe. Not sure.

    1. Au contraire, finding the different things one relates to is very much relevant to this post! I think I agree with you - I've reconciled myself to romance and love, in more recent years, but a story of any sort that focusses on it too much will swiftly lose my interest!

    2. (First of all, I believe the comment below us is Spam. I get those all the time. How could you argue about your personal reading preferences, anyway?)

      So I've noticed, from your recent suggestions. I almost couldn't finish Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and Days of Blood and Starlight is proving difficult as well, as beautiful as the prose is.

    3. (Found it, slew it, am now wondering what to do with what's left of it!)

      Yes, that is a little . . . unfortunate. It picks up more as you move into the second and third stages of the story - bit more action, Akiva stops emo-ing long enough to smite some stuff in a truly epic manner, creepy villain is creepy, all that good stuff ;)

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  5. I have issues with YA fiction when all the teenage girls' ultimate dream is to get a boyfriend, seeing as that's never interested me in the slightest. I also just find contemporary YA not particularly interesting -- it's too much like real life (though the majority of it I've come across has been American, which has had its own difficulties). That's why I stick to the fantasy side of the genre.

    I mean, come on. It's not like meeting a member of the Unseelie Court in the woods and saving his life is an experience you've already had, or being told that if you kiss your true love he's going to die and also dead Welsh kings, or being taken away from your family to become a magician and ending up causing havoc.... you know, all that side of things. Which means those books are still an escape and still portray a life you haven't lived.

    "YA" is, after all, a very broad term.

    1. Yes, exactly, I think that is a point worth making - but a lot of my trouble is that the protagonists, even fantastical ones, still want things like travel and excitement and such in their own right outside of the story. Which puts me off, notably. But it does happen a lot less frequently on the fantasy side, you are right.

    2. Ehehe! Can you name the three books I described, though? I know for certain you've read two of them -- not sure about the last one.

  6. I definitely understand the whole reading-books-about-younger-people thing. I think the only book I've ever read about someone less than my age was Ballet Shoes, and not only (if I remember rightly) did those characters grow up to eventually be a lot older than I was, it was also during my phase of 'it's immoral to not finish reading'. Strangely enough, that went down the drain when I started reading YA. Huh.
    However,I don't understand the moving thing as I've never moved. In fact, I will be moving school at the end of the year for the first time (if you don't count Primary to Secondary, which I don't because every person at my school moved up to the same place), and it is really scary. Like, REALLY. It's definitely overused in the extreme in YA books, but I think that maybe that's more about the fact that boys/girls you've basically grown up with aren't exciting in the slightest than it is about moving being scary and horrible and miserable, although the authors will add that in to show that their character is realistic.
    In other news, HAPPY (belated) BIRTHDAY!

    1. Heh heh, I'm still in the "DAMMIT I WILL FINISH THIS BOOK!" stage. It's a pride thing. No book has properly defeated me yet! Several have tried, but blast them I have dragged myself through to the end! Except for one or two. Namely James Joyce's "Ulysses", but that shouldn't count because it's a horrible monster that shouldn't rightly be called 'book'.

      Moving for the first time is, yes, unpleasant, but really it's not as bad as all the books make it out to be. It's quite exciting, sometimes. And it resolves quickish once you get on and engage with the new place.

      Thank you!

  7. I'm commenting because I want cake. And, also, because I love your blog (naturally.)

    But *sniff*, welllll, I left the rainbow years behind (you're 18? n'aw, little kiddie), but I still looove my YA books. Read it. Write the stuff. I never want to stop. Of course, I'm finding myself drawn to more Adult books, but I still get a buzz every-time I get a new YA book in my hands. Still! Happy Birthday! And an excellently thought-provoking post (though I'm still cross at blogger, because it is NOT emailing me you're posts or letting them come into my blogroll, despite my being signed up for both ;/)

    1. Is it not? BAD BLOGGER! *smacks it* Wish I could fix it, but I'm afraid I can't *sigh*. Hopefully it'll resolve itself sharpish.