Jenny's Library

What Looking for Alaska and The Hunger Games Have in Common

Posted on: April 23, 2013

I ran into a fellow youth librarian that I know, but haven’t seen in a while, at the LA Times Festival of Books (I know! what are the odds! anyway…).  At one point when we were talking she asked me which age of kids I preferred working with.  I used to have an answer to that, back when I subbed in schools.  I don’t anymore.  I think in part because I have more flexibility of choice in the library; it’s easier to set up library programs so that they bring out the best in each age, rather than having to handle the worst of each age for an entire school day.

I think the other reason is because my current position really emphasizes childhood and adolescence as a continuous process.  Teachers get kids at one age, and then see them grow incrementally throughout the year.  I go from working with toddlers to teens to preschoolers to elementary age students all in the space of a week.  Then I do it all over again the next week.  Teachers see kids grow, but only up to a certain point, at which time they are replaced by kids the age the outgoing class they used to be.  I, on the other hand, see kids move from our baby classes to our toddler classes and so on.  If I worked here long enough, I could see them move all the way up to being a parent with their own baby.

Which may be part of why I’m finding the number of people talking about young adult literature in comparison to adult literature, but not in comparison to children’s literature, to be increasingly annoying.  There hasn’t really been an upsurge in people doing it (except that there has been an upsurge in people talking about young adult literature) but I’m fast losing patience with it.

I understand why it happens.  Adults who add a handful of young adult titles to their reading lists are hardly going to do the same with picture books or middle grade novels.  And yet…I don’t actually understand it.  I love picture books and don’t really understand anyone who doesn’t.  I’ll still like you as a friend, but I don’t really get not liking Portis’s Not a Box or Gravett’s Orange Pear Apple Bear.  And I think all of you science fiction and fantasy fans that aren’t reading at least a couple of Ursula Vernon’s Dragonbreath series are totally missing out.

Most of all though, talking about how books for teens are different from books for adults, without also talking about how books for teens are different from books for kids, just makes no sense to me.  It’s like talking about how teens are not like adults without having any understanding of how they used to be as children.  There’s often an implicit understanding, when talking about the things 17 year old drivers do, that not that long ago they were only 15 and couldn’t drive themselves anywhere.  But when people mention The Hunger Games and where it fits in the larger dystopia canon, it’s only ever adult books that are mentioned, not the middle grade dystopias, such as The Giver, the Shadow Children series, A Wrinkle in Time, or The City of Ember, the books that shaped it’s target audience’s expectations for how such stories should go.

This problem seems to be especially bad when it comes to science fiction novels.  I think, in part, because most adult science fiction literature fans were nerds as children and read adult books more often than most children tend to.  But also because many adults just aren’t aware that adult genres don’t exist in children’s – or even teen – literature the way they do in adult literature.  When adults study children’s literature in school, whether as English students or library science students, we don’t talk about mysteries, speculative fiction, horror, and romance.  We talk about animal stories, historical fiction, school stories, and other genres that are much more popular among actual children.  Which isn’t to say that adults genres don’t exist in children’s literature, it’s just that they don’t have quite the same presence, and their tropes and themes are often very different.

Modern ideas about school and home are present in dystopias for children and young adults in a way that they aren’t, usually, in adult fiction.  It goes beyond simply being a warped version of the world they know, it’s also about development and how children perceive the world around them.  So the kids in Camazotz are still playing ball – because children’s sense of time and play and the way their actual memory works means that synchronized bounces read as wrong in a way that never getting to play with balls at all does not.  The children of Ember still go to school, in part because we assume that American children would have a hard time seeing themselves in kids who did not.  Teens in Delirium have tests they must pass, because while we are borrowing from Romeo and Juliet here, modern teens (supposedly) need an institution rather than a political alliance to rail against.  Jonas and Katniss both have mandatory assemblies to attend, despite the danger of populous action they present, because what’s more benignly oppressive than a pep rally?

These are all tropes and traditions that go beyond just science fiction for teens.  You can draw parallels to adult science fiction novels, but you can also do the same for contemporary novels like Looking for Alaska, in which a school assembly is a dramatic turning point and the site of student rebellion, or Lowry’s historical Number the Stars, which features a different child defying an entire country.

I could go on, but the point is that there are traditions and tropes present in young adult literature that readers will miss out on if they are no longer familiar with stories about mice on motorcycles or spiders than can spell, not to mention the subgenere of “preteen girl loses mother tragically.”  This isn’t to say that all of these tropes are interesting or that children’s or young adult literature can’t or shouldn’t change – just that a lot of what young adult literature does makes so much more sense if you’ve Dr. Seuss or Judy Blume more recently than several decades ago.

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