Recently, John Green of Young Adult author fame and one of the people I greatly admire received this question by anonymous on tumblr:
“Would you ever write a YA novel where an adult plays a key role? I know you like to leave the focus around the teenagers and their “peer relationships… but I was just wondering if it had ever crossed your mind.”
John Green responded thus:
“I mean, to be totally honest with you, I don’t really give a shit about adults.”
He then added this clarification:
Like, all of my friends are adults. My spouse is an adult. My parents and brother are adults. I know and like many adults. But I don’t want to write for them. Or God forbid about them.
They’re just so…boring. It’s like, “Oh I have a mortgage. I buy six pairs of identical khaki pants at a time. I take care of children and watch the television program CSI.”
I admire people who can make that crap into the stuff of interesting fiction, but…yeah. No.”
This sounded to me less like an explanation and more like a midlife crisis.
I understand that there are many reasons to write about and for teenagers.
Teenagers go through tumultuous developments. They have to form their personalities and find out what they want to do and what they want to be at the same as their brains are certifiably insane. (There is scientific research out there to support this claim.)
They are not settled. Everything is experienced in a dramatically heightened context and teenager’s lives are filled with a plethora of exciting and frightening ‘Firsts’ that are worth exploring.
As an audience, teenagers do not just like a certain, book, series, or movie. They LOVE it. They are loyal to the franchise. They go all creative about it and enrich the experience of the original with art, music, writing and films.
YA is also an important genre, because teenagers do need to find relatable narratives that are not concerned with the wish of fitting into a pre-set social group that children have and that are also not concerned with exploring, excelling in, or circumventing the system, that many grown-ups have. Teenagers need books that speak to them and speak for them.
Having said all that, let me get to the point I want to make.
Being a teenager is not the only important or exciting time in a person’s life. Any age has its challenges and can be portrayed in an interesting way. The quote from John Green makes it seem as if the teenage years are our glory days and it is all downhill from there.
I find that very pessimistic and unimaginative. And, to be honest, if I had stopped my personal development right after my teenage years, I would have been better off if I had killed myself right then and there.
Yes, adulthood can be stressful and boring at the same time. Yes, you can get stuck in a rut if you go and achieve all the milestones in an orderly fashion. A job, a spouse, a house, a car, a kid. Yes, you have to take a step back when you have to care for the most egotistical beings on earth, your little kids. But you still do not have to be boring while doing that.
You are still the same character that you used to be when you made your life decisions. You can still be nerdy, quirky, obsessed, ridiculous, lovable, stoic, caustic, understanding or hopelessly overwhelmed. You will still have to face changes and you will have to decide if you courageously accept them or cowardly back away from them.
And if you decide to buy six pairs of identical khakis and to watch CSI, that is your decision. You could just as easily decide to buy leather biker pants and hike the Himalaya. (Probably not in the biker pants though. That could get rather uncomfortable.)
If your life is settled, just wait, there will be things coming along that will unsettle it. And if your life is unsettled, do not obsess about it.
There are so many grown-ups out there who are deeply depressed, because they are non-normative people; because they did not hit all the milestones in the prescribed order. People who would give everything they have to experience the privilege of having achieved your dreams.
The stories of all these grown-up characters are also worth exploring and learning about. Many of the most tragic and interesting characters in literature are grown-ups who have been thrown into unsettling circumstances. Montag was a married man. Offred was married to a guy and had a kid. Frodo was 50.
So, to summarize, it is great that there is YA for teenagers, but you do not need to justify writing for teenagers by thrashing adulthood. I consider that ageism.
I get that every age group gets a bad rap. Teenagers get a bad rap and it is unjust and unfair. Millenials are getting a bad rap and it is preposterous. Grown-ups, especially people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, get a bad rap and it is just as unjustified. But guess what? Giving a bad rap to grown-ups is considered cool. Especially when it is done by someone who belongs to that generation.
I think we should forget about preconceived notions and generalizations of specific age groups. I remember a cool guy once said that we should “imagine people complexly.”
(For those of you who don’t know, that guy was also John Green.)