Young Adult Literature and the Personal Search for Validation

The age-old personal quest – validation – is one that’s especially good fodder for exploration in young adult fiction. Whatever era (contemporary or historical) or genre (e.g. realism, fantasy or horror), all of us have an innate need to belong and to have a satisfying sense of purpose in our lives. This is especially acute during the adolescent years when young people are growing more independent, while at the same time striving to understand the complicated “me” of themselves: how they fit in the world, and ways in which they might make a difference. It’s a time when idealism may be running at high tide, a time when youth can set themselves to chosen tasks with a keen passion that’s less hindered by the doses of reality that we adults have had to face, given the responsibilities and compromises that we sometimes must make in order to fulfill our roles.

I’ll note right away that “adulthood” is a relative term, based upon societal norms. In historical eras and in other cultures – and in fantasy novels – teens often step into adult roles at a much younger age than is the case in North American society. Nonetheless, I will assume that the needs and goals of growing up are universal:  among them, and of key importance, the task of establishing a solid identity.

You’re all familiar with that “Who am I?” question asked by young people, in terms of exploring where they fit in socially and vocationally. Young teens wrestle with questions of peer pressure: can they find a secure group identity, or do they end up alienated? Older teens continue the search for identity (as opposed to floundering in confusion) and may find what feels like the right fit through role experimentation. Likewise, they begin to find their places within an ethnic or other group – or may decide to break away from an established cultural norm. Many teens have a keenly developed social conscience, and are able to take action on their strongly-felt beliefs.

Therefore as writers, it’s important to respect our characters (and readers) by seeing eye-to-eye with them, showing characters grappling with a complex situation worthy of their attention and intelligence, and growing in the process. In other words, gaining a stronger sense of identity – and validation – through the thrust of our novel. Thus it’s crucial that we create strong, multi-dimensional characters (not necessarily likeable ones) intact in and of themselves. We approach our characters with empathy, seeing them as individual people, rather than “teenagers”. We use language that acknowledges their maturity and exercises their imaginations.

Writing as adults, is it possible to capture, and portray, those intense teen years? The “It’s all about me!” stance of some younger teens? That feeling of invulnerability which can sometimes lead to unnecessary risk taking? That time of deeply-felt drama, with bumps in the road seen as earth-shattering tragedies? Perhaps not – but at the same time, our goal is to craft a story that will resonate with readers who are on their own journey of “becoming”. We hope to create scenarios that bridge the gap with a story that readers can identify with, with the feeling of “She’s talking directly to me!” A book that stays with readers long afterwards, and might even make a little bit of difference in terms of finding their own place, and sense of worth, in this complicated business of growing up.

© Alison Lohans


2 thoughts on “Young Adult Literature and the Personal Search for Validation

  1. Your observations about youth and identity and how writing with a view to helping teens and young adults to discover their place in their societies are relevant not only to youth, but to many adults who face constant changes in their life-styles, circumstances and relationships. Awesome writing Alison.


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