Musings on young adult literature

Alison Lohans speaking at the Saskatchewan Writers`Guild, 2014

Alison Lohans speaking at the Saskatchewan Writers`Guild, 2014

What’s the role of young adult literature in today’s increasingly uncertain world, with its epidemics of terrorism and other less violent but equally devastating conditions such as disease and poverty?

Is it a quick fix as commercial media so often promise? Is it an escape into fantastical worlds, where augmented powers change the shape of human, and even elemental, interactions? Is it a plunge into the grimmest darkness of dystopian worlds? Is its function to take us away from the daily-ness of a life in which billion-dollar industries use air-brushed photos to convince consumers that we’re imperfect and thus undesirable? Or to temporarily erase the horrors we see daily on TV which often leave us feeling incapable of taking any sort of meaningful action?

The longer my thirty-plus year writing career has extended, the less certain I am about possible answers to this question, let alone accurate ones. As an emerging young teen of the early 1960s, the literature that was offered up to young women at that time seemed like a massive insult to my intelligence and questioning mind. The formula romances of the 1950s, with occasional attempts at addressing less hard-hitting issues in white, suburban North America, completely put me off reading for five years. Why did our literature ignore the significant things happening in the world, instead assuring us that the girl usually got the boyfriend, and that things usually worked out in that relationship? To me it seemed totally plausible that concern about world events or civil rights and getting a boyfriend could share space in the same book. So, as a budding writer, I vowed that someday I’d write books about real things, which explored deeper beneath the glossy surface of what the books were telling us about the world. Thus as a non-reading budding writer, I completely missed the radical swing into the so-called “problem novel” ushered in by Judy Blume and others.

The single one thing that’s become clear over the scope of my career is that styles and markets are always in flux, and impossible to predict. One surprising and heartening recent trend is Hollywood’s discovery of young adult literature, and its ability to make tidy profits in the commercial market. “It’s about time!” I say – though it’s easy to feel cynical because of the money angle. Whether the focus is cancer, or near-death experiences, or the extreme realms of a dystopia where human life has become a matter of sport and entertainment for an all-powerful elite, for the time being Hollywood is recognizing and honouring that phase of life when young people grow toward independence and autonomy, with all the inherent questions about the meaning(s) of life, and what one’s purpose and direction might be. All of this, with the fluidity that’s available before a person becomes entrenched in the responsibilities of adulthood. I’m glad to see occasional threads of humour woven in amongst this serious mix, for humour lends lightness, a hint that the human spirit will continue on many levels and not all is of deathly-grim importance. Because laughter is also an essential part of life.

It’s been quite a while since I was a young adult, myself, and my sons are now well into their adult years. I have granddaughters in that age group, however. All of us have gone through, or are currently experiencing, the exhilarating and always intense process of mapping out who we are, and how we fit into this often-confusing world. It’s a time of soaring highs, of despairing lows, all tempered by hormones that draw us toward special others. It’s a time of acute clarity in looking at the world, countered by a wash of uncertainties in which we sometimes criticize ourselves on a level that’s nearly microscopic. Significant decisions are made, some powerful and forward-reaching, others tragically destructive.

Whatever the “role” of young adult literature, it’s my fervent hope that writers and publishers will always seek to celebrate and respect this acute time of life, and the people who are embarked upon this journey of articulating their human selves, and how we all fit into this world.

© Alison Lohans

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