Young Adult Crossover Fiction: Crumbling Borders between Adolescents and Adults

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Without any question, young adult fiction has represented on of the fastest growing and most interesting publishing fields for some time now – just ask book publishers and librarians.  In its relatively short history, an amazing variety of groundbreaking works have emerged.  The adults writing these novels focus on young adults grappling with the the quest of coming to terms with their roots and identity, of learning to distinguish between authenticity and artifice, and of finding a place for themselves within the framework of life.  Since literature reflects and represents reality, these authors have increasingly confronted adolescents with the changing sociopolitical facets of the modern world.  As one taboo after another has fallen – frank language, drug addiction, domestic violence, sexuality, terrorism, suicide, gender orientation, and madness – and a contrived or unconvincing moral has not been hauled in to tidy up the final pages of the old fashioned problem novel, questions have been raised about what young adults should read.

Traditionally, adults have assumed that teenagers in high school should be assigned classics of adult fiction, even if they lack the life experience to understand, for example, the tormented passions of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.  As a result, many teenage readers abandon reality and shift their focus to popular commercial writers like Danielle Steel, Stephen King, and John Grisham.  These writers at least confront their audiences with violence and evil that a media-dominated world reminds us of continually, whether it be through the reportage of the daily news, television talk and reality shows, films with gratuitous violence, or internet chatrooms.  Teacher of Advanced Placement high school classes preparing students for college, however, now often assign such morally ambiguous works of contemporary literature as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible man and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.  These works plunge readers into the world of racism and warfare that are part of 21st Century life.

The resurgence of interest in young adults by literary authors and publishers reflects an attempt to offer older adolescents stories that confront reality frankly.  As wtih any area of literature, the best books are the ones that depict life honestly and accurately, present characters that evoke understanding or even self-identification, and offer insights into experiences both familiar and unknown.  These novels are thus not about sensational topics,  but rather about how such problems are sometimes part of the experience of life; likewise, these books suggest that the movement to adulthood need not be a descent into contemptible compromise, but rather an assertion of one’s connection with the ambiguous nature of humanity.

Perhaps as interesting is the number of adults who read young adult fiction.  Is it because some of our best writers work in this area, or something more?  Our sense of wonder is provoked.  Are adult parents or grandparents trying to understand the world of their own children or the next generation?  Are they exploring their own past, the memories and feelings of those years embedded in their conscious and unconscious mind?  Are they trying to understand better what happened to them in how they came of age or did not at an earlier period?  Or perhaps more, is coming of age an experience not limited to one age or one time in life?  Are we always trying to come of age at the stage of life we find our self?  Life does not seem static in our time.  the most compelling figure on social and emotional development in the west, Erik Erikson, for example, puts forward a life cycle theory suggesting we confront points of crisis at varied stages of life.  The crumbling of rigid distinctions between the conventional borders of young adult and adult experiences may very well reflect the reality that good young adult fiction generates crossover works for adults.

The foremost writer in this resurgence, Robert Cormier, whose 1974 title, The Chocolate War, signaled the beginning of the young adult field, has said:  “I write for the intelligent reader, and the intelligent reader is often fourteen or sixteen years old.  A work of fiction, if true, written honestly, will set off shocks of recognition in the sensitive reader, no matter what age the reader is.  And I write for this reader.”  When some have complained that these works fail to offer positive authority figures or happy endings, Cormier has responded:  “As long as what I write is true and believable,  why should I have to create happy endings?  My books are an antidote to the TV view of life where even in the most suspenseful show you know that Starsky and Hutch will get their man.  That’s phony realism.  Life just isn’t like that.”  The popularity of these novels might suggest that Cormier has tapped into the world that many teenagers already know.  Such readings can help young adults understand their world as well as learn to think and be discriminating in the development of a level of taste.

In this series, we will read novelists who have won major awards in their field.  Two are National Book Award winners in Young Adult Fiction, one has won the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature, one author won the Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature given by the University of Oklahoma, and two have won the Magaret A. Edwards Award for distinction of a body of work in young adult literature.  The authors reflect different genders and ethnicities as do their protagonists.  the novels are written in different forms, from screenply as courtroom drama, diary, free verse, and more conventional narrative.  All have in common one description essential in what is referred to as a young adult novel:  the protagonist, younger than twenty one, writes in the first person point of view.

Another psychological thriller by Cormier, After the First Death,  launches the series.  The image and the intrigue of a hijacked school bus on a bridge provide context for an exploration of a complex pair of father-son relationships as well as the paradoxical nature of fanaticism, whether it occurs in the form of terrorist or patriotism.  In Monster, Walter Dean Myers renders the voice of an African-American male struggling to understand why he is in jail and to what extent is he guilty – a searching beyond what a court of law can determine as guilt or innocence.  With True Believer, the middle book of an acclaimed trilogy, Virginia Euwer Wolff explores a female striving for dignity and a sense of belonging in an under served high school and neighborhood as her widows mother struggles with barriers of economics and class.  Sherman Alexie offers a major satiric and mythical work about a Native person’s desire to find a place to be, one without the limits of the reservation or the white world, in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian.  Acclaimed novelist Jamaica Kincaid, originally from Caribbean Antigua, reminisces in Annie John on the challenge to become a self, both as more than a mother’s daughter and a colonial object.  To paraphrase poet W.H. Auden’s famous comment, no good young adult novel was written for young adults only.

Young Adult Crossover Fiction:  Crumbling Borders between Adolescents and Adults” was developed by Dr. Harbour Winn, Professor Emeritus of English at Oklahoma City University, where he teaches courses in literature, film studies, and Montessori education.   He has been involved in public humanities programs for many years, and was the Humanities Scholar on the grant that first brought the Let’s Talk About It  program to Oklahoma.  This is the sixth series theme he has developed.  At OCU, he has directed the Center for Interpersonal Studies through Film & Literature for its first 19 years and the OCU Film Institute since 1982.