Monday, March 15, 2010

Adults: MIA in YA?

I just finished reading a fun, paranormal young adult romance called Shiver by Maggie Steifvater and it got me thinking about how adults are portrayed in books written for teens. This is something I wrestle with in my own novels, especially since the formula in a lot of YA these days seems to be that adults are either Missing in Action or idiotic.

In Shiver, the adults are inept/neglectful at best, and murderous at worst. Don’t get me wrong: I really loved Shiver (and just added it to the Book Talk section on my website) which is a wonderfully imaginative, beautifully written girl-meets-boy-who-is-also-a-werewolf romance. Much of the plot is driven by the premise that the protagonist’s parents are fairly indifferent guardians, leaving her free to host a wolf-boy not only in their house but in her bed, unbeknownst to them.

It’s a Teen Theme: Parents Don’t Get Us. Parents don’t communicate with us. They don’t understand our pain. Adults are pretty stupid. In Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, the parents communicate with their clearly depressed daughter by leaving notes for her as they zip off to work. In Carl Hiassen’s Hoot, adults are highly comic idiots. In Libba Bray’s Going Bovine, parents are incapable of understanding or easing their teen son’s pain, whether that’s emotional or physical pain.

“Kids don’t want to read about adults,” my agent tells me. Under her direction I’ve slashed and burned countless pages containing scenes with grownups. Granted, she was right about those cuts (she tends to always be right) but I’m one of those YA authors whose teens inhabit a world where adults are clearly present and involved, for better or worse. Balancing readers’ desires for peer-centric fiction with my desire to create authentic stories has been challenging.

In the book I’ve just completed, Jersey Tomatoes Are the Best, overinvolved parents are one of the main problems facing the teen protagonists. I’ve got the stage mother and a sports-sidelines screaming father from hell in this book, so I couldn’t very well have eliminated adults completely. Still, I had to trim and cut and streamline all the scenes with the parents, in the interest of holding my readers’ attentions.

In my first book, Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress, one of the main characters is the protagonist’s grandmother. My guess is that if the plot outline and synopsis for that book had ever come before an editorial board, it would have gotten dinged. (Luckily my editor just bought the whole book outright; no board.) I can imagine the comments: “Teens don’t want to read books about grandmothers.”

Well … sure they do. If grandma is funny. If grandma has something interesting to say. If grandma actually listens to the teens in her world, and gets what they are about. In Speak, an art teacher throws the main character the lifeline she needs to save herself from drowning in depression. In Robin Brande’s Evolution, Me and Other Freaks of Nature, one of the coolest characters who helps put the whole science versus religion controversy into perspective is an adult (again, a teacher.)

Part of writing YA is understanding how important, developmentally, it is for teens to test limits, push back at authority and take ownership of their lives. Perhaps they need to see adults as inept and clueless in order to take those steps. I get that this is a device in YA; I’ve used it myself.

But if we want to write authentic stories for young adults, should “old” adults necessarily be missing in action or foolish? I don’t think so.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, you and your daughter read quickly! I’m glad to hear you liked Shiver as much as I did. Good review. I noticed that the parents were almost comically absent too.

    It’s sort of ironic that parents are close to invisible in contemporary YA literature given that parents are more involved in their children’s lives than our parents were when we were growing up. I prefer books in which all characters are well developed. The grandma in Brett was my favorite character.