Friday, January 13, 2012

What I love about today's young adult fiction

Just a little while ago I was thinking about how much young adult fiction has changed. What used to be a tiny niche best known for its dramatic or bubblegum portrayals of teen life has now blossomed into a genre where you can find something for just about any reading preference you like.

I grew up in the 80s and 90s, reading things like Sweet Valley High and Fear Street. While I absolutely adored these types of books, I always got a little irritated with the characters. They were always so... sanitized. Unless it was a "I'm bad but now I'm seeing the error of my ways" type of book, the heroine (and most of these books always had a female as the main character) was someone who played by the rules, a good old fashioned "All American" girl that publishers apparently expected was the norm. Even the more free-spirited characters such as Jessica Wakefield found themselves eventually toeing the line after their latest crisis. After a while I just felt like the books were kind of dumbed down, like it was assumed that teens couldn't handle a more realistic character. The villains weren't much better. The bad girls and guys of the books either turned over a new leaf or "got their just desserts" by the end of the book.

The only books I would find that somewhat talked about real issues were the dramas and even then most of them had a patina of surrealism attached to them, to the point where you just couldn't fully see them as normal everyday people. There are of course exceptions to this, such as the wonderful Go Ask Alice, which dealt with a drug addicted teen. Unfortunately the majority of what was offered during the late 80s and early 90s was the "cleaner" stuff. (Or at least that's what my school and local libraries would mostly offer.)

Then there's the issue with what gender the books were written for. My male friends almost always had to shop in the general fiction sections for their books because well, there weren't many books that were out there for teen guys. There were things offered in the children's section, but after that you were pretty much limited to stuff like Redwall. I know that my friends and I usually ended up spending more time in the adult sections than we did in the teen and children's sections of our local libraries and bookstores.

This leads me to what I love about today's young adult fiction. Not only is it written in a more realistic and non-dumbed down fashion, but the characters are flawed. Wonderfully, beautifully flawed. There's always going to be the sanitized characters, but you can also see heroines who aren't always the prettiest girl in school (or described as the type of plain where it's pretty obvious that they're practically a Neutrogena skin model). They have bad habits and aren't the almost-Sues of earlier YA fiction. Oh and then there's the bad girls... It's wonderful to be able to pick up a book where the mean girls are actually mean and occasionally go without any huge repercussions. The heroine might get one over on the mean girl, but you know that in the end the antagonist will probably keep on trucking, but probably not bother our main character.

I was also overjoyed to see books aimed more towards guys. You have Christopher Paolini's Eragon, the James Patterson series (which are all gender-neutral), and a host of other books that guys can feel free to read without worrying that they're too "babyish". You'll always get teen boys and girls shopping in the adult section, but now the teen section is getting more love too!

In any case, I couldn't help but wonder if some of these authors grew up in the same time period that I did and experienced these things for themselves, choosing to write their books this way because they knew what this is what they'd have wanted as a teen. No matter what their reasoning, I'm glad for the changes.

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