Warning: Chock full of spoilers!
Last week I announced, I’d be gradually sharing a list of what makes YA YA. The first, and so far to me, most important item on my list is this:
Young adult stories marinate in angst. Not the laughable, melodramatic angst often associated with black-clad, love- lorn teenagers. Angst that comes from feeling things first before understanding them.
Maybe I gravitate toward YA because I tend to be consumed by a feeling and then write to figure it out. Maybe one reason YA as a genre is on fire is because feeling before understanding is a great vehicle for a story.
My favorite characters in my favorite YA books feel first, and understand later. Speak’s Melinda (Laurie Halse Anderson) spirals into depression after she’s raped until she comes to terms with her powerlessness and her voice through painting a tree. Story of a Girl’s Deanna (Sara Zarr) feels the crush of being defined by one mistake until she understands she can confront the person at the heart of the rumors and write her own story. Paper Towns' Quentin (John Green), driven to uncover the mystery surrounding the disappearance of a girl he thinks he loves, discovers in the end how much he didn’t know about her. Catcher in the Rye’s Holden (J.D. Salinger) wanders New York City in a fog of depression until a late night confession to his younger sister finally brings him some clarity. And quintessentially, The Chocolate War’s Jerry (Robert Cormier) loses his boxing match because he is overcome by a rage he only understands once the crowds go home –he's become just as much an animal as the bad guys.
Recently a friend of mine and I discussed John Corey Whaley’s recent Printz award-winner, Where Things Come Back. Cullen is practically drowning in angst. He’s stuck in a painfully dull, small town. He recently had to identify his overdosed cousin at the morgue. The attention of the girl he loves turns out to be at most misguided sympathy, at least a distraction from her own troubles. He’s lost the person he loves most in the world when his brother disappears. And he watches circumstance crumble the adults in his life one by one. All the while, he is supposed to be deciding what to do with his life. Cullen feels first.
Then Cullen understands. In the final chapter of Where Things Come Back, Cullen tells us straight up what he’s made of all this:
When I asked him the meaning of life, Dr. Webb got very quiet and then told me that life has no one meaning, it only has whatever meaning each of us puts on our own life. I’ll tell you now that I still don’t know the meaning of mine. And Lucas Cader, with all his brains and talent doesn’t know the meaning of his either. But I’ll tell you the meaning of all this. The meaning of some bird showing up and some boy disappearing and you knowing all about it. The meaning of this was not to save you, but to warn you instead. To warn you of confusion and delusion and assumption. To warn you of physics and zombies and ghosts of your lost brother. To warn you of Ada Taylor and her sympathy and mothers who wake you up with vacuums. To warn you of two-foot-tall birds that say they can help, but they never do.
So the meaning in his life, despite all his problems, won’t come from a zealous religious mission like the one that caused his brother’s disappearance or from the reappearance of a thought-to-be-extinct bird like the one that’s got his small town crazed. For Cullen, meaning is more likely to come from Lucas Cader crashing on his floor.
On some level, I think John Corey Whaley’s comments on the writing of this book address feeling first and understanding later. He says:
I had an unspoken motto as I wrote the novel: How does one grow up in an impossible world?...With this novel, I set out to not only write a story about the possibility of second chance, but also about the people who crave them the most.
You are going to feel the impossibility of the world first. With a second chance, you can begin to understand.
I think Richard Peck says it best in Invitations to the World:
A novel must entertain on every page, but a young-adult novel needs to annoy on three…. the fact that our main characters act upon an epiphany of a new awareness sends them in directions that often unnerve readers….A young adult novel is a shot fired just over the heads of the readers….The novel must reach readers where they are, but it never dares to…leave them where it finds them.
The young adult novel reaches its readers where they feel, in their hearts, in their guts. Then it takes them one step further to a place of understanding on which they can act.
Once in a while a sixteen-year-old S.E. Hinton will nail that. Maybe because writers, even young ones, are all outsiders they possess the perspective to take readers from feeling to understanding. More often, I think, it takes an adult to write a young adult novel. At some point, we older ones have all belonged to the young adult set, it’s our extra years that give us the perspective to widen teen readers’ vision just a little, just enough that they can take their next step.
I’m still hoping you’ll not only comment on this post, but also continue to suggest what else you think make YA what it is. I’d love to include your opinions!