So far in this series on what makes young adult literature young adult, we've explored teen angst, end-of-the-world love, and the power of now. This week I want to take a look at truth. In my experience young adults are actively engaged in searching out truth. Dana Reinhardt’s novel The Things a Brother Knows, in which seventeen-year-old Levi is determined to understand why his older brother Boaz has returned home from the war in the Middle East so changed, provides an excellent example.
As a former high school English teacher, I think teens' active pursuit of truth happens for several reasons. Perhaps one reason teens are in pursuit of truth is they are emerging from childhood where harsher truths are often hidden. Adolescence is, for many, the time to find out how things really work. For Levi, it is a time to understand war, why his brother turned down university scholarships to enlist, and why he’s come home a different person.
So the transition from childhood to adolescence sparks this kind of search, but so does the teen rubbing up against an adult world of contradictions, ambivalence, and moral failure. When I was teaching, these were often my favorite students --often somewhat cynical. Levi develops his own brand of cynicism. He struggles to understand what the war in the Middle East is about and whether he is a For or an Against. He is dismayed to find things don’t work out the way they’re supposed to…you wait and wait for your brother to come home, but when he does he locks himself in his room for days and speaks to no one. Levi is particularly disturbed by the inability of the adults around him to break through to his brother. His father tiptoes around Boaz refusing to push him into the future or confront him about what’s affected him. His mother banks on giving him time while she cheerfully buys him camping gear for a trip he isn’t actually making to the Appalachian Trail, or she hides crying in her car. His grandfather, also a veteran, urges Levi to accept the effects of war on his brother, but is otherwise not much help. Levi is left to depend on his own intuition that there are things a brother knows, that something has happened, that his brother needs help and shouldn’t be alone. I wish I had risked more trust in my own instincts when I was young so I have great respect for the young people who do. They give me great hope.
This begins to get at a unique strength of young adult literature –young adults may actually be able to hear important messages that no one else will. While the adult world is busy arguing the politics of war, it is young Levi who hones directly in on the veteran’s need for a better bridge back into civilian life. So many societies before ours have valued their warriors and even enacted special rituals to help them morph back into civilian roles. Though there are certainly organizations who focus on work with traumatized veterans, in our hearts, we all know, as Levi does, our reach in this work is too limited. Who amongst us hasn’t known a vet who, at best, never speaks of his or her war experiences or, at worst, slowly unravels unable to function back at home? A brother knows when something is not right with his sibling, a brother understands the price you pay for loss. There are many issues which young people may be better equipped to receive than adults who think in terms of the system –gay rights (Freaks and Revelations), the state of the earth (Feed), and race (Mexican White Boy) to name a few.
Lastly, I think young adult’s search for truth brings up the point that novels are questions, not answers. When we write from the place of a question instead of proselytizing, we engage young adults who are trying to understand how the world works and to test themselves against it. Too often as authors we sit down to write because we think we know the answers. My craft, however, has grown more from throwing my hands up in the air and saying I truly don’t know, from being unafraid to sit with questions that floor me. In The Things a Brother Knows, Reinhardt does a fairly good job of not oversimplifying the exploration of these questions. It is not simply a matter of getting Boaz in to see a psychiatrist who will fix him. By the time we get to the heart of the novel in the last pages, it is not simply a matter of Boaz having been traumatized by the horrors of war. He has been both hero, victim, and perpetrator. And when his secret is revealed, we find Levi had good reason to trust in the things a brother, in particular, knows.
A final craft note. I wonder if this adolescent pursuit of truth isn’t one reason the syntax in young adult literature is often simple and direct. Certainly, YA Lit syntax ranges from lyrical (Wintergirls) to Hemingway lean (Hatchet). But in general YA authors avoid long, loping sentences and dependent clauses that exist self-consciously, and when YA syntax does venture into the lyrical it never does so at the expense of pulling you out of the story. The YA voice is direct and simple, rich and alive as young people’s speech perhaps because of their inclination toward truth and to just say it like it is.