Sometimes books are a niche interest, but there are some that everyone has heard of: and at the moment those that have achieved this success of world-renown-ment are Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and Twilight… which funnily enough are all series aimed at the young adult market.
Some may ponder this most academically: why have these teen books become so hugely successful? Some others may fling the obvious answer back at them: they are engrossing stories that have captured the attention and imagination of an audience, an audience that extends well beyond the interest in struggles of teenagers stuck in fantasy or sci-fi settings.
There is in fact a large market for adolescent literature because, contrary to some belief, teenagers aren’t all spending their time popping shots and getting freaky and doing totally radical ollies in the skate park and they do read. And when they do read, they seek out stories that they can see themselves reflected in and relate to.
Adolescence is a strange time. Picture the life of a human being as a fantasy adventure, and the teenage years are the haunted marshlands full of ghouls and mirages and things that will eat you that must be crossed to reach the golden mountains beyond.
It is this tumultuous and strange threshold between the innocence of childhood and the independence of adulthood, where an individual identity begins to form and the person in question has a lot to figure out. They’re growing their own sense of themselves as a part of society, discovering their sexuality and what they enjoy and detest, questioning the authority and dependence of their family and moving through the awkward phase where they are expected to act like adults but treated like children.
All these raging hormones and shifting self-awareness makes for excellent drama, and naturally thousands of stories have spawned from the concept. There are plenty of narratives both hilarious and heart-rending that can spring from the craziness of adolescence.
It can be difficult looking through the YA section at your local bookshop or library, because occasionally you come to a point in your blurb browsing where you go “Yeah, but how many freaking books can there possibly be about teenagers growing up?”
The answer is a lot, actually, as every person experiences this time of life differently and every author will have a different way of telling that story.
They’re called Coming of Age stories, based around that point in life where we make some great revelation about the world and life: in John Green’s Paper Towns, it is that you can never really know somebody and that we all have shields and layers put to the world; in Tim Winton’s Breath it is that courage is not the same as rash behaviour and that everyone is flawed, even people you idolise.
These stories are based around a central set of events that propel the character along through their development from the childish state of mind to a more mature one with a greater understanding of the world and the human condition.
Other stories are more ambiguous and their messages less life-shattering, like The Perks of Being a Wallflower which contains a plethora of new experiences and life lessons for the main character as he goes about the journey of life. Similarly, in Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta there is not really one great revelation for the lead character but a gradual flow of them, leaving the great lesson learned from the story being How to Live Life.
And what better a backdrop to these philosophical conflicts than a building stuffed with a humming mass of people having the same problems? High school, as Chris Colfer’s Struck by Lightning declares, is “society’s bright idea to put all the naïve, pubescent, aggressive youth into one environment to torment and emotionally scar each other for life.”
High schools are strange and crazy places, containing an entire spectrum between the wide-eyed youths emerging from childhood and the burly, fledgling adults, and the collisions of personalities and interests within that age group. The gap between 13 and 18 is a very large one despite only being five years, and the diversity of characteristics within is ridiculous.
No wonder so many stories are based there: exaggerated to Hollywood standards or no, high school is the perfect setting to illustrate and support the madness and introspective journeys that create the heart of YA stories (and in the case of coming of age comedies, very easy to tear apart with snark, which may or may not be my favourite thing at the moment).
And those suffering through it can relate and find solace in their empathy with the characters, as can adults who pick up the books. The second audience for young adult books is the non-young variety of adults, the people who were once in that position, able to relate and dip into their own vivid memories of the same time in their lives.
This, of course, accounts for the reality-based YA books — there are many aimed at the audience that are set in fantastical worlds, be they urban fantasy like Twilight or a future dystopia like The Hunger Games or flat-out escapist wizardry like Harry Potter. The terror and turmoil of growing to maturity combined with having to save the world makes for the utmost amount of drama and plot, which is why so many series have young people as their protagonists.
It also raises the stakes, as traditionally inexperienced and angst-pecked youths have less of a chance of saving the world or combatting great evil or having your undying love for a vampire be understood (which is obviously much worse a fate than the first two).
The protagonists of YA stories set in the real world have enough on their plate without having to be great heroes, thus throwing a dire set of circumstances at them alongside their personal dramas, creating a balanced narrative. One the one hand, the struggle against the self and one’s peers and society, perhaps combined with the exploration of budding sexuality and youthful love and passion, and on the other you have forty-eight hours to stop the nuclear weapons!! It provides more action than a pure Coming of Age story set in a realistic world, and more human heart than a story just about explosions.
So why are there so many teenaged heroes at the moment? Because first of all, it creates good drama and good stories, and second and most importantly, it reminds teenagers themselves what they are capable of. They are not doomed to spend their life being confused and jostled by the pressures inflicted by society and the self in this frankly weird-ass phase of life, and their experiences are no less meaningful than anything that goes through the brain of an adult. Fiction is a reflection of reality, and it does well to reassure and provide solace for the people bumping awkwardly along through adolescence… and all those that remember how it feels.
P.S. My appreciation and confusion about stock images has been rekindled with a Google Image search of “teenagers”. Seriously, what?