Monday, 26 April 2010

power and adulthood in YA fiction

As I outline my new YA project, I’ve been thinking about adults and adulthood.

Generally speaking, YA characters in real-world settings are part of a web of power relationships. They’re children, so they have parents. They’re students, so they have teachers. If disaster strikes they can have people to turn to. Even if everyone abandons them, society provides a safety net; they can go to the police, and in the long term social services will (or should) place them with a new family.

Other settings might have no police, no social services, no schools, no responsible adults at all. A teenage character can be abandoned in much more profound ways, with literally nobody looking out for them. That character would have to take care of everything themselves -- like an adult. I’m thinking here of something like The Hunger Games. Although technically she has a surviving parent, Katniss has taken on the role of parent and provider for her family, and when she goes into the arena, she’s utterly alone. Nobody is coming to help her.

But the vast majority of YA novels I can think of place the characters in a world of responsible adults and mentor characters. Is that because a teenage character in an adult role is in fact in a meaningful way an adult? Do YA readers enjoy and sympathise with characters in positions of adult responsibility? If a teenage character is 100% independent and in no way looked after by an adult, is the story still YA?

I’ve been pestering the wonderful Teens Writing for Teens for their views because of my new YA project. I’m still thrashing out the details of my mostly-depopulated setting, but I’m pretty sure that everything the teenage characters used to rely on has gone byebye. No parents. No teachers. No police. No safety net. This is way beyond the classic Harry Potter situation in which there are loving adults, but the adults can’t or won’t always help, forcing the YA character to face their demons alone -- there are literally no supportive adults in this setting, period. One character is looking for a mythical adult figure who’ll save them all, but she eventually realises that this figure is just a myth, and if she wants any saving done she'll have to do it herself.

In this borderline post-apocalyptic setting, the YA characters themselves are having to (re)build aspects of their former society -- redistributing food, policing the streets, etc. I see this as a Battlestar Galactica-esque struggle to reclaim some kind of normality, starting with basic governmental functions, as a last-ditch attempt to avoid sliding into Lord of the Flies territory. (I admit constitutional rights and separation of powers are not obviously YA issues, but they’re fascinating, I swear!)

All this is absolutely fascinating to me and I think would make a fun YA novel, but I still haven’t read enough YA to feel truly confident in my genre knowledge. The difficulty I’m having in naming similar YA titles worries me. All good ideas have already been done; if something is uncommon or even unique in a genre, that’s probably because it’s a terrible idea.

What do you think? Is age what defines a YA character, or is it the social role of a young adult? Would strong characterisation and a compelling plot (hypothetically speaking, as I still have a lot to learn in that respect) be enough to sell you on this concept?


  1. When I think YA, I think of writing that is designed to appeal to them. Characters that they can relate to by age/situation is a common way of reaching out to them. From there, we get wish fufillment books, where the YA character ends up being special, getting the cute guy or girl, saving the world, and being liked/popular.
    I think that as an alternate "wish-verse", you have the desire for independence, which fits in right as you describe.
    I can think of several books with young adult characters without a societal safety net -- either because they're survival alone in the wilderness books, or because of some dire event that wiped out society. The latter often still have adults, but those adults aren't in a protective relationship, they're typically predators, prey, or peers. Is that the sort of situation you were thinking, or after an entire absence of adults?

  2. I think if you show them before the apocalypse that killed all the adults, and then throw them into this new situation it would work well. That way it will be about characters who are still used to acting like teens being forced into new roles. If you start a couple of years after the apocalypse that might be difficult because they'll already have gotten used to it, so you lose that forced adjustment aspect.

    Still, you might be able to have some of the characters having taken on adult roles, and some not having adapted as well or quickly, which would give you the two classes.

    If you focus heavily on YA issues that should also help swing things in your favour. They'll have the adult ability to do a lot of nasty things without punishment, but their motivations could still be those typical of teenagers.

  3. Two books that came to mind while I was reading your post are THE ENEMY by Charlie Higson (a virus claims everyone over the age of 14 and turns them into zombie-like creatures) and GONE by Michael Grant (all adults disappear and the kids are left to fend for themselves). I've read THE ENEMY and liked it, and haven't read GONE but I've flicked through it and had a couple of teens tell me about it.

    In THE ENEMY, while the kids have gone into groups and taken on adult and protector roles towards the younger kids, Higson never lets us forget that they're teens thrust into adult roles years too early. They're worried, afraid, and really just want their parents to tell them what to do, but they can't. (Another element that enforces this is that all the adult zombies are reformed to as Mums and Dads.)

    From what I know of GONE, it tells of something similar--the teens must now be adult, but in some ways they're still kids now in adult roles too early. And Grant doesn't avoid the brutality of a world without adults. I flicked through the book one day and happened upon one scene and nearly dropped it because it tapped into one of my childhood phobias.

    So I think part of the way to go is to still remind the reader that they're teens. This way, the teen reader with your book will still be able to relate to the characters in your book without having to experience it themselves. Once they're still recognisably teens, you should be okay.

    And, well, one way to see that Grant's doing something write is that I've seen teenage boys come in and insist that they're buying HUNGER, the HB sequel, to whoever has their spending money or is in the "loving book-buying adult" role for the day. Especially because in Ireland, unless the author is popular, it's very difficult to sell a HB teen or children's book.

  4. Normally, I wouldn't link back to my blog, but I just addressed similar issues I'm having, and there are several links in the post I think do a good job of explaining YA... or as close to it as can be managed--it's a big genre.

    I read a book, possibly more middle grade, called... well, I'm having trouble with the name. But it's about a plague that wipes out everyone over fourteen, and it deals with how the kids reestablish order and construct their own government. They turn a school into their own "city" and fortress, and then have to defend it from other groups. Quite a fun book.

  5. I think that there are a few YA books that do put the kids in real danger. I just finished a great one called Her Mother’s Diary where she eventually develops a safe relationship, but starts off is real peril.

  6. I think most YA fiction deals with the relationship of the protagonist to authority figures in some way. It's such a big part of the experience of being a teen, to both rebel against and rely on the power structures of the adult world. Even YA books not set in a modern-day-Earth setting, like Tamora Pierce's books, have this theme.
    It's an important theme for YA readers even if it isn't an overt one like romance or peer pressure, because this is the time where they are (trying to) renegotiate these relationships and become adults themselves. So rather than make your story less relatable to teens it might make for an interesting perspective to see these power relationships negotiated from scratch.
    Full Disclosure: I enjoyed Lord of the Flies immensely as a young adult so I may be a little biased.

  7. I haven't read that many YA books but I think I would have really enjoyed a book with your premise as a youngster.

    If you're interested for sources in other media, there is an older New Zealand TV serie called The Tribe. It's set to a post-apocalyptic world where the parents are gone:

    Also there is a Roleplaying Game called Engel in which all adults were struck with a disease and died. The world was remade by the remaining children and many generations later it's totally different. This setting has a very strong Judeo-Christian bent with hell fire walls criss crossing land and hellish creatures on earth, and the characters being younsgter angels fighting the enemies of the church. But the premise and big revelation set by the metaplot is pretty cool: why the church takes children from the villages and why there are no older angels than teenagers?

    If you're interested, I can borrow you the book in Euromeet.