This post was originally published about two and a half years ago, but a post I read today reminded me of it and the fact that its message is still relevant. Literature is such a powerful tool for growth in understanding, as it helps us to observe and place ourselves in situations that we may not encounter in real life. But by standing in the characters’ shoes, we come to better understand life, people, the world, and ourselves through their experiences.
What do you get when you combine a young person, a hardship, grief, and a lesson? A coming-of-age tale! Such stories used to be popular, but what happened to them?
This is what happened to the coming-of-age tale:
Yes, Teen Paranormal Romance has it’s own section at Barnes & Noble. It’s not just “Young Adult Literature” or even “Fantasy,” or “Teen Romance,” it’s specifically “Teen Paranormal Romance”. I have to admit that I’ve not read or watched anything belonging to this new and popular genre, not even the Twilight series. So I have no specific critique about any book or series. But I did find the contrast between the coming-of-age tale and teen paranormal romance to be striking.
When I was kid I read incessantly. Favorite books were Madeline L’Engle’s Troubling a Star, Lois Lowry’s The Giver and Numbering the Stars, Katherine Patterson’s Bridge to Terebithia and even Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. None of these books is significant because I liked them, but they were all widely hailed as being great juvenile literature. (Well, Angelou’s book wasn’t for young people in the least, but it is a worthwhile book nonetheless.) They had a certain trait in common–they dealt with kids or teens encountering hardship of one sort of another, and being forced to become more mature because of it and deal with the world with a more adult outlook. That might sound a little like a downer, but I don’t think it is. The attraction of the story isn’t the hardship, but the triumph and the growth, and the fact that the reader can grow along with the character and himself be a little better for having read it.
If I were to make only one contrast between the coming-of-age tale and genres such as “teen paranormal romance” it would be this: the coming of age tale uses life circumstances to take the character and the reader to a more mature outlook on life, to greater wisdom and character. It forces the character away from his own wishes and desires to grapple with the world as it is. Teen romance novels highlighting relationships between girls and vampires, warewolves, and the like play to a young woman’s fantasies about being highly desired and the temptation to give into an aggrandized sense of having an “impossible love”–the kind that seems significant if only because all the odds are against it. There’s certainly nothing wrong with falling in love! But I wonder if young women in particular are being encouraged to focus on their own fantasies and ideas about themselves and the world than on life as it truly is. (Even though I haven’t read this kind of lit, my response is based on hearing the reactions of young women to the books and their reasons for liking it.) It’s more gratifying to the emotions of a young woman to dwell on the idea that there’s an epic battle over her affections than to accept the fact that she may truly fall in love, get her heart broken and have to grow beyond it to become a better person through it.
I don’t know if many people want reality anymore. I don’t mean the grittiest parts of human existence, I just mean real life. It seems that we’re at a place where as much as possible we want to think about anything other how things truly are, anything other than our real lives. Even “reality” television highlights the most extreme, scripted, and unlikely aspects of society. People may say that they just want an escape, but I feel that the answer is not an escape from life, but rather a journey through life. Life is the real adventure. And true joy and victory is only experienced when you actually overcome. So if you’re choosing to take on that adventure, a great coming-of-age story makes a good companion.
3/2014 Postscript: I’m currently reading The Hunger Games and think that the trilogy is an example of good juvenile literature. Though this post is a complaint about the current state of literature for young adults, I’m not so crumudeon-y to believe that nothing good is being written anymore or that nothing genuinely good can be so popular. I may write about the books in future posts.