September 22, 2012

Guest Post: The Role of Adults in YA Lit

I'm pleased to welcome Beth Neff, author of Getting Somewhere, to the blog today! She's here with a Psychtember guest post discussing the role of adults in YA.

To start with, here's a bit about her book:

"Four girls: dealer, junkie, recluse, thief.

Sarah, Jenna, Lauren, and Cassie may look like ordinary girls, but they’re not. They’re delinquents whose lives collide when they’re sent to an experimental juvenile detention program on a farm in the middle of nowhere. As the girls face up to the crimes they committed, three of them will heal the wounds of their pasts and discover strengths they never dreamed they had. And one, driven by a deep secret of her own, will seek to destroy everything they’ve all worked so hard for.

As you may have noticed, there are a lot of dead and missing adults in YA literature. The reasons are fairly obvious. First, YA characters need to be experiencing some kind of challenge, drama, or even trauma. Killing off a parent (or two) is a pretty good way of doing that. Second, YA protagonists are generally learning how to make the transition from childhood to adulthood (the ‘coming of age’ trope) and the experience is significantly more interesting and dramatic without a parent looking over their shoulders. And, finally, YA is, well, it’s YA which means it’s about young adults. The sense among the adults who edit, publish and market these books is that teenagers just don’t want to read about adults.

Where would Harry be without Dumbledore?
The truth is, though, that adults are both the primary problem-makers AND problem-solvers in the world. Whether it’s fantasy or real-lit, it’s usually neither workable nor advisable to eliminate adult voices entirely. Think of Harry Potter. He has both Voldemort and Dumbledore. Or Katniss Everdeen with both President Snow (and the Capitol) and Haymitch (‘maker’ and ‘solver.’) There are certainly exceptions but the point is that the world isn’t – or shouldn’t be – divided up by age groups and adults can serve as both excellent antagonists and critical resources in literary settings.

And, in fact, adults represent a ‘future’ that is not possible to develop in any other way. Kids generally don’t get to grow up in YA lit and yet, if we are to explore the psychologically essential (and dramatically interesting) aspects of responsibility and consequences, it is important to represent how those might manifest themselves over time. Adult characters can provide critical tension by acting as models, reflections, or even cautionary tales, sometimes all at the same time! This is the dynamic that fascinated me as I developed the characters and plot elements of Getting Somewhere.

My characters are four teen girls who have committed juvenile crimes and elect to participate in an alternative detention program located on an organic farm. Clearly, something has gone wrong for them, which probably has at least something to do with their family environments, but they are now separated from those families. Though we want to know what has happened to them in the past, the setting and the story line pretty much eliminate any significant role for parents right from the start.

And yet, adults do come to play a significant role. Three women run the farm. They are important to the story, (and to the girls!) offering that classic conflict between potential resource and flawed decision-making. Though the issues the girls are dealing with start long before they arrive on the farm, the relationships they develop with the adult women – and the relationships between the women – offer a potent context for exploring those exact issues further. Paradoxically, an understanding of the identities and experiences of the adult characters provides an opportunity to delve more deeply into the girls themselves – the impact of experience itself, the nature of emotional resources, how choices are made, how empowerment happens.

And, maybe more importantly, it is essential for our YA characters to grow, to experience some kind of transformation over the course of the story. While the love, nurture and support for that growth can come from some other source – a friend or love interest, for example – having it come at least in part from an adult (or to be visibly absent!) is rich, powerful, and compellingly realistic.

In addition to that, there is the question of how we perceive of young adult experience, both in real life and on the page. I think younger readers ARE interested in reading about adults. Authentic adults, conflicted adults, flawed adults. Maybe not as primary characters but certainly as interesting, fully-developed, authentically devised secondary ones. Teens are keeping their eyes on us – as well they should! They want to understand motives, access information, evaluate how their decisions are going to play out in the long run. As authors, regardless of genre, it is our job to give that to them.

"My first novel, Getting Somewhere (Viking/Penquin – 2012) is the story of four very different girls who serve juvenile crime sentences in an alternative detention program located on an organic farm. The setting of this YA/crossover story came quite naturally to me since I am a former organic farmer, having raised vegetables and dairy goats on an eight-acre farm for over two decades. I have also worked as a journalist, sustainability activist, and community planner and now live in lovely lower Michigan. When I am not writing, I like to garden, read, play the guitar and piano, quilt, cook and especially catch up with the busy lives of my four kids (ages 18 to 28.)" (from Goodreads)

Thanks very much, Beth, for this thoughtful look at the roles adults can play in YA!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Danya, for inviting me :)

    Beth Neff
    Getting Somewhere


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