Thursday, 19 January 2017

When Adult Books Have Teen Protagonists (ROYA #27)

The first “adult” book I read featuring a teenage main character was Alice Walker's The Color Purple. It was recommended in one of the many teen mags I bought regularly - it’s a ‘90’s thing - as the perfect antidote to a bad break-up. In truth, reading in general can be an antidote to almost any heartache, so long as you pick the right book. At the tender age of sixteen, devastated after being dumped by a guy I’d only just forgiven for cheating on me, I needed a point in the right direction. It worked. In around three chapters my mind was open to the bigger picture. Those of you who’ve read The Color Purple will know it’s not what's considered a suitable book for children. But for teenage me, it was pivotal in my understanding of oppression as both a concept and the reality for many. I gained a valuable lesson on heartache and strength beyond the confines of romance.

When it comes to YA, the general rule of thumb is that the protagonist must be a teen. I completely agree with this and struggle to imagine a successful example of breaking this rule.* However, I’ve lost count of the supposedly “adult” books which have relatively young teenagers as main characters. Examples of these are Sue Monk Kid’s The Secret Life of Bees, Jane Harris’ The Observations, Sarah Water’s Fingersmith, and Jenny Fagan’s The PanopticonHere’s the thing, if stories like these are about what can happen to adolescents, shouldn’t teens be made aware of their existence and have easy access to them? Just because they don’t end neatly, have adult themes, and harsh lessons doesn’t mean they’re not worthwhile reads for teens struggling to deal with their emotions.

Of course, like I said last week, I am a YA impostor. I read books specifically targeted at teens, for numerous reasons.  But I remain convinced that, just as adults enjoy books aimed at teens, so too should teenagers know they’re not restricted from reading adult fiction. We  can all enjoy both. When I needed a copy of The Color Purple, I was lucky enough to find one in my High School Library (thank you, Mr Clarkson!). Should it be left to librarians alone to bridge this gap? Or do we, as a society, have a duty to step-up and encourage reading which breaks the rules of a perceived demographic? Obviously, I favour the latter. I’m not saying we should start handing out copies of War and Peace to all thirteen-year-olds. I’m merely suggesting some as young as that have the capacity to comprehend and connect to Tolstoy’s epic through the journey of the many young characters.

A quick check of contemporary online magazines, especially those targeted at teens, will show a tendency to remain within the parameters of age-specific recommending reading.  Perhaps it’s always been this way, and my happening on an article which broke that rule all those years ago was pure chance. I honestly don’t know. What I do know is we have an opportunity as a society to provide perspective through all forms of literature, and teens have as much right to that information as adults.

*If you have an example, please leave a comment with details.

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