Really, why do they? Being a teenager is hard enough, right? Why in the world do they need to fill their minds with oppressive governments that make kids fight to the death, for instance?
Good question. Isn't adolescent lit simply stuff written for people who are too old for Dr. Seuss but too young for Stephen King? As I learned when I took an adolescent literature class in college, there's a lot more to it than that.
The word my professor used was "liminal." Merriam-Webster lists three definitions, the first two of which don't really apply. But check out this one: "of, relating to, or being an intermediate state, phase, or condition: in-between, transitional." Sounds like a pretty good description of adolescence.
Check out the list of popular adolescent lit books at Goodreads. It's not just Twilight, The Hunger Games, and Harry Potter, but classics like Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and Lois Lowry's The Giver. And guess what? These last two could be classified as dystopian, although written decades before The Hunger Games and Divergent made this a hot genre.
The key is in that one word: liminal. Adolescents are no longer children. They're self-sufficient in many ways and resent when they continue to be treated like babies. Yet as much as they like to think that they're fully grown, they're not. They're in-between, just like the definition says. And often, the trials these young characters face in their various novels bring them through the transition period into adulthood.
Back to the original question: why write the depressing stuff? When I was a teenager, I didn't want to read books about what an easy time everyone was having. I wanted someone to get what it was like to be a teenager, to be able to relate to me through a story (which is so important when no one in real life seems to get it).
While we don't live in a dystopian society, it's easy, amidst the turmoil of adolescent life, for teens to see events as more extreme than an experienced adult would. And the point isn't that these books must mirror real life (although John Green is accused of being depressing, and his novels happen in the regular old, modern-day United States) but that they connect in a meaningful way with their targeted readers.
Katniss Everdeen, Tris Prior, Harry Potter, Meg Murry, and many other characters start as normal people. Some are "normal" in a situation that is totally fictional, but they're often just as lost as we "real" folks would be in those same situations. They may get help from time to time, but by the end of their stories, they are the ones who have acted. It's pretty empowering to read that someone else did have it worse – yet kept going and made a difference.
When you consider the message in that light, it's not depressing at all. Harsh, yes. And don't forget sad. And so is real life. The liminal stage is full of trials. But the trials I went through made me who I am, and sometimes it's nice to go through it with a literary companion that says, I've been there and done that. Let's take this journey together.
About Sarah Cotchaleovitch
Sarah Cotchaleovitch is a freelance writer and editor who resides in Northeast Florida with her husband and two young sons. She is a founding member and editor of the University of North Florida's online literary journal Fiction Fix. She posts a weekly blog at fulltimewritermom.com. She wrote and illustrated a children's book, Hero, with her son, Peter. Most recently, she collaborated with educator Karen Saltmarsh on This Tree Has a Story, a creative writing book for kids K–12.
To young writers, from a slightly older one: on why I write, and how to make it meaningful.
I am certainly not George Orwell, but this is Why I Write:
Catharsis: Start off writing for catharsis. When you’re overwhelmed, take pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, and write. It is often the most emotional moments that create the most poignant words. Personal recommendation? Always keep a pen and paper handy, even when you’re travelling. You never know when inspiration will strike!
Social Cause and Effect: This works in multiple ways. As a journalist and a writer of fiction, I tend to write about issues that are plaguing both my immediate society and the world. This can be translated to fiction quite easily. Issues may or may not affect you immediately, but your friends, or people you know might be affected. Societal experiences need not necessarily be direct to translate into wonderful words.
I like to observe: This, in fact, should have perhaps been the first thing I mentioned. Observation is crucial to being a good writer. Watch everything. People, birds, leaves on trees. Traffic that goes by you. An insect on a leaf. If you can remember it, that’s wonderful – but this is also the reason I recommend carrying writing materials with you, or some way to record what you’re thinking.
People-watching (NOT stalking!) is also quite fun, and a wonderful way to spend time if you’re just looking for some peace and quiet. I recommend local parks. Take along a book to write what you see, sketch and remember.
Because I love it: In the end, writing should be fun. Something you love. You start off working on it, and with practise, you get better and better all by yourself. But by no means should writing ever be forced. Styles come and go, and yours will change too before you find the style you choose to stick with as an adult. But it will find you, and you it, as you continue to write. If it is forced, it is not a joy, and it will reflect in your written work. Do it because you love it, and as time and words pass through your fingertips, you will grow to love it even more. While my list may not have been like Orwell’s, this quote most certainly reflects my thoughts:
Writing is not a serious business. It’s a joy and a celebration. You should be having fun with it. Ignore the authors who say ‘Oh, my God, what word? Oh, Jesus Christ…’, you know. Now, to hell with that. It’s not work. If it’s work, stop and do something else.
About Anuradha Santhanam
Writer and communications professional by day, musician by night, Anuradha Santhanam is a former social scientist at the LSE. Her writing focuses on human rights, socioeconomics, technology, innovation and space, world politics and culture. A programmer herself, Anuradha has spent the past year studying and researching, among other things, data and technological governance. An amateur astronomer, she is also passionate about motorsport.
More of her writing is available here and she can be found on Twitter at @anumccartney.
Have you ever been reading a piece of fiction and felt such a deep connection that you feel exactly how the character does? You don't even need to be able to relate with that character. They could be the complete opposite to you, be in a situation you would never find yourself in, and yet you still understand them deeply. Ever had to stop yourself from laughing at a character while reading on the bus because people may look at you strangely? Ever found yourself with tears running down your face because you feel sympathy for a character? Well, as a writer, I try to learn from the authors who can make me feel for their characters.
The reason I bring this up is because I am currently reading a novel which has made me feel such a connection. I am reading the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson and I can say he is an amazing author. The protagonist of his story, a young girl named Vin, started out as a street urchin eventually discovering her powers as an Mistborn allomancer. In book one, she joins a thieving crew filled with other allomancers, pretends to be a noble girl attending balls, and ends up killing an (almost) god. I can't exactly relate to any of those experiences. However, something in the way Brandon depicts Vin was able to touch me. I have grinned giddily during the happy moments and cried during the sad. I even cried when Vin's crush, Elend, was ignoring her! I have wanted her to be able to trust others and wanted her to succeed. Brandon was able to create a character and give her such depth that I could understand her thoughts and emotions. I feel her internal conflicts as my own. This level of connection is what I wish to be able to accomplish with my own characters.
Reading books such as this was the cause for why I now plan my characters carefully before I begin a story. I write out a plan for my character's personality traits, their history, their strong and weak points, and their appearance. From doing this, I feel that my characters have more depth and that writing about feels more natural. This is because I already know my own characters quite thoroughly instead of learning about them as I write.
I'm rather old as you can tell by the fact that I started writing at the age of ten and have continued for over seventy years (so far). A childhood through World War Two is reflected in several of my books on the effects of war on subsequent generations, three of them (Another Kind of Loving, Beyond the Broken Gate and Long Shadows) forming a trilogy. There has been an anthology of short stories (Village 21), and a Young Adult book on the theme of alcohol addiction.
Somewhere along the line I met and married my climber and adventurer husband George Spenceley, who had been a pilot in World War Two, the sole survivor of an air crash, the sole survivor of an avalanche in Nepal, and had a glacier name after him on the Antarctic island of South Georgia. He is, alas, now my late husband, but even though I was his second wife we still managed nearly 38 years together, mostly travelling the world, about which he lectured and I wrote.
In fact travel writing formed the main part of my 'working' life. In my sixties I returned to my first love fiction, initially short stories, then novels, and I hope to continue until the pen falls out of my hand for the last time. Yes, I still like the feel of pen on paper, though, of course, I have migrated to a computer for the convenience of editing and publishing. George and I met through our interest in Finland. In addition to being an adventurer, he was a teacher and lecturer and had established a lecture circuit throughout the UK as well as parts of Europe. Our working lives and interests dovetailed very well, and though I was never a climber, he introduced me to long distance canoeing. We eventually canoed the full navigable length of the Danube and the Mississippi.
My latest book, out on 5th December, is an anthology of short stories celebrating advancing years for which, at 84, I can claim some experience. The title 'It'll be Better Tomorrow', is George's - his mantra when I expressed concern about him during the last difficult months of his life. It's a paperback which I hope to turn into a Kindle ebook in the New Year. The next book will be a mystery, with a slightly younger version of George as its main character.
My blog is atwww.sylvienickels.wordpress.com
A Writer's Tale
Scarlett Van Dijk
Writer of young adult, fantasy series, the Sky Stone series, poetry and short stories.
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