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.
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Scarlett Van Dijk
Writer of young adult, fantasy series, the Sky Stone series, poetry and short stories.
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