The bildungsroman

Maurice Sendak
Maurice Sendak
Maurice Bernard Sendak (June 10, 1928 – May 8, 2012) was an American writer and illustrator of children's literature. He was best known for his book Where the Wild Things Are, first published in 1963. | Photo: Maurice Sendak, Inc. | Maurice Sendak, Author, Where The Wild Things Are, Icon,

How Wizards, Hobbits, and Sulky Teens Teach Us To Grow Up

Young Adult, or YA, fiction gets a bad rap. The Atlantic recently spent the entire length of an article attempting to redeem the genre, all the while encouraging the same clich?s as YA's detractors. Usually the spiel is sexist, along the lines of "why do so many women who aren't teenagers write or read YA?" Even NPR's newly compiled list of the Top 100 Young Adult Books leaves much to be desired, not because of who they included on the list, but because who they decided to exclude.

Forever Young Adult, a site for adult readers of YA put the omissions succinctly:

Pride and Prejudice was too 'Universal' (what on earth does THAT even mean in terms of this poll?) and A Tree Grows In Brooklyn was too 'Adult.'? Ender's Game was removed because its 'violence isn't appropriate for young readers.

Allow me to explain, for those of us blessed enough to live above the poverty line, adolescence is universal. It's a phase we all have the privilege go through. We wrestle with ourselves, with our identities. We grow up, trying to grapple with who we are-- as people, as individuals who belong to a larger cultural group, as family members, as athletes, as band geeks, as women, as men, as wizards, as child-geniuses, as lovers, as adventurers, as teenage spies, as people who find our head and our heart conflicting with the world around us.

While action oriented Young Adult novels remains a large, profitable category-- the page turners, romances, spy novels, fairy stories, and dystopian fictions-- that does not imply that the entire genre is devoid of literature. I want to confront your ideas about YA novels because many of the most beloved novels in the Western Cannon fall into this category: The Once and Future King, I Capture the Castle, Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, The Catcher in the Rye, The Hobbit, His Dark Materials, The Diary of Anne Frank, just to give a sampling.

Not all young adult novels are literature, it's true. But how many adult novels honestly qualify as literary? Being intended for a teenage audience or relating to the development of a teenage protagonist does not automatically lower the literary value of a novel. And, just as a helpful tidbit, the snobby literary word for "Young Adult Fiction" is "bildungsroman."

Just taking my personal literary favorite, Jane Austen, as an example-- only two of her protagonists are in their twenties: Elizabeth Bennet and Anne Elilot. Lizzie Bennet, one of literature's most beloved heroines, barely hits twenty. Think about who you were at twenty and let me know if you were fully an adult. Out of ten of Austen's main female characters, three are out of their teens and only one is over twenty five. Fanny Price starts her journey at age ten; Marianne Dashwood is sixteen. I think you're catching my drift.

Jane Austen
Jane Austen

Jane Austen (16 December 1775 – 18 July 1817) was an English novelist whose works of romantic fiction, set among the landed gentry, earned her a place as one of the most widely read writers in English literature. Her realism and biting social commentary has gained her historical importance among scholars and critics. | Jane Austen, Writer, Author, Novelist,

However, the more insidious problem, potentially worse than the overt sexist subtext of articles like the one in The Atlantic, is this: we cannot give our children complicated, dark themes. We can only show them cheeriness and light. Children and young adults, in this model where Ender's Game is too violent or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is too adult, are incapable of understanding the fears and horrors of life.

That means no Maurice Sendak, no Roald Dahl, No Lemmony Snicket, because they force children to confront ugliness, violence, and grief on a child's own terms. No Forever, because sex is too mature for teens, even those who are having it. On that note, no Sense and Sensibility either, as teenage pregnancy creates a major plot twist.

Adolescence is naturally a time when we confront the darkest parts of ourselves. Without these conflicts with our own terrifying capabilities, it's nearly impossible to become adults. It's no accident that Harry Potter encounters teenage death the same year he encounters his first real crush.

As a teenager your perspective is narrower than as an adult, it's true. There tends to be a combination of self-absorption with a lack of self-awareness that can be a bit grating to adults. But that doesn't mean a teenager doesn't understand or hasn't experienced violence, or grief, or love, or lust, or abuse, or pain, or depression, or any of the more complicated and overwhelming human emotions.

In fact, usually because teenagers see themselves so unclearly, they tend to experience these emotions in a garish and blinding technicolor-- so vivid that the emotions become bewildering and disorienting.

Growing up has never been easy. But we would do well to remember not to belittle those trying to give a piece of understanding to others. We should honor these authors and readers, who look back on their lives and try to find a way to light the path for someone younger, even if that someone is a younger version of themselves. Perhaps this light will show what monsters truly look like or the ugly crooks and divots in the road. But how else may we prepare a person to become a realized adult?

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Updated Aug 12, 2017 12:13 PM EDT | More details


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