Posted by: kshayes513 | August 2, 2015

YA or not YA: a matter of themes

HP6D-06331r (L-r) ALAN RICKMAN as Professor Severus Snape, EMMA WATSON as Hermione Granger, RUPERT GRINT as Ron Weasley, DANIEL RADCLIFFE as Harry Potter and MAGGIE SMITH as Professor Minerva McGonagall in Warner Bros. Pictures’ fantasy adventure “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince."

My version of ideal character balance: Lots more Snape and McGonagall, lots less teen angst

YA bores me. There. I’ve said it.

It didn’t always bore me. And I wish I’d read more of it when I was younger, because YA science fiction and fantasy includes a lot of stories I would have enjoyed if I had come across them when I was in my 20s.

I know a lot of people who read and love YA throughout their lives, and many who write it. But for me, an adult of near grandmother age, it’s rare to find YA that even starts to engage my full attention. (Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching novels and Le Guin’s Annals of the Western Shore series are the only new YA books in many years that have achieved that.) I like individual teenagers, but I don’t want to spend all my time in teenage society listening to teenage problems from a teenage point of view.

When I realized this, I also realized why I had become bored with worlds and story arcs I’ve been working in for a long time. Because I had almost universally cast young people as the main characters. That’s what we see in much of the fantasy we consume, isn’t it? That’s what we storytellers are often told to do: tell the story from a young person’s point of view. That way the all-important youth audience can identify with the main character, while many adults will read a good fantasy or SF adventure no matter who the main character is. Right?

Yet sticking to the point of view of the young protagonist can be very limiting. I enjoyed the Harry Potter series when I was reading it – but I’d have enjoyed it much more if it had been told at least partly from the perspective of Dumbledore, McGonagall, Snape, and the other adults charged with bringing Harry and his friends safely through adolescence. Instead, the narrative puts the reader in Harry’s skin nearly all the time. And too often I found myself involuntarily pushed out of his point of view, watching as an adult while Harry made another stupid, self-centered adolescent mistake, and as an adult, wanting to smack him hard.

The young adult’s perspective, and the coming of age themes, rarely address the challenges that are important to most adults for most of their lives. Long before we’re 40, most adults are past worrying about who we are, and where we fit in the world and where we might find love. We’re worried about our jobs and our marriages and paying our bills. We might be worried about raising our kids, keeping them safe, growing them into responsible adults. If we live in an imaginary world of magic, science and danger, our big worry is not how to get the adults to let us save the world. It’s whether we can keep our family together and our community safe.

By the time we adults pass the half century, those coming-of-age themes can seem impossibly remote and insignificant. We learned how to do all that “who am I?” stuff decades ago. Now we’re coping with losing our parents; we’re seeing our adult children grapple with the challenges we faced a couple of decades ago; and we’re meeting the grandchildren and wondering what kind of world we have left for them to live in. Our minds feel much the same as they always did, but our bodies are starting to look and feel like old fogeys, and the kids are starting to treat us that way.

Most important, we can see the horizon. We hear people talk about something that will happen in 50 years, and we know that we won’t be around to see that. YA adventure novels may have plenty of death in them, but it always comes from an adversary: it’s something that the young hero must overcome, defeat, escape.

For adults who are well into their 2nd half century, death isn’t a danger to escape. It’s an inevitability, like the sun sinking towards the horizon. How much time do I have before dusk? And what can I get done in that time — that remaining time ahead which is now, almost certainly, considerably less than the time that lies behind me.

So when I’m reading and when I’m looking for stories to tell, I look for stories about adults. Not children who are discovering the world, and trying to discover themselves, but adults who already know themselves – not only for their strengths, but for their weaknesses and flaws and shortcomings. People who are trying to mend the world or hold the world together or make sure it keeps going for their children.

This is why my favorite characters in the Vorkosigan series are Aral and Cordelia, while Miles doesn’t become a favorite until he finally grows up in Memory. This is part of why I love Le Guin’s later work much more than the early, famous books that seem to be the only ones most people have read. This is why my favorite Discworld characters are Sam Vimes and Granny Weatherwax and Death (talk about mature!); and why I like River Song better than any of the new Doctor Who Companions. They’re mature adults, with adult perspectives and problems.

I always did like Angel better than Buffy.


  1. Hero’s Journey doesn’t usually send out a middle-aged-y person. The Hobbit is an exception… How sad to outgrow the wonder of ‘who am I/who are we and why am I/why are we her?

  2. I don’t find that sad, it seems just natural growth to maturity. As an adult I’ve found much bigger stuff to wonder about than myself! I think “who am I and why am I here” is inherently a bit self centered, as young people are until they answer that question for themselves. I think one has to grow beyond it, to see the whole cosmos, and to get to, “what does the world around me need and how can I best contribute?”
    As for The Hobbit, it’s actually not YA at all, even though it’s often classified as such these days by marketing folks. As you know, it was written long before the genre was invented, when there were very few rules for children’s books. Tolkien would have trouble selling it as either juvenile or YA today, because all the characters are adults. Lucky us!

  3. While I’m starting to grow older in my adult years (Being the ripe age of 23), I still find coming of age stories to be engaging “Because” of the reasons you described. Still, I appreciate the alternative point of view from the older perspective (no insult intended). Thanks so much for sharing. 🙂

  4. YA fiction isn’t usually written for adults anyways though?

  5. Strictly speaking, of course it is not. However, I know many adults, including people well past their 20s, who love YA, and even a fair number who seem to prefer it to adult fantasy or SF. This post grew out of my answers to my peers who had trouble understanding why I am not as wild as they are about Harry Potter or The Hunger Games or [fill in your favorite].

    BTW, welcome to the blog, and thanks for commenting.

  6. Thanks for commenting, Brian, and welcome. I was also still very much enjoying YA well into my 30s, I think it was having children that shifted my perspective away from the coming of age stories. Re “older perspective” – no insult seen at all – my being older was the point of the post.

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