The Literature of Growing Up by T.J. Akers

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Name one novel marketed for middle graders, or older kids, and you would be hard pressed to find a book that doesn’t have protagonists accepting responsibility for a situation and taking action. Sometimes the conflicts may be gentle, other times harsh, but YA novels are always about a kid finding a way to deal with conflict apart from a parent’s meddling.

If you think about it, growing up is centered around shedding your need to have someone manage your daily activities so you don’t wind up on the street, starving, or do something that hurts other people and gets you thrown in jail. So if we were to create a working definition of what good YA literature is, it would be the genre of learning that choices have consequences.

Sometimes initial choices by others set horrendous circumstances in motion, but it falls to the protagonist take charge and survive. Other times, a character may make the bad choice and must come to terms with the fallout. Either way, it’s always up to the protagonist to step up and find a solution without their parents help.

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Think of Wilbur, from Charlotte’s Web. He was about to be executed by a farmer as a supposed mercy, but Fern (a human girl) comes to his rescue. For a pig, the whole world is one huge dystopia, waiting to become someone’s breakfast. Lilfe would be bleak, but Wilbur makes an unlikely friend of a spider. Together they don’t wait for someone to rescue Wilbur. The pig and the spider take measures into their own hands so Wilbur may live yet another day.

Then there’s Hosteen Storm, the young solider from Andre Norton’s The Beast Master. This is the story of a nineteen year-oldish (maybe a little older), shattered by fighting in a lost war. He burns with hatred for his former enemies, the Xik, and has sworn revenge against the man that killed his father on earth. As an empathic soldier, he and his former squad of animal commandos seek to carve out a home on a new planet. There, Hosteen learns to find hope as he attempts to to live a life without giving into despair.

It is because YA fiction, no matter how you define it, is about a young protagonist’s journey to find a solution for themselves, without direct parental intervention that makes this type of narrative important. Important, entertaining and poignant when done well. It never becomes old to me. Then again, maybe I haven’t grown up completely and that’s why I like kid’s books so much.

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I know there are many adults that don’t think much of these books, and have no wish to relive the hardness of growing up, but good novels allow young people to explore ideas from the safety of their bedrooms without having to experience misery first hand. Reading can be one of those rare opportunities to think about life’s questions before you life demands an answer of you.

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6 thoughts on “The Literature of Growing Up by T.J. Akers

  1. Very Interesting Tim. I too have a special affection for studying the genres of middle grade and YA. I heard someone describe the main differences between middle grade and YA other than the lengths of the novels and the ages of the protagonists are the mind sets. Middle grade Mind-set: Focus on friends, family and the character’s immediate world and relationship to it; characters react to what happens to them, with minimal self-reflection. (Percy Jackson series, early Harry Potter series) They have a need to fit in. YA Mind-set: YA heroes discover how they fit in the world beyond their friends and family; they spend more time reflecting on what happens and analyzing the meaning of things. They have a need to break out of traditions. (Divergent, Hunger Games) Part of my psyche is and always will be entranced by middle grade and YA. You are not alone, Tim! Good post.

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  2. Yes, I’ve heard the same things. If you go back almost a hundred years and pick up books like Polly Anna, Heidi, Lost Girl of the Limberlost, these books mirror those same issues that children face in the maturing process and you can see why these titles are still read. I recommend Polly Anna, and I think Disney did a good job in the adaptation of it.

    Pixar movies that feature young protagonists are all about these characters taking responsibility for their own lives. They are some of my favorite stories.

    Thanks for the discussion.

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  3. I think that’s why I enjoy reading dystopians. Thinking about what I might do if I was in a situation like that. And pondering the implications of how society got there.

    Like your artwork on this post.

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  4. Thank you. I know that parents freak out a lot about what kids read, but sometimes it is their way of exploring the world safely. That’s why I think parents and kids should read the same things whenever possible.

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  5. I’ve always enjoyed those older “middle-grade” books. Pollyanna is a good series. Same with The Secret Garden, The Little Princess, things by Sally Watson or Elizabeth George Speare. They are meatier than a lot of today’s books.

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