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.
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.
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.