Teen Lit

So I’m resting this morning. My fibro pain has been so bad lately.  My ribcage is so swollen.  Tender to the touch.  I already made one QVC purchase and figured better get on my blog before I did anything I’d seriously regret!

I’ve been thinking about teen literature lately.  First off, is it just me or did this genre invent itself in the last 10 years? I can’ think of a single series that was popular when I was in high school 94-98.  I can think of things like Baby Sitters Club, Sweet Valley High or even RL Stine which was popular when I was in middle school but nothing in high school.  The only books I remember reading in high school were the one’s assigned to me at school.  I remember liking Arthur Miller plays, Silas Marner, Shakespeare (especially the sonnets) and To Kill a Mockingbird. Those were all books I read during school.

Surely I must have read something during summer break but I can’t think of anything? What are the 90’s teen lit books I’m forgetting? I didn’t really become excited about reading until college and then I veraciously ate up Jane Austen, Harry Potter, and other books.  I read the 4 major Jane Austen books (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion and Emma) in a 6 week break I had in the winter of 99.

So, that’s my first thought.  Second, I wonder how helpful the teen lit genre is for actual teens.  Here are a few concerns.

1.  Even the best teen lit books, Harry Potter, Lightning Thief, Hunger Games, all portray characters who basically act like adults and are required to make adult decisions.  I like these books so quiet down but don’t you think this is true?  In the Twilight books Bella basically has to decide by the time she is 18 what she wants to do with her life in immortality.

A few weeks ago I saw a sign at the library saying “Teens: Do You Hate Cupid?  Are you down on Love?”.  I seem to be alone in finding this sign amazing.  Should teens really be worried about love, let alone be down on it?  If you think about Twilight and Harry Potter and Hunger Games all of the major female characters basically have to decide on their true loves as teenagers.  Plus, they all have to save their families, and in Harry’s case the whole world from ultimate evil.

Shouldn’t teens just be worried about getting a date to prom or learning to drive?  I have 2 teenage siblings and I think there is a lot of pressure on them to ‘succeed’ and to already know who you are.  I didn’t figure that out until college.  (It also doesn’t help that most teens are played by 30 year olds- ie Glee).

If you look at something from my generation for teens- Clueless.  Obviously the wealth and characters are over the top for comedy-sake but at the core its about making friends, fashion, crushes, learning to drive, dealing with teachers, parents and cliques, and trying to mature.  Even at the end Cher doesn’t fall in love for all time.  She says ” I am only 16, and this is California, not Kentucky.” (I love that movie btw)

2.  All of the books mentioned above feature characters that have a specific magical destiny.  Most of us just lead normal lives.  I think there is a lot of pressure to live some amazing dream life.  Then when you don’t know what you want to do or aren’t supremely talented at something you feel depressed.

Not all of us can be Michael Phelps and have a solo vision in life.  I think in the past the vision of teens was to have a family, live in nice house and be happy.  Now you have to do something impactful or at least be famous.

Teen movies show this.  I recently watched the movie Monte Carlo with teen queen Selena Gomez.  In the movie the Gomez character graduates from high school and goes to visit Paris with her 2 sisters.  The first 25 minutes are actually pretty good with a teen trying to get along with her 2 sisters and adjust post-high school while experiencing a new country.   Then they have to go make her switch identities with a socialite who looks just like her and live as this queen, pop star for the rest of the movie.  You see what I mean?  Just being a normal teen isn’t good enough. She had to be famous, amazing, rich, noticed to be happy.

3.  Most of these teen books are amazingly dark.  I think of Judy Blume, a teen lit of my era, her books trite as they might be involved teens and dealing with friendship, family, school troubles, parental divorce, girls dealing with their periods, and other real teen concerns.  Regardless, there is a lightness to her books that is appealing.

The Hunger Games is especially dark with brutal, violent, children-on-children combat.  Compellingly written as it may be, shouldn’t we a bit concerned that all this darkness is going to lead to dark, brooding teens?  A teen I know just said ‘I am depressed’.  With all this reading I don’t blame her!

I was not a big fan of Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli but at least it was light, positive and fun.  My friend and I were talking and agreed even the Goose Girl series by Shannon Hale is pretty dark.

I know you can make the argument that all fairy tales are dark but usually those were stories, not huge books (let alone series), and there was always a happy ending at the end.  Hunger Games didn’t even really give you that.

It’s like I said to my friend Forest Hartman on his review of Monte Carlo

“I don’t understand movies like Monte Carlo. Isn’t it enough of an adventure for a girl to go to Europe without her having to become a star at the same time? It sounds just like the dreaded Lizzie Mcguire movie of years ago that my little sister begged me to take her to.
I think you could make a very good movie about a teen experiencing Paris or Monte Carlo and maturing through art, music, fashion. Would that script be so much harder to write or so much less marketable? I dont think so”

He said:

“I think there’s also a lot of pressure on screenwriters to turn out formulaic material. Something inventive is often seen as risky and many producers are afraid to take risks. It’s simpler to take a star and put them in a rehashing of something that’s already been done because the project is seen as safe. Of course, that’s not always true because most Hollywood films lose money at the box office.”

Isn’t it funny that what is seen as inventive is a story about a normal girl, experiencing normal things?  Ever since Harry Potter everyone has been trying to be the next Harry Potter.  I get that.

How about we make the next big thing- the anti- Harry Potter?  Maybe I will just have to write a book about the kind of teen I was.  I’ve never read a book like that.  Hmmmm

Anyway, I must admit at the end of this that I am not a huge fantasy fan, never have been, so maybe I am biased to begin with but what do you think of my 3 points on teen lit?  I’m sure my sister will have something to say because she is much more well read in the genre than I am.

Finally, can we agree no more books on werewolves or vampires? I was looking at audible teen and it seemed like every book was about one or the other.

20 thoughts on “Teen Lit

  1. Lots of interesting things to ponder here! And I totally get what you are saying. As for what teens read in the 90s… I have no idea. That was my “decade of lost reading!” (I blogged about it somewhere on my blog! The decade I had little kids and didn’t read much!) My teen years were the 80s and I don’t remember much what I read either. Anne of Green Gables, Mary Stewart books, and another author whose name has totally left me at the moment. But yes, the whole YA genre that is so popular now is for sure a new-ish thing.

    Anyway, on your three points, I do agree. But I can see that there’s the other side too. First of all, there ARE books about normal kids with normal problems. Except even sometimes those books are hard to relate to for some of us who are especially naive. But still they are real. And I do love real books. But I also love the magical books you are talking about. They are two different genres, so I think they both have their place. I think teens like the escape into the magical “unreal” worlds, just like we do… sometimes anyway. Know what I mean?

    But it does bug me that so many of these books have teens acting like adults. And as a mom, it makes me crazy seeing what the kids are doing and I always wonder.. where’s their parents?? 🙂

    So, those are some of my thoughts… at the moment!

    1. Thanks for the comment. As a single person I have to be very careful about criticizing/commenting on anyone’s parenting so I’m glad you said it! Sometimes I wonder if parents even realize the violent, dark content in these books? I’m not saying the kids shouldn’t read the books but if a parent knows the content they can be prepared for moods, questions, problems etc.

      You are probably right about there being books about normal kids. I just can’t think of a series that is popular. I really liked a little book (with a terrible name) called Models Don’t Eat Chocolate Cookies by Erin Dionne about a normal girl who’s mother enters her in a plus size beauty contest. I’d love to know other suggestions for me to read and to pass on to my friends and younger siblings.

      I liked Anastasia Krupnik, Cheaper by the Dozen, Girl of the Limberlost, True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Secret Garden, and Anne of Green Gables in middle school. All the books I can think of that I liked were in middle school. I can’t think of anything from high school/teen years. Was the 90’s the ‘decade of lost reading’ for everyone else? Maybe part of it is there wasn’t much to do in middle school in my small town but there was tons to do in high school.

      The most magic I got into as a child was Roald Dahl. His books usually involve magic in a normal environment. Like Witches living in secret in the real world or Matilda having magic powers because she’s unhappy. I recognize this is just my taste.

  2. Rachel, I don’t like hunger games, twilight and the only book the I’ve read the you mentioned In the first paragraph is harry potter.
    I love the Jane Austin books and i am about to read Silas Marner and I love all of the older books! I agree that these types of book are not what most teens read but PLEASE do NOT include me in that category.
    it bugs me that you judge teens so harshly and in one category. You need to not judge so harshly the entire group of teenagers by one type of teenager.
    -madi
    p.s. it also bugs me when you text and facebook me about your blog because if i feel like reading it i will.
    Love you!

    1. Thanks for the comment. Sorry if I offended you. That was not my intent. Its not me who lumps teens together its publishers who’ve created the category of ‘young adult fiction’. I’m just commenting on the most popular series in that genre. The fact that the genre exists is not a commentary on every single teen, just as the genre of romance novels is not a commentary on every romance; however, I do think the genre is new and has some impact on most young adults who the novels are marketed heavily towards. That’s all I’m saying.

      All the classic books you mentioned are great but not grouped by publishers as teen lit or young adult fiction. Great job for reading those challenging books. I didn’t read Austen or most of those until college. Believe it or not I was not a great reader or writer until college. I basically became alive in college.

      I like teens! Sorry if I sounded harsh. From my perspective I was actually trying to defend teens and say they deserve someone telling their story. If people can write good compelling books about adults without super powers and forever romances I think they should be able to do the same for teens. That’s all I was trying to say. I won’t text you about my blog any more. I just wanted your feedback is all.

      Love you too!

  3. 1. teens acting like adults
    I think this is fine, because teens are facing imminent adulthood and it helps to imagine different ways of being grown up. The problem I see is that in many books, the teens not only get to act like adults, the adults are all acting like teens, or worse. Many teen books, maybe especially the ‘realistic’ ones have the adults being self-destructive, unreliable and abandoning the child in some way. I think it is better to kill them off than have them be an outright negative influence that the child has to overcome. I know that does happen in real life sometimes, but not as often as in teen lit. Most teens have loving parents trying hard (especially teens that are reading books!)
    2. I don’t have any opinion about super powers or super focus in books. Most people long to be more than they currently are and it just depends on how the author handles the book. There has to be something to overcome in the book, some tension, so just an average life may not be interesting enough for teens who generally want excitement. I guess it would take a great author to find interesting material in everyday modern life without just dredging up all that is negative in modern life.
    3. I totally agree that most teen lit is very dark. But I don’t think that means that dark, dangerous and evil themes need to be avoided. But is there light, redemption, resolution and goodness in some way by the time the novel ends? Or is the reader left feeling hopeless, degraded, like giving up or that this world is a pretty crappy place? That is the way I felt after the Hunger Games. Didn’t feel that way at all after the Goose Girl series. Remember that teens are coming to grips with the idea of real evil in the world. They have commonly had a protected childhood, at least to some degree, and now are learning about the Holocaust, wars, corruption in government, and the peccadilloes of famous people. So I think that difficult or dark themes are actually cathartic, but it all depends on how they are resolved. When I was a teen I practically lived in Middle Earth. That has a lot of darkness, but is balanced out by characters of great goodness.
    The worst experiences I had reading as a teen were the books assigned in school. Examples are: Lord of the Flies, The Outsiders, Brave New World, You Never Promised Me A Rose Garden, 1984, Animal Farm, Of Mice and Men (yes,how important it is to kill your friends to keep them from suffering!), lots of Holocaust books that I’ve conveniently forgotten-oh, one was The Pits of Babi Yar -so lovely. So many depressing books, an onslaught with nary a cheerful word in between. It’s not that these books are all bad, it is just that they are assigned too young, too many and without anything else. Also, school discussion, in trying to be value free, cannot really help children to understand these books, it tends to be sort of technical, or else revolve around students opinions. I don’t think I learned anything from them, except that life was a dismal business. One thing I have done as a Mom is to tell my kids how a difficult book ends as they begin the reading. That removes some of the emotional investment in the book and I think they can see it more objectively rather than being devastated. It also opens up a discussion with me. They often tell me how they feel as the book moves along.
    Thanks for opening the topic, Rachel.

    1. and I do like your comment about how the world is left after the darkness. I suppose I still worry that the 2/3rds of the book that is spent in darkness will overshadow the triumphant 1/3rd but you might be right.
      I wonder is it better for the psyche to have a book like the Diary of Anne Frank which is hopeful for the whole book and then ends sadly or the reverse? (of course, I know its a true story so it is different but I think it makes the point)
      Or what about a story like Anne of Green Gables where some pretty terrible things happen to her at the outset and in her life but she remains plucky and has a happy ending. That’s another angle. Hmmm
      I think its good that you read the books we read and your kids are reading. Then you could provide feedback. I think that’s the most important thing parents can do with any media their child absorbs.

  4. Also…
    …of course teens are worried about love. They have their own budding feelings, every song on the radio is about love, they are inundated with entertainment about love. I think that love is a valid topic for teens. But I dislike books who would teach a jaded view of love, or that teach that love is just about a power struggle. I personally like true, enduring, selfless, honest wonderful love. What do you think authors, can you write about wholesome love?

    1. Thanks Mom. My surprise is not that teens are interested in love but that they should already be ‘down on love’. It seems like teens might be expecting to have a Edward/Bella or a Harry/Ginny romance in high school which doesn’t happen to most people.
      Don’t you think that this teen genre is a new thing or is it just me? I don’t remember any series being popular and everyone talking about when I was in high school?

      I guess I was just never into fantasy and preferred books like Little Women or Anne of Green Gables which while not realistic were about more real girls without super powers.

      My friend pointed out the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books as a series about a normal kid. I’ve never read those but does that qualify as teen lit? The fact that the Book Thief, as much as I LOVE it, would be marketed on amazon and audible as a teen lit book amazes me.

      That said- I have a different response now to books than I did back then. For example, I loved Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry and don’t recall it being sad. I read it again and thought it was so morose. Or I remember thinking Roald Dahl’s Boy was so funny. I read that again recently and it has so many beatings and canings. I couldn’t believe it! Funny how perspective change.

      I feel like I meet a lot of adults (and feel this way myself sometimes) that feel unless they are ‘destined’ to do things their life has no value, like they must have some huge value to the world. I think its ok to have a small life too. I just wish more books showed that.

      I like all of the books I mentioned except for Twilight (and even that I liked the first one quite a bit).

      I agree about reading in school; although, I would say I had a mixed bag in that regard. My truly terrible teachers were in math but English was ok. I hated reading Brave New World and Mice and Men (a book I’m convinced we read just because it is short and people want to introduce kids to Steinbeck). My most hated books in high school were definitely A Separate Peace and The Scarlet Letter. Peace was manipulative and we analyzed the character motivation to death and Scarlet Letter we analyzed the symbolism to death. I have learned to tread lightly when pointing out any critique of education. Just my experience friends. I loved To Kill a Mockingbird.

      You think given my independent streak that I would have been drawn to really adult characters with super powers. Funny. Somehow I was drawn to Cheaper by the Dozen. You never can tell with those younguns… 🙂

  5. I thought of books I read for leisure in high school. I remember going on a John Grisham phase. Not saying its great literature but at least I thought of something…

  6. The idea of a “teen book” is interesting to me for a variety of reasons. Some of the examples mentioned in the comments, like Brave New World, kind of became teen books retroactively via high school curricula.

    I write books that attempt to appeal to teen/young adult readers and I’ve found myself in a bit of a predicament: it’s hard to write for older (high school and up) teens because many of them aren’t interested in reading books written specifically to target them. By that age they’re developing an interest in “real, adult” literature.

    I like your point about protagonists with a “specific magical destiny”–I’ve always wondered why so many book characters are The Chosen One, given that most of their readers are ordinary people. I guess people are drawn to these larger-than-life figures, but I think we should try to give more significance to average people rather than basing every book on “special” people.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I recognize its easy for me to comment on books when I haven’t had the challenge of actually writing one. It is hard to think of books about high school aged kids. I can think of a lot of movies and TV shows but not as many books. Interesting.
      I wonder if you have a book like the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants which has a thin magical element but really the pants are just used as a plot structure tool to tell the story of teen girls. I’m not saying its a great book but maybe a good, marketable approach?
      A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel wasn’t exactly about teenagers but it has an everyday person appeal I liked. Have you read that?
      I will have to look at your writing. I admire anyone who has the courage to write. Its a very vulnerable thing. Please keep me posted on your progress.

    2. The Chosen by Chaim Potok is about 2 teenagers. They are normal in the sense of no super powers or fantasy. Potok is so good at getting in the brain of characters. I think that takes the greatest skill as a writer.

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