The Mirror of Young Adult Fiction

by Jakob Ryce / 24rd October, 2017

Young Adult literature has become synonymous with young heroes or heroins. Stories of young people forced into a quest to overcome the odds or face tyrannical forces, often to achieve some form of liberation from the confines of their society or environment. The origins of the genre are still debatable. Novels written for young people could arguably date back to the 1800s – when Sarah Trimmer defined ‘young adulthood’ as between the ages of 14 – 21 (Wikipedia, 2017). Books, such as ‘Oliver Twist’ (1838) or ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ (1884) all had the hallmarks of books written for young people, yet were really about young people. According to Michael Cart ‘ … a case could be made that the first young adult novel was actually Maureen Daly’s Seventeenth Summer, published in 1942 …’ Cart goes on to explain that this was an era when America began recognising adolescents as a separate generation (Cart, Michael 2001, p. 95). J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is often said to be the first true Young Adult classic, and perhaps was partially responsible for the genre gaining momentum in the 1950s.

Nevertheless, it was in the 1960s when the Young Adult Library Services Association decided to market novels of the era (considered suitable for ages between 12-18) and the Young Adult genre found its solidity (Strickland, Ashley 2015). In the The Outsiders, S. E Hinton gives readers a peek into the hardened life of a social outcast. It connected to young people in a direct, authentic way: with its adolescent tones and gritty themes. Moreover, many readers were unaware that Susan Eloise Hinton wrote the book during high school, or that she was even a woman. Caren J. Town states ‘ … the novel retains the capacity to speak to young adults about masculinity, identity, and the economic forces that drive our society.’ Town describes the book as a ‘landmark event’ that captured audiences with its poignancy, rogue characters and desolation (Town, Caren J. 2015, p. 15). Over the next decade YA novels branched out to become more direct: tackling mature themes of love, betrayal, alienation and desolation. If we consider the natural evolution of society and culture since the early twentieth century, including environmental shifts, then the metamorphosis of archetypes within literature is simply a part of that change. Therefore, each young generation (of the time) can look to Young Adult literature as a mirror of their own lives, and thus, help establish a sense of identity within society.

Quite often Young Adult fiction will depict a character’s journey from deprivation, or hegemonic oppression, to resolution. The result can be either overly dystopian or naturalistic – conveying a series of complex emotions or modes. Independence and maternal instincts play a large role in The Hunger Games, by Susanne Collins. Katniss Everdeen has been thrust into adulthood by her environment – having to fend for her broken mother and little sister Prim. The roles have been reversed here, and perhaps for the best. ‘It is the women’s daughters, in fact, who are perceived to be more successful at retaining female agency in the face of social oppression …’ (Curry, Alice 2013, p. 96). We can see this reflected in real-life circumstances – the teenage child forced to become the patriarchal nurse, or the child-become-mother scenario: providing for their young siblings within divorces. Nonetheless, Katniss’ resentment at her mother’s depression is also indicative of her anger towards her own seceded and resigned District – a disembodied social hierarchy imposed by the Capitol (Curry, Alice 2013, p. 96). ‘All I can see is the woman who sat by, blank and unreadable, while her children turned to skin and bones’ (Collins, Susanne 2008, p. 16).

Furthermore, it is irrelevant if Katniss is oblivious (or not) as to where her repressed anger towards her mother truly stems from, because it is in turn a vehicle for her eventual quest, as Alice Curry points out: ‘Katniss can more successfully undertake her heroic quest if she herself remains unmarred by any inclination towards care-giving’ (Curry, Alice 2013, p. 97). One could argue, that her mother represents her own maternal failure as a woman, and she must reshape society in order to reclaim her own humanity. A maternal overtone lingers in her inner dialogue: ‘They’re not our kids of course, but they might as well be … and you may as well throw in our mothers … how would they live without us?’ Nevertheless, Katniss tells Gale that she never wants children, and the idea that he does seems to embitter her (Collins, Susanne 2008, p. 17,18). This is another highlight by the author that Katniss (although has repressed maternal desires) begins powerless and resentful: an archetype of the angst-ridden teen on the edge of rebellion against their own indoctrination – school, family, society or media-glossed (false) role models.

Adolescents internalising their thoughts, feelings or fears – to then eventually find their voice – is one of the most important aspects of growing up, and is masterfully executed in The Hunger Games. Fear is a state of being that all teenagers can identify with. The lack of self expression – a young person being whittled down to polite small talk, head arched over their dinner plate, for fear of their father’s (or mother’s) wrath – is immediately relatable. Collins understands this, yet instead of the disciplinary parent figure or a democratic government, we have the Capitol. The Capitol will do all it can to control the Districts, and the foreboding games represent that authority. Furthermore, history teaches us that fear tactics are effective: from Nazi Germany, where people lived and died under the Third Reich, to Stalin and his Marxist-Leninist dictatorship. Could the totalitarian Government of Panem be a chance for the author to re-educate a new generation of young readers? Perhaps, and consequently more accessible (education as entertainment) for mild academics. The Capitol are not hiding the fact that they use fear tactics, and this media manipulation keeps the masses in line. Collins is aware of her audience, and that nowadays, teenagers no longer receive or respond to the corporal punishments of the past. In today’s world, young people fear online (public) humiliation – for instance: teenage suicides in relation to cyber bullying (via social media) have become common knowledge. The Capitol exploits this fear, through the manipulation and sacrifice of teenage lives, as it attempts to stamp out rebellious autonomy.

The author also uses boundaries as a device. For example, the fences are only electrified at certain points of the day, when they are given the luxury of electricity. But the price of survival seems barely worth it: ‘District 12. Where you can starve to death in safety …’ Katniss says, and checks if she has been overheard (Collins, Susanne 2008, p. 12). Additionally, when considering the nature of control, there are some comparisons to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four — and although the citizens of Panem are not forced to adapt their language, like Newspeak, they have certainly lost their free will. Winston is arrested for thoughtcrime; whereas Katniss is silenced through the suffering of others – especially the more she becomes a symbol of freedom for the districts. Katniss initially expresses this oppression internally, and young readers may secretly begin to conspire with her – owing to the first-person style of the narrative, which allows for a more intimate experience. Collins uses this close lens effectively – so we can glimpse into the character’s past, and consider the consequences that can come from ‘blurting out’ the truth. ‘I learned to hold my tongue and to turn my features into an indifferent mask so that no one could ever read my thoughts’ (Collins, Susanne 2008, p. 13).

The Capitol also takes advantage of technology (and adjusts the rules at their leisure), both in the games and real life (guards with machine guns, ships, weapons, monitoring) to enforce their trepidation. In the era of contemporary dystopian fiction, it is technology that we should really fear, as Lisa Kerr points out: ‘As technology allows for a vast number of scientific advances, the literature of our world continues to ponder the dangers inherent in our ever increasing ability to play god’ (Kerr, Lisa 2013, p. 1). It is only when the Capitol lose their dominion over technology, that the rebellion can begin to flourish.

Overall, The Hunger Games offers a post-modern look at media manipulation, Government oppression, and an enforced diversion from childhood into adulthood – and the emotional turmoil such an evolution encompasses. Iris G. Shepard states: ‘Children hold a unique position as a marginalised group because unlike other marginalised populations like racial minorities and women, children literally grow out of their marginalised status into adulthood’ (Iris G, Shepard 2012, p. 2). Shepard raises an interesting point, and when reflecting on Katniss’ character arc in the story, we see this clearly at work. An array of themes, such as: devotion, trust, courage, self discipline, alienation, survival and unconditional love, are all at the heart of the story— nevertheless, the abolition of childhood could be the most profound theme at work here (consider Rue, who is killed at age 12). The adolescent reader is also Katniss, and they are learning to survive in a world which is simply an inversion of Panem. There are no wars being fought on their doorsteps, however, there are internal battles raging away on a daily basis (and within the family unit) – something that Susanne Collins profoundly acknowledges, respects and executes precisely within her novel.

Bibliography

Collins, Susanne, 2008, The Hunger Games, Scholastic, U.S.A

Kerr, L. (2009). Frankenstein’s children: Ethics, experimentation, and free will in futuristic young adult fiction. ALAN Review, 36(3), 28-34. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.swin.edu.au/docview/212202870?accountid=14205

Strickland, Ashley, 2015, a brief history of adult literature, CNN, April 15, 2015, <http://edition.cnn.com/2013/10/15/living/young-adult-fiction-evolution&gt;.

Cart, M. (2001). From insider to outsider: The evolution of young adult literature. Voices from the Middle, 9(2), 95-97. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.swin.edu.au/docview/213935081?accountid=14205

Town, Caren J.. Unsuitable Books: Young Adult Fiction and Censorship, 15-16, McFarland & Company, Incorporated Publishers, 2015. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/swin/detail.action?docID=1743808.

Curry, Alice: Environmental Crisis in Young Adult Fiction, 96-97, Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature book series (CRACL), Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2013. Springer Link, https://doi-org.ezproxy.lib.swin.edu.au/10.1057/9781137270115

Shepard, Iris Grace, ‘Ideology in Popular Late Twentieth and Twenty-. First Century Children’s and Young Adult. Literature and Film’ (2012), p 2. Theses and Dissertations. 557. http://scholarworks.uark.edu/etd/557

Originally sourced through ProQuest (via Swinburne library) and now unavailable

Wikipedia contributors, ‘Young adult fiction’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 22 October 2017, 23:29 UTC, <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Young_adult_fiction&oldid=806584317&gt;

Writer, student, wayfarer of a digital age. I write stories, essays and articles. https://medium.com/@jakobryce | @JakobRyce

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