Tuesday, November 28, 2006

YA Author bemoans role of adults in YA fiction

The The UK SF Book News Network carries an interesting piece about the role of adults in YA novels. First time YA author, Jay Amory, comments:

"It's the adult characters! They're only there to be ignored. They introduce the young protagonist into the action then step back and play no further part, except maybe at the end. That doesn't strike me as true. Drama-wise, it helps to have your teenage heroes and heroines adrift for a while, developing their skills and learning to fend for themselves, but not for the entire book. YA authors do everything they can to remove grownups from the mix, but that, to me, hits an unrealistic note, and I prefer a bit of realism in my fantasy."

Amory finds J K Rowling's Harry Potter books, to be a prime example of this problem:
"Dumbledore is presented as this godlike, nearly omnipotent figure. He always knows what's going on. Yet in each book he leaves Harry to stumble and bumble along and get into dreadful, life-threatening scrapes for several hundred pages, then emerges at the end to resolve everything, literally with a wave of his wand. It's unfair, to say the least. He ought to pitch in right at the start. If he truly cared about Harry, he would. In fact, someone should report Dumbledore to the education board for cruelty. I'd say Harry's Muggle rights are being infringed!"

In Amory's The Fledging of Az Gabrielson, the first volume in his Clouded World series, the teen hero is in more need of help than most teen heroes.
"Az is a kid who's been born in an environment where everyone has wings … except him," Amory says. "In effect, he's disabled. He can't fly, and the sky-cities his people, the Airborn, inhabit are designed for those who can. He is looked on as a freak and somewhat resented by certain members of his race. This is the obstacle he's had to overcome all his life – until he gets recruited by the Airborn leadership for a mission, one for which he is uniquely suited. The trouble is, Az has a bit of a chip on his shoulder about his winglessness, understandably. Not only does this make him a reluctant hero, it puts him at odds with everyone around him, especially the adults."

You can read the full story at the link above.

Do readers of YA fiction agree with Amory that adults should be more involved in YA novels ? Or will it put off the readers at whom the books are marketed ?

16 comments:

Nancy said...

Wow, what an interesting question. I'm muddling through the plot of a story I'd like to write, and that's one of the central issues I'm pondering.

There's a long history of making sure the kid is on his/her own to face any challenges (just look at how many orphans there are in children's literature). And it's not just in YA books but throughout children's literature. This story device helps readers identify the child as the true protagonist, and to appreciate the child's development and eventual success. (In fact it was a story device I devoted a lot of attention to in my undergraduate thesis on turn-of-the-century American girls' books.)

But I agree it's not realistic. And I also think it could tell a bit of a negative sub-story about the value of adults in any child's life.

Myself, I was leaning towards making the heroine of my story PAIR UP with her mother for their adventure, to show what a powerfully effective combination that can be.

I'm so glad you asked this question!

Michele said...

Well that was my thought also. One of the main reasons for getting adults out of the way is to allow the child/teen to develop heroically without their interference, especially since the Quest Fantasy is often also a Rite of Passage or Coming of Age Fantasy.

I think that even in realistic fiction, children/teenagers with adults around them (parents/guardians/other older relatives) are not necessarily going to go to those adults for assistance with their troubles. I know that I had a lot of adults around me when I was in my older teens, but I still largely fought my battles of growing up without adult assistance; admittedly those battles didn't feature dragons or Dark Lords who wanted me dead ! And it wasn't that the adults weren't concerned, so much as that I saw the battles as mine, and (rightly or wrongly) something I would have to get through by myself.

As far as putting adults into Quest Fantasies goes, if you're going to put them in, justify them being there - that's not a comment solely aimed at you, Nancy. I'm thinking now of Stones of Abraxas, which I just read this week. The author dragged the children's parents along on the Quest, but then they did very little to contribute to the Quest, and the children were always going off without any adults, which rather begged the question of why the adults were along in the first place !

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I totally agree with the comments about Dumbledore.

Anyway, the point I want to make is that although teenage protagonists usually do their heroic stuff without the aid of adults (or presence either), in real life, what is constantly encouraged by parenting bodies, is that teenagers continue to talk and relate closely to the adults in their life. That this is one of the crucial stabilising parts of growing through the teenage years - not abandoning relating to adults but keeping the dialogue going. It might be preferable to slam one's door and ignore the parent who is trying to moderate or give advice or admonish, but the act of continuing to relate is one which is a 'growing-up experience' all of its own. And I think it's just as important that it can be shown in books, as much as teenagers going off on their own to have adventures.

Brian said...

Yeah, to echo off what Michele says, if you want to get all Joseph Campbell about it, the path of many YA books play off the archetypes.

Some people see YA books (or children's lit in general) as being ABOUT teaching children self reliance. Really, that's what HANSEL AND GRETEL is about. It's Gretel who has the idea to hand the nearly blind witch a chicken bone to make her think Hansel isn't fattening up. It's Gretel who engineers their escape and pushes the witch into the oven. Girl power. Word.

I agree that some YA authors are SO focused on allowing their protagonists to achieve their epiphany and self-assurance that they tend to let the adults become milquetoast and effete. But to suggest that kids relying on their own mettle is unrealistic...

What's the first thing we say when a Columbine happens? "Where were the parents?" Kids are raising themselves more and more these days, for better or worse. At least YA books that feature kids on their own might suggest a blueprint for a GOOD way to raise oneself.

He makes an interesting point but I'm not sure he supports it well.

Michele said...

I agree with the anonymous poster (whom I wish had left their name, at least !) that it's important to learn to relate to others - but children should surely be learning that from birth onwards ? If you don't already know how to do that at least in part by the time you hit your teens, you're going to be in trouble, I feel.

I just worry that teenage protagonists start getting lots of help from adults in their quests, then the authors are going to find readers aren't reading their books. For a good many teenagers, being a teenage is about avoiding adults and hanging out with your mates, and I'm not convinced the majority of today's teenagers are going to be that interested in reading fantasy stories where the parents or other adults tag along too... It'll be interesting to see how well Amory's novel sells and what kind of reviews it gets from children...

Anonymous said...

Interesting discussion. I am Jay Amory, and in answer to the last posting first, the response I've had to the book from teenagers has been 100% positive. Admittedly I haven't questioned them directly on the adults issue, but they like the two main (teen) characters and don't appear to have a problem with the fact that there are adults intimately involved with the story. Perhaps this is because, at least in the case of the female lead, Cassie, the adults are her family, principally her father, who is a widower and relies on her for support. The other lead character, Az, manages to do without his parents for most of the book (and the two sequels I've already written) but his twenty-something brother is with him a lot of the time, and also there's a shadowy, slightly dodgy father-figure who's busy training Az and trying to mould him in his own image. So the book is as much about family relationships as anything -- when they work, when they don't work. I think that's something most of us can relate to: relatives.

When I was outlining the plot, I just couldn't see a satisfactory way of embroiling teens in the large-scale events that go on around them, without having them interact with adults at every level. That isn't to say they don't have to learn those dramatically necessary lessons in self-reliance as the story progresses. It just means that some of those lessons involve the role of adults, and of teens, in the world. Sometimes the adults are there to help, sometimes to hinder ... much as in real life.

I like Nancy's idea of having a young heroine team up with her mother. That would be unusual and is potentially very intriguing.

Michele said...

Hi Jay

Thanks for stopping by to add your comments to the discussion. I'm pleased to hear that the book is receiving positive feedback from teenagers - I hope you'll forgive my doubting their engagement with it. I don't know many teenagers myself, but they generally strike me as being very involved in their peer groups. I'll certainly look out for your book at the library and post a review on my Blog once I've had a change to read it (though that may not be until the New Year, what with the Cybils-dominated reading I'll be doing until Jan. 1st !)

Maxine said...

Well I think, in contrast to some of your commenters, that he's (?) got the wrong end of the stick about Dumbledore, who has his reasons for being as he is re. Harry.
Clearly he hasn't read the 6th Harry Potter book where the opposite is true -- but in any event, I don't agree with the comment for the other HP books. There is a purpose in Dumbledore which this person misses totally, sadly for him.

Can't comment on the general question about adults in YA novels, except to say that I have a lot of trouble with the label "YA" -- what does it mean? I have a couple of "YAs" in the house who read all sorts.

Is "Lord of the Flies" a YA book, for example? There barely are any adults in that. Is "To kill a Mockingbird" a YA novel? They are both GCSEW set texts.
My "YAs" read some teenagery books and some "adult" books, interchangeably. I don't really "get" YA.

Nancy said...

Fun to hear from Jay Amory in this discussion, and to read back through all the dialogue that's gone on today.

I think if I were to go with the mother-daughter pairing story, it would have to be because the mother offered something critical to the adventure. Some skill that the daughter didn't have (though the daughter would have her own skills) that made the two of them a necessary pair -- unable to succeed without each other.

I can think of one recent example where this type of parent-child team worked well, and that was the movie The Incredibles.

Michele said...

Nancy, that sounds like a good way of working the story, and you're quite right about The Incredibles teaming up between parents and children working well...

Maxine, I did wonder whether Jay had read Half-Blood Prince - perhaps he's following the discussion and will come back and tell us ? Certainly Dumbledore's lengthy explanations/expositions/discussions to/with Harry are one of the things that a lot of readers have commented on...

Anonymous said...

Jay here again. Maxine says I've missed the point of Dumbledore, which may well be true; but I'd love to know what she thinks the point of him actually is. My ignorance on the topic probably stems from the fact that I gave up on Potter with book 4, mainly because by that stage Rowling had become uneditable and there was soooo much excess wordage in the book that it just couldn't sustain my interest.

The Incredibles is one of my all-time favourite movies, not only because it's the best superhero movie ever made but also because it is one of the wittiest and sharpest-plotted films ever made. And I say this even after having watched it roughly 50 times with my small son; despite the repetition it hasn't palled.

I was definitely trying to get some of its "family" vibe into the Az books. It's an all-ages film, but that doesn't mean that the teen aspects are neglected (viz. Violet's growing out of shyness into maturity and self-acceptance). What's funny is that kids respond well to Mr Incredible himself, even though he's a middle-aged man with a middle-aged man's hangups. The same applies to Homer Simpson. The creators of The Simpsons have been surprised by how much kids like Homer, more so than they like Bart or Lisa. Maybe love and compassion for a misguided doofus is universal among all the age groups.

Michele said...

Jay, thanks for coming back to continue the conversation. I can't answer for Maxine with regard to what she thinks the point of Dumbledore is, but he is definitely far more engaged with Harry in the 6th book. He begins a mentoring process (with a specific aim in mind) near the start of the book and maintains it throughout the book. Some readers like this, but others definitely do not...

I'm definitely very interested in reading your book, based on your comments here. Alas, the library doesn't have a copy as yet, so I will have to ask them to get one for me so that I can read it...

Nancy said...

Michele and Jay, I'm glad you both approved of my Incredibles reference! :)

Michele said...

It was a good point, Nancy !

ArielUK said...

Hmmm. Must've just been me who thought the Incredibles was an incredibly shallow, completely stock "US Apple Pie Good! Family Good!" animated re-make of Spy Kids then...

And as for the five minute (!) video game sequence in the middle, the only purpose I can think of for that would have been... well, to sell more video games. What else?

Maybe if there had been more than *one* other superhero in the movie it might have been more entertaining...

Michele said...

Well I've never seen Spy Kids so that's not a comparison I can make...