After recently watching a spate of high school movies, I decided to dig into the question of why high school is so deeply ingrained in the literary context of America. We have scores of YA novels, movies, and TV shows, from The Kings of Summer and High School Musical to Harry Potter and Netflix blockbuster 13 Reasons Why.
For starters, it’s helpful to remember that all of these things are made by adults for the consumption of young people. John Green was well into adulthood before writing the tragic tale of two cancer-ridden lovers. That takes a certain edge off the experience bit, but everyone was young once, eh?
That…doesn’t quite cover it. Just because an adult can remember being young doesn’t mean that they know what it’s like to currently be young. Forced busing was a thing when my mother went to high school, and when I went to high school, Razr phones were the business.
So…if we know that authors don’t actually have the experience necessary to fully grasp what being young in today’s standards means, I think nostalgia would be a good bet.
Into the past
Adulthood is a time of brokenness and disappointment. The same problems you may have had when you were young multiply tenfold, and before you know it, you can be staring at a bucket list you wrote in senior year that you never even tried to start.
Adults want to travel back to a simpler time because of this dichotomy between broken/whole, complicated/simple, or simply sad/happy.
YA has become the “it” genre of the new millennium, and is plenty popular with adults. There is no social cringe that comes from an adult saying they like Harry Potter. (Playing Quidditch would probably be a bit too far, though.)
Escaping the present
But at this point, the escapist fantasies of YA become adults speaking to other adults through the medium of teen experiences. And that’s not fair to young adult readers. It becomes adults writing down all the things they wish they were, had, and had done when they were young.
Taking trips to Amsterdam, getting in trouble with the cops, and having much more sex than you’re probably having are all good examples of adults luring in other adults with the promise of reliving a likely unexciting adolescence in a more riveting way.
The problem with this is that it essentially phases out the kids that these books are ostensibly marketed to, because they can’t truly see themselves reflected in these experiences. It might make them feel that their experience should be much more grand than it is, because the secret the author isn’t telling them is that their experience was not so grand, either.
I can already hear the objection that people who are older are manifestly more capable of writing these stories, and that’s why they’re published. But 1) It’s not true, and 2) If it is true, there’s a way to fix it that doesn’t involve a 30-something telling us what it’s like to be 15 in the year 2018.
The solution for the problem might be to invest more heavily in helping young people bolster the skills necessary to tell their own stories. It will be more truthful and more accurate. We can invest in programs for art, learning, and creativity, so that young people can more artfully share their stories, and so that we can let go, and tell ours.
Cover Photo: Gage Skidmore
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