Young people throughout YA literature are mature, independent and acute. While a strong message to any youth who feels powerless due to their age it does restrict the presentation of growth and give the illusion that many teenagers or young adults have it all worked out, while many of us reflect back on those years as confusing, unsure yet of who we would become.
I am glad it cannot happen twice, the fever of first love. For it is a fever, and a burden, too, whatever the poets may say.Daphne duMaurier, Rebecca
My first feelings on immaturity would be romance. Having gone to an all girl’s school relationships weren’t apart of my world view until I hit 18, however I could still see my attitudes maturing towards them. At school I had ‘crushes’ on people I thought I should rather than actually did: movie stars or pop singers when in reality I have to know a person’s character and personality before I find myself falling for them, and rarely have ‘crushes’ based on looks alone. When I went to university and started having real relationships, my first one lasting a whole three weeks, I wasn’t yet comfortable being myself in a romantic relationship and it wasn’t until my current boyfriend that I’ve ever had that. Emotional maturity in relationship, at least for me, took time and, let’s be honest, a handful of failed attempts and learning curves.
This is something I feel is rarely reflected in YA literature. Many teen protagonists remain with their childhood sweetheart for years and I’d say their relationships almost stagnate, the couple rarely developing or growing apart which often occurs to childhood sweethearts. Teenage protagonists often know what they want from a relationship when going into it and, although I appreciate these strong character traits, it can often be disarming as the protagonist is showing the emotional maturity of an adult. Learning from failed relationships, discovering who you are and not quite knowing who you will be yet is something all teenagers and young people go through. The lack of these themes make characters unrelatable and present an unrealistic view of teenage romance.
You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.Richard Branson
The issues surrounding presenting teens in committed adult relationships is something I’ve touched on before in a previous post about the issues with the portrayal of romance in YA so I won’t dwell on the topic here. Rather we shall side step to another prominent issue with the mature youths flooding the pages of YA: a lack of youthful blunders. Our protagonists are increasingly showing themselves to be confident and capable at many tasks: from ruling kingdoms to outsmarting kings they are heralded for their bravery and skill. But as a teenager and now, in my early twenties, I find myself constantly making mistakes. From drinking a tad too much in a safe environment and, although ultimately nothing disastrous happened, learning your limits to realising the importance of honouring commitments in a timely manor to learning how to juggle friends, first loves and family my youth was full of learning curves that I would not define as entirely uncommon.
By presenting young people who don’t have these simple yet defining experiences readers are given few literature reference points for their feelings of failure. Novels rarely present characters learning from their mistakes as they are often strong willed and rarely achieve such simple blunders and even more scarcely do these blunders have small impacts on their character development, instead favouring larger effects on the plot. As our empowered youths hit the pages we are seldom given a chance to realise teenagers are still be empowered through common and simple failings, and these do not make their voice any less important.
Families are messy. Immortal families are eternally messy. Sometimes the best we can do is to remind each other that we’re related for better or for worse…and try to keep the maiming and killing to a minimum.Rick Riordan, Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters
Family is a complex dynamic presented in YA. While often not present on the rare occasion a protagonist has a sibling or parent it is hard to see any genuine reliance. Young protagonists are often independent, capably fending for themselves the reasoning for which delved into through a complex and harrowing backstory. However, although some teenager are unfortunate enough to have no family to rely on, few are as self sufficient as those presented in literature. Being reliant on an adult or sibling, requesting advice from a family member or needing emotional support is something many of us need from time to time and the responsible young heroes and heroines that litter YA rarely require these elements. The theme of family is largely unexplored in literature despite being something readers can often relate to and, again, the parental role many protagonists take within their family dynamic make them unrealistic. In my early twenties I have friends still living at home, some who ring their parents every week and others who, like me, have little support from their parents. These wealth of relationships are seldom explored yet are so defining to any young person.
With an ever growing pressure for young people to appear older beyond their years and a desperate need for independence that few of us can actually afford these days, increasingly returning to our parents homes after university, the complexities of immaturity are more prominent than ever. Youth is, overall, a chance to learn and people are never truly as put together or independent as they want to appear. I know 25 and 40 year olds who have started their careers again, seen people flee to their family home after years of independence and know people reaching 30 who still don’t know what they want from a relationship. None of these people are weak and all flavours of teenager and young person should feel empowered without the need to feel they should grow up too fast. If adult authors don’t address the complexities of youth they run the risk of invalidating their young readers feelings.
Youth can not know how age thinks and feels. But old men are guilty if they forget what it was to be young.J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
In conclusion I’d say the complex years that YA addresses is a confusing and pivotal point in defining a readers character. And, while I realise there is a definite need for the empowering, aspirational and strong teen protagonist their also a need to validate teens fears and to empower readers with the knowledge that it’s ok to act young when you are young, and it’s ok to not always be strong at such a tender age, and they are not alone in making simple mistakes.