Young Adult Literature & The Human Condition

While reading through some of the previous blog posts, I noted the fact that, yes, it does seem that the majority of English majors, especially once you get into 3000-level courses, are also Education majors, and this made me think of something that we explored very briefly at the start of the term – didacticism, and how it functions quite explicitly in children’s literature. For example, fairytales like Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White all teach children about gender roles, the dangers of the world, what should be avoided, how boys, and especially girls, should act, usually hinting that the aim of any child should be to behave in a manner that is compliant with their parent’s wishes, and that will one day lead to a very traditional, domestic, married life.

As an English/Education major, I feel like I do spend a lot of time looking for the message that literature is conveying – what is this trying to teach us? What is the moral of this story? What could kids gain from reading this? What I’m learning, however, is that instead of those traditional moral lessons we find ingrained in children’s literature, young adult fiction is often aimed at showing readers what I call the “human condition.” It’s about painting a picture of something that these readers can either relate to, or are interested in enough that they find themselves wanting to read, which helps promote life-long literacy.

I think one of the best examples of the YA genre as painting a picture of the human condition is Boyhood. I know that to some, the movie was dry, and not everyone could relate, but if you’re trying to match your experiences hand in hand with Mason’s, of course you aren’t going to relate. But who didn’t experience a moment of recognition and relation in the scene where they’re decked out in Harry Potter gear waiting for the midnight release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix? I bet anything that I still have my little card with my name written on it that I was handed along with my midnight copy of the book declaring that I was the owner of my very own copy of a very magical book. Boyhood is all about those little moments; little things that we can cling to. The loss of a first relationship, finding something that we’re passionate about, the awkward graduation party, the thrill of starting university. The human experience. Life rises and falls, but there’s no climactic moment where you can say, “okay, denouement is imminent.”

We’re constantly voicing dissatisfaction with the endings of the texts we’re studying. This or that wasn’t resolved, there are still loose ends… That’s the point. Life is unresolved; that’s a part of the human condition. Mason’s journey isn’t ending just because the film ends. Rebee’s story is going to continue when we close that book. We aren’t going to be privy to the rest of Larry’s recovery, but we, and the young adult readers that pick up The Lesser Blessed, are going to take comfort in his acceptance and it’s going to reflect struggles in their own life that they might be encouraged to accept and deal with as a result of a novel’s conclusion that isn’t necessarily wrapped up perfectly with a bow. We don’t know how the conversation about the miscarriage between Rose and her mother goes… we don’t know that it even necessarily happens, but I think we really need to ask ourselves whether we have to know? Can we let it go and fill in the blanks on our own? Because I think we can, and I think that we should, because in that, we’re lending our own experiences and our own interpretations to texts that are so obviously meant to be about creating a relationship with the reader.

– Taryn Rombough

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3 thoughts on “Young Adult Literature & The Human Condition

  1. I agree with you completely! I think reading novels gives us insight into the human condition, and gives us a glimpse of someone’s life experience. Sometimes you can’t relate to it, but then you get to learn about the things that other people go through, and you become a little more worldly and understanding. And sometimes you can relate to it, and you essentially get to share your experience with the character in the book. I also really liked what you said about the endings of our books being unresolved, and how that’s okay. I really agree! Things in life are never wrapped up in a neat little bow, so literature shouldn’t be either. Personally, I like when endings of books or movies are not completely resolved, and you get to fill in the blanks yourself. You get to pick up on cues that they give you about the character, and infer what you think might happen when the story ends. We can’t know everything, because in life, we don’t get to know everything; when we read, we simply get a glimpse into someone’s life, and we get to learn about the human condition. Then we can use what we learned to imagine what may happen to the characters.
    – Julie Buoy

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  2. Kevan says:

    I couldn’t possibly agree more.

    Adolescence is widely perceived as a time when we internalize the knowledge that life is unfair at best, and downright cruel at worst. Dissatisfaction and unresolved endings are two of the kinder ways young readers can begin to reconcile with the imperfections of the “real world.”

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  3. Pingback: Why I love YA – Reflections of an Avid Reader

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