Growing up or dumbing down?

By Sonali Sathaye

13 November 2013

Recent years have seen the proliferation of so-called ‘young adult’ fiction in India, but who is best served by such an exclusive bracketing?
A collection of popular Young Adult novels.   Flickr/ vanhookc

A collection of popular Young Adult novels.
Flickr/ vanhookc

I recently saw a fourteen-year-old girl buried in a book at school. She read it everywhere, in class, in the dining hall, walking around. So I – innocuously, I thought – asked if she was enjoying it. I did not expect her slightly guilty response: “Yes, but I’ve never read about” – her voice dipped – “er, affairs, before…so openly and all.” I was unprepared for her embarrassment, knowing that at the school where I teach, girls eagerly consume books on high school romances, faithful best friends and unfaithful boyfriends. Books on daughters coming to terms with their mothers’ divorces are also widely read. Popular Bollywood movies, songs, and American high school television series deal far more explicitly with sex and sexuality than this rather muted account of an extra-marital affair. Why, then, should this book about ‘affairs’ have prompted such a shocked, even scandalised, response from this urban young lady? Trying to answer this led me to consider what she had read so far that made this one aspect of the book loom so large in her mind. It transpired that she had almost never read a book featuring an adult protagonist. She was used to reading about confused teenage characters, but encountering a confused adult protagonist was new to her. She and her friends had been reared on something called ‘young adult’ fiction that has now become an accepted and popular category in Indian English speaking society.  

Most students in their early- to mid-teens baulk at the thought of reading fiction meant, as they perceive it, for adults. Instead, they are almost virtuous about the correctness of reading fiction meant specifically for them. Their perception of themselves as “teenagers” seems to be the most defining part of their identity. And it is no wonder that they should think so. Young people between the ages of twelve and sixteen have become a targeted market readership in India. In all the major bookstores selling fiction in English, ‘young adult’ books occupy a space separate from those meant, presumably, for adults. However, while there is a variety of writing in English by Indian authors (IWE) for adults and very young children, the “Young Adult” bracket has, as yet, few writers from India. The category of Young Adult has been adopted full-formed from the West, typically America. Moreover, although “young adult fiction” is now ubiquitous in the bookstores, some of it is not always easy to distinguish from the unmarked variety – i.e. writing meant for adults. Serious readers, both girls and boys, may, for example, read the works of Michael Morpurgo, who explores the sombre themes of courage, loyalty, family, and loneliness in his novels. It is only the label of young adult (YA) fiction that indicates Morpurgo’s writing is for younger readers. The themes may be as grave and complex as those in Lord Jim or The Grapes of Wrath but the treatment of these (both language and content) make for a simpler read.

Yet the label is not unimportant. It seems, in fact, to have become crucial to the decision-making process around reading made by young people and adults. Why are teenagers so apparently eager to follow earmarked categories when it comes to their choice of reading matter when otherwise they pride themselves on their ability to not do the expected thing? What is the concern they and adults have with age-appropriate reading? Why are English-reading teenagers in India becoming more limited in their choice of literary experience? 

Children’s views 
I teach English at a well-regarded English-medium school in South India to two groups of students, one in their early teens and another at the pre-primary and primary level. Amongst the younger group are readers who indiscriminately devour everything in sight – from sign boards, newspaper headlines and print advertisements, to books on mythological figures like Hanuman and Ganesh. They attack books on ferocious tigers in dense tropical forests and timid bears in mild temperate woods with equal enthusiasm. They are charmed as easily by foolish middle-class English gentlemen as by intrepid eight-year-old Indian girls. Along the way they consume the Panchatantra fables, illustrated encyclopaedias, Enid Blyton, Norman Bridwell’s Clifford the Big Red Dog and Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Tree House series. Everything is happily soaked up; what cannot be understood is sometimes asked about, sometimes ignored. The books continue to be read and re-read, even when not every word or idea is understood, even when some words – “honour”, “romance”, “pun” – remain vague or inexplicable. What seems important is not so much the individual word or concept, as much as the flavour of the world presented. The children agree to be carried away into a world, trusting rather than knowing. And, with repetition, the context begins to create a pocket of understanding; the vocabulary visibly widens and there is a thirst created for more challenging reading material.

The older group is also reading furious amounts but they have become significantly more selective; they are no longer omnivorous readers. Subject matter and language have now to meet certain specifications. Vocabulary or syntax that does not mirror everyday usage can be a reason to stop reading. Typically, the protagonist has to be their age or thereabouts. If not reading fantasy, these readers read variants on themes in which humans find themselves in extremis in books such as Island of the Blue Dolphins or Call it Courage or even the latest Young Adult find, Samantha Shannon. The Holocaust remains a perennial subject of fascination in books such as When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr, John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and the Survivors series by Erin Hunter. So are stories set in Japan during the atomic bomb blasts of World War II, or the more recent fictionalised The Hunger Games, in which young adults battle each other to the death for resources, for the entertainment of an audience. 

Stories about low-achieving high school children, as featured in Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, are popular among girls and boys. However, novels about high school shenanigans, about errant best friends and lying boyfriends and about the struggle to be ‘popular’, are viewed by many boys as inferior literature, fit only for giddy-headed girls. And indeed the girls devour such books. Sara Shepard’s Pretty Little Liars series, which deals with romantic and social intrigue amongst a group of teenage girls, is eagerly passed around, as is Meg Cabot’s Princess Diaries series, which includes references to adult romance, apart from the more usual teenage dynamics. ‘Girl’ books might also, for example, feature divorced parents who are themselves looking out for love, as it were, as in the work of ‘young adult’ writer Jacqueline Wilson. When asked whether those are not fairly “adult” themes, children patiently explain, “yes, but they don’t speak all fancy, in full sentences. They are told from a child’s point of view….” 

By the time they are fourteen or fifteen, only a few students admit to reading stories set in the everyday world of human beings and the institutions they have created – schools, families, governments, businesses, marriages. There seem to be distinct ‘girl’ books and ‘boy’ books. Apart from Dan Brown and Jeffrey Archer, boys’ reading consists mainly of gothic and fantasy novels, such as Samit Basu’s The Simoqin Prophecies, part of his GameWorld trilogy. Another favourite is Amish Tripathi’s mash-up of the story of Shiva and Parvati, featuring Ganesh, Nagas, Tibetans, as well as Surya and Chandravanshis. Young, troubled, intense, and endowed with super-human powers, Shiva owes a debt to American superheroes, such as Batman and Spiderman. Other popular reads include Rick Riordan’s reworking of Greek, Roman and Egyptian mythology featuring the half-mortal Percy Jackson; Christopher Paolini’s Eragon series on dragons and knights; the tales of magicians by George R R Martin. 
Making reading easy
About twenty-five years ago the lines between adult and young adult fiction in India were much more porous. We read whatever we could lay our hands on, from Tolstoy, Bellow, Rushdie, Allende, Marquez, to Daphne du Maurier and Maugham. We read Ayn Rand, Richard Bach, Sidney Sheldon, James Hadley Chase and Harold Robbins just as voraciously. We read the oddest mixes without regard for coherence or quality of writing. We read what the adults around us did and made what sense of it we could. What we did not understand was discarded, sometimes to come back to later in life, much like the reading done by younger children I teach today. 
We read as we did because these books were at our disposal, or at least not barred from us. Our board examination text twenty-five years ago, for example, featured seventeen-year-old Rusty and his shy infatuation with a young woman married to a much older man, an amiable alcoholic. The writing was graceful; it did not talk down to the reader, nor did it aim to shock or titillate. It did succeed in opening the door to some of the complex realities of life. Without television and the computer, reading was our all-pervasive media. Reading meant exercising some degree of choice and control. Those of us who wanted to learn about the world beyond our shores could do it through books, scurrilous as well as literary. But unlike a bombardment of visual images with shrill messages, reading meant that we were left to conjure the images in our own imaginations. 
Adults then seemed much less concerned with a child’s reading being age-appropriate. For one thing “teenagers” or “adolescents” did not exist as quite a definite publishing category as they do today. The ‘young adult’ genre was born in the 1960s to 1970s to aid slow learners and readers in the United States. Consequently, the writing as well as the themes were deliberately simplified for easy understanding. They reflected the lives of children growing up in those particular contexts, as for example, in the work of Judy Blume where young girls tackle the subject of their changing bodies and sexuality in the context of American high schools and families.
The raison d’etre for the category has changed since then. It appears now to have gained recognition as a distinct genre, while continuing to be directed towards a certain age group. Today concerns over age-appropriateness are front and centre in almost all discussions on the inner lives of young people. There is an active anxiety about the influence of the popular media on children, and on the ways in which they are growing up too quickly, especially with regard to early exposure to sex and violence. This is the context in which young adult writing flourishes today. Young adult fiction appears to address at least two distinct concerns on the part of parents and teachers. The first is the desire to protect children from premature exposure to the adult world, and the second is the desire for fiction that responds to what is perceived as a time of unprecedented social change. Teachers speak of shrinking community spaces and rapid technological advancement – such as social media – creating new stresses on young people. These changes are seen to be so deep and rapidly evolving as to need their own unique response and treatment. The implication is that these times are substantially different from anything that has ever gone before, and that the relationships young people forge with each other, and with adults, are different in ways that older literature is not able to address. 
The argument that says adolescents today are difficult to write for is another way of saying that adults and teachers do not know how to understand or relate to the young today. This suggests that young people today need fiction which has been customised to their own distinct experiences of the world. The other side of that argument is that it is natural that children are not able to relate to novels written a few generations ago, and therefore choose not to read them. Children, say teachers, no longer have the patience required to read such books anymore. And because teachers and parents feel that some reading is better than watching television or being on the computer, they turn to young adult fiction as a welcome alternative.
And yet these arguments are difficult to swallow for a variety of reasons. For one, there are many fine novels whose protagonists, although young, continue to appeal to adults long after they have passed through their own adolescence. R K Narayan’s Swami and Friends, Ruskin Bond’s The Room on the Roof, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, or Mark Haddon’s more recent The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, whose protagonist is an autistic thirteen-year-old, come readily to mind as does Salinger’s classic tale of a disaffected seventeen-year-old, The Catcher in the Rye. These authors did not intend for their work to fit into the ‘young adult’ niche; they wrote with skill and subtlety and did not neglect complexity. 
Saying that these times are radically different from earlier days is a different argument. Take Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, for example, written in the early 1800s. Her seventeen-year-old heroine, Catherine, has a head full of romance and feels embarrassed about indulging in the latest non-serious craze – reading novels. She is not unlike today’s tender, easily-influenced, guilty Facebook-user. Even the novels they like to read are similar: highly-coloured Gothic tales of romance and honour. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Literature gives us proof of that, as little else does. Finally, there is the pragmatic (or cynical) argument that says ‘young adult’ fiction is nothing but a category cooked up by publishers with an eye to profit. It exists because writers write it, but more importantly because publishers publish it. This is a deceptively simple argument. For the very creation of the category reflects our beliefs and ideologies about young people in contemporary society, the anxiety that adults appear to feel about this stage of life, and, perhaps, their own sense of helplessness. It confirms the notion that “adolescence” exists as an isolatable fact and not as an inevitable part of the continuum of human experience. These beliefs may be difficult to articulate but are easily visible in the proliferation of media and goods – games, books, shoes, clothing, computers, food – targeted at adolescents. 
The protective role of literature vis-à-vis other media
There are some distinct drawbacks to writing to niche audiences in which age is the main criterion. While some young adult writing can be nuanced in its desire to keep things simple, much of it can be simplistic. This can lead to writing that shows little craft that does not question assumptions and may succeed in confirming well-worn patterns of interaction and identity. Work like Pretty Little Liars and Amish Tripathi’s Shiva Trilogy do just that. The women, men, girls and boys featured in these works all conform to narrow, stereotypical projections of femininity and masculinity, as well as perpetuate an aspirational ethos typically based on looks and money. The socio-cultural landscape today is admittedly much different for a young person between the ages of twelve and eighteen. And YA fiction might seem like a logical response to the changes. And yet, what it seems to do is to leave children somewhat stunted. 
We do young people no favours by treating them as a breed apart from children or adults. This approach not only leaves them unequipped to understand and relate with the world of adults; it goes further. It makes them feel that there is no need for them to do so. Some never grow out of the form and do not graduate to reading other things – so that so-called adolescence is prolonged without end. 
It is ironic that concerns over too-early exposure to explicit sex and violence lead to young people being directed to young adult fiction. Ironic because, perhaps, it is precisely because of such exposure that children need to develop a familiarity with fiction not sold to their age-group and at least to a wider range of fiction. Well-written fiction allows children to imagine and play with the complexity of the adult world from the safety of their imagination. On the other hand, young adult fiction appears to simplify reality to the level of television: bite-sized, sign-posted, and compartmentalised segments of plot which arrive fully-formed into one’s consciousness, without requiring the independent processing of thoughts, feelings and images. These books are hardly different from television. Their language, humour and brisk action mimics fast-paced editing, and their shallow tension resembles the average laugh-a-minute sit-com or high school series. 
The paradox is that children ‘know’ so much more about sex, violence and advertising than ever before – to the point where they seem to be preternaturally worldly-wise and cynical – and yet they seem able to feel, or at least to articulate, so much less. 
~ Sonali Sathaye is an anthropologist by training and teaches at Rishi Valley School in South India.
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