Hey guys -
I'm so excited to be hosting Andrew Karre here at the Contemps blog today, AKA the editor who defines YA as "a point of view, not a reading level."
I first met Andrew in his tenure as the founding editor of Flux books, where he pioneered new ground in edgy teen fiction with tons of your favorite authors (cough, cough). These days, he's bringing his trademark savvy and ear for authenticity to Carolrhoda LAB, where his launch list has already garnered critical and commercial success alike (remember our Spotlight on Steve Brezenoff?).
Basically, he's a genius. So, listen up while he talks about this so-called teen age.
Inventing the Teenager: Innocence and Experience
Because you know that “the teenager” is an invention, right? The very concept of adolescence as a stage of life is a construct under constant review by scientists, marketers, and, of course, artists. What it means to be a teenager is a moving target, and every contemporary YA novel, every book with a teenage character, is a push in one direction or another. I consider myself a connoisseur of these pushes, of definitions of adolescence. My favorite specimen so far can be found in Lorrie Moore’s excellent adult novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital:
"My childhood had no narrative; it was all just a combination of air and no air: waiting for life to happen, the body to get big, the mind to grow fearless. There were no stories, no ideas, not really, not yet. Just things unearthed from elsewhere and propped up later to help the mind get around. At the time, however, it was liquid, like a song—nothing much. It was just a space with some people in it."
Lovely, no? Here’s my latest find:
The March 14 New Yorker (a magazine that, by the way, still spells teenage with a hyphen—“teen-age”) has a fascinating article about G. Stanley Hall, who was, among other things, the founder of the American Psychological Association and a contemporary and acquaintance of William James, Freud, and Jung. Jill Lapore’s New Yorker piece is aptly titled “Twilight” and it focuses initially on Hall as the founder of gerontology—the study of old age, the twilight years (see it coming?). But, as Lapore notes, Hall saw the twilight years as the “flip side of adolescence”--the Twilight years (sorry). Before studying old age--which Hall called “senescence”--Hall first studied childhood, particularly adolescence. According to Lapore:
“Adolescents were, to [Hall], the future of the race: ‘There is color in their souls, brilliant, livid, loud.’ Adolescence, a new birth, is marked by storm and stress, and, above all, by a crisis of faith, a crisis solved, in part, by the integration of religious fervor and sexual passion. The work of growing up, Hall argued, is the work of finding something to believe in.”
Wow. This was half a century before Elvis focused the world on adolescence and a full century before the current mass obsession with teenage culture. Hall’s approach to defining adolescence seems incredibly contemporary and prescient to me. Look carefully at most great contemporary YA and you will find a story of someone trying to find something to believe in—something to replace unquestioning faith in adult competence. You will certainly find vivid, loud, and bright souls.
The parallel he draws between adolescents and the elderly really feels very ahead of its time At first glance, I think people are inclined to see the gulf of years between 17 and 71 as indicative of vast, insurmountable differences between Twilight and twilight. But that’s not necessarily how Hall saw it—or how contemporary chronicler’s of adolescence see it. The crucial similarity between 17 and 71 is great anxiety about What Comes Next (the waiting that Moore refers to). What’s important about adolescence and senescence is that they both mark hugely consequential embarkation points (or disembarkation—depending on your beliefs) for new journeys. You can see this in our contemporary America experience, where the largest crop of teenagers in American history is roughly coinciding with the largest crop of senior citizens—and both groups have little or no faith in the adults in the middle (coincidentally, adults are a group of people Hall seems to have found profoundly uninteresting). You don’t have to look hard to find an American family where “adults” are torn between the coming independence of their late adolescent children and the specter of the coming dependence of their aging parents—neither of whom have much faith in the adults’ handling of the situation.
So where are the examples of this phenomenon in books? How about Harry Potter and Dumbledore? Don’t believe me? Then it must be a coincidence that Harry is at the very height of adolescence at the moment that Dumbledore (who’s thought to be senile by the adults in power) shuffles on to whatever comes next. Neither of them have any faith in how the adults in power are handling things.
The later Harry Potter books are a great case study here, because the series begins with a decidedly middle-grade tone, casting Dumbledore as the magical grandparent figure so common to the MG genre. When the series takes a turn for the YA somewhere around book five, however, the relationship between Harry and Dumbledore becomes vastly more interesting, more complicated, and, I think, quite reflective of the adolescence/senescence duality.
In more contemporary YA, I’m struck by how often this theme is emerging in manuscripts I’m considering or working on—new novels by Blythe Woolston and Ilsa Bick, among others, feature these themes.
Am I saying old people are the new vampires? Alzheimer’s the new steampunk. Not hardly. What I am saying is the YA lit is on the frontlines of our understanding of what it means to be an adolescent, and authors that think deeply and creatively about these issues and themes will inevitably, I think, write the most interesting books.
Thanks so much for joining us, Andrew, and for your insights - no wonder you've got the corner on the market of resonant, passionate teen fiction!
So what about you, readers - how do YOU define adolescence, and what does "teen fiction" mean to you?