It’s no secret that I both read and write a lot of young adult literature spanning a variety of sub-genres. There’s no single reason that I favor this genre above others, and sometimes it can be difficult to explain to others why so many of the novels closest to my heart happen to be YA. But if I have to choose the most important reason, it is the element of growth and transformation that is the hallmark of most great YA literature.
The teenage years are a terrifying, turbulent, and often excruciating time. Childhood fades into the past as adulthood looms alarmingly close. Emotions run high, borne on the rushing tide of hormones and naively conceived expectations. First loves and newfound joys are all-consuming; disappointments and heartbreaks are earth-shattering. And amid the elation and tragedy and pride and loneliness, there is transformation. Young adult literature is overwhelmingly about this coming-of-age metamorphosis from childhood to adulthood that every person must survive.
Classically known as a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story follows the development of a young individual as they navigate the unfamiliar world of adulthood. Evolving from folklore tales of the dunce or youngest son venturing from home to seek his fortune, the genre often features an emotional difficulty that triggers the difficult journey towards maturity and understanding necessary for the character’s self-growth.
Not every young adult novel follows this formula precisely, but the basic format of the coming-of-age story is overwhelmingly present in the genre. Think of the last YA novel you read. I can almost guarantee that regardless of whether it featured vampires or werewolves, witches and wizards, or regular old angst-ridden teenagers, it mostly told the story of a young person overcoming difficulties and growing into someone stronger, wiser, and more mature than they were before.
Granted, the modern coming-of-age story is a lot different than the classic bildungsroman. Tom Jones and Pip Pirrip and Jane Eyre have been replaced by Katniss Everdeen and Harry Potter and Hazel Grace Lancaster, teens whose worlds threaten them with actual physical dangers in addition to the emotional pangs and situational difficulties of growing up. Teens who occupy dystopias and paranormal worlds and modern cities, who face monsters and villains and cancer and sex.
But in the end, are these stories so different from the classic journeys of growth and self-discovery written two hundred years ago? And are we as readers any less fascinated by the complications of young adulthood and the turbulent teenage years? I don’t think so, because really, the coming-of-age story has no expiration date. Aren’t we all coming-of-age in some way or another long after our difficult teen years are long past, seeking positive transformations in our lives, trying to grow and change with each passing year?
Coming-of-age isn’t something a person grows out of, no matter their age. And that’s why I don’t think a person ever grows out of young adult literature, either. Because the difficulties faced by the teens in YA novels are metaphors for our own difficulties as we seek to grow and change well into adulthood.
Do you enjoy the coming-of-age genre? Why do you think YA literature has experienced a boom in recent years? Share your thoughts in the comment section below!