From 'The Giver' to 'Twilight,' Young Adult Fiction Helps Teens Grow Up

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Several stories in the genre feature young people taking on adult responsibilities

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Last week, the news broke about the next big thing in young adult movie gold rush: Jeff Bridges purchased the movie rights to Lois Lowry's distopian young adult classic The Giver and planned to play the title roles. The Giver, set in a future where the remaining citizens of an endangered society have erased any signs of difference between them in the name of maintaining peace and order, follows a year in the life of a boy picked to take on a singular responsibility. Jonas has been chosen to hold on to a few remaining memories of experiences and emotions his society has banned so he can advise them on major decisions—and so he can bear both pain and joy his fellow citizens would find unmanageable.

Though the 18-year-old book hasn't attracted the same fanatical followings as newer series like The Hunger Games and Twilight, The Giver has many of the same themes, and a similar appeal. Rather than continuing trends of infantilizing young adult readers or providing an escape for adults who don't want to face the trials of the real world, The Giver and the most popular young adult books today all give their young protagonists significant adult responsibilities. The books then explore the way the characters rise to the challenge, crumble under their burdens, or learn to share them. These franchises aren't helping readers and viewers run away from the difficulties of adulthood: they're sending the message that with great power comes great cost, and great compromise.

The main characters in an earlier age of YA dealt with realistic adolescent dramas—like Judy Blume's struggling heroines—or slightly exaggerated ones—like the Wakefield twins in the Sweet Valley High books. But the most popular young adult characters today aren't just given adult rules, they fill wholly unique functions in their societies. Harry Potter is fated to face off with the dark wizard Voldemort. Katniss Everdeen volunteers to participate in an annual fight to the death to protect her sister, but she is turned into a potent political symbol by the adults in her life. Bella Swann may be quite passive, her power arising from her body rather than her actions, but she's still unique, and valuable. The Giver is squarely in this tradition: Jonas' job brings him honor, but it isolates him from his family and his peers, expanding his experiences and with them, his moral sensibility.

Being chosen requires that each of those characters take on responsibilities beyond what would be expected of them if they were ordinary teenagers. Harry runs an insurgent organization, studies magic, commits criminal acts, and leaves school a year early, forcing him to figure out how to support himself without food or shelter supplied by adults. Katniss first figures out how to survive in and manipulate a political system dominated by adults, then becomes a war leader and a political figure in her own right, negotiating the conditions of the revolution that happens around her. Bella takes on the responsibilities of marriage and motherhood. And Jonas, who has grown up in a community without choices, must learn the skills of decision, deceit, and judgment—and decide whether to act when he discovers the price his community pays to live without difference, without pain, and ultimately without beauty or honesty.

And even though these novels are fantasies, they ask realistic questions about what happens when children take on adult roles. Harry sees his friends tortured and killed—and it's the adults who coordinate the defense of Hogwarts who buy Harry the time he needs to defeat Voldemort. He may be chosen, but he can only be victorious in concert with others. Katniss can't handle the pressure of being a symbol, becoming erratic and ultimately withdrawing from the struggle. While the horrifying nature of Bella's pregnancy makes troubling assumptions about sex, and she's saved by magic rather than hard work, there's no question that Stephenie Meyer has Bella experience real, if temporary, consequences for her decisions. And Jonas has to face that he can't transform his community except by leaving it. Teenagers, it turns out, are still teenagers.

It might be easy to look at these defeats and compromises and assume that these novels validate helicopter parenting, that they prove that teenagers can't really handle the real world on their own. But instead, the biggest YA smashes of the day—and classics like Lowry's—emphasize that even when they fail or compromise, teenagers come to independent and important moral insights when they're forced to take responsibility and make decisions without adult support.

Albus Dumbledore always understood that Harry Potter's self-sacrifice would be something he'd have to arrive at on his own terms and on his own timeline for it to be meaningful. Katniss's independence, and her refusal to go from serving one regime blindly to serving another with equal thoughtlessness, leads her to take shocking action that upsets the political balance in Panem and forges a new future. Bella's defiance of her parents allows her to step into a wider, more beautiful world. And Jonas's reactions to his new experiences allow him to glimpse a solution to his society's stasis that none of his predecessors dared to imagine. The transition to adulthood isn't easy, these stories argue, but trusting teenagers can bring rewards for both individuals and communities. Sometimes, you need a child to change things.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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