“Don’t Tell My Mother” : Reading Young Adult Literature in India
On a fine Sunday afternoon, I found my wife’s eyes and hands suspiciously glued to a book unusual in look and size. When asked, she refused to satisfy my curiosity. I took the patriarchal liberty to snatch it from her, to discover that it was from the Mills and Boons series. With my vernacular school background, I could not grasp her explanation that she was only reading an adolescent text—a series she was addicted to since her youth. But as an adult, she pleaded – “Don’t Tell My Mother.” Now, I anxiously await Sundays to coax my wife to lend me some Mills and Boons from her treasury underneath our cot.
These Sundays have inspired us to search for answers to the questions: Why Young Adult Literature (YAL)? What is Young Adult Literature? What are its features? What is its relevance, its usefulness?
Why Young Adult Literature?
Despite several canonical attempts in defining, devising and critiquing several bodies of literature, an honest and rational approach to understand and acknowledge Young Adult Literature (YAL, hereafter) has ironically been absent. The post colonialists’ gaze has been fixed on adults, not really on children and youths; even though our young subalterns live in a colonial space called ‘family.’i The deconstructionists’ intellectual position in questioning everything seems too oblivious to this world and the postmodernists all agog over subtlety, metaphor, angle, irony, fragmentation are less serious about this ever shifting, unstable, metamorphic realm of CDs, cell phones, cyber cafes, Facebook and You Tube. The exuberance of young narrative seems to have lost to the authoritative grand narratives of adults; in the latter’s tryst with authenticity, in their pedantic acts of interrogating the ‘texts’ and their ‘intended readers’, in their pedagogical exercises to examine and decide standard literary canon, technique, language, objective, intention, including all those textual politics in the adult world. To contextualize Foucault, if knowledge is power, adults are doubly powered—mentally and physically! Hence, the generational hegemony of the adults over the subaltern Young Adults (YA, hereafter) is quite analogous to the literary hegemony of the former over the latter.
Considering the wide scope of YAL from religion, mythology, science, fantasy, even to terrorism, it is time to apply these theories to legitimize a recognized place for YAL. We can reflect on its language, its representations, its mediating link between text and society, and other discursive critical thoughts and practices. And our reservations about it should be replaced with a range of questions: How are YA represented in YAL? What role do YA play in the plot construction of the novel? Are the young culture(s) represented in the fiction consistent with YA? How do the literary depiction of ‘age’ and ‘youth’ enable us to understand the Generation Y? How can we characterize YA writing as a genre? And finally, how YAL can help us in understanding perceptions of caste, class, gender, race, and disability.
Texts such as the record breaking J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series, M. T. Anderson’s Feed (ALA 2003 Best YA Book), Avi’s Crispin: The Cross of Lead (2003 Newbery Award), David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy (ALA 2004 Best YA Book), Glen Luen’s Criss Cross (2006 Newbery Award), etc. have already stirred literary sensibility of readers, writers and critics across the literary world. Institutions like ALAN Foundation, Newbery, Young Adult Library Services have started promoting YAL. No doubt that YAL is in its teen age, but the enormous quantity of YA titles encompassing numerous issues cannot be ignored any more. The plethora of YA fictions on history and fantasy such as Ceila Rees’ Witch Child, Julie Hearn’s The Minister’s Daughter, Sally Gardner’s I, Coriander; science fictions such as Stephen S. Tolan’s Welcome to the Ark, Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now, reality fictions like Sarah Week’s So B It, Ann Barshares’ The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, fictions on identity and youth culture such as Frank Portman’s King Dork (Band culture), Boy Meets Boy (gay culture); on adventure like Donald R. Gallo’s Destination Unexpected; on terrorism like Caroline B Cooney’s The Terrorist (bomb planting), Code Orange (bio terrorism); on teen age pregnancies such as Paul Zindel’s My Darling, My Humburger, Richard Peck's Don’t Look and It Won’t Hurt; graphic novels such as Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese, Lynne Rae Perkins’s Criss Cross, etc. testify to the wide scope of YAL.
YAL is common and intrinsic to all human society. It can either be oral or written and endeavours to encompass those subject matters that are symptomatic of the youth world and specific to their contemporary period. In India, we have had several classics and contemporary writers both in the national and regional languages. However it is contemporary India, particularly in the twenty first century that has witnessed a deluge of YA texts. Thanks to publishers like HarperCollins, Penguin Books, Puffin Books, Zubaan, IndiaInk, Rupa & Co, Katha, and Scholastic India. Their attempts have generated several successful YA authors like Ranjit Lal, Paro Anand, Payal Dhar, Giti Chandra, Subroto Bagchi and others. These authors have contributed books corresponding to almost every aspect of the YA world ranging from environment, animals, violence, bullying, school, reality, love, fantasy, and adventure. Thus, on terror and violence we have Paro Anand’s No Guns at My Son’s Funeral (2005) and Weed (2008) that depict the terror world of Aftab, Akram and Umar in Kashmir; on love and sexuality we have Payal Dhar’s A Shadow in Eternity (2005), The Key of Chaos (2007), The Timeless Land (2009) where Maya and Noah discover the homosexual family of Stephen and Jan, as well as Ranjit Lal’s The Life and Times of Altu-Faltu: A fable (2001) which talk of teen love, sex and relationship through animal characters; on schools, bullying and cheating we have Paro Anand’s School A Head! that presents the confused school life of Gita, Vikrant and Pratap as well as other young adults as in School Soup (1996); in the fantasy and adventure, among several others we have Giti Chandra’s The Book of Guardians: The Fang of Summoning (2010) and in reality fiction we have Subroto Bagchi’s Go, Kiss the World (2008).
What is due on us therefore is to forsake our prejudices and hypocrisy about YAL and resume, reading, sharing, reviewing and researching into this potential world literature. I quote Cindy Lou Daniel’s to summarize my assumptions and, at the same time sensitize readers, at least in India, regarding this wonderful genre called Young Adult Literature:
…contemporary works that have been labeled as YA tend to be ignored by many serious literary critics. Some still believe that YA literature is merely a secondary category of child-like storytelling – didactic in nature – and unworthy of serious literary evaluation, when, in fact, it is really an overlooked and underappreciated literary genre that has only recently begun to attract the critical attention that it deserves.ii
What is Young Adult Literature (YAL)?
Young Adult Literature (YAL) is a contemporary creative and literary genre that “tackles the difficult, and oftentimes adult, issues that arise during an adolescent’s journey toward identity, a journey told through a distinctly teen voice that holds the same potential for literary value as its “Grownup” peers,”iii says Jonathan Stephens, the Managing director of RipRap Literary Journal and Reviewer of books for TeenReads.com. It is the literature “for, by and about Generation Y”iv which includes genres such as fiction, memoirs, graphics, science fiction, comic books, street literature, etc. that contains the flavours of youth and aims at revealing, entertaining, educating and even empowering them to move ahead in their life. Scholars like Jeffrey Kaplan, at the University of Central Florida, Orlando, state that YAL covers everything from “contemporary realistic novels to pure flights of fantasy” and has “transformed the landscape of what it means to be a teenager, and more importantly, how teenagers are perceived by themselves and the wider public”v. “It takes its readers to a place where adolescence lives on, a place where that journey toward identity culture is to happen”vi , says Jonathan Stephens. While some take up ‘Generation’ as the modifier to its definition, others emphasize on youth experience, its exuberance and eccentricities to define YAL. Some others take up the ‘technology revolution’ in our globalization era, to view YAL’s accelerating popularity. YAL is an outcome of the Generation Y’s daily engagement with technologyvii , as well as the novel and mechanical ways the new generation students learn about the world and communicate with each other. The impact of technology on the teen developments and teen experiences has tremendous consequences on YAL’s content, style and language. After all it must adhere to teen principles and expectations in order to fashion a symbiosis between teen worlds and teen texts.
Nevertheless, Jonathan Stephens has outlined some of the following featuresviii of YAL:
YAL has a ‘young-adult’ as the protagonist of the text. The story, plot and action revolve around this protagonist as the centre of other young-minor characters who together represent their Young Generation. YAL thus is representative in nature, like other new literatures. Unlike Shakespearean heroes, who are of royal and noble descent, protagonists of YAL can be from all walks of society. So there are the peasant boys like Crispin (Crispin: The Cross of Lead), a black boys like Luther T Farrel (Bucking the Sarge), strangers in town like Anna Percy (The A-List), outcastes like Tom Hinderson (King Dork), even foster children like the German girl Liesel Meminger (The Book Thief). The protagonist of YAL and can be male, female, graphic or animated. As Stephens rightly observes, the very ‘looks’ and the ‘ages’ of the protagonist as well as his co-characters would testify that they are in fact young adults. As it displays the growth of young adults’ life and personality, many critics believe that YAL is the literature of self. However, all texts belonging to bildungsroman, kunstlerroman, sportlerroman should not be considered YAL. For example, James Joyce’s The Artist as a Young Man cannot be regarded as a YAL text. In reading youths compare, comprehend the young protagonists’ predicament and consequently empower themselves to keep up with the evolving times. Thus, YAL is evolutionary in its nature; it not only represents but also creates scope for improvements and changes.
At the same time, Eliane Rubinstein-Avila observes in her thesis that there has been a stereotyped and biased representation of women in YAL. Despite the modern and advanced era they live in, many female protagonists in young adult novels are forced to “dutifully walk along narrow and restrictive gender boundaries.”ix Thus, one can delve into the gender dimension of YAL too. It would be well to contextualize Ranjit Lal’s Faces in Water (2010) in which the young Gurmeet discovers how the Diwanchand family only produces sons. Similarly, Payal Dhar’s A Shadow in Eternity (2005) examines gender and sexuality in a very radical way, particularly through Maya and Noah.
As young adults are symbols of action, adventure, energy, curiosity, expectation and unconventionalities, YAL therefore has ‘conflicts’ as the core of its content. YAL dramatizes the experiences and eccentricities of young adults which include drugs, drinking, date rape, teen age pregnancies, poverty, unemployment, ambitions, bullying, etc. Even, “the loss of a parent, a friend, an animal, an object, or even virginity”x can step into this category. Novels like Johanna Reiss’s The Upstairs Room, S. E. Hinton’s That was Then, This is Now are a few examples of these. Due to its content of ‘confusions’ and ‘conflicts’, YAL has provoked many parents, teachers and institutions to consider it dark and deadly. This is also the reason why it has not been included in pedagogy and literary canon. However, this attitude reflects the puritanical and prejudiced ideology of teachers, parents and institutions that are blissfully unaware of its positive impact on youth and society.
Regarding the locale and time, YAL can span the imaginary to the real and mundane from ‘Island’ as in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, to a coffee shop as in Matthew Skelton’s Endemic Spring, streets and pavements as in A. J. Cronin’s short story ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’, etc. It is worth recalling David Hair’s Pyre of Queens (2010) and Swayamvara (2011) that juxtapose the past time of Ravindra-Raj, his queens (769 AD Rajasthan) and King Prithiviraj Chauhan, Sanyogita (1175 AD) the contemporary period of Vikram, Amanjit, Deepika, Rasita as well as Sunita Ashok, Vikram Khandavani, Ravindra. These times and places are made vibrant, adventurous, romantic, and spectacular through suitable illustrations, graphics, language and style to cater to the young adults’ expectations.
Literary style and technique: YAL reveals the actual world of young adults as it is often autobiographical and representational in nature. YAL employs language that contains adolescent vocabulary, idioms, irony, slang, and puns. It endeavors to employ the innovative and experimental everyday languages of the young adults so that while reading the texts the youths can relate to each other. For example: “Ffffft! –, Hoooooooo –ee! – Bzzzzzzzz! – Hmmmmmmmmmmm, --- and Waaa-taaa. Waaa-taaa.”xii Also note these vocabularies a young adultxiii in Indian refers to his generation: “testosterone, ectomorph, mesomorph, roids, suppliments, fatty, biggy,” etc. A successful YA text takes care of various aspects of its young protagonists and the intended readers. The core element of conflicts and confusion, particularly, necessitates complex and multiple narrative techniques. So we can have one event/one story told from multiple perspectives such as Real Times (Kass, 2004), Holdup (Fields, 2007)); multiple stories and multiple perspectives as in Bronx Masquerade (Grimes, 2002), The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (Brashares, 2001); novels with parallel stories such as Endymion Spring (Skelton, 2006), Tamar (Peet, 2007); as well as novels moving with flash back and flash forward techniques as in The First Part Last (Johnson, 2003), Turnabout (Haddix, 2000)xv. Several Indian YA texts such as Paro Anand’s No Guns At My Son’s Funeral (2005), Ranjit Lal’s Faces in the Water (2010), Giti Chandra’s The Book of Guardians: The Fang of Summoning (2010), David Hair’s Swayamvara (2011), Pyre of Queens (2010), Payal Dhar’s A Shadow in Eternity (2005) too conform to such variety of styles and techniques. It is also interesting to note how Indian authors have helped YAL to achieve new heights through their choice of sophisticated language, style, and technique. Their exposure to English language education and the standard western canons has been the catalyst in their creation of YAL that mostly caters to the English speaking youth in India society the way J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series does.
What is its relevance, its usefulness?
In an age when centre (adults) and periphery (children) are dramatically influencing and altering each other, it is time to reinvestigate the unequal literary world established by adults. Globalization and the Internet have opened a gamut of new spaces common to youth all over the world—cyber cafés, You Tube, Facebook, malls, electronic gadgets etc. YAL as an outcome and response to this global transformation has appeared to disseminate knowledge and experiences among young heroes and heroines. As Jeffrey Kaplan observes, it unquestionably plays a major role in society in the followingxvi predominant ways:
To educate: YAL can very well educate the young about existing and emerging issues, events, and other existential developments. It is sensitive to both ‘age’ and the ‘age group’. It helps students “better understand the world in which they live by facilitating an examination of, or inquiry into, topics that confuse, create fear, raise questions and baffle world leaders”, opines Patricia.xvii It is also significant to realize how “adolescent literary practices have grown to encompass a wider range of texts, including magazines, books, websites, and digital communication tools”, how they have become “dynamic to information” that changes every minute in short, how lives of Generation Y “revolve more around multiple and ever-changing perspectives than previous generations.”xviii YAL can break the silence on problems like teen age pregnancy, abortion, dangers of drug abuse, etc. It can throw light on environmental pollution, nuclear hazards, terrorism and youth, political upheavals as affecting the young, governance and religious fundamentalism, etc.
To inspire and transform lives: YAL does not provide any clear cut solutions and is not prescriptive in nature. Books, however, help Generation Y to learn, be inspired and empowered in a variety of situations. Kaplan quotes Ching-hsein Chiu’s study to show how “reading young adult literature might affect new immigrant adolescents who are in the process of developing their English literacy and making the transition to academic confidence.” The habit of reading YAL can prevent “early reading and learning failures” that are “precursors to unemployment, crime, drug addiction, homelessness, and prison sentences.”xix
To reveal the young world: Being explanatory in nature, YAL exposes the world of youths, including both the brighter and darker sides. It is not sacramental in nature to depict what is only accepted and to reject what is scorned at. It explores the hidden and confusing lives of the young adults and provides a space where they can share the experiences and eccentricities common to them.
To expose societal hegemony: YAL also exposes the norms, customs, rules, restrictions as well as society’s expectations from the young. Norms of behaviour, customs, practices, ideas of profanity, etiquette, civic sense, etc. are depicted through characters and situations. Consequently, young adult readers can understand the value, application, and relevance of social norms and customs that often subordinate them to their parents and public and weigh and consider them, as Bacon says.
To enhance literary skills: The process of reading also serves as a means to enhance students’ creative and expository writing skills. It is instrumental in breeding a new generation of young writers who can authentically represent their own world. When they read such books they become aware of craft, style, and language as well.
Rethinking Young Adult Literature
One of the most obvious criticisms of YAL is its definition of the ‘age group’ that separates children from young adults. Critics, scholars and authors have taken different age indicators to consider who belong to YA group. Wikipedia considers young people from 14-21 years as YA, scholars like Kaplanxx and Sue L Jacobxxi have included youths from 12-18yrs, and 13-17yrs respectively; whereas Melanie D. Kossxxii and Miskecxxiii consider those between 12-18yrs, and below 30yrs respectively. Due to this heterogeneous opinion regarding the YA age group, many believe that we need to be cautious about this fluid boundary between children and adults.
To divide literature on the fluid basis of age group is too arbitrary. Our children and youth can chew and digest many books that the adults would ridiculously fail to grasp. ‘Age’ therefore appears to be an ambiguous determinant of what should be defined as YAL.
There is also ambiguity regarding ‘reading’ and ‘writing’ of YAL. Most YAL is authored by adults. This compels us to bring in the black/white, dalit/Brahmin, and male/female debates about authenticity in literature. YAL, in this way, cannot wholly represent them as it is very often written by adults who censor and measure the quality and amount of fun, fancy, reality, didacticism, language, style in YAL. J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Mark Twain’s The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn, etc. bear testimony to this claim. We also notice how the best classics are abridged, edited and sometimes serialized as YAL.
Predominant socio-cultural situations too determine the nature and sensibility of YAL, since youths grow up in different situations in different countries. In India, YAL does not depict so much of drugs, teenage pregnancies, school shooting, etc. as it does in West. Though our youths grapple with these issues too, for Indians, caste, religion, class, and career come first. Yet, all these differences constitute what YAL actually is. Therefore as Scot Smith says, instead of despairing—
“Rather, let us celebrate the innovative fashion in which today’s YA authors are bending the traditional definitions of genre”xxiv
1. See The Hindu, 22/7/2011, p. 1, where the Indian Supreme Court has given a verdict “Child is neither the property of father nor that of mother” that substantiates the family hegemony over our children.
2. Cindy Lou Daniels. “Literary Theory and Young Adult Literature: The Open Frontier in Critical Studies.” THE ALAN REVIEW 33.2 (Winter 2006): 78-82, p. 78.
3. Jonathan Stephens. “Young Adult: A Book by Any Other Name…: Defining the Genre.” THE ALAN REVIEW 35.1 (Fall 2007): 34-42, pp. 40-41.
4. Jennifer M. Miskec. “YA by Generation Y: New Writers for New Readers.” THE ALAN REVIEW 34.3 (Summer 2007): 7-14, p. 7.
5. Jeffrey Kaplan. “Perception and Reality: Examining the Representations of Adolescents in Young Adult Fiction.” THE ALAN REVIEW 36.1 (Fall 2008):42-49, p. 42.
6. Jonathan Stephens. “Young Adult: A Book by Any Other Name…: Defining the Genre.” THE ALAN REVIEW 35.1 (Fall 2007): 34-42, pp. 40-41.
7. Jennifer M. Miskec. “YA by Generation Y: New Writers for New Readers.” THE ALAN REVIEW 34.3 (Summer 2007): 7-14.
8. Jonathan Stephens. “Young Adult: A Book by Any Other Name…: Defining the Genre.” THE ALAN REVIEW 35.1 (Fall 2007): 34-42, p. 35. I have used Stephens’s four points to explain them more with my ideas and examples.
9. “Examining Representations of Young Adult Female Protagonists through Critical Race Feminism.” Changing English: An International Journal of English Teaching. 14.3 (2007): 363-374, p. 367. Also read how Kaplan points out the meager representation of adolescent lesbian characters in his article “Dissertations on Adolescent Literature: 2000-2005.”, p. 54.
10. Jeffrey Kaplan. “Dissertations on Adolescent Literature: 2000-2005.” THE ALAN REVIEW 33.2 (Winter 2006):51-59, p. 54.
12. Jonathan Stephens. “Young Adult: A Book by Any Other Name…: Defining the Genre.” THE ALAN REVIEW 35.1 (Fall 2007): 34-42, p. 39.
13. Anksuh Oswal. “Pop the ‘Roids’.” EYE. The Sunday Express Magazine (July 17-23, 2011): 1-26, pp. 4-5.
14. Melanie D. Koss. “Young Adult Novels with Multiple Narrative Perspectives: The Changing Nature of YA Literature.” THE ALAN REVIEW 36.3 (Summer 2009):73-80, p. 76.
15. Jeffrey Kaplan. “Recent Research in Young Adult Literature: Three Predominant Strands of Study.” THE ALAN REVIEW 34.3 (Summer 2007): 53-60, p. 53. The first and last points are framed by me, and point no 2, 3, 4 are clearly mentioned by Kaplan. However, I have tried to explain all these more with my examples and observations
16. Patricia M. Hauschildt. “Worlds of Terrorism: Learning through Young Adult Literature.” THE ALAN REVIEW 33.3 (Summer 2006): 18-25, p. 18
17. Melanie D. Koss. “Young Adult Novels with Multiple Narrative Perspectives: The Changing Nature of YA Literature.” THE ALAN REVIEW 36.3 (Summer 2009): 73-80, p. 73.
18. Jeffrey Kaplan. “Dissertations on Adolescent Literature: 2000-2005.” THE ALAN REVIEW 33.2 (Winter 2006): 51-59, p. 51.
19. Jeffrey Kaplan. “Perception and Reality: Examining the Representations of Adolescents in Young Adult Fiction.” THE ALAN REVIEW 36.1 (Fall 2008): 42-49, p. 42
20. Jeffrey Kaplan. “Recent Research in Young Adult Literature: Three Predominant Strands of Study.” THE ALAN REVIEW 34.3 (Summer 2007): 53-60, p. 53.
21. Melanie D. Koss. “Young Adult Novels with Multiple Narrative Perspectives: The Changing Nature of YA Literature.” THE ALAN REVIEW 36.3 (Summer 2009): 73-80, p. 73.
22. Jennifer M. Miskec. “YA by Generation Y: New Writers for New Readers.” THE ALAN REVIEW 34.3 (Summer 2007):7-14, p. 7.
23. Scot Smith. “The Death of Genre: Why the Best YA Fiction Often Defies Classification.”
THE ALAN REVIEW 35.1(Fall 2007): 43-50, p. 43.