Age and Expectation in Novels
The more you read the more you begin to think about what set the books you like apart from the books you didn’t like; the tropes you can live with and those you can’t. I began thinking about what it is about some middle grade books that annoy me and soon realized that it is also a problem in young adult books. Two problems, actually.
Problem One: The characters are mature beyond their years.
I understand that some kids are more mature than others, but there are an overwhelming number of books sporting mature protagonists, able to make life or death decisions, who are in a stable relationship and take care of themselves without adult guidance. Disappearing parent syndrome is a very real thing in children’s literature. This is even more notable in middle grade, or junior novels, where the young protagonists are often on equal standing as the adults.
Problem Two: The characters are placed (by adults) into unrealistic situations/positions.
Again, this could happen, but really, what are the chances of sixteen year olds masterminding revolutions? I’m sure you can think of a dystopian book in which teens grab some weapons and lead adults into war against their oppressor. Or the kid that’s invited by some organization – let’s say FBI – to help them solve cases. Or the tweens that are asked to go on a mission around the world. It’s more detectable in novels aimed at a younger audience, but its present in all children’s literature.
Reasons it occurs:
- It goes back to one of the reasons for reading – escapism. You want to be able to put yourself in the head of someone brave and capable, who does things you could only ever dream of. Everyone want to be a hero, be rich or famous, and reading can transform you into that person even if it’s just for a little while.
- As a teenager, you are trapped between the world of children and the world of adults and you want to grow up and be taken seriously. You would much rather read about the mature person you want to be than the immature person you are or were. Same applies for middle grade novels – kids are no longer ‘babies’ and want to grow up.
- Kids (and teens) have a distrust of the adult world and think that a) they could do things better and b) have a desire to be accepted and believed by adults. Think of the cliche of a kid seeing something happen and the adults not believing them. Through books kids can become spies and astronauts when in real life their dreams are not necessarily taken seriously.
- You want books that can fuel your imagination and push you to think about life in new ways. There’s only so much you can learn from your singular, limited POV.
- There’s this idea that has always been circulating in the book world that the age of the protagonist directly relates to the age of the readers. Therefore, in the eyes of many publishers (or so it would seem) the only way to aim a fictional book about scientists at kids is to create a ten year old protagonist. I don’t agree with this, but that how most books go.
Why it can be problematic:
- It ruins your suspension of belief while reading. I have no trouble believing in alternate worlds with magic and otherworldly creatures, but when you tell me that a thirteen year old is a sent off on a dangerous mission by adults…there are limits to what an author can make their reader’s believe.
- It sets up unrealistic expectations. When every single books features a sixteen year old whose out in the world doing things, it can be hard not to compare yourself to these characters who only represent a very small percentage of teenagers.