Parents, Teenagers, and the Books in Between




School’s started. In just a few hours (10:29 p.m. EDT) it will officially be fall. 

Right about now classrooms across the world are settling into their routine. Students have figured out where their second- period class is. Which teachers they love and hate. Who they are going to call friend for the rest of their life. Everything is still fresh. The year is full of potential.

We know that every single one of you fell in love with reading when you were young. And this most lasting of love affairs was probably sparked around this time of year, when you went back to school.

It’s been a banner year for Young Adult fiction and Children’s literature. Of course there were the regular controversies. Like, should adults be embarrassed to be reading YA? (The answer is no, by the way. A book is a book is a book is a book.) Are certain stories too dark? (No. Kids are capable of handling all kinds of stories.) Are tales of dystopia over? (Once again, no. Look at the success of the first of four planned film adaptations of Veronica Roth’s Divergent series; it earned $114 million domestically in its first three weeks. And we have the just-opened movie version of James Dashner’s The Maze Runner, and a slew of others in the green light grid, including the final two installments of The Hunger Games, from Suzanne Collins’s Mockinjay, which will star Julianne Moore as President Coin.)

Meanwhile, John Green continued his meteoric rise with the release of the fantastically successful film version of The Fault in Our Stars film. That one has grossed about $300 million so far. Might it be a reminder to adults, and not just the ones producing films, that they should check out all sections of the bookstore?

Last week the National Book Foundation released the titles it is considering for its annual Young People’s Literature Award. It is a stellar list, an indication of the vibrancy of the genre, with brilliant books by some of the best authors at work in the field: Laurie Halse Anderson (The Impossible Knife of Memory), Gail Giles (Girls Like Us), Carl Hiaasen (Skink: No Surrender), Kate Milford (Greenglass House), Eliot Schrefer (Threatened), Steve Sheinkin (The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights), Andrew Smith (100 Sideways Miles), John Corey Whaley (Noggin), Deborah Wiles (Revolution: The Sixties Trilogy, Book Two), and Jacqueline Woodson (Brown Girl Dreaming).

I would highly recommend that you read these books. You can download an excerpt of each of them here. And mega congrats to the two Angelenos on the list, Andrew Smith and John Corey Whaley.

In light of the new school year, we thought we’d publish a week of pieces that talk about many aspects of Young Adult literature. Today we open our series with a piece on some similarities between John Green and J. D. Salinger by Angela Yuen, a critic of sensitivity and perception who also happens to be a teenager. We will also feature Rumaan Alam on one of the first YA novels to deal with homosexuality, John Donovan’s I’ll Get There, It Better Be Worth the Trip. Cara Parks waxes nostalgic on the 50th anniversary of one of her childhood favorites, Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series. Robin Wasserman reviews two novels inspired by a 2012 case of mass hysteria in the town of Le Roy, New York. Finally, Jessica Gross reports on a Pen America panel on Sex and Violence in Children’s Literature that took place this past May.

We’ve got more great essays coming up in the next few months. We hope to see you here, reading and discussing them. And do yourself a favor, whoever you are, whatever age you think you might be. Go read a kid’s book.

                                                           — Cecil Castellucci

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Editor’s Note: In a July review of the famed Young Adult novel and movie The Fault in our Stars, LARB critic Briallen Hopper described wondering how she would feel about the story if she were one of its teenage fans. The next day the editorial staff received a pitch from Angela Yuen, a 15 year-old reader, asking if she could provide “an honest review from a teen’s perspective.” Today, the Los Angeles Review of Books is thrilled to run Angela’s original essay as a part of its weeklong celebration of YA stories, readers, and writers.

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IT SEEMS that we’ve all heard how teens disrespect their parents or don’t care about them, which isn’t true. In fact, we teenagers spend most of our time thinking about our actions and what makes our parents happy. Maybe I am biased — it could just be my background that makes me feel this way — but I suspect that it isn’t. This past year, as the wrath of school and its merciless amounts of homework took over, I haven’t had time to read whatever I wanted and as much as I wanted. So I began a search for YA books that I could read thoughtfully and thoroughly, not ones that merely diverted my attention from my own life. I was looking for something real and honest, a true teenage-parent relationship, which is surprisingly rare. I’ve found that it is difficult to capture because it asks for humanization. The author must give their characters the ability to love and fear and empathize and care — both the parents and the teenagers. Because in a society led by the idea that “teenagers don’t care,” at least not about anything important, giving depth to a YA book is an astounding feat. In the end I came up with The Catcher in the Rye, which was an obvious choice with its iconic angsty Holden and his search to preserve innocence. The Fault in Our Stars won me over with its ability to speak about teenagers in love seriously, and also Hazel’s no-bullshit way of thinking about life. And some dystopian novels helped me think about teenager-parent relationships as well. 

Holden and Hazel have genuine love and fears, and also genuine worries about their parents. “What happens to the ducks when the pond freezes over?” is the question repeatedly asked by Holden in the book. What scares him the most is not that no one knows the answer, but that no one cares. While he faces an unstoppable impending future of adulthood, he tries to reach out to people who might give him answers to his questions and tell him that leaving adolescence is okay. As he gets kicked out of school after school, he fears his father’s anger/disappointment, and constantly thinks about running away and building a cabin all by himself. I found this to be wonderfully truthful in the sense that Holden wanted to run away not because he hated his parents or wasn’t grateful for them, which is most people’s explanation for why teenagers rebel, but because he felt like a burden. He feels unworthy. This explains what Hazel Grace does, too — she flies all the way to Amsterdam to beg a drunken author to tell her what happens to the characters in her favorite book after the book ends. She wants to imagine a future where her parents are happy even when she is gone, and she is eager to shed this fear of her death being a burden to her parents by knowing that the characters in her favorite book can deal with loss.

Both Holden and Hazel desperately want to stop time. Perhaps what these books capture best is the ruthless unforgivingness of time, and these characters’ searches for reassurance. Because isn’t that we all do in the end? Whether you’re a parent, or a teenager, or a sick teenager, for that matter, what we ultimately all want is more time to spend with each other, our hopes, and our dreams. And when we don’t get it, we search for reassurances. Augustus thinks that by not smoking a cigarette he can postpone his death, which is true to some extent but at the same time not true, because even though not smoking is better than actually smoking, it doesn’t affect the time of his death at all. Hazel’s mother tries to celebrate forgotten holidays in hopes of making limited days matter more. Holden thinks that by not throwing a snowball at a car, he is defying the corruption of growing up and age. He latches onto this idea of not throwing a snowball because he sees his friends around him manipulating girls for sex, or his brother leaving to go make movies, and he wants to stop the anger that time brings him. He sees what time is doing to the people around him and he desperately wants to stop it, especially to him.

But he can’t. Nobody can, really. Books that have true teenager-parent relationships have the ability to ask questions — questions like what happens to the characters when the book ends, or what happens to the geese when the pond freezes. I say this because these are questions not just for teenagers, but for their parents, too. I believe that just as much as teens fear time, adults do as well. It would be selfish of us to think that they can understand and accept our evolution into adulthood much easier than we can. Maybe in reality, teenagers and parents are scared of the same things. Adults have learned to cover their fear by pushing and preparing, while teens have learned to be swallowed by it and choose to resent their fear instead. Together, they become angry with ambiguous victories and are forever in search of real progress. For I myself have learned that real progress and happiness don’t always come from the ability to control your life, but rather the ability to accept that sometimes you can’t. In my opinion, that is the true essence of a good YA story — to ask a question that is universal and irrelevant, yet instead of ignoring it, they ask it anyways.

Just like Hazel and Holden, what teenagers want is reassurance that if we don’t come out the way we are supposed to, that they will still be satisfied with their lives. But like Hazel tells Patrick, “Don’t you ever wish you could just die?” We often just want to give up. To me, that’s one of the most compelling lines of the book, because it’s the most real, and whole, and vulnerable Hazel could ever be. She, who was fighting her cancer and trying to push the days until she would explode, would so terribly turn to Patrick and tell him she was tired of holding in the grenade-ness of herself and wanted to give up. Patrick responds with, “ Yes. But why don’t you?” And Hazel just knows she’ll keep fighting her cancer. I find this astonishingly similar to the way teenagers talk, when they tell their friends they want to quit studying and fail a class, when they complain about the pressure from their parents or the homework they couldn’t understand. Perhaps it is less extreme compared to Hazel, but we often want to give up. Yet we don’t, for some reason. Maybe it’s for our parents. For our potential someday, or something. For the pretentiousness of dreams, whether they will come true or not.

We want to make our parents proud, and we want them to be happy, so we become frustrated when they are not. And as we grow older we see the genuineness of our childhood washing away, being replaced by worries about college and jobs. When we see our parents pushing us into this scarily looming future, telling us we have to be prepared, we often feel a sense of betrayal, and we end up panicking and clinging onto adolescence, often acting impulsively in the process. By rebelling, whether it’s not doing homework all the way to taking drugs, we feel as if we are defying time and what it will bring upon us. We are all just searching for reassurances.

Maybe the greatest proof of teenager’s universal concerns for their parents comes out in dystopian novels. By reading books like The Hunger Games series or Divergent, we indulge in this fantasy that teens can have the ability to protect their parents, and due to the circumstances they can save them and/or avenge them after their death. In Divergent, Tris thinks she has to be brave to protect her parents and the people around her.

What I love about Divergent is that toward the end Veronica Roth writes, “I have a theory that selflessness and bravery aren’t all that different.” This has come to be one of my favorite quotes because it contradicts every previous belief in the book, and the beliefs of many other books as well. Much like the society Roth has created, we also like to believe that selflessness and bravery are two different things. Parents often believe that they have to be selfless for their children, and children often believe they must be brave for their parents. But Tris is a symbol of Divergence, and she is proof that traits do coincide. She takes off the labels of “Dauntless,” or “Candor,” or “Abnegation,” because she has discovered that traits relate to one another in ways that people in her world, and ours, tend to look over. I like to think that this is the bridge between adults and teenagers, how we are so different yet very much alike, because ultimately we are only humans after all. We want each other to be happy and safe.

Together with the characters in the books I have cherished, I’ve discovered that love for my parents and the people I care about is not something to be proven, but rather to be given. Hazel Grace can still tell Augustus: “I love you, present tense.” And even Holden, who is surrounded by ugliness and phoniness, can finally break out of his shell and find concern for his sister, the first sign of him stepping out of adolescence and demonstrating a willingness to love his parents and the people around him. 

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Angela Yuen attends Leland High School in San Jose, California.


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