Asserting that every genre has its specific niche writers, the ones who best capture the flow and nuances of that category, is a well-worn claim. Yet for every die hard who claims that Young Adult novels should be written by young adults, or that morticians and FBI agents churn out the best crime novels, there are the Robert Cormiers and Ken Follets of our craft, the ones who develop a knack for a specific kind of writing – and then achieve runaway success in another environment entirely.
I use Cormier as a prime example because he is my lifeblood for my writings, the roots of my interest in penning the struggles of youth . Starting out his professional writing career as a script writer for radio commercials, Robert also worked as a columnist for The Fitchburg Sentinel. Not exactly the greatest vantage point into adolescence. Then, almost over night, Cormier broke into the Young Adult scene with The Chocolate War, a bleak masterpiece about conformity and growing up in the grip of an oppressive school system. Robert Cormier certainly was not a pioneer, however; S.S. Hinton and J.D. Salinger had already explored the depths of adolescent angst and morality years before.
That legacy of Weltschmerz has endured in shifts and new spins, with writers such as Chris Lynch and John Green embracing the fray. I use Lynch and Green as two prime examples, as they are more common names in the households of young adults. Both have distinct voices, but I appreciate Chris Lynch’s writings more. In Inexcusable, the boundary between guilt and virtue is scrutinized through the eyes of Keir Sarafian, a flagging football star blinded by his manic claim that he didn’t rape the love of his life, Gigi Boudakian. You can practically feel Kieran shaking your shoulders and screaming in desperation, “I’m not a rapist! The way it looks is not the way it is!” Focusing on perspective and an evasion of the truth, Inexcusable is replete with drama.
Freewill, however, packs a much greater wallop precisely because it spares us the drama. Will, an aspiring pilot relegated to churning out gnomes in wood-shop class after his parent’s death, shows us how a passive existence can drive someone off something worse than the deep end. His grandparents and peers are esoteric shadows flitting in and out of his personal purgatory. But in those brief encounters with enemies and fragile friends, memorable characters and in-depth introspection shine through Will’s solidarity.
John Green is another YA novelist whose first novel, Looking for Alaska, got me thinking about what a truly genuine teenage voice sounds like. Though I resented Green’s reliance on chain smoking and reckless driving as devices for characterization, I enjoyed Miles Halter’s believable transformation from meek adolescent to prank-pulling wiseguy. Pudge is also what many teenage boys become at some point in their life: a hopeful shadow of the one girl they find reassurance and danger in. In this case, it is Alaska Young, the key to Pudge’s discovery of the “Great Perhaps.” The crispness of youth reverberates throughout the novel, which explores self-deprecation, friendship, and the uncertainty of death without reservations.
Every once in a while we find faults in this youthful foundation, too. Kill Switch, which Lynch published in April of 2012, is utterly limp and haphazard, veering into obscurity without so much as touching the initial themes of masculinity and family loyalty. John Green’s Paper Towns suffers from a similar exercise in poorly directed plot points and wild excursions that only make the teenage spirit seem more gossamer. Too much emphasis on pee jokes and road trip shenanigans, nary a single meaningful reflection on Margo and Quinton’s friendship. The cracks are caulked, though, and the world is given another brazenly honest look into adolescence. Lynch and Green redeem themselves, and new authors emerge to take the helm.
I have not worked a fraction of the hours these men and women have. My time spent toiling away at the keyboard can barely equate to even the lesser works of these prolific authors. But the field deserves enduring contributions, and I am committed to making at least one. No one can relive a single day of high school, returning to their peak forms as track stars and ready writing champs in the same locker lined halls. Young adult novels are the windows into which we peer eagerly and relive those victories, first crushes, and last dances.
Take part in this journey. Construct another window. Show us what it means to prank a teacher or get drunk on an emotional and spiritual level.
Then build the entire house.