Recent literary blockbusters have one thing in common: their genre. Yep, I’m talking about Young Adult. Series like Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, and Divergent and standalones like Fault in Our Stars and Looking for Alaska dominate bestseller lists. We all make fun of YA literature, but its enormous success is proof that it’s doing something right—and chances are we’ve all shelled out cash to support the enterprise (don’t lie).
Last week, the writers of The Poetics Project chatted about why YA books are so damn popular. Some talked about universal themes, about characters “finding themselves,” about guiding elements to surviving even adult life. For me, it was simple: YA literature is always about being “the one.” It appeals to the human ego, i.e. yes, I am unique, damnit. The genre especially capitalizes on its young adult audience. After all, young adults are still mercifully illusioned by pep talks: You can be whatever you want to be (insert no statistics here).
Harry Potter? The one who lived, destined to vanquish You Know Who. Katniss from The Hunger Games? The one who conquered the games and launched a rebellion. Tris from Divergent? The one who didn’t fit the system and thwarted genocide. Even the YA classic The Giver is about the one who snagged an elite position and abandoned it in favor of original thought.
These books let us experience remarkable talent or pluck or destiny—but NEVER the everyday existence of cogs in a machine. In fact, literary heroes have already won because they have their own damn books. We even call them “heroes” whether they do anything heroic or not. Their world revolves around them, just like we think ours revolves around us. There’s nothing like realizing, uh, the earth revolves around the sun, and our planet is barely a speck of cosmic goo in the scale of things.
Let’s get personal for a minute (because I never regret THAT).
At least once a week, I wish I knew more about economics, history, politics, or science. The result is feeling inadequate—a number, a person distinctly average. I try to keep up on current events, but I know the meager half hour I give it a day isn’t enough to understand much in context or to form an educated opinion. It matters because I want to be the one to put the pieces together, to engage in discussions about solutions, and to not just be another United States proletarian wandering into a voting booth knowing exactly squat. The feeling of mediocrity even affects my day job writing for a financial publication: I don’t know anything about investments and savings bonds, let alone have the journalism training to crack the next Watergate. Regardless of what I tell myself, I want to be the best or nothing at all. I can pump out a few hundred sassy words I like (sometimes)—but is that enough to leave my mark? And is that all I want? Do I want to just be another writer doing her best, or do I want to be the writer who sets the new standard, who breaks the rules, who asks questions? Those writers before me were Emerson, Twain, and Whitman. We may not like them, but we don’t forget them.
And that’s why stories about being the one, about rising to the top, about succeeding where others have failed resonate with those of us who don’t want to be average—and deep down, that’s all of us. Feeling small, feeling incompetent, feeling like we don’t matter is the worst feeling in the world, and we all suffer from it. The only antidote? Find inspiration where we can, whip up some fortitude, and battle cry, “I CAN do this, damnit, and I’m not going to be the girl next door,” even if we probably will be. The odds may be astronomically against us, but we’ll always dream about being the next political leader, the war hero, the important artist, the NBA player to break MJ’s record, the Mother Theresa with the biggest sacrifice, the professor who shakes her students out of apathy.
The writer with something new to say and the best damn way to say it.
YA books, as lame as some of them are, celebrate individuality, spine, nonconformity, and, ultimately, meaning. And humans, as we know, are suckers for meaning.
Tag, Tiffany Shelton, the YA Queen. You’re it.