I am the author of three middle-grade children's books, and I blog on the side. My favorite topics are movies, writing, and pop culture.
Like most American teens, the first time I read The Catcher in the Rye was in high school. The famous title caught my attention when it ended up on our syllabus, but I had no idea what it was about. It ended up becoming one of my favorite books, thanks to its cynical, teenage-friendly tone and a hero who gave a voice to misfit teens like me. The book was written decades before I made it into my teen years, but there was something universal in the way that Holden spoke about growing up and how he viewed the world around him. Helped along by our English teacher’s in-depth analysis of the novel and our weeks of roundtable discussions, I heard him loud and clear in my head, and his commentary made such straightforward sense that I felt like I knew exactly what that story was about.
After college, I picked up the book again, and I began to wonder if I was reading a different version of the same story. Holden was now a whiny little kid who needed to just get his butt home instead of walking around New York City, spouting jibberish to the reader and expecting us to feel sorry for him because he doesn’t want to do anything with his life. It was still full of interesting ideas and images, but the story and Holden no longer spoke to me. This wasn’t what I thought of the world. I wasn’t giving in to an unfair society. I was just a grown up now, and Holden was just a slacker.
Once I was firmly established in adulthood, I started watching video essays online about the book. Suddenly, a brand new perspective of the book was laid out for me. I picked it up again, and this time, I saw a scared and confused kid who needed help navigating his surroundings. He didn’t know who to trust or how to fit in. He didn’t go with the tide, and he had a hard time letting go of his unique perspective. It made him bitter and cynical but as a defense mechanism, protecting his viewpoint and keeping himself from feeling pushed into a life that he didn’t want by people who didn’t understand him. I felt sorry for the kid and how his actions lead to a nervous breakdown. The book suddenly spoke not about over-privileged kids but about what happens to individuals who don’t fit into society’s mold.
In 15 years, I had gained three different perspectives of one novel. The story hadn’t changed but I had. A book as complex as The Catcher in the Rye is filled with so many hidden doors that can only be opened and closed based on the age and wisdom of its reader. That is why it is a classic, not because of what it is but because of the person who is reading it. The concept of teens who think they know everything has been beaten to death. A good teen story doesn’t play against this idea but plays with it. The stories that kids at this age want to hear are ones that let them know that they are not wrong for believing what they believe or making situations important that won’t seem so important in the next five to 10 years.
You also can’t play to just one type of kid. Like adults, there are so many types: those who worry about meeting the typical teen milestones like learning to drive, going to prom, and getting into college, the smart nerds who don’t fit in, the artsy types who live in their own, safe, quirky worlds, and the delinquents who act out due to a rough home life or because they don’t fit into any other social circle. There are stories out there for all of them, and they all share a common theme of being misunderstood by adults. Sometimes their stakes are high. Sometimes they are low and need that added ingredient of melodrama in order to make their conflict matter and their story worth telling.
A good YA writer, whether it be a novelist, screenplay writer, comic book writer, or TV script writer, can remember in adulthood what it was like to be a teen: what mattered to them, how they spent their time, what era dictated their activities and their future, and how long it seemed to go on. High school is a short four years, but it feels like an eternity. That last stretch before you enter the world through college, training, or a job feels like the only era that matters. It’s the first time where you’re working towards the next step that is all yours to take. While you work your way through the school system, you’re just going through the motions, struggling to keep up as you transform at what seems like a painfully slow pace, begging to be let out of this limbo. Others thrive in it, shining through the evolution from child to adult. As we grow up and forget this so we fail to appreciate it in teen stories. We set up this world for these kids, and then they organize themselves into hierarchies and decide how to function in this world. The stories we tell them reflect these various mindsets.
John Hughes wrote movies for teens whose conflicts dealt with real life situations. They may have all been upper-middle class white kids from Illinois, but they each had distinctive personalities that most teens could relate to on one level or another. He inflated their worlds into cinematic stories that made young kids look forward to turning 16, going to prom, and skipping school. Sometimes that’s all there was to it. Other times, there were layered messages about the fears and insecurities of being a kid and where you fit in as a person, how you were stereotyped based on your interests and appearance. We can still enjoy them as adults, but after living through jobs, marriages, and tragedies, their conflicts seem miniscule. We can’t believe we ever worried about these things too. But we don’t realize that when you don’t have adult problems, this is what you will focus on. Human beings cannot escape life without worry and conflict, and we have to seek out conflict if conflict doesn’t come to us. These events and experiences feel like real problems. If they are not resolved, and we don’t come out victorious, we have failed as a teenager and will regret these failures for the rest of our lives.
In the 90’s, teenage movies were typically based on Shakespeare plays. These stories served the genre well for their melodramatic plots and super-sensitive protagonists. Adults will go to the theater to watch Shakespeare performed and regard them as works of art. Teens would watch 10 Things I Hate About You and Romeo + Juliet and think the same. Whether it be a comedy or tragedy, the themes are timeless, and they can easily be adapted and updated to fit an unmoving foundation in an ever-evolving world.
There’s also the class angle. Many teen stories deal with white, middle-class kids whose problems are not life threatening or large in scope so they can be easily dismissed as unimportant. The boy didn’t get into his dream college. The girl didn’t get a car for her 16th birthday. These are not dire conflicts. Some kids would kill to have these problems. However, they say a lot about what is expected of these kids, and how important we have made these achievements to be. They are trying to live a perfect life, and as adults, with many of us having not achieved this perfect life, we tend to laugh at how hopeful we were at that age, and how much we thought that we would get what we wanted just by putting in the required amount of effort or even just expecting it to come to us because we have reached a particular age. Seeing the world and our lives as more complex and less straightforward than that, it’s amusing to go back and look at what was important to us at the time and how little we knew of what it was like to really struggle to get what we have achieved, and few of our lives look like the ones that we imagined for ourselves growing up.
There are also the truly high stakes stories that feature teens in situations far beyond those that they should be handling. These stories can help regular teens feel grateful for what they have, but they are not meant for shaming over-privileged kids. Instead, they are meant to give a voice to those who do have to live through them. It may have to deal with racism, drug use, foster care, cancer, mental illness, etc. Whatever it is, they are meant to show that sometimes a teen’s life is not the cookie-cutter situation that we all believe it to be. Some experience is gained early, but they still have a youthful perspective to provide in these adult situations. In these cases, even adults can learn about worlds that they have never known, even in their later years.
Lately, unrealistic, dystopian stories are what get kids reading. It may just be escapism that lures them to these worlds, but they must connect to these characters in a real way in order for them to stick with the story. It also gives them a moral compass and a way of handling the conflicts in their own lives. Watching kids their age doing heroic things in very horrific situations also gives them aspirations to do good when called upon in their own lives.
It’s interesting what we take from stories at different times in our life. It’s just sad that once one era is over, your experience prevents you from ever being able to see a story the same way again, just as you can never go back to being a younger age. Sometimes I yearn for the problems I used to think were major issues, and then I remember how hard it was to deal with at that age. We’re typically only faced with what we can handle at different times in our life. I may be able to handle teen life better now as an adult, but that’s only because I previously lived as a teen and learned from those years. That’s also not to say that adult stories are always full of trials and tribulations. There are many breezy stories out there with low stakes and little to learn or associate with. They are not all classics like The Catcher in the Rye, but they all have a way of teaching and entertaining us at any age.
Larry W Fish from Raleigh on May 28, 2018:
Thanks for an interesting read, Laura. It is amazing how people look at things differently as the years pass by. I have noticed the same thing.
Poppy from Enoshima, Japan on May 27, 2018:
Your perspective can certainly change your perception of a story. The Illustrated Mum by Jacqueline Wilson was one of my favourite books as a kid. Re-reading it as an adult, I found it a lot more upsetting. Good article.