About two years ago, on an irresponsible trip to Barnes and Noble, after a stressful day in grad school, I picked up the aesthetically pleasing hardcover of Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is Also a Star. And during a time of eating grilled cheese for every meal and accepting my slightly above average role in a college classroom, I read the entirety of the book in less than thirty-six hours.
Young adult literature has been on my bookshelves since before I was considered a young adult, and will probably continue to grow in collection in my homes until I become the senile old woman my psyche was always destined to be. But for a while, I actively hid the covers of books that even remotely appeared to appeal to a teenage girl (which I was) and would strategically place hoity-toity titles in the front row instead. Novels like The Beautiful and the Damned and Great Expectations took up more billboard space in my room than should ever be necessary. Seriously, unless you are a sociopathic narcissist in academia, torturously organizing your bookshelves like this should be a crime.
But, anyway, here’s what I learned from practicing this sort of self-censorship for years: young adult fiction is inadvertently taboo. And that way of thinking was frustratingly too dominant for me to break away from. Honestly, that prejudgment is hard for most people to challenge.
So, when I forfeited sleep those two years ago to read Yoon’s novel, I had a sort of surreal experience. I was in my early twenties, struggling with the self-proclaimed title of “decent adult” (spoiler alert, I was failing), and still somehow connected with the story as if I were seventeen again. I could definitely write an entire analysis on the movie Seventeen Again and how the premise is a perfect example of how timeless the adolescent experience is, but I don’t want to digress too much. So, just interpret that on your own, it will help me out later. What I do want to focus on though, is how a story set within a twenty-hour timeframe, with conventions similar to movies like Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and Ferris Bueller’s Day off morphed my view on teen romances.
The story of Natasha, a young girl in threat of deportation to Jamaica, and Daniel, the son of Korean immigrants, isn’t just a socially relevant story about culture and the current political climate. The story would still be pretty rad if it were, but of course, there is also that overlying element of desire. The two meet on the streets on New York, spend less than twenty-four hours together, and explore the several cultural pockets that reside in the city. Sounds cute right? Well, yeah, it for sure is. But there’s more to writing that I want to draw your attention to. Nicola Yoon personifies metaphysical concepts, alternate realities, and complex relationships, essentially capturing the dichotomy between tragedy and romance influenced by every miniscule choice we make.
And so, when the movie adaptation hits theatres, I will see it with an eagerness of someone who doesn’t already know the ending.
Why? Because we have to. Like my annoyingly posh best friend points out after every teen romance I drag him to, we’ve seen this story before. And I’m not arguing that modern teen books and movies are incredibly innovative and experimental—some are, though. The reason why I love them so much and have a deep respect for the genre is because of how intentionally honest they are with their use of typical genre tropes. Writers alter the conventions to re-adapt a story for every young person in need of escapism. There’s a reason why young adult novels are some of the most remediated texts in fanfiction. Accessibility isn’t a cop-out, it’s a unifier.
What a lot of people fail to credit is just how in flux the teenage experience is. Maybe the misconception comes from this false sense of stagnancy. We went to school, maybe to an after school job, and existed in a small bubble. Sort of. If you reflect back on your teenage years in such a limited way, then I am truly sorry, but also, let’s think about why you lived a deprived life. I’m kidding. A little. But coming from a technical standpoint, adolescence isn’t simply about first times in a romantic context. Young adulthood is when most people are first misdiagnosed when seeking mental help. It is also one of the most vulnerable times for girls subjected to sex violence and emotional abuse. Teens can’t simply leave traumatic circumstances. Their stories deserve space to evolve and flourish without the requirement to impress a demographic that already situates them with less value.
In many ways, genre fiction, young adult in particular, is about community and identity—both collective and individual. Whereas literary fiction and some of our best acclaimed films are about harnessing a deep-rooted loneliness and acknowledging brutal ideologies. And we can argue all we want about teens not having real world experience, but I think it is highly irresponsible to commit to the idea that they aren’t influenced by hundreds or harsh realities with a serious lack of agency, both mentally and bodily.
So, odds are, I will probably watch To All the Boy’s I’ve Loved Before four hundred and eighty-six more times. I will reread what I used to refer to as my guilty pleasures as regular texts. And, I’ll shamelessly cry watching Five Feet Apart for the second time. There is a purity in watching young and dramatic love. The spaces our teenage personas filled were toxic and magical and important.
So, here’s to the young rebellious hearts who stay young off the words of the outcasts, the cheesy romantics, the much too eloquent bad boys, and the anxious minds. Keep reading. Keep watching. Keep creating.
| My True Love Gave to Me | Summer Days and Summer Nights | Eleanor and Park | Darius the Great is Not Okay | Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets to the Universe | Fangirl | The Sun is Also a Star | Turtles All the Way Down |