Contemporary YA and Coming of Age: Like a perfect cup of Mocha

JulyAugust2013_GB

Iphigene here.

For the past three Saturdays we’ve looked at coming of age as an experience of first love and heartbreak, as an experience of loss and death and as reflected in classics. Our reflections took the concept of “Coming of Age” as a marked transition, assuming that the ‘first’ experience is transformative. However, this is still broad. It suggests that anyone can come of age at any point in his or her life. While I think that could be true, coming of age is often associated with pre-adolescence to adolescence. In literature, this is often found in books targeted to a younger audience. Real classics such as Little Women, the Anne of Green Gables series, and even Northanger Abbey can be considered coming of age. Today, however, we’ll be looking at this theme in the lenses of Young Adult Literature.

The label Young Adult (YA) literature offers a wide array of genres within it. Back in the day, books children/adolescents read were either the Tom Sawyer/Little Women classics, Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys detective stories, RL Stein and Sweet Dreams. Often, the context is so fictionalised or too ancient it is hard to completely relate to the story. But today’s youth is luckier, with the genre growing in shelf space in bookstores and offering a variety that range from the supernatural to realistic fiction. The YA literature I’ve come to appreciate are those that deal with the complexity of life and the relationships we form.  To me, good YA is like Mocha. It’s not as sweet as your typical milk chocolate that it ignores what’s real. At the same time not too bitter, that it removes the hopefulness and innocence of youth. Like Mocha, good YA is equal amounts of chocolate and coffee.

If you’ve been following Gathering Books for some time now, you’d know we don’t have that many YA on our blog, but we do have a few that we’ve read and felt merited discussion in today’s post. This is a collaborative post amongst the three of us. Myra and Fats offered their own input on some of the books we’ll be covering today.

So let’s go ahead, and get ourselves some Mocha (or some YA literature).

Stargirl

stargirl

I read Stargirl first, then Fats read it and finally Myra did. They both started using “stargirl” as an adjective and I just sort of followed suit. Stargirl is about a boy who falls for a little odd girl and soon discovers that while he likes everything that makes this girl different, he can’t help but wish that she was more ‘typical.’ Stargirl is the star of Spinelli’s novel but its Leo who goes through the changes and I like that he isn’t so sure of what he wants – we never are at such a tender age. It’s hard to be different, to want to be different. It’s a painful process trying to figure out if we should fit in or be true to ourselves.

I’ve always been someone who was a little off-center. At one point in my teenage years I was faced with this dilemma: should I continue being off-center or give in to what was expected of a teenage girl. One of the best ‘advise’ I got was from my dad: He told me I can be who I am and take the pain that goes with dancing to my own beat or I can have it easy and just fit in. I took the pain. And I think that’s what I liked about Leo, yeah, he could have been less of a loser and be someone deserving of Stargirl, but I also think he’s real. We all have to make that choice and it isn’t easy when you’re a teenager (and sometimes even when you are an adult). And while he was teetering, it was something I accepted as much truer than him being a knight in a shining armor.

Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight

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Yes, there’s statistics involved. It does talk about love at first sight, but it is more than just that. Hadley and Oliver meet on a plane, as they take an unwanted trip to the UK. One has to deal with a marriage and the other with death. Teenagers don’t have it easy. Hormones coupled by naturally amplified emotions equal having not the best coping mechanism in dealing with change.  But that’s the wonderful part about it: they whine, they try to be mature, they try to assert themselves only to find they aren’t too great at it.

Anyway, Fats wrote in her review of this novel:

Here is a book where love occupies only one-third of the plot. The story focuses more on Hadley and her relationship with her father. Her struggle with her parents’ separation echoes throughout the novel. Readers may find this repetitive, even boring. But I like how Smith tucks Hadley’s bittersweet memories between her conversations with Oliver. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I sympathize with Hadley. Yet, there is truly something beautiful hidden in Hadley’s heartaches that even love can’t compete with.

What’s interesting about contemporary YA is coming of age comes in so many ways, there are more issues to deal with. I can’t imagine divorce and re-marriage to be something like Little Women had to deal with. The circumstances these novels deal with are quite real and I suppose that’s what makes them click.

Why We Broke Upwebrokeup

Dealing with heartbreak when you’re young can be tragic/dramatic. While this particular novel isn’t short of the drama and artsy references, I think the highlight that gives this a coming of age feel is the truth our protagonist discovers about Why they broke up. I had began this book, but unlike Myra I wasn’t completely taken and have yet to go back to finish it. So I’ll let Myra’s words in her review do the talking:

Flower petals. Enduring. Soft. Coming-of-age and all its insecurities, pain, anxieties. While this book may be deemed as a purging of sorts, it was never heavy-going nor irrepressibly-gloomy. The pain is lined with humor and random ruminations that won’t ever cease, very-free-association-like. There is an audible-albeit-expected gasp when the reader gets to see the entire picture. My ancient eyes once again grow even older at the banality of it – no matter that there is an explosion of flower petals after the revelation, befitting the cinematique, theatrical aspect of the entire novel. So commonplace but nonetheless filled with heartache that gnaws at one’s insides. As I’ve written in my old forgotten letters: wind and words, air and fluff, sand and light – the stuff of romance.

Eleanor and Park

eleanor_park.jpg.size.xxlarge.letterbox

While set in the 80’s this contemporary YA novel doesn’t spare us from the usual school theme of being an outcast, trying to be invisible, trying to fit in, and trying to survive the craziness of one’s home. When it comes to dealing with family, children often have to face one simple truth at an early age: we don’t choose them and if you’re unlucky this truth is hard to swallow.  I mentioned this novel in my previous discussion of coming of age as an experience of love. However, in that post I centered on the love story. Putting that aside, Rowell portrays the nuances of being a teenager and dealing with what life has given you. There’s that helplessness, that resignation to what life has to offer, and yet that little bit of hope and courage that allows you to rebel and to fight what life has thrown at you. In many ways, when a teenager is thrown into such a life the question that they must face is: what do I do with it? Do I throw away myself or challenge the ebb?

Of the three of us, Fats and I have read the book. I asked her about it, and here’s what she said:

It’s one of my most refreshing reads this year. Two people falling in love and fighting for that love has to be the one of the cheesiest plots ever but Rainbow Rowell manages to make it less cheesy, if at all. It’s about looking past the oddities and accepting the person for who they are, that they deserve to be treated the same way as everyone else, that they have as much right to love and be loved.

Boy Meets Boy

boymeetsboy

I read this book quite some time ago. I never got to review it. Myra got to read it and I was glad she did. If I were to choose a representative for coming of age in contemporary YA, this would be it. Why? Because you would never find such a book, say, ten years ago. I can’t even imagine anyone attempting to publish such a book and have it sit in the YA section of the bookstore. Seeing it in my local bookstore, sitting in the YA section and having several copies available makes me smile. Myra however shares quite a different experience about this beautiful book.

Hunting for Boy Meets Boy

I had to hunt for this book as this is not currently made available in the Singapore libraries. Singapore, is still, by and large, a highly conservative country and I am sure that the title of the novel must have set off quite a number of alarm bells and a few raised eyebrows. I hunted this book down in Kinokuniya at the Jurong East Mall before I left Singapore for my holiday but did not find the title there as well. I managed to snag my own copy from the National Book Store in Makati on the very day that I arrived in Manila. Yes, you could say I was that determined. And after reading the book, I realized, with good reason.

I read this book in one sitting. After reading it, I paused and thought about it. I loved it. I love that it had these characters dealing with relationships in all the different ways and in the best possible way any teenager could manage. I like that even the amount of self-assurance and acceptance of one character doesn’t guarantee everything being easy. I like that more than boy meeting boy, this was just really about love, relationships and how adolescent is an age where each individual tries to find who s/he is. It’s not pretty. It never is. But it’s a journey one needs to take. After all, adolescence is the stage where young people rediscover autonomy.

Myra continues with her thoughts:

Candy Hearts, Sunshine, Bluebells and Promises
If I were to think of a few things that come to mind after I have read the book, it would be these things and more – a great deal of light, a lot of love, and the world filled with happy beautiful people struggling with their own lost loves, failed romances; and most of all, full-bodied individuals rising above adolescent anxieties and insecurities, and societal ignorance, and small-mindedness. There is growth that comes with the knowledge of who one is – the age old question of who am I and what am I doing here?

Coming of Age in Boy Meets Boy: The Space between Knowledge and the Doing
I think what makes this book also falls within the coming of age as seen in contemporary love stories is that the book shows how one’s self-knowledge is also gradually (albeit begrudgingly) brought about by the mirrored reflection in another person’s eyes. It doesn’t always come right away as could be seen in this quote from the book:

“Sometimes the space between knowing what to do and actually doing it is a very short walk. Other times it is an impossible expanse. As I sit with my eyes closed, I try to gauge the distance between me and the words that I will have to say. It seems far. Very far.
I’m not ready yet. (p. 114)

There is also the eventual rising above one’s self to prove one’s affection – discarding self-consciousness, self-doubts, and the constant second-guessing of one’s intentions. There is simply the owning of one’s actions and the doing that comes with knowing what one wants.

The beauty of today’s contemporary YA literature is that a great majority of it strip down the fantasy as it deals with real contemporary issues. It’s quite in-your-face and raw. In the midst of what could be considered ‘fluff’, these novels are able to get to the heart of our teenage hearts and portray for us scenarios that we can lean into for comfort. More than anger and angst, these stories are more real, it presents the limitations of youth, as well as the courage of a young person’s heart while allowing us to believe that in time, we will get there. In time, we will find the right words, the right time, and readiness to face what is to come. There is no rush, but we are allowed to falter. That’s what great about being young, it’s an opportunity to fall while at the same time an opportunity to recover from the fall.

6 Comments on Contemporary YA and Coming of Age: Like a perfect cup of Mocha

  1. Great work, Iphigene! :) I love it.

    Like

  2. Great reviews, and an interesting genre. One of my favourite YA books is Jennifer Donnelly’s A Gathering Light – growing up in a historical context. Also Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy. This is mostly put in the fantasy slot, but at heart it’s about young people growing up and taking on quite weighty responsibilities.

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    • Hi Tish,
      I’ve never heard of A Gathering Light, I might check that out. Oh yes, Philip Pullman’s Trilogy does fall into this category. Writing a post such as this was tough. Recalling the books we’ve read before was quite a fewat. Majority of the books we’ve covered here were recent reads, but i think if we do strip down the YA books to the essential alot of it would fall into Coming of Age.

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  3. I’ve read and enjoyed the first three books you have here. I will be adding Boy Meets Boy and Eleanor and Park on my list. And Hany on my grocery list. Haha. It’s been awhile since I’ve had chocnut. Thank you Iphigene for that photo. Hee. And from the top of my head, I also loved these coming of age contemporary YAs: Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, True Believer by Virginia Euwer Wolff, Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta… and oh, Love and Leftovers by Sarah Tregay which I read because of the review Fats posted here. :D

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    • Hi Tin,
      Haha, the chocnut picture is courtesy of Fats. Oh my how could i forget Perks of Being a Wallflower?! That definitely falls into this category. I’ve never heard of True Believer and Saving Francesca, I’ll check those out too. When we had planned out this post we were trying to recall all the books we’ve read that fell into this category, i do realized we missed out on quite a few, so Love and Leftovers was not included. Sigh.

      For someone who generally likes reading the General/Literary Fiction, my YA collection is growing. I’m just glad that there are really good YA writers out there who can tell stories that touch the heart without being trite.

      Like

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