Home and Heart

The Gap Between YA Fiction and Real Life

Photo courtesy of Pexels.

One of the good things about having a depressive cycle over the summer (and boy, did I not expect to ever say those words), is that one of the few productive things I did was read. I read some new books, I re-read a lot of my old favorites, and it helped.

But something started nagging at me. At first it was just this little nagging question, as I read the first few pages of one novel:

Who are these mystical, magical people who move all of your stuff into your new house?

Of course, this wasn’t a literal question. I am an adult now, and I understand that you can pay people money to pack up your house and move it into a new place. But young me? Teenage me? I spent a lot of time carrying ratty cardboard boxes and black trash bags full of laundry to different houses. Every 2–3 years or so, for one reason or another, we’d have to move. And there sure as salt weren’t any professional movers in the picture. If we wanted it, we packed it and we moved it.

And thinking about this lead me down another train of thought: the number of stories I’ve read, where the protagonist has grown up in the same house their entire life. From childhood and adolescence in the same walls, a house full of memory and lit with familiarity, the family home.

It’s almost a mythical construct, this family home. A safe space, where everybody returns to relax and recharge and be together and with each other, a family. I’m not saying that my family wasn’t wonderful, and didn’t have its own share of good memories and good times, but there’s something different about these fictional families — the openness, the security, the trust, the stability, the knowledge that whatever is affecting their life outside, they have a solid rock to return to.

That wasn’t my home. My home was the place where I spent weekends, holidays, and time where I wasn’t at school. It was often stressful, chaotic, messy, anxious, tense; all layered into the love that was there, somewhere, deep down. Sometimes peace could be found between 6–8 PM on weeknights, watching episodes of The Simpsons, King of the Hill, Malcolm in the Middle, and The Simpsons again on Fox, but there was none of that YA family magic.

Other things that struck me: family vacations! Okay, once a summer, my family would drive up, about three hours into the Palomar mountains and spend a long weekend camping at the La Jolla Indian reservation with extended families. So yes, we had vacations.

But imagine my shock, reading stories where people fly their families places. Summer in Cancun, visiting colleges across the country, going on cruises, visiting big cities, going to museums and shows, Broadway. Not only are these extraordinarily expensive, I don’t know that my parents would’ve gone on flights with us, even if we’d had the money.

And college! The entire experience of college. From PSATs, SATs, SAT Study Groups (all $$$), applying to first-choice schools, safety schools, schools that anybody can get into (only $100 a pop for each of those application fees; it’s kind of amazing to read about characters who apply to ten, twelve, seventeen!!! different colleges.)

And obviously, if this was one or two novels, it’d be one thing. But this is woven so deeply into the fabric of YA fiction — this idea of a prosperous, suburban, not-really-rich-but-certainly-wealthier-than-my-family-ever-was family unit, that, even if corrupted, represents the status quo. YA tends to default to this ordinary world, an ordinary world that was so magical and extraordinary compared to anything I experienced as a kid.

It’s only recently that I’ve begun to see novels that truly challenge that status quo. One of the things that really, really resonated with me when I read Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places, Kerry Kletter’s The First Time She Drowned, and Jeff Zentner’s The Serpent King were that they had main characters that came from families that weren’t even subversion of the status quo — the status quo was nowhere to be seen. Those families were much more familiar to my experience of what family is.

(And I’m going to leave that at that, lest the depressive part of my brain go into a detailed comparison of how I was pretty much a perfect blend of Finch, Dill, Travis, and Cassie — definitely not helpful now).

I know that change is sweeping YA. Diversity is important. Diversity of culture, of skin color, of wealth, of social status, of weight, of wealth. We have to break the stranglehold of this status quo. If not for the sake of truth, then for the sake of the readers, who are trying to see their varied selves in the pages.