Tuesday, July 2, 2013

New Adult or Young Adult? Katie McGarry's DARE YOU TO and Gayle Forman's JUST ONE DAY

Most definitions of the emerging category "New Adult" focus on the age of a book's characters. "Protagonists generally fall between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six" states the web site NA Alley, while the opening line of Wikipedia's entry on the category opines "New Adult (NA) fiction is a developing genre of fiction with protagonists in the 18-25 age bracket." By this rule, Gayle Forman's Just One Day, with its eighteen-year-old narrator Allyson telling the story of the year after her graduation from high school, should fall firmly within the bounds of NA. And Katie McGarry's Dare You To, with its seventeen-year-old protagonist Beth, still struggling with the restrictions of high school, should clearly be labeled "Young Adult." Why, then, after reading the two books back to back, do I feel so strongly that each belongs in precisely the other group? Might there be more to YA and NA than simply the age of their protagonists?

Books marketed as YA
Robert Small* argues that "adolescent fiction often employs a point of view which presents the adolescent's interpretation of the events of the story," a presentation that is often incomplete, reflecting the not-quite-mature development stage of the teenaged narrator (282). Building upon Small's argument, Mike Cadden** suggests that even while YA authors depend on "the reader's failure to see, understand, and subsequently regret the adult's ironic construction of an 'authentic' adolescent voice," a voice that doesn't see everything that's going on in the story, an ethical YA author will "help the reader recognize the limits of the young adult consciousness in the text.... the contestability of any immature consciousness in the narrative" (146, 147). Though Cadden argues that the most ethical YA texts are ones with "double-voiced discourse," narratives that "represent voices as equal and provide alternative interpretations that offer, in their aggregate, no single and final answer for the reader," I'd suggest that all YA texts offer a double voice: the (explicit but incomplete) voice of the adolescent narrator and the (implicit but complete) voice of the adult author. The growth that YA protagonists experience over the course of any YA narrative is the growth from a limited (adolescent) consciousness to a broader (adult) consciousness, from self-absorbed to self-knowledgeable.

In the bookstore: a new category
In contrast, at least in the New Adult texts that I've read, this gap between the limited consciousness of the adolescent protagonist/narrator and the more knowing consciousness of the adult hidden behind the text rarely exists. Perhaps this is because so many NA texts have been written by "new adults" themselves, writers in their early twenties, so the irony inherent in an adult author writing a purportedly "authentic" teenaged voice simply does not exist. Or perhaps it is because so many NA stories are romances, focused primarily on developing a relationship with one special person than on developing an individual. The protagonists in NA texts may change and grow over the course of their narratives, but there is little sense that another, more knowledgable consciousness lies embedded within the narrative, hints of which a skilled reader will see.

Just One Day's eighteen-year-old protagonist, Allyson, has lived a controlled, sheltered, protected life. But because this is the only life Allyson has known, she herself isn't quite aware of the limits that have been placed around her. At the opening of the book, Allyson is on a post-high-school graduation trip of Europe with a tour group. As Allyson describes it:

I know everyone else gives [tour guide] Ms. Foley crap for the eagle eye she keeps on us, but I appreciate how she is always doing a head count, even appreciate how she disapproves of the nightly jaunts to local bars, though most of us are of legal drinking age in Europe—not that anyone over here seems to cate about such things anyways.
     I don't go to the bars. I usually just go back to the hotel rooms Melanie and I share and watch TV. You can always find American movies, the same kinds of movies which, back at home, Melanie and I often watched together on weekends, in one of our rooms, with lots of popcorn. (5)

Allyson "appreciates" Ms. Foley's in loco parentis behavior, but readers are meant to see more than Allyson does: that Allyson's urge to stay in her hotel room, watching the "same kinds of movies" she can see back home is limiting, is keeping her from fully engaging with the new cultures to which her trip is supposedly introducing her. Significantly, Allyson's embryonic recognition of her self- and parental-imposed limitations begins with her encounter with a "guerilla" Shakespearean troop performing outdoors for no money; their drumming-up-business cry, "Set Shakespeare Free," calls not only for a rejection of a cash-for-performance exchange, but also for an embrace of life and art. It is just such an embrace that Allyson has rejected up until this point, a mistake the novel encourages her, and through her, its readers, to rectify.

The night before I read Just One Day, I had dinner with a group of forty-something women friends, most of whom were parents of girls. One friend brought up the idea of helicopter parents, and we talked about how many kids these days had few opportunities to develop self-sufficiency and independence because of parental over-involvement in their lives. One woman mentioned how people thought it was crazy that she allowed her ten-year-old daughters to ride their bikes to school alone; another about how her suburban family worried about her high-schooler, who took the subway with a friend into downton Boston every day to school. But we spoke about our pleasure in our children's competence, a competence they would not have been able to develop had we allowed our own fears as parents to enfold them within a protective cocoon. Just One Day makes the same argument, albeit in fictional form. And it's an argument that only an adult, one who had grown up experiencing one type of parenting and who now was witnessing a society trend toward a different kind of parenting, could make. Even though Allyson's story is narrated by Allyson, its theme and message are clearly coming from an adult point of view.

Dare You To also features a protagonist with over-controlling parents, although Ryan is the male rather than the female lead in this high-school romance. Ryan, like Allyson, does not at first recognize the limits that his family has placed on him. But readers might wonder why he is so blind, because the narrative constructs those parents as obviously wrong right from the start of the book. Ryan's father has banished his older son, Mark, after Mark came out of the closet, and "made it clear that we tell no one what happened with Mark." Though she argues with her husband, Mrs. Stone does not go against her husband's wishes. Ryan has not contacted his brother because he feels that Mark has abandoned him, but the reader, Ryan, and the author all know that the stone parents are wrong, wrong, wrong. The author and the protagonist are all on the same side, as it were; there is no gap between what Ryan knows and what the author knows is right.

It comes as no surprise, then, later in the book, when Ryan throws off the restraints his father has placed upon him. Choosing to go to college and study writing as well as play baseball, rather than pursuing a contract with a pro baseball team as his father insists he do, seems less like a growth of Ryan's character than a plot-motivated inevitability. Ryan's first rejection of his father's mandate comes because he must leave a baseball game early in order to save girlfriend Beth from an abusive stepfather, not because he chooses for his own sake. And at novel's end, Ryan doesn't come out and tell his father he's signed a letter of intent with a college, but allows his mother to tell his father for him.

In contrast, Allyson's decision to reject the summer job her mother has found for her and instead return to Paris after her freshman year of college is a surprise, both to her and to the reader. It comes entirely from her own anger, her own needs, her burgeoning recognition both of her mother's unhealthy over-involvement in her own life. And from her recognition in her own complicity in allowing it: "It's not like I didn't know she would do this. It's not like she hasn't done this my entire life. It's not like I haven't let her" (254).

Perhaps the differences I'm pointing out here have less to do with YA vs. NA, and more to do with the fact that Dare You To falls closer to melodrama on the realism/melodrama continuum, while Just One Day sits firmly at the realism end. But do readers recognize the melodrama in Dare You To? Does the author? Do YA texts push readers to look beyond melodrama, while NA texts remain unaware that a difference between melodrama and realism exists?

Illustration/Photo credits:
YA book stack: Just Another Pretty Farce blog
NA books in bookstore: Breathing Fiction blog
Parent/child caution sign: Huffington Post
Wrong Way sign: FreePhoto

* Robert Small, "The Literary Value of the Young Adult Novel." Journal of Youth Services in Libraries (Spring 1992): 277-85.
** Mike Cadden, "The Irony of Narration in the Young Adult Novel." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 25.3 (2000): 146-154.

Harlequin Teen, 2013.

Dutton, 2013.

Next time on RNFF:
The feminist appeal of the anti-hero


  1. Wow. Very thought-provoking and perceptive post. I've read both of these authors and I think you've gotten to the heart of what makes NA and YA different--at least at this moment in time. NA is still too new of a genre (if it can even be called a genre).

    1. Thanks, Jody. Glad you found the post of interest.

  2. I've always been aware of the marked divide between NA and YA, but I'd never thought if it like that. I second what Jody said- your post has been really thought-provoking and made me much more aware of the differences between the two labels.

    Great post!

  3. Thanks, Joie. Are there other things that you think of when you think of the differences between the two genres?