YA Literature: The Catcher in the Rye
“I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.” – J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye.
I’ve been struck lately by the debate that rages in the press about Young Adult Fiction and whether or not it is a detriment to youth, to literature, and to society in its entirety. The commentary has been thorough. But there’s an underlying theme that hasn’t been discussed thoroughly: the literary discourse between adults and young people.
I teach novel-writing classes to teenagers. I’m in a unique position to identify themes in books for young people written by young people themselves. What I find will not be surprising to any of us who consider ourselves avid readers.
Young people want to write about real human emotions. They are themselves in the throws of the most emotionally tumultuous periods of their lives and their writing reflects it. A full 80% of protagonists in my students’ work are orphans, isolated from their childhood homes, or stranded in an inhospitable terrain, searching for meaning. Crunching the numbers another way, nearly half of my students write about a protagonist who has a deformity, disability, or a secret and shameful power that she must guard from a harsh and judgmental world.
The writer in me finds these numbers fascinating. These kids are the audience for an exploding fiction market, and they’re writing the books they would want to read themselves. Regardless of which YA sub-genre they are exploring (sci-fi, fantasy, romance, family saga), they each want to see a kid, fraught with seemingly insurmountable challenges, clamber their way out of their fictional hell to a place that is even marginally better.
And here’s the kicker: almost none of my students write a separate hero character who saves their protagonist.
So what do these statistics mean to the mother and teacher in me? Kids write what they know. And if they know isolation, alienation, fear, and abandonment, then I see a teaching moment.
Lat month, when I read a snippet of a student’s novel that involved a young woman who was engaging in self-harm, I put down the paper, held open my arms, and hugged that girl. Her writing opened a door to a conversation about scary feelings, terrible choices, and the desperation that she herself was feeling in her life. I asked her during our conversation if she ever had these feelings herself, and she said she didn’t, but she knew plenty of people who did. And she herself had often thought about how to escape her own sadness and isolation.
So what’s the difference between my author, who didn’t cut herself, and her friends who did?
Reading. And writing.
She told me that books were a safe haven for her. She said that even in her darkest moments, she could find a character whose fictional life was worse off than hers, then follow that character as she struggled her way out of her problems and found a way to be better, to be stronger, to be braver because of her experiences.
And then she took her interest in books a step further and became a writer herself.
That young writer’s love affair with the written word might not save her life, but the dialogue it opened with responsible adults very well may.
Kids are looking for the instruction manual for their lives. That’s the overarching theme of adolescence and of literature written for young audiences. And while involved parents who have active, and sometimes difficult, conversations with their children might recoil at the thought, most kids do not share their deep, dark fears with anyone.
Technology doesn’t help their feelings of isolation. Too often, parents are plugged into one device or another instead of being plugged into their children. I want to say to parents who are actually considering censoring their kids that it’s not their job to keep the sadness of the world from ever reaching their children. In fact, sheltering them from the harsh realities of their friends, their neighbors, and even their own psyches will cripple them. Instead, I want parents to turn to their kids and actually talk to them.
When you see a kid reading a book that exhibits themes that make you uncomfortable, imagine a doorknob on the book jacket. Turn the handle and see what might be inside that kid’s mind. You’d be surprised at how many of a child’s insecurities can be tamed and even eliminated by turning an uncomfortable worry into a teaching moment.
My young author was worried about how to talk to her friends who were engaging in self-harm, or if she should bring it up at all. I told her that bad behavior is almost always covering up a fear. And if she could talk to her friends about what scares them, she’d be a wonderful confidant to them, and an even stronger person herself. I also told her that if her friends needed help, she should help them decide which adult in their lives to trust with their worries. And I told her how proud I was of her for using her own communication skills to shine some light in the dark places.
Holden Caulfield decides at the end of Catcher in the Rye that he can’t be the savior for all the little children who might point themselves in the direction of a cliff’s edge and run too hard and too fast toward a deadly fall. But by writing about those emotions, J.D. Salinger told millions of readers that they were not alone in their feelings of alienation, and that we are all capable of saving ourselves.