A guest post by Tracy Korn
There are few things that can make me hurl a book across the room more quickly than the insta-love trope in young adult fiction. I insta-hate it like no other because all too often it’s portrayed as mature love where characters then go on to have expectations of themselves and each other like they’ve been in a committed relationship for years and years. In many stories, insta-love comes with insta-security, insta-trust, and insta-I-would-die-for-you, but why? How do you know this is love, young protagonists? Especially if, as you proclaim with hooded eyes and heaving breath, that you’ve never felt this way before? I mean, isn’t that illogical in every other scenario? How much street cred would we give someone if they said, “I’ve never had a baby before, but I know this is what labor feels like”? At the very least, we’d serve up a healthy dose of side-eye for said individual, but we don’t seem to flinch when a character with little to no life experience decides that they’re in love.
The second we ask the question, “How do you know?” we arrive at the point in our show where young readers encounter an equation they just can’t solve when the given variables are stomach butterflies, endorphins, and the adrenaline rush of impermanence. Granted, the definition of love is arguably different for everyone, but one thing remains the same in quality YA fiction—the presence of breadcrumbs: The characters ask the hard questions and do the heavy lifting in self-development instead of just showing up on the scene brave or strong or in love after a few encounters with the meet-cute. Without this, we run the risk of missing an opportunity to teach young readers how to ask these critical questions of themselves in their own life arcs.
If we incorporate breadcrumbs in the form of out in the open questions about love, death, or other complicated feelings, young adult fiction can be a roadmap through adolescence (at least certain aspects of it). It can be a metaphysical GPS reaching through the page straight into the psyche to tell the reader it’s all right not to know. It’s all right to question, to try and to fail, to struggle, to be wrong, to take a chance, because nobody moves down the road by standing still. Equally, nobody arrives at the finish line in a single bound. It’s important to show the protagonists’ decision-making and problem-solving processes, which is why I wrote The Elements series—to expressly address how young people might ask questions to understand the feelings associated with falling in love, with processing grief, and with navigating the waters of personal identity through both of these complicated experiences. There is great power in stories crafted for young people, and with great power comes great responsibility.
This is not to say there is only one way to show readers how to work through issues or make decisions, rather, it’s a plea for more young adult fiction to at least make an attempt to show the work of how characters do just that. Let’s see more of that life skills arithmetic because even though the worlds authors create are fictional, the developmental lessons can be very real.
We need more guides, more examples, more test drives behind the wheel of fictional lives. Keep them coming, all you Orson Scott Cards, Angie Thomases, and John Greens. Show us the ugly, the scared, and the blind leaps of faith that sometimes wind up knocking the wind out of your characters. Most importantly, keep showing them pick themselves up and dust themselves off as they learn and grow and survive the whirlwind that is coming of age. Keep unpacking their mistakes, their internal untanglings, and their courage to fight through the process so those who come after on this side of the page can vicariously find their way too because long after readers forget the plot or even the characters names, what will remain embedded in their minds and hearts forever are those life skills. That’s how what we do as authors lives on forever…that’s the magic and the power of story.
About the Author
Tracy Korn is a USA Today-bestselling sci-fi / fantasy author and all around science geek who may or may not have a “Lip Smackers” chapstick addiction. When she’s not inventing dystopian worlds (and subsequently saving them or wrecking them more), she reads about other people doing it, practices her newbie cinematographer skills, and dreams of someday meeting James Cameron. Learn more about Tracy at her website.