Last night I got a call from my 13-year-old son Sasha who needed to touch base, to hear my voice. He had just seen the film The Fault In Our Stars, based on John Green’s book, and—as both he and my wife told me—he had cried, no sobbed, so intensely, that he was quivering. Marina had gone with him to the movie—carefully judging how much to offer him a steadying hand, how much to stay distant not to embarrass him in front of the clusters of teens and preteens in the audience with them. In 2014, adolescent angst is something we experience together as a family, and it’s something worth taking a moment to consider.
Think back to 1997, when the same movie house would have been filled with another cohort of 13-year-olds, crying equally intensely as they viewed Titanic—for the first, second, or tenth time. To a London audience, James Cameron commented he pitched the idea for that film to 20th Century Fox as “Romeo and Juliet on the Titanic,” and that’s precisely what he delivered. As it rose to become the highest-grossing film of all time (until surpassed by Cameron’s Avatar in 2009) the media world suddenly rediscovered the young adult (YA) audience. Surely some adults added their ticket sales to that surge, but the conclusion everyone from Hollywood to the New York drew was that the teenager was back. Soon enough magazines added “teen” lines, and Barnes & Noble moved the young adult section away from giant displays of Norman Bridwell’s Clifford the Big Red Dog. The young adult consumer—buying books for him/herself—was all the rage.
At that same moment came a second trend: J. K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter”—a fantasy as compelling for children as it was for adults. Harry, of course, embodies the classic orphan tale; the adults have been removed so the protagonist with whom the young reader identifies is at the center of the action, but adults did not feel excluded as readers. Harry became the hero of the Hero’s Journey, as resonant for a parent making his/her way in the world as for a child navigating the school yard. As each “Harry Potter” title was published two sets of readers grew up with the protagonist, and the films were aimed to appeal to both of them.
So here we are in the summer of Fault. You might see its success as a sign of failure. According to a recent study, adults purchase 55 percent of all young adult titles and 78 percent of those adults are purchasing the books to read themselves. Indeed the largest group within those buyers is women aged 30-44–basically those now-grown 13-year-olds who loved Titanic. As you surely know, the adult readership of YA titles has distressed both adult-literature mavens who see YA fiction as a step down and the YA fans, who fear that the size and buying power of the “New Adult” audience of 18-25-year-olds will—or already has—distorted a literature that should belong to its young-in-age readership. We talk about the “boomerang” kids who never leave home, but perhaps we need to add the “boomerang adults” who never leave adolescence.
Sasha’s call, though, made me see all of this differently. Marina was not there with Sasha because she needed to cry, but to share an experience with him. He wanted that, she wanted that. He called me to tell me I needed to go to the movie—but not with him, he could not take it again. Now he needed to read the book, to fully absorb the experience. Fault belonged entirely to him, and yet that is precisely why he needed both of his parents to share it.
We talk about “family entertainment”—meaning entertainment rated “PG.” And there used to be a category of book called “family reference”—the atlas, dictionary, and encyclopedia on the shelf for all to use. I suspect that for our “Harry Potter” and Nemo generation there is now the “family YA”—the intense, perhaps tragic, work that speaks perfectly to a teenager and perfectly to a parent: from Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief to Shaun Tan’s The Arrival and Green’s Fault to the many nonfiction books where an adult leans over to me and says—“I learned so much, I wish we had books like this in adult.” Somehow, we appear to be going through these life stages together. We see that in the Mother-Daughter (and less frequently Father-Son) book groups. Maybe instead of conceding YA to New Adult we should create the category of New Family—books that are both truly YA and truly adult—the Generation Gap of the 1960s has become the dual-experience, double-layered world of Generation Share.
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