Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Teenage depictions in literature

And now, for something completely different:

As those who know me have surely noted, I read a lot. Close to a book a day during the summer and weekends, and still several a week during school despite my busy schedule and the gobs of homework my teachers love. I tend towards a majority of nonfiction - math and science, history, biographies, and the occasional subversive stuff; but I do read a lot of fiction. Much of that fiction is military fiction and thrillers, but once in a while I'll read conventional 'young adult' fiction if it looks interesting.

What often makes a fictional book, especially young adult stuff, stand out for me is having a believeable strong teenage protagonist, which is very rare, especially for female protagonists. Most teenagers are protrayed as significantly less intellectually developed than adults, with minds more like children, and usually incredibly vain, clueless, and anti-intellectual. While certainly I know teenagers like that, they are not necessarily the majority, and I hate reading a book with a wimpy, boring protagonist.

Books that have a strong teenage protagonist are relatively rare; I can only name 4 that I've read an enjoyed off the bat. Deadline, by Chris Crutcherson, which I talked about a while back, is perhaps the best. The 18-year-old narrator is highly intelligent and acts like an adult; in fact, he faces his death more eloquently and sanely than any of the adults do. I see much of myself in him, notably his intellectually rebelious attitude, his penchant for confronting the biases of techers, and his statement that he's always felt like an adult - he's never felt like he had the mind of a child.

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card is prolly the best book I have ever read. It's witty and engagaing, with elegant social commentary and uncannily accurate predictions about the future. The characters are not actually teenagers but a small crop of the most intelligent children between the ages of 6 and 12, but they talk and act exactly like teenagers, except that there's none of the teenage sexual tension. Many adults claim, as Card notes in the introduction, that kids supposedly don't talk and act like that, but I can ascertain that they really do, and in fact I love how accurate the interactions really are. It's part of a tiny number of book that I can actually imagine myself as the protagonist in.

Two others that I've read recently have also struck a chord. Ripple Effect by Paul Garrison (pen name of Justin Scott), a thriller set on the open Pacific Ocean, has a major subplot featuring the 15-year-old daughter of a major protagonist sail alone across half the Pacific to rescue her father. She's a well-written character - independent, extremely intelligent, and still humorous. And in The Misfits by James Howe, which I just started reading, the male protagonist and a female friend - both age 12 - are strong, intelligent characters who think like adults, not children.

I'm not quite sure why I so strongly prefer characters like this. Perhaps it's because I see in them an idealized version of myself - perfectly confident, always intelligent, and free from the pathological wimpiness and obsession with the boredom of everyday life that afflicts most teenage characters. Perhaps it's because I tend to pick friends like this; most likely it's both - I perfer characters that I can either personally identify with, or who I know I would get along well with.

It's certainly part of why I have recently started enjoying Castle on Monday nights. Castle's 15-year-old daughter, Alexis, is one of the best-written characters, with the same personality characteristics as the other characters. She adds the voice of the average teenager to the show, while still adding a voice of logic and sanity that you don't see from most teenagers on TV. Heck, she's usually the voice of the reason to the entertaining but bumbling Mal Castle.


1 comment:

@eloh said...

I think we are more entertained by things we can identify with.