In “What Terrifies Teens in Today’s Young Adult Novels? The Economy,” published by NPR.org, Marcela Valdes posits that today’s YA Lit “fairly shiver with economic anxiety” in light of the current economic crisis. She cites two recent dystopian novels to support her theory (The Hunger Games and Divergent), while using a 133-year-old novel (Little Women) as an idealized version of how things used to be.
To this, I have one reply: wha-?
Really. I’m confused. It’s like the more than a hundred years between Louise May Alcott’s classic story – written before Young Adult was really even a genre – and contemporary dystopian literature never existed. Well, that’s not one hundred percent accurate. She does mention A Wrinkle in Time (published in 1962), but states that it’s mainly concerned with the threat of Communism, brainwashing, and conformity – without making the connection that Communism is as much about economy as it is about government.
Because she opened this door, however, let’s look at another YA novel that was published in the 1960s: S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders.
Ms. Valdes states that “in recent years, realistic YA depictions of poverty and economic disparity have also turned much darker,” but I think Ponyboy might take exception to that notion. The Outsiders is about teens in a class struggle that leads to a murder; I don’t think we can get much darker or more realistic than that. Oh, and it was written by a teenager, unlike most of today’s YA Lit, including the dystopian novels mentioned in this article.
The pop culture references in The Outsiders are dated. The slang is almost a different language to the kids, and the fashion that Ponyboy and his gangs are so into seems comical to contemporary kids, but none of this matters. The students love the greasers and the socs. They eagerly devour this book, just as avid readers do contemporary fiction.
Why? Well, I have a couple of theories. Mainly, the characters in The Outsiders are independent. Parents play very little role, and they’re not painted in a favourable light when they are mentioned. As such, it’s very much a novel about teenagers trying to get along with themselves and figure out how to deal with others – much like the contemporary dystopian novels that Ms. Valdes mentions. It’s also a fairly violent novel, again, like The Hunger Games and Divergent. But it also does something that Ms. Valdes thinks is missing from YA Lit post-1880: it tells readers to be thankful.
In Little Women, Mrs. March tells her daughters when they “feel discontented, think over your blessings, and be grateful,” and The Outsiders does the same thing, though implicitly. The underlying theme of S.E. Hinton’s novel is that friendship is the most important asset one can have, and that money doesn’t solve problems. If anything has changed in literature over the last century, perhaps it’s an increased confidence in the reader’s critical thinking.
While Alcott once had to speak through Mrs. March in order to lay out exactly what she wanted her reader to take away, Hinton conveys the same idea implicitly through her themes. Modern YA novels have become even more implicit, taking the reader out of their familiar space and still expecting them to understand how the struggles relate to their own lives.
Are some of those struggles financial? Of course. Whether a teen is from a wealthy household or a poor one, money is a fact of life in our capitalist economy, making it a natural theme to explore in literature. Couple the necessity of money with the fact that many teenagers don’t have control over their own finances, of course it’s going to create some tension. However, I don’t think that the current economic climate in the United States has directly influenced fiction, nor has is motivated teenaged readers to depress themselves with tales of economic woe.
Little Women, A Wrinkle in Time, The Outsiders, The Hunger Games, and Divergent all feature economic struggles. I don’t dispute that. However, they have more in common than just money. They feature the struggle between having and wanting, between the perceived right and the perceived wrong, and the issue of growing up and making one’s own way in a confusing world. It’s these universal, generation spanning themes that make these books engaging to readers – not dollars and cents.