Gone are the days of Edith Wharton and F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose social satire focused on the adult world and its many vices and pitfalls.
Today, society idolizes and analyzes a different set — teenagers.
Through authors like Suzanne Collins (Hunger Games) and Veronica Roth (Divergent), young people's journeys are increasingly told in tragic tales of overcoming a corrupt society, being a savior for humanity and shouldering the weight of the world in general. Much is true also of the Harry Potter children’s series and the classic science fiction novel “Ender’s Game.”
This weekend, "Catching Fire," the second book in the Hunger Games trilogy, gets a big-screen adaptation to further the story of Katniss Everdeen and her journey as the reluctant face of revolution in Panem, the fictional country in which the Hunger Games revolution takes place.
The growing popularity of the young adult genre speaks to the universal scope of characters who face challenges, and discover their potential for their world, as they find themselves. Observers of the trend say teens, young adults and adults alike identify with the desire to make a difference in the world.
Adults failing teenagers
"If a world is a dystopia, it means the adults have failed," said Leah Wilson, editor of "The Girl Who Was on Fire: Your Favorite Authors on Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games Trilogy." Therefore, "it’s up to kids — to the younger generation — to fix things."
The same is true in "Ender's Game," published by Orson Scott Card in 1985 and released as a movie earlier this month. The adults have turned to the children to win the war for them, said Wilson. Nonetheless, it is the adults that are still in charge.
"Part of being a teenager is becoming aware of your potential — of your capacity to make a difference and to exercise power, even while you have very little of it," Wilson said in an interview. "And dystopias are a good match with that kind of that tension — the realization both of your power and its limits."
Another observer of the phenomenon is Shannon Peterson, the president of Young Library Association Services and the youth services manager for her local library in Seattle. She notes that Katniss and her like-minded teen hero counterparts start their journey by turning away from their families. Teens experience the same.
Like the Girl on Fire – the character Katniss – young adults are confronted with taking a stand and choosing sides, said Scyatta Wallace, psychologist and teen expert. The journey contains anger, fear, confusion and moments of bravery.
"You're starting to think differently about life because it's not just what your parents told you, but you can see so much more about the world," said Wallace.
We're all teenagers now
It’s axiomatic that every adult has once been a teenager. Even if you aren't one presently, you remember the struggle. But the psychology of adolescence goes deeper than that.
"We like to pretend that we only have to decide who we are once, as teenagers,” said Wilson. “That’s not true; we go through that process over and over again. Our identity changes all the time. We are always having to rediscover our place in the world."
Another way of reflecting the decision-making process is found in Roth's Divergent trilogy. In it, the characters go through a Choosing Ceremony, where they select the faction with whom they will spend their lives. Some, like main character Tris Prior, opt out of their faction of birth – leaving behind their families and all those with whom they have grown up.
Wallace said audiences identify with these kinds of protagonists and their feelings of isolation. The appeal of stories is in the teen heroes finding themselves.
Katniss Everdeen, Harry Potter, Tris Prior and Ender Wiggin are all tasked with saving the universe they inhabit. Each has a special trait or circumstance that makes them the only hope: the lone solution to their world's problem.
"Those stories have to do with the character being able to find out who they really are and they go on a quest that leads them to figuring out who they really are," Wallace said. "They're kind of confused, they have a lot of things going on, they're starting to recognize who they are — just starting to try on different things about themselves."
And, as Wilson said, "Who doesn't want to feel like they can change the world — that their actions can make a difference?"
The reality of Panem
Still, there is an element of extremism within these young adult novels. Characters are constantly in danger of losing their lives, political leaders are ruthlessly violent, and there are frequently huge uprisings. These add interest to the story, paradoxically keeping the reality of danger at arm's length.
"You can talk seriously and powerfully about issues that we tend to shy away from in more realistic stories, " Wilson said.
Peterson said people identify with these books because they show peril and anxiety in a safe way. Rather than directly addressing the daily stress of being a part of today's world, they navigate through the world of fictional adventure.
"It's helping to sort the world and understand it," Peterson said.
However, the young adult trend toward dark and dire “realities” also reflects the real world, said Peterson.
"I think teens are really living with big-concept issues in the real world now," she said. "This is the generation that grew up with the recession, with [the 9/11 terrorist attacks], with government shutdowns. They're feeling this overarching culture anxiety that has been going on for the last decade in such a heightened sense."
Then there are modern elements of society that today's youths will have to consider as they become adults. Katniss' journey from poverty to the darling of the Capitol of Panem isn't unheard of in today.
"That feeling — of performance, of knowing you’re being watched — and the challenge of having to decide how to present yourself is something we’re all facing more these days, through social media," Wilson said. "But this generation’s teens are growing up having to learn how to do it, and having to grapple with what it means to be themselves, to be authentic, in that context."Comment on this story
Wallace said "Catching Fire" is a great springboard for discussing social issues like poverty, celebrity, feminism and, most importantly, a young person’s place in the world.
"Growing up and facing their fears and going down a new path — maybe they're leaving home or thinking about what their plans are in life," Wallace said. "Films that look at social issues resonate with them. There may be angst about it and a lot of anger and frustration. These movies give them an avenue to be able to express that and see how someone else would deal with it."