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.
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