If you’re anything like me, your teen-lit-loving heart gave a leap when you heard about the movie Young Adult. The film’s main character is a YA author, it’s written by Diablo Cody (who reached household-name status with Juno), and it features an incredible poster styled after the cheesy series covers that we all recognize with a grimace of nostalgia. Take a gander at the trailer if you haven’t yet:
Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary, a 37-year-old divorcee who works as a ghostwriter for a languishing YA series. As she struggles to produce the final book, ignoring her publisher’s frustrated voicemails and eavesdropping on teens for dialogue, the audience gets a painfully clear view of a highly flawed protagonist. Her high-rise apartment is trashed; her dating life consists of one-night stands; she pulls out her own hair; and starting the day with Diet Coke and ending it in a drunken collapse is a regular occurrence. When Mavis hears that her high-school flame, Buddy, has just had a baby, she sets off to her old hometown to win him back–in spite of the fact that he is happily married.
Without giving away too much, it’s safe to say that the title refers only tangentially to the literary genre we love here at The Hub. As Maureen Johnson has pointed out, it does portray a non-romanticized view of the writer’s life (looming deadlines, panicked calls, staring down the blank computer screen) that’s probably closer to reality than movies often show us. And fans of Juno will recognize the wry, cutting tone of the script and the darkly hilarious one-liners. But “young adult” refers to the much larger theme of being an adult who hasn’t grown up. Mavis isn’t just immature in her physical habits: she sees the world in black and white, and fosters delusions that damage herself and those around her.
Readers of YA lit are especially familiar with this type of character, because she is ripe for redemption, salvation, or at least a small epiphany near the end. At the end of the book, she’ll have grown somehow, and she’ll be a better person. But Mavis’s road trip soundtrack–the same high school mixtape rewound and played over and over–turns out to be prophetic. Mavis arguably doesn’t have any epiphanies at all, and her journey back to her high school stomping grounds reveals that she hasn’t progressed beyond them whatsoever. Hat tip to Diablo Cody, then, for creating a soundly unlikable character (and to Charlize Theron, for playing her with a terrifying nonchalance) who is stuck in arrested development, yet remains interesting and, somehow, sympathetic. A story featuring a character that doesn’t grow is a rare one, but there are teen books out there that fit the description. For your consideration:
- The dad in Haters by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez
- Sutter Keely, the protagonist in The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp (2009 Best Books for Young Adults)
- Quinn’s father in The Secret Life of Prince Charming by Deb Caletti
- The girls of the Sisterhood in Sisterhood Everlasting by Ann Brashares
- Ed in I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak (2006 Printz Honor book)
- The dad in Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanen (2006 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults)
Many thanks to the yalsa-bk listserv for brainstorming many of these titles. Can you think of any other characters in YA lit who simply don’t grow up, or don’t grow at all? A related question, especially if you’ve seen the movie, is what teen books would you recommend that Mavis read? She is more in need of some bibliotherapy (or really any kind of therapy) than any character I’ve met onscreen in a long while. What titles might show her a life whose raw material is fodder for more than a ghostwritten, recycled, has-been YA series? Add your thoughts in the comments!
— Becky O’Neil, currently reading A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
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