While we might not all actively notice it in our day-to-day lives, the people around us play a large role in shaping who we are and the things we do. Everyone from our parents to our friends have a hand in influencing our self-identity.
Characters in Young Adult Literature generally follows this norm as well, and we can see the impact of their relationships throughout their stories. We can recognize the different ways a character’s relationship with their grandparent impacts them compared to that of their romantic partner, or a best friend compared to a sibling. While they’re each unique, each relationship impacts that character’s development throughout their story in a variety of ways. YA Literature is especially well chosen for this analysis of character development because in most cases, the main character is going through a time of self-discovery and learning who they want to become, similar to the intended audience. EBSCO, an industry leader in library and information services, mentions in one of their blog posts how YA literature uniquely addresses its intended audience.
“Moreover, YA writers have created some truly powerful reads. While many would argue that YA literature doesn’t compare to the literary merits of Henry James and his ilk, critics have lauded YA books for their ability to address the life needs of . . . their intended audience ― that is, adolescents between the ages of 12-18 (Benefits).”
This is especially important because YA literature provides its readership with examples of characters, relationships, and real world issues that teens may face and the impact of all of them. Whether the setting of the YA novel is as fictional as Hogwarts in Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone or as real world as the settings we see in Quintero’s Gabi, a Girl in Pieces, or Saenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, these books are helping young adults navigate their adolescence and relationships.
Through the use of different mediums, from a story told in third person to a diary told in first person, each of the three above mentioned narratives demonstrates the impact of close relationships on character development of both the fictional characters and the readers themselves. YA Literature creates something truly unique in how it presents stories written for an audience who are going through a very turbulent life period with many changes and gives them a life raft of relatability. The previously mentioned EBSCO blog post really touches on this aspect of relatability.
“More and more teachers around the world are using YA literature in their classrooms to teach the skills that students need to be successful. While the Western canon is full of fantastic reads, YA literature tends to offer students something that the classics cannot: a story to which they can relate (Benefits).”
It’s one thing to be forced as an adolescent student to read a book about people that you can’t understand due to such a huge time period and language dialect difference let alone decipher what they’re actually dealing with and being able to relate to that experience. It’s a totally different encounter to read a book told by someone who is like looking into a mirror, with the same issues you face and someone whom you can relate to and maybe even learn from. It changes the entire interaction with the story and the things you take away from it. This is especially true when going through a time period of massive change like adolescence, where everything feels like it’s shifting under your feet and you feel like all your imagined control is nowhere in sight.
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, we’re introduced to Harry Potter’s last living relatives, the Dursleys, which includes his Aunt Petunia, Uncle Vernon, and cousin Dudley. The Dursleys treat Harry like he is their live-in servant, with his “bedroom” being the closet under the stairs and forcing Harry to do household chores at their whim. The lack of respect towards Harry is evident even to Harry himself. An example of this disrespect is when, on Dudley’s birthday the Dursleys discuss finding an alternate babysitter. “’We could phone Marge,’ Uncle Vernon suggested. ‘Don’t be silly, Vernon, she hates the boy.’ The Dursleys often spoke about Harry like this, as though he wasn’t there — or rather, as though he was something very nasty that couldn’t understand them, like a slug (Rowling, 22).” Rather than simply ignoring Harry or treating him with indifference, the Dursley’s go out of their way to make him feel like less than a human being and that he doesn’t deserve even a small respectful or even neutral acknowledgement. While Harry’s Aunt and Uncle continue to treat Harry so horribly, their son Dudley provides contrast to Harry, being an extremely spoiled brat of a child, almost running the household with his petulance. “Dudley began to cry loudly. In fact, he wasn’t really crying – it had been years since he’d really cried – but he knew that if he screwed up his face and wailed, his mother would give him anything he wanted (Rowling, 23).” Because of this upbringing with such a negative family and home life, Harry very much doesn’t take anything for granted and appreciates small gestures of kindness and returns those gestures when able. An example of this is when Harry meets Hagrid for the first time and is handed a cake from Hagrid.
“From an inside pocket of his black overcoat he pulled a slightly squashed box. Harry opened it with trembling fingers. Inside was a large, sticky chocolate cake with Happy Birthday Harry written on it in green icing. Harry looked up at the giant. He meant to say thank you, but the works got lost on the way to his mouth, and what he said instead was, ‘Who are you?’ (Rowling, 47-48)”
Hagrid acknowledges Harry and the fact that it’s his birthday by gifting him a cake. In this one simple interaction, a stranger to Harry has been nicer and treated him with more respect than his “family” has in his 11 years.
As Harry and Hagrid get to know one another, Hagrid acts as a parental figure towards Harry throughout his time at Hogwarts, introducing Harry to the wizarding world in Diagon Alley, celebrating Harry’s triumphs, and helping Harry learn valuable lessons when necessary. When the two are traversing through Diagon Alley and split up so Hagrid could take a break he comes back bearing a sweet snack for himself and Harry, “Hagrid was standing there, grinning at Harry and pointing at two large ice creams to show he couldn’t come in (Rowling 78).” Hagrid is trying to give Harry the best experience he can when introducing him to a completely new world and help him prepare for Hogwarts by brightening his day with a simple, but kind, act. Another example of Hagrid taking on a parental role in Harry’s life is not only continuing to celebrate Harry’s birthday by getting him a present, but also getting him a gift that has a purpose and fulfils that purpose well.
“ ‘Just ye wand left – oh yeah an’ I still haven’t got yeh a birthday present.’ Harry felt himself go red. ‘You don’t have to –’ ‘I know I don’t have to. Tell yeh what, I’ll get yer animal. Not a toad, toads went outta fashion years ago, yeh’d be laughed at – an’ I don’t like cats, they make me sneeze. I’ll get yer an owl. All the kids want owls, they’re dead useful, carry yer mail an’ everythin’ ’ . . . Harry now carried a large cage that held a beautiful snowy owl, fast asleep with her head under her wing. He couldn’t stop stammering his thanks, sounding like Professor Quirrell. ‘Don’t mention it,’ said Hagrid gruffly. ‘Don’t expect you’ve had a lotta presents from them Dursleys . . . (Rowling 81).”
This gift of an animal, that can help Harry in multiple ways, is thoughtful and deliberate. Hagrid knows that while he might not always be able to be there for Harry, he can get him a companion that will help him transition between the muggle world and the wizarding world. Hagrid’s gift of an owl is also a smart gift in how Hedwig is able to help Harry communicate to people no matter where he or they are.
An example of Hagrid taking on a more disciplinary role is when, after helping Ron’s brother Charlie get Hagrid’s dragon out of the castle safely, Harry and Hermione get caught wandering the castle after curfew and are assigned to do detention with Hagrid. He doesn’t go easy on them. “ ‘Yeh’ve done wrong an’ now yeh’ve got to pay fer it’ (Rowling 250).” This is especially important, because while Harry and Hermione might have been trying to do what was right, they still broke school rules to do it. Hagrid want’s them to learn from this mistake and understand the importance of the school rule which he knows are there and enforced to keep them safe. We can see Harry developing his sense of self, how he wants to be treated by others, and how he knows he should act from each of these examples.
In Gabi, a Girl in Pieces, we get a very different perspective, a girl’s personal diary entries written only for her eyes. Because of this we see Gabi able to express her truest feelings without fear of judgement from others. Gabi writes many of her diary entries about frustrations she has with her family. This includes her mother’s ideas about how Gabi should behave regarding eating, dating, school, and friends; her father and the impact his meth addiction has on her; the responsibility Gabi feels towards helping raise her brother to be a good man; and the strained relationship Gabi has with her aunt. Gabi’s mother has, in my opinion, the biggest impact on Gabi. I say this because we read Gabi’s internal monologue and it’s filled with self-derisive speech surrounding her weight, expectations she doesn’t feel she meets, and writing that combats those two things and starts a new dialogue revolving around self-acceptance and growth. These are things that Gabi received from her mother’s small but often comments regarding Gabi and what she does wrong in her eyes. “‘Ay mijo! Obviously, there’s a boy who likes your sister and cares about what she likes. Now imagine if she lost a little weight and took more care of herself, how many more boys would like her?’ (Quintero, 126)” Gabi’s mother thinks that Gabi can always do something more or better in her eyes. This really impacts Gabi and her self-identity. It causes Gabi to constantly question why her mother believes these things about her and from the very beginning Gabi doesn’t agree with many of the expectations set by her family; in this case how she and other women should be valued.
“Every time I go out with a guy, my mom says, ‘Ojos abiertos, piernas cerradas.’ Eyes open, legs closed. That’s as far as the birds and the bees talk has gone. And I don’t mind it. I don’t necessarily agree with that whole wait-until-you’re-married crap though. I mean, this is America and the twenty-first century, not Mexico one hundred years ago. But, of course, I can’t tell my mom that because she’ll think I’m bad. Or worse: trying to be White (Quintero, 7).”
This mentality of a women only having worth while she stays a virgin, in Gabi’s mind and many others, is outdated. We can see how this belief held by her mother, impacts her self image throughout the story and how her mother doesn’t even stand up to this ideal she holds Gabi to since she had Gabi at 25 out of wedlock. Additionally, because of this attitude, Gabi really doesn’t feel comfortable even talking with her mom about sex and romantic relationships she enters into throughout the story, there’s a major disconnect between them, and this impacts how Gabi approaches what her mother would consider taboo subjects.
Aristotle has a similar situation with his father, who won’t open up to Aristotle and talk to him about himself and his past experiences in the war that left him so devastated. When Dante gives Aristotle’s father an art book, Ari can’t understand why he loves it so much. “My father took the book and sat down with it. As if it was some kind of treasure. See, I didn’t get my dad. I could never guess how he would react to things. Not ever (Saenz, 33).” We can see here Ari’s real confusion regarding his father and how there is still so much Ari doesn’t know about him. This teaches Ari the bad coping habit of trying to contain everything that you’re experiencing rather than talk about it and deal with it. We learn more about Aristotle’s relationship with his father a few pages after the art book enters the story.
“I’d never thought of my father as the kind of man who understood art. I guess I saw him as an ex-Marine who became a mailman after he came home from Vietnam. An ex-Marine mailman who didn’t like to talk much. . .I could have asked my father lots of questions. I could have. But there was something in his face and eyes and in his crooked smile that prevented me from asking. I guess I didn’t believe he wanted me to know who he was. So I just collected clues. Watching my father read that book was another clue in my collection. Some day all the clues would come together. And I would solve the mystery of my father (Saenz, 36-37).”
Aristotle doesn’t feel comfortable talking with his dad because he doesn’t think his dad wants to be understood by him, which isn’t the case, but this view of their relationship influences Ari in how he communicates with the world and others around him. Ari is a pretty quiet character most of the time, only speaking when the situation really calls for it, and in this we can see how he follows his father’s example. Comparatively Dante’s family is open, boisterous, and in some instances almost too close to one another.
“One night, when there was no moon in the night sky, Dante’s mom and dad took us out into the desert so we could use his new telescope. On the drive out, Dante and his dad sang along to the Beatles—not that either of them had good singing voices. Not that they cared. They touched a lot. A family of touchers and kissers. Every time Dante entered the house, he kissed his mom and dad on the cheek—or they kissed him—as if all that kissing was perfectly normal. I wondered what my father would do if I ever went up to him and kissed him on the cheek. Not that he would yell at me. But—I don’t know (Saenz, 41).”
Dante’s family is more open both physically and emotionally, sharing an experience of going out stargazing together and singing on the way to the desert. They show their love of each other through physical touch and time spent together whereas Aristotle’s family is more closed off to each other due to traumas that Ari’s parents haven’t fully dealt with yet. Dante reflects parts of his parents in this sense as well, being much more open to talking about difficult subjects and being more accepting of himself as he forms into who he wants to be as a person.
Throughout all three of these stories we see how the characters and their relationships with their family can have such a large impact on them and how they develop throughout their stories. The more important aspect of YA Fiction is how it can have an impact on the readers themselves. Mina Shah mentions a few really good points on why YA Fiction is so important.
“…the act of reading books trains our minds to work through real-world problems in the same sort of way that adult literature does, but YA makes it easier to digest. This is especially true if the structure and thematic schema of a book are particularly complex, which can often be the case with YA novels. Increasingly, they grapple with darker, more adult themes and leverage a variety of structural strategies (Shah).”
The more information a reader has been exposed to having to deal with a specific situation, the better they could be at dealing with that situation themselves. At the very least, it helps young adults feel like they’re not alone in the things they’re experiencing in their lives and that it’s ok to not know how to deal with adulting as a young adult. Shah makes another good point about the relatability of these novels and how that plays into their importance.
“Young adult literature can feel really relevant to things that we’re dealing with in our own lives, even if the characters are sometimes slightly younger than we are. It deals with a lot of firsts (first loves, first experiences with illicit substances, first instances of having to take real responsibility for actions), that most of us can…relate well [to] (Shah).”
Much of a story’s power lies in who can relate to it, whose mind it changes, or who it causes to take action towards something. I believe that YA Fiction can do all of these things for an audience that is usually going through a very turbulent time in their lives and trying to learn how to navigate situations in a way that they want to, rather than one that they have to. Gabi does this through writing in her diary, Aristotle does it by reflecting internally and observing, and Harry does it by talking with his friends and reflecting as well. Everyone copes with life differently, but the people you surround yourself with have an impact on how you perceive the world around you and how you deal with things that turn life on its side.
What YA Literature helped you as a young adult come to terms with life and growing up? What authors had the most impact on your young self and how did they impact you as a person? Do you still read YA Literature in your free time? If so, does it help you learn how to deal with more adult situations and experiences? What are your thoughts?
Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. London, Penguin Classics, 1998.
Quintero, Isabel. Gabi, a Girl in Pieces. Cinco Puntos Press, 2014.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Scholastic Inc., 1997.
Saenz, Benjamin Alire. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Simon & Schuster, 2012.
Shah, Mina. “The case for young adult literature.” The Stanford Daily, The Stanford Daily Publishing Corporation, https://www.stanforddaily.com/2015/04/21/the-case-for-young-adult-literature/. 30 June 2019.
“The Benefits of Using Young Adult (YA) Literature in Classrooms.” EBSCOpost, 10 Sept. 2015, https://www.ebsco.com/blog/article/the-benefits-of-using-young-adult-ya-literature-in-classrooms.
“You Are The Average Of The Five People You Spend The Most Time With.” YouTube, uploaded by The Art of Improvement, 26 Aug. 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KdDIPLGKNCI.