It was inevitable given her parentage: my daughter, Rowan, is a reader. An avid reader. She spends the vast majority of her spare time either reading (and rereading again and again) books or reading fan fiction and Pinterest posts about those books. I often wonder if the words that come out of her are her own or if she's just quoting the internet.
She talks about the books she reads so much - relating plots, sharing characters - that her father and I are often at a loss to participate in the conversation. I don't think she minds. She seems to be more interested in sharing her passion of the moment than having us respond to it. I'm just thrilled she still wants to share them with us.
In order to stay remotely current on the status of her brain waves, and in conversational self-defense, I've started reading some of the books she's reading. In fact, of the 35 books Goodreads reminds me that I've read so far in 2014, 11 have been young adult fiction. There were several more in 2013. Some of the YA titles I've read include:
- the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth
- the Giver quartet by Lois Lowry
- The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
- I am the Messenger by Markus Zusak (admittedly, I read this one, but I haven't convinced Rowan to, yet)
- the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins
- the first two Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan
- the Seeds of America trilogy by Laurie Halse Anderson (another set I think Rowan would enjoy if she'd ever take my opinion on things)
- Untethered by Katie Hayoz
Some of these I loved (The Fault in Our Stars, Giver, Untethered), while most of the others I thoroughly enjoyed. I plan to find more Markus Zusak and John Green to read even if Rowan has no interest, and I'm anxiously awaiting the last of the Seeds of America to be released.
The worlds that Rowan has fully immersed herself in recently have focused on Percy Jackson and Divergent. Occasionally she dips into the fandom of Harry Potter - at least those are books I loved before she did. She'll probably remind me of others she loves, too, and of which I've egregiously forgotten. Perhaps forgiveness will follow.
Last Saturday, we rode bikes together from our house to the airport (about 20 minutes or so), and had a wonderful conversation about Divergent. Well, that's how it started, anyway. As we chatted about Tris, Tobias, and why we must be Divergent because we didn't fully fit into any one faction, the conversation evolved into one about why young adults love characters like Harry Potter, Katniss, and Tris, and the worlds they inhabit.
Rowan initially focused on the excitement of the stories and the surface appeal of the characters, but I proposed that the real appeal to teens was that each of these series had at their center teen characters who were taking on the world and making decisions independent of the adults in their lives. Indeed, the adults are primarily periphery, background characters.
I think that stories about teens acting independently and making their own decisions are bound to appeal to teen readers because that's what they all want, or at least think they do. I'm sure we all know that the prime directive for teens is to obtain freedom and independence. I know I thought I was ready to take on all the responsibilities of my life at 16. Rowan, not quite 13, regularly assures me that she can take care of herself. Books that portray teens not only taking care of themselves, but also their families, friends, and even societies, are bound to have high appeal to their target readership.
As I'm writing this post, I thought it would be good to refresh my memory on what I've read about brain development, especially new theories about adolescent brains. I recall reading that adolescents tend to take more chances and engage in riskier behavior because the portions of their brains that give them foresight and caution aren't fully developed yet. These tendencies are also vividly portrayed in much popular young adult fiction.
I found an interesting article on the National Institute of Mental Health website called "The Teen Brain: Still Under Construction." It basically posits that the brain initially develops the centers which control basic functions: movement and sensory information processing. However, 'The parts of the brain responsible for more "top-down" control, controlling impulses, and planning ahead—the hallmarks of adult behavior—are among the last to mature.' Researchers now think that brains are not fully developed until the early 20s. The article also says:
An understanding of how the brain of an adolescent is changing may help explain a puzzling contradiction of adolescence: young people at this age are close to a lifelong peak of physical health, strength, and mental capacity, and yet, for some, this can be a hazardous age. Mortality rates jump between early and late adolescence. Rates of death by injury between ages 15 to 19 are about six times that of the rate between ages 10 and 14. Crime rates are highest among young males and rates of alcohol abuse are high relative to other ages. Even though most adolescents come through this transitional age well, it’s important to understand the risk factors for behavior that can have serious consequences. Genes, childhood experience, and the environment in which a young person reaches adolescence all shape behavior. Adding to this complex picture, research is revealing how all these factors act in the context of a brain that is changing, with its own impact on behavior.
I've always been a proponent of parents taking an active role in their children's lives, and common advice now tells us that we need to monitor their access to popular media and the internet in order to ensure personal safety. I think that we'd all be wise to remember that our teens' brains are growing and developing at rapid rates, and we should stay abreast of what intrigues and fascinates them, too.
By no means am I suggesting that children's reading should be censored, but I think we owe it to ourselves and our kids to know and understand their interests. Perhaps, just perhaps, if I read the same books Rowan reads, I'll have some better insight into how her thinking is being patterned and how her brain development is being influenced. I might then have a greater ability to broaden her horizons not by limiting input, but by offering alternative ideas, too.
Besides, many of those "young adult" books are just darn good reading.