Friday, February 21, 2014

Useless Adult Syndrome

I recently read an excellent post on a blog that I've enjoyed reading for years.  It got me thinking about a problem I've often complained about that I refer to as "Useless Adult Syndrome."  Elizabeth Burns makes an excellent point about teen books being for teens and not adults wanting to see themselves appear as saviors in a YA story.  I agree that if you're reading Harry Potter or the Hunger Games and wondering why a bunch of children and teens are waging war instead of leaving it to adults, then you are missing the point.  I'm not talking about Harry Potter and the Hunger Games when I complain of Useless Adult Syndrome though.  Both stories have examples of adults that are useless: the Dursleys and Katniss's mother are not exactly parental role models.  But, and this is the key, they are not just useless adults.  They are characters with a bit of depth to them and have reasons for acting the way they do.  Additionally, not all the adults are useless.  Both series have adults that help the young protagonists out while allowing them to take center stage.  It is possible to write stories for kids and teens that are engaging, empowering to youth, and still have well-rounded adult characters.

I don't necessarily mind books where adults are mostly absent.  I joke about the orphan trope, but I can understand why an author would want to get adults out of the way so the children can have their own adventures.  What really annoys me is when there are adult characters and they are universally and unrealistically incompetent, cruel, or just generally useless.

My main problem with this isn't that it sets a bad example or that I'm unsuccessfully looking for a mirror (It's been less than a decade since I was a teenager and I'm still more likely to identify with the teens than the parents.)  My main problem with Useless Adult Syndrome is just that it's sloppy writing.  I complain about two dimensional characters whether they are leads or supports, children or adults, protagonists or villains.  I don't expect every character to be introduced with an exposition-heavy personal history to contextualize their actions.  I do expect every character to make decisions that make sense for that character. If I can't discern a reason a character is acting a certain way other than that it moves the plot along or is convenient for the author, then that is plain bad writing.

The reason I have a name for when this happens to adult characters specifically is because it happens to adults so often.  This is a problem.  Whenever any group of people is routinely portrayed as two dimensional and written off in a certain genre or type of media, it is a problem.  Yes, teens often don't understand adults.  That doesn't give authors of teen fiction free license to ignore them.  If anything it gives them more reason to provide well-rounded adults. Part of the power of fiction is that it allows us to understand each other better.

I admit that part of what annoys me so much about Useless Adult Syndrome is that I want the books that my students read to show them that even if some adults are absent and incompetent, there are also adults who can help them--especially if this is not what they feel to be their reality.  That is why I love books like Bluefish where even though the main characters have parents that are mostly not dependable there are other adults that are helpful.  Bluefish also does an excellent job portraying all of its characters as three dimensional.

I can see why the portrayal of adult characters wouldn't be a concern for a teen reader, but it is a concern for me.  Teen appeal is a very important part of what books I acquire for my library, but it is far from the only consideration.  Several of these factors are not things an average teenager would consider, such as the representation of people of color, whether or not a book ties into the curriculum, and what other similar books we have in the collection.  Yet I feel completely justified in using these criteria. I appreciate reviews that mention these factors as part of a larger review including whether or not a book is appealing to teens because they help me decide what to order.

I'm not saying all books without well-rounded adult characters are awful.  I've enjoyed many books without notable adult characters.  I've even enjoyed and recommended some books that are afflicted with Usesless Adult Syndrome.  Individual titles are not the problem.  The trend across the juvenile and YA genres is.

I'm thankful to Elizabeth Burns for starting a discussion about this topic.  This post was inspired by hers, but is not an argument against it. I think we may agree on several points and I have nothing but respect for her. Still, as one of those adults who reads teens fiction and complains about the adult characters, I felt the need to speak up.

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