“Coming-of-age” stories are ageless
Elizabeth Prater | Wednesday, April 7, 2021
I live about 10 miles north of Klickitat Street, the place where the eponymous Ramona Quimby lives in “Beezus and Ramona.” Beverly Cleary, American author of both children’s and young adult fiction, passed away March 25, 2021. While I felt particularly attached to Ramona because of the proximity of my world to her fictitious one, I was not limited to Cleary’s work when it came to literature aimed towards younger audiences.
Growing up, I consumed every coming-of-age book I could lay my hands on. I looked to figures like Jo March, who resembled my bibliophilic tendencies and my drive to weave tales of my own. Holden Caulfield became the paradigm of teenage angst and rebellion, and I related to his constant questioning of the ways of the world.
However, once I finally got to the age of these characters, I seemed to stop reading about them. Instead, I felt an unusual sense of pressure to read books that were deemed to be more sophisticated, and that talked about things more important than the seemingly trite dilemmas of teenagers.
I thought I had graduated from reading young adult books directed towards these common coming-of-age tropes. I would scoff walking past the plethora of John Green tweens crowded around at the bookstore. Instead, I browsed Dostoevsky, as if my reading material reflected my intellectual capabilities.
I soon realized that my to-be-read list was lackluster. I filled it to the brim with literary fiction novels that I thought I was supposed to have read if I wanted to be a PLS student. In abandoning the coming-of-age stories with which I grew up, I soon began to lose the passion I had for exploring worlds different from my own.
I think the lack of adults’ reading material aimed at younger audiences comes from the fear of judgement. Reading Oscar Wilde in the park certainly has more of an intellectual aesthetic than grabbing a copy of a Roald Dahl book. In addition, there is this notion that we are beyond certain books, as though we can’t relate to those younger than ourselves. However, we shouldn’t justify our love for coming-of-age stories for the sake of merely nostalgia. Instead, we must admit the merits of these tales and understand why we keep telling them.
Ultimately, coming-of-age stories remind us what it means to be human. They reminisce of awkward firsts, our difficulties in grasping the expectations the world has set in place. These stories humble our ambitions in reminding us where we come from.
Stephen Chbosky shows us that people can blossom if we give them care and attention. Laurie Halse Anderson provides support for countless young girls that suffer from eating disorders and/or assault. Judy Blume explores the difficulties of grappling with friendships and different kinds of relationships. While these books may fade from many bookshelves once their owners grow older, these lessons and guides still stand with increasing instrumental value.
The reality is that we don’t stop growing once we hit 18, 21, 25 or any other obscure number that society has set in place. As humans, we are constantly changing and fluctuating, our beliefs being challenged as we continue to learn. These books continue to aid our journeys, and while we may grow older than the characters, we often share the same confusion when it comes to trying to understand our place in relation to the world.
While I may no longer experience the anxiety of finding a place in the cafeteria at school, I am able to connect to a time in my life when I have felt out of place, like I didn’t belong. The circumstantial dilemmas within children’s and young adult literature may not seem relatable at face value but, inherently, they expose common vulnerabilities among many people across different age groups.
From a childlike perspective, topics of betrayal, hardship, love and kindness are even more candid in these books, and they reveal the common thread of human nature that connects us all.
Powell’s City of Books is my local bookstore in Portland, Oregon that I continually find reasons to visit. Genres are divided into rooms that are categorized by colors. I typically spend most of my time in the blue room, where my hours are consumed with classic literature and poetry.
This week, I read the statement that Powell’s released in recognition of Beverly Cleary following her death. A staff member at Powell’s wrote about her experience being a bookseller and being a fan of Cleary’s works.
“Customers, remembering discovering her books as children themselves, would marvel that she was still alive. Perhaps this is because we all grew up reading her stories,” Sarah stated. “She felt immortal because her books feel immortal.”
To get to the blue room, I must pass through the rose room, where the children’s and young adult literature is housed. While I typically rush past, ignoring the colorful decor and the families that sit upon the rugs and devour such words, perhaps next time I will pause and spend some time in that section myself. After all, it feels like we are always rushing from one place to the next. Maybe it’s time that we slow down and reflect on the path that has brought each of us to the present and, more importantly, remember the lessons that we have learned along the way.
Elizabeth Prater is a first-year student with double majors in marketing and Program of Liberal Studies. In her free time, she manages her Goldendoodle’s Instagram account (@genevieve_the_cute_dog) which has over 23K followers. She can be reached at [email protected] or @elizabethlianap on Twitter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.