“All grown-ups were once children... but only few of them remember it.”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
A distant acquaintance reminded me recently: “Some minds work overtime to make sense of their world...” He was telling me, I think, that I have something of a childlike mind, something I've always been glad to see not only in myself but in others. It’s true that some minds do work overtime. And this is just what young-adult fiction helps us do: make sense of our world. Iʼd even argue that the more skeptical the mind, the more relevant young-adult literature becomes, for we need just such tools to learn to navigate the often bewildering world in which we live.
In ancient times, people practiced rites-of-passage more commonly than we do now; at least in the formal, recognizable sense. When the village elders split these young-adults-to-be into groups and readied them, this activity engaged the whole community. Parents participated as well as non-parents, particularly if the non-parents were extended family; and most everybody in a tribal community would have been extended family.
These rites had relevance to everyone, young and old alike.
For the adults, Iʼd hazard a guess that something psychologically complex occurred. To periodically prepare (and observe) a new generation facing the same rite they too experienced in youth would be an opportunity to revisit old emotions and compare them with present thoughts and emotions. Memories of the focused fear and excitement upon entering the mysterious rite would have become diffused with age, distilled into a more settled, perhaps jaded, understanding of what life in the village truly required, in relationship with the raw, majestic power of the natural world. I would assume that the inevitable evaluation, or re-evaluation, of the village mythology would result in reaffirming or else challenging faith in the community.*
There is no great leap of logic required to see young-adult literature as the modern descendant of these ancient rites. The painful and humiliating experience of those rites endured by our once youthful ancestors is now communicated to youth in literature, tasking them to imagine themselves as archetypal protagonists. When we were young, what were our brains doing as we consumed books like The Hobbit,The Wind in the Willows,Grimm's Fairy Tales, and The Outsiders? What do our brains do now as we revisit them?
Aren't we just as much Huckleberry Finn, each of us, as a Harry Potter, or a Nancy Drew as we ever were? And weren't these characters once known as Anansi, Odysseus, or Ishtar?
Every time we reread these stories we learn something altogether new. These stories recount our ancestral fear and ignorance; remind us of our thirst for discovery, identity, and power; and describe the responsibility we must take for what Voltaire called "our little garden".
If however we don't know the old stories or even the newest ones, like Percy Jackson & the Olympians, we have a responsibility to learn them. By actively participating in and encouraging young-adult literature, we are behaving like responsible gatekeepers for our community, encountering ourselves and others in relationships. We are choosing to reaffirm faith in the community or challenge it, based on whether we wish our children to share the experience we had or not.
In so doing, we are testing the cycle of identity, the cycle of the self, of who we have become, both as individuals and as a wider community. Do we break the cycle, as it exists, or do we recommit and affirm the values of the community? Are we truly behaving in a responsible way? Are we facing our fears, surmounting our obstacles, embracing life? Or has something gone wrong?
Hal Borland, a well-known American columnist also wrote the young-adult novel When the Legends Die about a native-American hero named Tom who rediscovers his roots. I love Hal Borland. His writing is spare and ethereal. He was perhaps best known for his nature column in the The New York Times, which he maintained until his death in 1978. The dominant theme of When the Legends Die is self-discovery in the midst of social decay. Tom Blackbull is a young Ute tribesman in early 20th century America. Told with with grim grace, Borland's tale follows Tom from early childhood in the wilderness, where he loses his parents George and Bessie, into adulthood as he struggles to come to terms with modern life, a life that does not offer him a welcoming place. Tom’s conflicted attitude toward his ethnic heritage reflects in both his self-esteem and the choices he'll make throughout. Should he accept the fractured, defeated identity that awaits him on the reservation? Or should he embrace the life his mother taught him in the wilderness?
Once more he slept, and dreamed, and he was alone, walking over the earth in the night. He came to a mountain and he said, “I have forgotten who I am.” There was no answer. He said, “I was the boy who went with Blue Elk and did what he said I must do.” Again there was no answer. “I went with Red Dillon and did what he said I must do.” Still there was no answer. “I killed as they taught me to kill!” he cried.And at last the mountain's voice asked, “Why?”
-Hal Borland, When the Legends Die
There is an elegiac tone to the work. This stems from the omnipresent feeling that the cultural identity that Tom must choose is ultimately futile. His is a culture in decline, rapidly decaying and taking it's few remaining people with it. Whoever he becomes cannot be passed. Who he is will end with him. In Tom’s world, when legends die so too finally dies all of his ancestors, their souls lost to oblivion. And through Tom's inimitable struggle, some alienated young-adults and a few of us old scrappers may also feel that oblivion rising over us. How did we handle the crisis? Will we be more or less successful next time? In a classic book like this one, you might 'find' yourself.
*For more on these rites and descriptions of different types practiced around the world in various ages, including our own, please read Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces or Sir James Frazier's classic The Golden Bough. These are two excellent and illuminating works in this regard.