Becoming New: Young Adult SFF and the Adolescent Body
By Karen Healey
23 November 2009
Hey, remember the process of becoming a young adult, when everything changed?
I do. I grew up, all over, into a new body and new beliefs. I was hungry, all the time, at the same time everything around me was cautioning me to watch my weight, because boys don't like fat girls, and suddenly boys liking me was a frightening but extremely important goal. I spent hours trying to be pretty, and more hours sobbing, convinced I never would be, and more hours vehemently rejecting the creed of pretty all together, while a sick little voice kept whispering but maybe they're right.
I picked fights with my parents for no reason, and knew I was being irrational even as I screamed. But they didn't understand! They didn't care about me! NO ONE CARED OR UNDERSTOOD! My emotions, in fact, were on permanent capslock. People poked fun at CAPSLOCK HARRY in Order of the Phoenix, but I was sympathetic. I had felt exactly the same at fifteen, and I hadn't even watched someone die. The future of the wizarding world wasn't on my shoulders, but my own future was, and it seemed to get heavier and heavier the closer I got to it.
I wanted more, now—more respect, more freedom, more power, more love—and I wanted to stay a kid forever, where I wouldn't have to deal with my difficult new body and the adult responsibilities with which it threatened me. It was exhilarating and terrifying, and if I could go back in time, I'd hug my fifteen-year-old self, and tell her to take some deep breaths.
Except fifteen-year-old me wouldn't listen to adult me, because what did adult me know about anything ANYWAY?
It probably comes as no surprise that some of my favourite young adult reading, then and now, is that which deals metaphorically with the tumultuous changes of puberty and adolescence. It's not hard to divine the fears and hopes bound into a story about a girl changing herself into a new, magical being at the same time she becomes aware of her sexuality, or a boy trying to cope with superstrength, or a group of teenagers who discover that their parents are all supervillains. But such metaphors make those hopes and fears one step removed, allowing them to be sympathetically explored in all their complexity, without beating the reader over the head with ideas they may shy from if presented up front.
Plus, I'd far rather read about the exhausting and omnipresent threat of zombification than a manifesto entitled "Transformation: Sometimes It's Pretty Damn Scary." Luckily, there are a slew of books, zombie-infested and otherwise, that deal with the changing young adult body in diverse and engaging ways. Spoilers ahoy!
My favourite book in this line, and one of my favourite books of all time, is Margaret Mahy's The Changeover, where 14-year-old Laura, already halfway magical, remakes herself as a witch in order to save her little brother from an immortal being sucking the life out of him. Mahy's brilliant prose subtly equates Laura's changing body and awareness of her growing sexuality to the acquisition of her supernatural abilities:
[Laura] looked into the watery depths of the looking-glass where she saw herself, shadowed and delicate, her wrists and ankles as slender as if she had hollow bird bones and could rise up against gravity, her woolly hair a dark halo, glittering as if touched by gold dust, her eyes like black holes burnt into a smooth, olive face. She licked her lips and would not have been too surprised to see a serpent's tongue flicker between them, but it was her own tongue, surprising because it showed she was solid all the way through and not just a phantom created by Miryam and the night.
"Not that it will be easy for you," Miryam continued. "But for the moment—look—it's a wonderful, mysterious thing to be a girl."
And, looking at her reflection, Laura thought this might be true.
The changeover itself, much like adolescence, is difficult and painful, and once begun, the outcomes can only be transformation or death. Mahy presents the results neither as all good, nor all evil—instead, Laura has acquired a complex power, with advantages and drawbacks, and must use her best judgement on what to do with it. And indeed, change is presented as ultimately desirable—evil is represented by the vicious Carmody Braque, whose thirst for life has kept him to the unvarying routine of feasting on others for centuries.
The link between adolescence and the acquisition of power is made even more explicit in Runaways. The comics series follows a group of teenagers who discover that their parents are supervillains, and that they themselves have hitherto unsuspected powers and abilities. In several scenes, 11-year-old mutant Molly's insistence that her body is changing is interpreted by her uncomfortable companions as the onset of menarche, when she's actually unwittingly referring to the activation of her X-gene and the development of super-strength. Initially, the Runaways are awkward with their new powers, in stark contrast to the practiced efficiency of their parents, but there's celebration there too, particularly in Molly's enthusiastic adoption of the bruiser role, and light-fueled Karolina's joyous flight.
In Sarah Cross's novel Dull Boy, protagonist Avery is sure that superpowers are awesome—unless you have them. His formidable strength sounds really good on paper, but it results in broken property, broken friendships, and lawsuits for his much-suffering parents. What's more, he's aware that his freaky body is likely to be the target of weird science if the secret ever gets out. He'd much rather go back to being a dull boy, but to ultimately protect himself and his friends, he has to come to terms with his powerful new body and work out how to use it to best advantage.
In other, darker stories, characters find themselves in literal new bodies, by which they are much less empowered. The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson and Skinned by Robin Wasserman both follow young women who, following essentially fatal accidents, are resurrected into artificial bodies by loving parents who cannot stand to see them die. Both Jenna and Lia have to grapple with issues of identity surrounding their new bodies—who are they, if their bodies and brains are manufactured, not grown? Both girls have family members who desperately want them to perform the impossible task of being the same girls they were and family members convinced that they are artificial cuckoos in the nest, perverted copies of the real kids they were. Both girls' parents use their wealth and privilege to get the best for their daughters, and both girls slowly realise just how much of their existence relies on that privilege; and how much less-privileged people in similar situations are likely to suffer.
However, despite their similarities, these are very different books, set in different futures, and their protagonists are also distinct. Jenna resists the pain and paralysis that mark the early days of her recovery; Lia, unable to feel most sensations, takes to damaging her new body in pursuit of the few tactile responses left to her. Jenna's ending is ultimately optimistic; Lia, the subject of a yet-uncompleted trilogy, lives in a much grimmer world, and may never end at all.
Scott Westerfeld's Uglies trilogy seems much less creepily dystopic on first reading, with its abundance of hoverboard rides, wilderness adventure, complex pranks, and other adrenaline-pumping thrills. But Tally's world is one where everyone acquires a new physicality in young adulthood, becoming a Pretty, with all their unique and weird physiology ground down to a bland prettiness within strictly enforced boundaries—physical beauty and power, at the eventually discovered cost of autonomy. Later, as a Special, Tally is given a frighteningly powerful body that comes with its own drawbacks.
Interestingly enough, the traits linked to Tally's first transformation code as the "power" traditionally ascribed to normative femininity—the Pretties are so sweet and adorable-looking that everyone wants to look after them and do what they say. The physically enhanced and emotionally unstable Specials, with their future-science equivalent of 'roid rage (they just can't help getting violent) read as representation of normative masculine power. Pretties and Specials are of both genders, so it's interesting to see both forms of stereotypical power represented as realistically effective, but fundamentally damaging, both to outsiders and to those physically locked into their apparently predetermined roles. Part of Tally's development as a hero is in finding other ways to be powerful, and methods of transformation that don't depend on these restrictive physicality-focused identities, but on intellectual and emotional independence and growth.
For total dystopia linked to fear of bodily change though, you can't go past Carrie Ryan's The Forest of Hands and Teeth, where physical transformation equates to the hordes of endlessly hungry undead pressing on the fence outside the one village left. Protagonist Mary is caught in a codified relationship she doesn't want to consummate with a man she doesn't love, and runs from this grim vision of adulthood as fast as she runs from the terror of joining a mindless mass of once-individuals seeking only to feed and procreate. Just to underline this, the creepiest moment in the book involves a zombie baby, whining and snapping in the cradle from which it isn't developed enough to rise. But Ryan does not write off all transformation as too frightening to contemplate—like Westerfeld's work, The Forest of Hands and Teeth emphasises choosing individuality, emotional honesty, and questioning authority over sameness and submission.
The creepiest baby in all of young adult literature, of course, is the one in Stephenie Meyer's Breaking Dawn, the final installment of the Twilight vampire saga. Protagonist Bella is all about physical transformation. For her, death is a consummation devoutly to be wish'd, because it will entail eternal youth with forever-love Edward. But after the wedding she finally consented to in order to get some sparkly loving, she discovers an impossibly fast-growing pregnancy—a vampire spawn that kicks her still-human ribs apart, gives her internal bleeding, breaks her spine, and requires a gruesome Caesarian-by-teeth. (I am so looking forward to seeing how the movies handle that.)
The horrific pregnancy and birth, however, is followed by Bella's own birth into her new life as a dazzling vampire, with self-control and abilities even other vampires find impressive. And, bonus, her child is also perfect: never cries, always loving, rapidly growing, and walking and talking by two months. The wages of sin might be death, but the wages of post-marital sex seem to be nightmarish pain, followed by eternal life blessed by a wonderful child.
Bella is often accused of passivity, but although there are certainly faults to be found with her fixation on romance to the exclusion of all other interests, she doesn't actually lack forward momentum. She's the sexual aggressor and instigator of change in her relationship, hurtling through milestones at breakneck speed—first love, first soul-crushing breakup, marriage, sex, childbirth, and motherhood in less than two years—before achieving her goal of eternity in a fairy-tale cottage with her loving family. Her transformation is agonizing and traumatic, but, aware of the risks and owning her choice, she pushes unrelentingly for it anyway. Although I do wonder if Bella's really considered the ramifications of repeating high school over and over again, as her husband and new siblings-in-law do—after this ultimate transformation, she has perfection, but a static and essentially unchanging one.
All in all, I think I prefer YA where the protagonists aren't ever totally satisfied with their transformations. I like fiction that acknowledges the difficulty and terror of acquiring new bodies and new attitudes, but promises that change is not only inevitable, but can be a mindful and ongoing process of self-making, aiming for better days ahead.
I believe fifteen-year-old me would approve.