'Young adult fiction is integral to helping students develop empathy'

Professor Maria Nikolajeva, an expert on children's literature, discusses the important role played by young adult fiction in our society

Maria Nikolajeva

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What does it mean to be a young adult in the Western world today? It means wanting independence, but needing reassurance; it means strange things happening to your body and mind; it means taking risks and breaking rules. It means total chaos.

This is what young adult (YA) fiction is trying to capture. I say “trying” because it is, of course, a mission impossible: if a young person's life is a pandemonium of emotions, impressions, contradictions and indescribable mental states, how can a writer − usually an adult − possibly convey this turmoil with words and create protagonists that young people can relate to?

And yet, generations of young people have grown up sharing the joys, sorrows, fears and anxieties of fictional characters. This is possible not merely because of recognisable themes and issues, but because writers have managed, against all odds, to circumvent the impossible and employ the available artistic devices to reflect the enigmatic teenage mind.

It may be through giving Ponyboy in The Outsiders a voice to describe class conflict rather than relying on didactic preaching. Or through making Helen in Dear Nobody write letters to her unborn child and having her boyfriend Chris read and reflect upon them. Or through alternating between past and present in Postcards from No Man's Land.

Helping us to understand others

Recent studies based on brain research show that emotional engagement with fiction is not a romantic idea, but a measurable fact. Although we know that fictional characters do not exist, our brains react to their non-existing feelings, perceptions and beliefs as if they were real.

We may have no experience of these feelings, and many of us should be grateful to have no experience of extreme violence, war, grief and despair. But understanding and respecting other people's feelings is the most important social skill; it is what ostensibly sets human beings apart from other living organisms. And if reading fiction can support young people's transition from solipsism to empathy, we must make sure that every young person has access to high-quality YA fiction and finds ways to enjoy it.

Sadly, young adult fiction is not always taken seriously. One of the reasons for this is that the majority of early YA novels tended to be excruciatingly didactic − pamphlets on unwanted pregnancy and peer pressure, slightly disguised as fiction.

But among those early novels were also Z for Zachariah, The Chocolate War and After the First Death – beautifully crafted, disturbing books that still appeal today because they were not about issues, but about something that all of us have gone through or will have to go through: identity formation.

Some young people are luckier than others, but through vicarious experience offered by fiction, all have the opportunity to step into other people's shoes. Isn't it our duty as educators to allow young people this experience?

Professor Maria Nikolajeva is director of the Cambridge/Homerton Research and Teaching Centre for Children’s Literature. The Originals, a new series celebrating the first and the best in the young adult genre – including all of the titles mentioned above – is published in Penguin paperback today (4 August 2016). To read more about this series, click here

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Maria Nikolajeva

Professor Maria Nikolajeva is Director of the Cambridge/Homerton Research and Teaching Centre for Children.

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