Providing we don’t die first, we all come of age. Counted candles alone don’t add up to a story, so why do we have a genre called Coming-of-Age? Not only is the term not descriptive, it is quite general, having been applied to books ranging from Little Women to A Clockwork Orange. We all know what it’s supposed to mean: a novel in which a young protagonist, over time, undergoes adventures or experiences or grapples with personal or social conflicts and grows in the process. But take out the word “young” and you have the protagonist of most novels—the character with the most potential for change or growth.
“Coming-of-age” sets an unfortunate us-and-them tone, suggesting that we adults, having put away childish things, are completed projects, able to observe the young from a safe and wise distance. Thinking this way, we may forget that the young are us-not just who we used to be, but part of who we are now. We may then miss or dismiss some great stories we need, perhaps even some heroes.
The 19th-century term bildungsroman, “formation novel,” with its focus on development and growth, seems a better fit, but in the traditional bildungsroman, a young person suffers as an outsider, in conflict with his society, then matures by learning to accept the values and demands of that society. At the end of the story he reflects on the niche he has found for himself within it. The assumption is that society’s values and rules are consistent and knowable and probably for the best in the long run, at least for the majority. In any case they are the reality-too big to buck without knocking yourself senseless-so you might as well find a way to accommodate. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was not a bildungsroman.
Nothing is required of a novel other than to be an engaging story, but a hopeful thing does take place when we identify with a novel’s main character. We get practice in empathy, and that can change lives.
What if, as often happens, that main character is a kind of outsider whom we might have dismissed or avoided or made fun of in our daily life, but now we see him, not as a “kind” but as an individual, and we realize just what he or she is up against, what the stakes are?
Mark Haddon’s brilliant first-person novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time caused a great leap forward in popular sympathy and interest in Asperger’s syndrome (even though Haddon insists that he is no expert on Asperger’s, and that the book is not about the syndrome). Not only are we not put off by the thoughts of this extraordinary 15-year-old boy who describes himself as “a mathematician with some behavioral difficulties,” we are moved by his courage and ache to rearrange the world for him as he tries to face his fears and compulsions and use his abilities to solve two mysteries, save his own life, and see justice done.
Curious Incident broke ground, and since then there have been several young adult and middle grade novels- including Siobahn Dowd’s The London Eye Mystery, Francisco X. Stork’s Marcelo in the Real World, and Katherine Erskine’s Mockingbird-whose main characters have Asperger’s, and persevere in their complicated quests.
A similar thing has happened with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and dyslexia. Seeing the world from the point-of-view of Jack Gantos’s off-the-wall Joey Pigza was a revelation to readers. Then came the poignantly humorous series about dyslexic Hank Zipzer by Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver (“The Fonz” is himself dyslexic, not diagnosed until adulthood). The dyslexia and ADHD that get Percy, the main character of the wildly popular Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, in so much trouble at school turn out to be abilities in disguise: assets in his true role as a demi-god. We can only imagine the recognition and relief with which a dyslexic or ADHD student reads these books. But his classmates are reading them too, and suddenly their fellow-student’s actions may make more sense to them, so that they can laugh with and for him, rather than at him.
Of course you can be an outsider, as many if not most protagonists in fiction are, without having a “disorder”. From the moment we realize, at around age eight or nine, that we have both an inner and an outer life and that the two cannot always be reconciled, we are all, in some sense, outsiders. I’m not sure what we should call novels that focus on a young person’s struggle between those worlds (and remind us of our own continuing struggle to reconcile them, regardless of age), but something more important than “coming of age” or even “growing up” goes on in them, and they end in a different place.
The protagonist in these stories holds to something in his inner life–a dream, a conviction, a quest, a desire, a quality of self-that he believes to be essential to him, so that he can’t afford to give it up or give in, no matter how much pressure or ridicule he may experience from others, sometimes very powerful others, who claim to know better for him or at least know better about how the world works. He is tempted and discouraged along the way, and he may sustain great losses, but he gradually finds the courage to be true to himself, and to see that those who oppose him are not as strong as he thought.
His courage allows him to persist in bringing that essential something forward with him. He does make peace with the realities of the outer world (there being fewer territories to light out for these days, at least physical ones), but he has terms. When the handshakes are over, some new things have happened. The family or the town or the society has had to change a little too, to flex a moment and become that much more accepting, because of him. In a kind of ripple effect, people around him may have rediscovered their own courage by witnessing his example. These characters aren’t just growing up and taking their place in society, they are the society’s growing tip.
Think of ten-year-old runaway orphan Bud Caldwell in Christopher Paul Curtis’s Depression era novel Bud, Not Buddy who survives neglect and abuse and hunger by clinging to three things: 1) his s dead mother’s love and assurance that he is Bud, not Buddy 2) a beat-up cardboard suitcase containing certain old playbills and rocks he believes are clues to the identity and whereabouts of his father and 3) a wry compendium he has created from his young experiences called, “Bud Caldwell’s Rules and Things for Having a Funner Life and Making A Better Liar Out of Yourself.”
Or magical nine-year-old Thomas, in Guus Kuijer’s The Book of Everything, who “sees things others don’t see,” like tropical fish in the canals. His father regards much of what Thomas says and does as the workings of the devil., and tries to beat it out of him with a spoon. When asked what he wants to be when he grows up, Thomas says. “Happy. I want to be Happy.” His father scoffs, but a neighbor, widely regarded as a witch, thinks it’s a very good idea and gives him books, music, companionship, and a powerful thought: that to be happy it is first necessary not to be afraid.
Thomas doesn’t know if he can manage that, but remembering the thought about fear ultimately helps him to stand up to his father and to inspire his sister and mother to do the same. Everyone is happier as a result, except for the now small, confused, and fear-driven father. Even Thomas’s friend Jesus doesn’t hold out much hope for change in him.
There is no guarantee that characters in these books will prevail, however much they may deserve to. Lizzie Bright, the straight-thinking free spirit in Gary Schmidt’s Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, liberates her friend Turner Buckminster’s thoughts and spirit from his rigid upbringing, but she ends up being banished by the greedy and bigoted white townspeople to an institution for the feeble-minded, where she dies before Turner can rescue her.
Much is at stake in novels like this, and not just for the characters. We pull hard for them because we long to hope that the world can be big enough and wise enough to bend to their courage and make room for them. And for us.
For that story, any genre may be too small.