The Captain Hook Effect: Sarah Pinborough Guest Blog

Why are adults often the bad guys in YA fiction?


I think it's probably quite natural that adults should so often take the role of the antagonist in YA fiction. After all, adults are the ones who make all the rules for teenagers in society. You can't smoke, you can't drink, you can't have sex, you can't watch this film, you must wear this uniform, you must go to school. Even the adults you love when you're a teenager – like your parents – are kind of like caring jailers. You have to be in by ten. You can't go out wearing that. Call me if when you get there. I worry about you. Clean up the kitchen. Why didn't you think before you did that? Adults provide an endless list of all the things you're not allowed to do for teenagers, and are full of reprimands when things go wrong. They're the gate-keepers to adult life. And most times it's like they've forgotten what it was like to be a teenager themselves.


This I think is another reason, perhaps a slightly more philosophical one, that adults are such an easy choice to play the villain. In many ways, we're kind of monstrous when viewed through childish and then teenage eyes. I remember being a kid and thinking how weird it would be to turn into an adult. Then one day your body starts to change and it's kind of like 'Oh crap, it's happening.' And some bits are good, and some bits are awful, but it's almost like werewolf or vampire fiction – you're turning into something completely different and once it's done, there's no going back.


On top of that, as can be evidenced by the cliché 'You don't understand me!' that we attribute to every angry teenager who's ever stormed to his or her room (yep, me too back in the day) in a rage, it seems that adults and children occupy two different metaphorical worlds, and teenagers sit somewhere in the middle of all this, in a no man's land of high emotions and hormones. They're not quite one thing – no more holding mum's hand while crossing the road (cos that would be weird!;-)) - but still not another – no freedom to do what they want, and the adults they're about to turn into seem to have no understanding of how they feel as if something dies when you leave your adolescence. And maybe it does. It's too long ago for me to remember. I've been an adult a lot longer than I was a child and those no man's land years in between fly past too quickly.


Perhaps this is the same logic, but reversed, that makes creepy children such a powerful trope in horror novels and films. As adults, we see them as something quite other. We do get caught up in the trials and tribulations of getting jobs, paying bills, saving for holidays and houses and having maybe children ourselves, but the memories of being a child fade. You don't see adults skipping down the street just because they feel like it. To be honest, they don't often feel like it. We do live in different lands, but adults at least have passed through the others. Our world is a great unknown to teenagers. A world they want to get to and are probably wary of (I think I was).


When I think about my teenage years and try and remember them fully, I'm left more with sensations that a host of exact memories. I remember that my peers were really important to me. I had more proper friends than I have now and we laughed a lot. A LOT. I remember the all-consuming feeling of that first love. I remember feeling so much braver than I am now. At sixteen I was pretty sure I could conquer the world if I wanted to, despite my curly hair I couldn't control and all my puppy fat I was desperate to lose.

Maybe that's why adults are the baddies in YA fiction. Because teenagers are braver. More honest in what they're feeling – more heroic. And maybe sometimes we need them to show us the way.


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