Let the (Big) Children Come Unto Me: On Harry Potter, Young Adult Literature, and Learning to Love Your Audience
Teenagers just might be society’s favorite punching bag. Whether it’s complaining about their manner of dress, their lack of work ethic, or their entertainment choices, adults love to pick on the tender age group between the cute-and-cuddly kids and the relatable, finally rational grown-up crowd. Despite this, adults now flock in droves to the young adult section to read books written about and for teenagers, and young adult literature is flourishing. Clearly, there is something compelling about this age and stage of life, and it is something writers of young adult books should take seriously as they craft their stories.
I never would have anticipated growing into an adult who writes books for teenagers. Teens—especially the junior high variety—used to elicit a sneer from me, and this was an attitude born out of a difficult youth where I didn’t feel as though I fit in. As a teenager, I was the invisible girl who became the moody artistic type and eventually found my true calling as the holier-than-thou youth group girl. But I’ve always been a writer, and sometime in my early 20s, a friend read an early manuscript of mine and said, “This is young adult literature. That’s who you write for.”I discovered, as I imagine J. K. Rowling did at some point, that to love teenagers is to write them as they are—not as we wish they would be.
As silly as it might sound, that revelation was both difficult to swallow and eye-opening as I forged ahead into my writing career. I didn’t like kids or teenagers much, even though children’s and young adult books have always been my favorite to read. At the time that I began to identify youth as my writing audience, I was also—by some twisted joke on God’s part, I’m sure—about to embark on a career teaching 8th and 10th grade. Teaching teenagers had never been part of my plan, but I gathered my wits about me and resolved to study the strange creatures God had put in my path. Because if I was to write for teens, then I’d better learn something about them.
Not only, though, did I resolve to study teens themselves, but I decided to study the young adult books that had always moved me. Harry Potter in particular became a case study, and among the many, many things I learned between the pages about how to craft a fantastical, impactful story, I learned something important about the author herself: J. K. Rowling loves her young readers. She loves them inside and out. She loves them for their goodness and their faults, and in loving them, she sees them. Rowling wrote characters for youth and teens into the pages of Harry Potter in such a way that when the readers get on the Hogwarts Express with Harry, Ron, and Hermione from Platform 9 ¾ in every book, they are, essentially, going home.
Returning to Hogwarts is like a homecoming for millions of readers young and old, as marked by the ongoing celebrations for things like Harry Potter’s birthday every July 31 (particularly special this year, the 20th anniversary of the U.S. release of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), yet I’m not sure there have been books more vilified by the Evangelical church in the past 20 years than Harry Potter. I have heard stories of bonfires thrown by church groups just to burn the books. Of kids and teens encouraged to buy the books for the sole purpose of burning them. Of the books passed around by Christian kids like contraband. While the magic and wizardry in the content was obviously an issue for many Christian parents at the height of the Harry Potter witch hunt, one criticism I heard over and over again was that the titular character, Harry, was often disobedient in the story—and got away with his disobedience.
Yet when I searched the stories for evidence of such flagrant sinfulness, all I found was evidence of a young adult living as a young adult would given the parameters of the story, clearly portrayed by an author who not only understood young adults, but who also crafted a story around them with love and care.
Harry Potter is 11 years old in the first Harry Potter novel. Eleven is an exceptionally difficult age—an age most of us would not return to for any sum of money. It’s an age when kids truly begin to transition into young adults. They become full of all the feelings, bull-headed, often disagreeable, argumentative, and, yes, frequently disobedient. Any story featuring an 11-year-old (and so forth, as these behaviors progress and change as young adults age) that does not feature that 11-year-old acting disobedient at some point (and even getting away with that disobedience, as they often do in real life), is a story that does not paint an accurate or loving picture of its characters. It’s a false story, a lie, and therefore bad. As a writer, if you do not deal accurately with your characters, you treat your readers with contempt—believing them either too stupid to notice, or communicating to them that you wish they themselves were like the facsimile characters you’ve painted into your stories.
To tell a successful story, as Rowling did, your readers must find within the pages characters with whom they can empathize, but there can be no empathy without love. So to be a successful writer of young adult literature, you must actually love teenagers. This is a lesson I quickly learned. I once found it difficult to love teenagers, but I do not find it difficult any longer. What I found within the pages of Harry Potter were real young adults who often behaved badly, and who sometimes got away with it, but who behaved in very much the same manner as the young people I faced in my classrooms every day. And I discovered, as I imagine J. K. Rowling did at some point, that to love teenagers is to write them as they are—not as we wish they would be.
Teenagers are image bearers of God who deserve not only our attention and love, but they also deserve to be treated with dignity. As a teacher, reader, and writer, I found that teenagers are full of perplexing and wonderful paradoxes, and this is part of what makes them so delightful to be around and to write for and about. They are intentionally provocative, but also overwhelmingly kind. They can see hurts where others overlook them, cling to hope where adults feel only despair, and jump first and think later. But when they think, they think with surprising depth and clarity, and you find you don’t have to hold their hand… unless they want you to, as sometimes they do.Books for teens, whether they take the form of middle grade, young adult, or new adult, deserve to be taken seriously.
While we are all in medias res to a certain degree until we die, teenagers hold a special claim to this badge. They reside between childhood and adulthood, but with aspects of both. They have all the deep and wild, and sometimes stupid, yes, feelings of childhood, but with the weight and looming gravity of adulthood. They want to be treated both as adults, and not, depending on situation and circumstance. They can love with reckless abandon like children, and yet be in love like adults. Hurt deeply, and—like a child who hits another too hard, not knowing his own strength—hurt others deeply. They are funny and driven and brave, and absolutely terrified of the world. They hold all these things in tension, most of them without breaking, because they still need, still want, their parents—or at least wise and good adult guidance. The battle between the desire for autonomy and security might be one of the most furious to rage within every young adult’s soul.
The teen years amplify everything great and wonderful and scary about the childhood years, mix it up with adult expectations, shove it into adult bodies (or bodies becoming adult-like), and spit out something new. And something that really only exists for a glimmer of time, when taken in consideration of the span of a life. It is a time that should be cherished and shepherded, not scoffed at. For when our young people are teenagers, they are both now and not yet. They are who they are, and they are becoming who they will be. The now and not yet of the teen years is precious—it can be a reminder to us of the nature of the Kingdom of God.
Therefore, when people—Christians or otherwise—disparage teenagers, young adult literature, and the people who write for young adults as being less-than, they do a shocking disservice to a segment of the population we are called to love. Although it is a cliche, these youth are our future, and the stories written for and about them will shape their hearts and minds during perhaps the most crucial time of their lives. Books for teens, whether they take the form of middle grade, young adult, or new adult, deserve to be taken seriously. This is not mere entertainment, and these are not small matters.
Writers of young adult literature should understand these things, and much more, about teenagers, and we should display that understanding in our stories if we want our stories to be justly labeled good. This is how we do a service to the young people both in the stories, and those reading them. Our youth deserve this. They deserve to be loved.
The publication of Harry Potter 20 years ago ushered in a new era of youth literature, and one in which even adults have come out of the shadows to read books about teens. When Rowling took ages 11–18 seriously—when she told Harry’s story with enough love and respect to show his triumphs and his failures and everything in between—she displayed to the world how you love your audience. Books are about so, so much, and they mean so many nuanced things, but one function of stories is ministering to people’s souls. When we write truthful characters, we show our readers we care about them. This is what Rowling did, and it’s the sort of storyteller I strive to be, as well.