I never thought young adult fiction (or YA as it’s known in the biz) was a thing before the sixties. Back in the day, books were just books. It didn’t matter if the protagonist was just fifteen, like Jo from Little Women. Now, bookstores and libraries have separate sections for teen fiction. It’s too bad, really. A good book works for everyone.
As a YA author, it’s impossible to write about teenagers without remembering the past. We are not merely grownups. We carry within us the toddler, small child, troublesome twelve year old and teenager filled with raging emotions that bewildered our parents and made us doubt our own sanity.
Nowadays, teen protagonists are expected to become vampires (Twilight) or at least save their families. (The Hunger Games) But the author who really understood impressionable young readers is William Shakespeare. Turns out, he was the original YA author. The other night I watched a 2013 movie version of Romeo and Juliet and noticed how accurately he portrayed the messy yet emotional certainty of teen life. Juliet is about to turn fourteen, and Romeo’s a few years older. In brilliant prose, Shakespeare sets out the magical combination of good looks, hormonally wired brains and the heavy hand of fate.
Romeo, whose family has a long standing feud with Juliet’s, goes to a dance at her folk’s place to spy on her cousin, the lovely Rosalind. He’s told everyone about his deep love for the girl, but the moment he spies Juliet, that all changes. Juliet is his new true love. They spend thirty seconds dancing together and later that night, he climbs up onto her balcony to declare his feelings, which she reciprocates. Because Shakespeare is the playwright, the language is more eloquent than anything a reasonably intelligent teen could come up with nowadays.
Romeo’s balcony greeting: “With love’s light wings did I o’er-perch these walls; for stony limits can’t hold love out, and what love can do that dares love attempt, therefore thy kinsmen are no let to me.”
A modern teenage boy’s greeting: ‘S’up?’
Different speech patterns but the raging hormones are the same.
Some things never change. Like Romeo’s next words. “O wilt though leave me so unsatisfied?”
And Juliet’s answer: “What satisfaction canst though have tonight?”
Romeo: “The exchange of thy love’s faithful vow for mine.”
You see how he draws her in? Honestly, some things never change. Within a couple minutes of fancy talk, they’ve decided to get married. Romeo, with very little persuasion, asks a starry eyed priest to conduct the service. After that, all hell breaks loose with more family feuding until the end when they’re both dead. Nowadays, two young teenagers couldn’t find anyone to marry them, but society has lightened up a bit so there’s no need to tie a ribbon on it, so to speak. I can’t help wondering if Romeo and Juliet had just waited a couple of days, maybe things would have blown over. But that’s the mother in me, rather than the teen speaking. It’s fair to say that emotional attachments happen over the slightest things where teenagers are concerned. “I really like his hair.” Etc.
So here’s to you, William Shakespeare. You’ve told the story the rest of us can never live up to. You nailed the yearning, the good looks, the love speak and the tension of ‘will they or won’t they get to do it?” He was right to kill them both, of course. The feud had to end sometime. Shakespeare might have been a romantic, but in the end, a hard lesson wrapped in the high falutin’ themes of fate, won the day.