Culture

The Secret Garden, The Book Thief and Other Works That Transcend the Definition of 'Young Adult'

Emmily Watson/Photo © Featureflash/Shutterstock
Emmily Watson/Photo © Featureflash/Shutterstock

It may be time to excise the oxymoronically titled "Young Adult" section from the bookstore. It’s simply outlasted its relevance and usefulness. Nowhere is that more evident than in today’s news of two very adult adaptations of literary works populated by underage protagonists. Perhaps the most exciting and creatively combustible announcement concerns "Beasts of the Southern Wild" co-writer Lucy Alibar’s decision to join forces with producer Guillermo Del Toro to put their own neo-gothic spin on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s much-adapted The Secret Garden. Then came the long-awaited announcement that "Downton Abbey" director Brian Percival’s adaptation of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, the 2006 bestseller about a young girl who takes refuge in literature to survive the horrors of Nazi Germany, has recruited French-Canadian actress Sophie Nelisse (“Monsieur Lazhar”) to play the precocious protagonist while Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson will take on the roles of the girl’s picayune foster parents.

What’s remarkable about both of these projects is that, despite being based on beloved young adult bestsellers, neither seems poised to pander to its target audience. In fact, quite the opposite: They’re both assembling the kind of innovative talent intended to draw adults into the theater. There has always been something vaguely condescending and confusing about the "young adult" label. It calls out the awkward in-between phase without acknowledging the singular experience of what it’s like to see and know more about the adult world than any of its official inhabitants would suspect. And then there’s the universality of the once-in-a-lifetime magic of the process of discovery and the onslaught of firsts that make those wonder years such a fertile time for fiction. But the term "young adult" simply doesn’t do justice to the lasting legacy of our teenage personae – our identities and fantasies at age twelve aren’t often so different from a thirtysomething’s yearnings, only slightly less strident and dulled by the accumulation of disappointment.

Ever since Harry Potter became a crossover hit of epic proportions, the allure of J. K. Rowling broke the age barrier and traditional classifications have become increasingly arbitrary to readers. Then came the great revelation that Twilight moms were fueling the saga’s book and box office receipts as much if not more than their teenage daughters. Now, of course, that genre fiction has merged into the mass-market mainstream, courtesy of the concurrent rise of fan fiction and the Comic-Con revolution, age limits have all but been obliterated for a compelling story well told.

There is a difference, however, between literary fiction featuring young protagonists and its fantasy equivalent teeming with ageless creatures of unknown provenance. The two projects announced today fall definitively into the former category, alongside the work of Madeleine L’Engle, S. E. Hinton, Roald Dahl and E. B. White, Phillip Pullman, Harper Lee, Louis Sachar, John Green, James Dashner. This is by no means a comprehensive list, just a few stand-outs from a vital source of great reading that continues to evolve and expand. And while we're at it, we'd like to give a shout-out to figment.com, a site dedicated to highlighting high quality fiction by, for, and about teens. We’re hoping Hollywood continues to approach these projects with an eye toward creative integrity and adult audiences, while remaining true to the source material.

What are some of your favorite works of literary fiction with underage protagonists? And what are some of the most successful (and botched) adaptations of these books?

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