re: Bildungsroman v. Coming-of-Age Novels

in Narrative Voice/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

It seems that a number of fairytales and fantasy stories are bildungsroman—the protagonist either grows to adulthood, or is an older teenager (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, the Princess Bride, etc.). Would these stories be considered for adults or children?

Sincerely,

Lucy

Dear Lucy…

Young people certainly have their coming-of-age novels, but the narrators of those books don’t present the stories as if they’re investigating why and how the heroes became the adults they are, which is a quality of bildungsroman novels (think David Copperfield). Young adult novels have a more in-the-now feel, with the main characters’ maturation usually taking place within a short time frame, such as a single year of school. Rarely do they cover a full childhood or young adulthood as Dickens does in his classic. Novels featuring longer maturation windows can still be for kids if their narratives have a youthful sensibility. That sensibility is arguably the biggest marker of a young adult book. Adults are already self-aware and consider why they and others behave as they do (even if they don’t always exercise that mature perspective!); adult novels with this mature sensibility are not “young adult books” even when they feature young heroes. In contrast, young people are just starting to shed their self-centric perspectives and tend to judge and act without first considering how their actions will affect others. The heroes of their novels may reach a higher level of self-awareness by the end of their novels, but they don’t start out that way and their narratives reflect that. So, when you’re considering whether a story is “for” adults or children, weigh its narrative sensibility.

Happy writing!

The Editor

4 Comments

  1. Thank you for putting this so well. I just read a children’s book that was really an adult book, and I struggled explaining why I felt that way to my husband. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it or that it had inappropriate content–and I’m sure there are children who would love it–but the narrator tells the story from an adult POV, even though the main character is a child.

  2. Self-discovery is what we do in life, right? It really doesn’t matter if you are 16 or 60, exploring our own talents and experiencing new interests is what keeps our hearts beating. Star Wars, for example, is about Luke Skywalker discovering who he was, and it certainly wasn’t YA. So Deb is exactly right (as usual 🙂 ) YA is more about how you address personal growth in your writing; about your voice and your tone and your attitude, not so much about content.

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