After my post last month (On Darkness) there was some discussion in the comments as to whether, and in what way, young readers might take fiction as a source of real information, or as a directive on how to live, or as a guide to larger truths. One commenter suggested that since kids "aren't stupid" we shouldn't worry about how fictions might affect them. (Btw, Vonny, if you read this I apologize for not responding to your final comment; I didn't see it until now.) This set me thinking about my own relationship to literature as a young adolescent. I'm pretty sure I wasn't stupid, either, but I know I took fiction very seriously, and that it was often realer to me than the world around me. It didn't matter if I knew that the events of, say, The Lord of the Rings, hadn't literally taken place. They had such a devastating emotional valence that they might as well have been real, and been taking place that moment.
And I also know that, as an adult, I don't read the same way. No matter how much I adore a book, it will never make my lived experience seem ashy and dessicated by comparison, a bare vehicle for the real life that I find in the pages.
What's changed? Well, for one thing, I have more sources of knowledge, so I'm not as dependent on books. I have a more defined self, so I don't have the same desperate need to inhabit fictional characters and then look back at my everyday self through their eyes, trying to determine who I might in fact be. And, most importantly, the life I actually live now feels real to me. When I was twelve or fourteen or sixteen, there was one thing I was absolutely sure of: life was elsewhere. Like a lot of teenagers, I was frenzied by the longing for transcendence. Truly vital existence might be possible in New York or in Paris or in Middle Earth, but all those existences were equally imaginary for an odd, withdrawn girl in the St. Louis suburbs. And, while books certainly offered me the scent and the hope of possibility, their impact on me was not always benign.
When I was twelve, Tolkien's Silmarillion threw me into a deep depression that lasted for at least a year, for one simple reason: the elves leave Middle Earth. They abandon the humans, because humans are fundamentally not good enough to bother with; they pack up their transcendence and go. Again, I wasn't stupid. If questioned, I could have confirmed that elves don't exist. It didn't matter. The message I took from the book was that, as a human, I could never be worthy enough to achieve the transcendence I craved more than anything in life, and that anyone who was worthy of it would abandon me.
Of course, if I hadn't already had abandonment issues after my parents' divorce, I wouldn't have been so terribly affected. And of course it wasn't Tolkien's fault that I took his book that way. Maybe I was exceptionally vulnerable, though I suspect that a great many teenagers are equally or more vulnerable. I'm sure that kids with secure families and strong friendships and a healthy sense of self are generally less susceptible to being wounded by fantasies--but we can hardly presume that our readers have those things.
So, do I feel the need to very, very careful about the larger psychological message of any fiction I write for young adults? Absolutely. Specifically, I feel that a fantasy directed at young teenagers should (implicitly) offer both the hope of transcendence and something resembling suggestions for getting there.
Like, if you're clever and imaginative and you work at it really hard, then when the elves sail for the East they might just take you on as a cabin-girl. And if they don't, well, maybe you can be a stowaway.
I think that's a lot closer to the truth than Tolkien's ending.