In 2013's Mud, a suitably muddy and world-weary Matthew McConaughey is hiding from criminal persecution in the swamplands of Alabama. He is stumbled upon by two boys, just shy of adolescence, and the three form a relationship that sees the boys risking life and limb to protect the only male mentor who's proven himself to be of any real worth to them. It's a surprisingly touching film, and one in which McConaughey shows he has a lot of offer.
Mud belongs to a certain genre of stories that can occasionally struggle to find themselves in a wider context. After all, the film's main character isn't Matthew McConaughey's Mud at all, it's the 12 year old boy. Similarly with To Kill A Mockingbird, where Atticus Finch is merely a supporting character. The real protagonist is Scout, the adventurous tomboy. There's also Craig Silvey's Jasper Jones, which follows a similar model (child narrator in a tale about adults), and even The Way Way Back.
Seeing an adult world through a child's eyes is an incredibly useful tool for a writer. Readers accept a certain level of passivity in children, allowing a writer to construct a plot that happens to them as opposed to a plot where their protagonists constantly tangle themselves within the unfolding drama. What makes Mud different is the series of choices the child makes to support his criminal friend. These are the films most compelling moments. The same is true of The Way Way Back's conclusion, where the protagonist is finally driven to take his first real proactive action against his family. This differs to the Mockingbird novel. The reason why you remember Atticus, and not Scout, is that Atticus is the character who drives the plot forward, and makes all the choices. This in spite of my favourite moment in the book, again at it's conclusion, where Scout finally takes a proactive approach with her neighbour Boo. It's one the most touching moments in all of literature.
Still, there's some confusion here about who these stories are for. Just because it has a young protagonist, are these stories for young people? Almost certainly not. All of the above mentioned stories have incredibly adult themes, and while they may be accessible and comprehensible to children, they are unlikely to understand the full emotional weight of all that happens within them. They are stories written with adults in mind. The child narrator is a tool. In all of these stories youth is romanticised - a 'golden' summer, 'friendships that last', etc - youth is the innocent, passive window through which adults actions can be unblinkingly commented upon. Behind all of these characters is the writer, of course. Children are a writer's most cunning disguise.
To Kill A Mockingbird is forced upon teenagers. It's an excellent book, and one that should be read by everyone, but studying a book in high school is almost a guaranteed route to a child hating it, and to forever consider the book as a distinct academic trauma. This is not to say that some teenagers don't enjoy it, but I doubt Harper Lee ever truly intended it to be read by young people. It is a potentially revolutionary novel written about the intricacies of prejudice. Adults are almost certainly the intended audience.
It's not difficult to see that stories with child narrators are not always meant for child readers, but the inverse is a far more difficult case to prove. The argument around Young Adult fiction being for a Young Adult audience is now tired. Harry Potter and the ensuing chain of young adult monoliths has proven, without a shadow of a doubt, that adults love stories about teenagers battling against the world. It is, after all, how most adults experience their daily lives. So few of us ever really graduate from high school. But there remains a prejudice within young adult publishing that stories for teenagers must have a teenager narrator. An adult protagonist is deemed unsuitable for a teenage reader. But a teenage protagonist is almost a bankable success for a adult reader.
The most obvious reason for this is time. An adult reader contemplating teenagers is inevitably looking backwards, to their own remembered experience. Teenagers are on less stable ground with adult characters. They are projecting their hopeful future. Where as memory is complex, suggestive and subtle, a future projection can often be simplistic, unexamined and dream-like.
When I was in high school, the most popular television show amongst my female friends was Sex and the City. The second they turned eighteen, they walked into a bar and ordered a Cosmopolitan. Sex and the City, to a sixteen year old, felt like a relentlessly sophisticated ad for a version of adulthood, and one that was achievable. Thinking back, it was in fact the simpler television comedies of the day, often very adult theme, that appealed most to my classmates and I. Friends, Seinfeld, Will & Grace all featured incredibly well-dressed, funny, adults, experiencing rich and rewarding lives, pouncing around in New York, apparently unemployed. Sitcoms offered a gloriously optimistic view of adulthood. It was one we all lusted after.
There is a firmly held myth amongst the publishing industry that YA readers read up, but only by a handspan of years. 10 year olds want to read about 13-15 year olds, 12 year olds wants to read about 14-17 year olds, and so on. Why such rules should apply to child readers, and not to adult readers, is questionable. Besides, the rules aren't true.
The more bookish teenagers may be drawn to To Kill a Mockingbird, but they are also especially capable of finding emotional resonance in the works of Shakespeare, or other classicists. When I was thirteen, I devoured Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy series, despite it being void of any young people. It was in fact, a satiric and esoteric assault on existentialism. I, like so many teenagers, was drawn to Doctor Who. The Doctor's companion offers the youthful window through which an adolescent finds easy passage into the ancient Time Lord's heart. Still, Doctor Who's themes are operatic: love, loss, genocide, politics, and humanity are all regular themes.
After all, as a teenager I was obsessed with the big questions of life. I still am, with slightly less fervency. As a teenager, you have the time, hormones and wide-eyed curiosity to find meaning in great works that adults potentially miss out on. A thirty-something can sit through a performance of Hamlet 'appreciating it' and applauding the lovely language. A teenager comes to it somewhat unaware of the praise and appreciation the their culture obligates them to give. Thus, they are more free to interact with the work as a work of art, as opposed to a cultural artefact. This immediately enables the teenager to have a far more intimate relationship with the work than the adult. The teenager is more likely to comprehend on a primal level the notions of parental mistrust, violence and sexuality, and existential nihilism that is the heart of Hamlet.
The rules of audience engagement are often the subject of my writing partner and I, Claire Christian. We've both worked with youth throughout our theatre careers, and questions of what teenagers can and cannot be an audience too can be so potent as to threaten a project's life altogether. By production necessity, projects need to be able to be clearly definable. This work is for young people, or this work is for adults. But the lines are so rarely clear. Rules of age seem as obscure and arbitrary as rules for gender (girls don't like action films and guys don't like romance films), or class (working class can't enjoy opera and the wealthy don't laugh at fart jokes).
Stories that break the rules pay an undeserving price. Mud, a perfectly solid film, was independently produced and reaped minimal box office, and even critical notice. I can only imagine the wondrous potential if studios like Pixar were able to risk their commercialism and create a work that handled intimidating adult themes (something that studio quite clearly wants to do, with works such as Up or Toy Story 3 proving incredibly mature). I can only hope in a generation that such boundaries have begun to loosen, and we can see more characters and stories who are wholly themselves, as opposed to being designed for a specific demographics consumption. To only ever play inside restrictive boundaries, will ultimately kill innovation dead in its tracks.