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  • The Irony of Narration in the Young Adult Novel
  • Mike Cadden (bio)

Critics of young adult fiction have good reason to dwell on the nature of narrative authority in the young adult novel, especially the authority claimed through the consciousness of young characters.1 That young adult novels are almost always written in first-person address was observed by Elizabeth Schuhmann almost two decades ago: "Because of this prevalence of first-person narration in young adult novels and because of the popularity of these books, many advocates of novels written for young people have come to consider first-person narration a preferred technique for this kind of literature" (314). But it is the language of the American Library Association's Margaret A. Edwards Award that highlights the irony of this "preferred technique": in worthy young adult literature, young adults will hear "an authentic voice that continues to illuminate their experiences and emotions, giving insight into their lives" (Barber 123). The irony of the use of "authenticity" is important to consider. While any novel is an ideal site for studying the different layers of narrative relationships, the young adult novel that features the consciousness of young characters is especially interesting because of the unique and ironic relationship between author and reader in this age-based genre. Novels constructed by adults to simulate an authentic adolescent's voice are inherently ironic because the so-called adolescent voice is never—and can never be—truly authentic. I would like first to discuss the nature of the irony implicit in this genre with the "preferred technique" of speaking through the consciousness of the young and then consider how novels that employ double-voiced discourse offer young adult readers the tools necessary for identifying and coping with that irony. Throughout I offer speculations—my own as well as those of others—on the ethical implications of this ironic relationship.

Robert Small points out that "adolescent fiction often employs a point of view which presents the adolescent's interpretation of the events of the story" which results in "incomplete 'growth to awareness' on the part of the central character" (282). The YA novelist often not only speaks from the position of the young adult but also often believably presents that incomplete growth to awareness without challenge from within the text. This is not a condition that results exclusively from the use of first-person address, however. While first-person narration makes it easy to present immature and unchallenged views, indirect address can achieve the same effect. What is more important than the type of address is the focalizer's level of maturity and the degree to which his or her view is challengeable and challenged. And while it is uncommon for first-person address to shift to multiple perspectives (one tool for calling some or all ideologies into question), third person address is not necessarily obliged to present the positions, perspectives, and politics of all, or even some, of the characters in the text, as we shall see.2 In any case, by employing an all-too-reliable young adult's consciousness, the YA novelist often intentionally communicates to the immature reader a single and limited awareness of the world that the novelist knows to be incomplete and insufficient. It is a sophisticated representation of a lack of sophistication; it is an artful depiction of artlessness.

Does the author's maintenance of this ironic relationship necessarily mean that he or she somehow abandons the young reader? I don't believe that it does—or that it has to. Wayne Booth questions Northrop Frye's assertion that the ironist, like the lyricist, turns his back on the audience: "some ironies are written to be understood, and...most readers will regret their own failures to understand" (Booth, Rhetoric xi). The author of the young adult novel as described above counts on the reader's failure to see, understand, and subsequently regret the adult's ironic construction of an "authentic" adolescent's voice. However, by helping the reader recognize the limits of the young adult consciousness in the text, the author ethically trades the visibility of irony at one narrative level for the irony at another. All of this...