Literary Ageism: The Erasure of Young Adults of Color in Fiction

Young adult literature caters to teenagers between the ages of 12 to 18. Anything beyond the magical age of when American parents no longer bare legal responsibility for their children is considered adult fiction. Because, after all, once you turn 18, everything shifts into place. There is no more hormonal awkwardness, you don’t have to go on journeys to self discovery. When you turn 18, your world settles and you know who you are and what you’re meant to do in life. You’re an adult now. Right?

Leola Dublin Macmillan Ph.D., lecturer at Cal Poly, reflects on her experiences as a Black  woman, and discusses the Black family dynamic in her critical essay, “The Welcome Table” (Valley Voices 2015). In a section entitled, “Grown Folks’ Bidness” she writes, “I learned early that I was not ‘grown,’ but a ‘little girl.’ I would continue to be a little girl until some arbitrary point in life when I would be deemed worthy of permission to speak on grown folks’ bidness.” She further discusses how her friend’s cousin’s auntie slapped her, and deemed this cousin a “little girl” despite having had children. The experience of not being “grown” enough is common in Black communities and Latinx communities, as well as Greek families and Italian families.

As a thirty-year-old in a large Mexican family, I was not allowed (not unable) to partake in the “adult” gift exchange last Christmas. My cousins’ reasoing? I didn’t have children, so was automatically dismissed as an adult despite my age and career. Other Latinx students of mine have candidly spoken to me regarding their family dynamic, and do not find this uncommon; they are frequently treated as children well into their 40s––their mothers governing what they can and can’t do with their finances, friends, partners etc. As a result, many “firsts” –– dates, moving out, sexual encounters, etc. –– are experienced a lot later in life. While it’s comforting to know my experience is not an isolated incident, popular culture, including fiction, perpetuates an inaccurate depiction of the “young adult” experience, especially for people of color.

I have read most John Green novels, which are all categorized as “young adult.” All of the awkward stumbles through identity issues, sexual encounters, mental illness, and friendship apparently happen in a vacuum. These firsts are only for white, teenage Americans between the ages of 12-18. Anything outside of that is stigmatized as abnormal.

Despite having two degrees, a career in education, a novel on Amazon, and plethora of experiences and wisdom, a former friend (let’s call her Stacy) called me a “sponge” because I still live at home with my parents. If you’re unfamiliar with Latinx culture, many people don’t move out until they’re married, or ever. It’s not uncommon or frowned upon. Mexican families like helping their children reach a level of security before releasing them out into the cold, cruel world. However Stacy, raised to be independent at the age of 18, recognizes my disposition as a sign of immaturity and irresponsibility. Instead of having an adult conversation on issues like health care, I am not allowed to enter the conversation because I am a “sponge” who lives at home. I, apparently, have no understanding of finances, or the world in general.

Here I am again, not an adult, but not a girl, either. (Britney Spears is finally making some fucking sense, huh?)

The issue with perpetuating the idea that our stumbles to reach adulthood peak at 18 , stunts our understanding of cultural norms outside of the typical white American. We are all raised differently, and therefore reach adulthood at different times in our lives.

Recent findings indicate that the term “young adults” actually refers to individuals between the ages of 20 to 30. However, publishing created its own rules and decreased that age range solely for marketing purposes. Apparently college students are too busy reading textbooks to look for shared experiences to help them get through the obstacles in their lives. They’ll figure it out, right? They’re adults who don’t need guidance.


Expanding this age range, particularly in literature, would allow for a more nuanced discussion regarding adulthood, and would perhaps erase the stigmas that currently surround “sponges” like myself. Additionally, it would make for a more inclusive market for not only people of color, but for the vast majority of people who experience “growing up” beyond the age of 18.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s