YA fantasy meeting reality

moving past the page

The Brown University Bookstore smells of burnt espresso and cardboard boxes, half-emptied after the initial shopping period mayhem. With some free time before classes and nowhere better to be, I meander past the Bestsellers and the Newly Recommended, glancing out the windows at the metal scaffolding and orange plastic of Thayer Street’s recent construction. The recent rain has given the world outside a dull hue, incentivizing my reluctance to return to studying and stress. I turn around the stairs, hands trailing over the wooden railing, and find the store’s humble Young Adult section.

When I was younger, I imagined that my teenage years would begin with a Young Adult Fantasy book cover, preferably one featuring some over-photoshopped teen holding a sword and staring off into the distance, and end with an “About the Author” section. Chapter One would begin in monotony, a just-like-any-other-day scenario: a 13-year-old girl lives a normal life in the small suburbia of Minnesota. From there, my life would suddenly turn into an endless, thrilling adventure—the best times of my life. Perhaps I’d discover a family secret, or learn that I was the chosen one, or maybe I’d get mutant powers from a government test site. I’d accumulate a scrappy group of friends to accompany me as I embarked upon an epic journey that would ultimately end in saving the known universe. We’d topple corrupt governments, explore magical realms, become legends.

Reality sunk in slowly as my sense of disappointment escalated. I didn’t receive my Hogwarts letter like Harry Potter when I was 11. I never found out I was a demigod when I turned 12. When I was 13, I wasn’t recruited into a secret government experiment. I never learned that I was actually a mermaid, or a witch, or an alien. My life progressed, permanently in prologue phase, each day more or less the same, as I waited for something impossible to happen.

At many points, I became so impatient to have my own adventure that I deliberately adopted the behavior of my favorite YA characters. I tried to take up the bow and arrow after Katniss from The Hunger Games—a four-month endeavor that ended with me still unable to hit a target more than 20 feet away from me. I got chunky blonde highlights in the fourth grade because Max did in the Maximum Ride Series. I pretended that I was clumsier than I was and that I just didn’t “get” other people even though I did. I determined which boys in my class would be the members of my inevitable love triangle.

This was not to say that I was ungrateful for my typical existence. In my head, I understood how lucky I was to not have to deal with life-or-death situations, to not have to worry about massive conspiracies or the survival of my loved ones. Instead, I went to school, worried about tests, took up silly hobbies, and spent time with friends.

As I grew older, the Young Adult Novel fantasy slipped away quietly, first from reality, then from my thoughts. My friends and I stopped concocting conspiracy theories, stopped hoping that somehow our favorite novels were actually works of nonfiction. We stopped wondering about the existence of aliens and stopped thinking that the new kid in class was one. Aspirations to save the world were replaced with dream colleges, career ambitions, travel goals. We came to terms with, or perhaps simply ignored, the fact that we would never be given some paramount quest. We would have to construct our adventures with the simple, modest world we were given.

By the time I came to Brown University, my Young Adult fantasy had shrunk to an affinity for Marvel movies and a habit of treating my coursework as if the fate of the world depended on its execution. Sometimes, often while studying for a midterm, I’ll still wish I could escape; I’ll wonder what a younger version of myself would think of my life. There have been moments throughout the years reminiscent of the stories I’ve read, such as my decision to move across the country to attend a private university with a long, semi-mysterious history (I’m looking at you, Brown secret societies). In high school, I did have an intensely tight-knit group of friends, although we bonded over classes and video games instead of over defeating evil. I’d learned about my tumultuous family history from my father, how his family had immigrated to the United States from Laos after aiding US troops during the Vietnam War. I’d uncovered “powers” in writing, in mathematics, in cooking. There were events in my teenage years worthy of stories.

I pick up the closest novel on the bookstore shelf, turning to its back cover. Glittery details adorn the edges of the shiny dust jacket, and reviews give the work five stars. The plot summary promises a familiar set of tropey teenage characters and escapades, and a small part of my mind lights up with intrigue. Mostly, though, it finds the synopsis startlingly dull.

Now 20 years old, I’m venturing into a territory uncharted by my favorite fiction reads. After years of fantasy and science fiction filling out every aspect of my teenage years, I’m left without a baseline for what adult life should be like, barring the occasional epilogue and the few time travel epics that I’ve read.

I turn over the book again and put it back on the shelf with its other permutations. The chapter of my life that clung to YA tropes has concluded, but part of me will never cease to whisper, Maybe my real adventure is yet to comeI take a step backward and look around. I imagine blank pages, my future, extending beyond the wooden bookshelves, waiting to be written. I wonder where my story goes from here.