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On Freedom and Independence

Well, it’s the Fourth of July here in America everywhere, which means it’s time for the United States to celebrate its independence. For a lot of us, that means enjoying the sweet scent of lighter fluid along with an assortment of hot food, cold drinks, heat rashes, fireworks, and—if we’re really lucky—the chance to set off cobras on the sidewalk. Remember those? They’re supposed to look like ‘growing snakes,’ but instead resemble something the neighbor’s dog left on the lawn last week. 


But let’s bring the notion of independence back around to the world of YA fiction.

Dr. Margaret Mahler was one of those psychoanalysts who took some of Sigmund Freud’s ideas about childhood development and came up with something a lot less sex-driven. She studied a whole bunch of children and their caregivers in order to understand how infants make the transition from complete dependence to a separate, unique sense of self. Mahler referred to this process of budding independence as “separation and individuation.”

An important stage in Mahler’s theory is called rapprochement. This is the time when a toddler begins to take risks and step away from his/her caregiver. But when the world doesn’t feel safe, the toddler returns to the supportive caregiver. And so begins the back and forth of forging out into the world on one’s own and the subsequent scurrying back to hide behind legs when life feels overwhelming.

In its own way, adolescence is a repetition of the rapprochement phase. Teenagers chomp at the bit for their independence. Their job is to push boundaries, question authority, and define the world on their own terms. The goal of adolescence is to come out the other side an independent, autonomous being. But this growth comes in fits and spurts, complicated by parents who want to hold on too long, who don’t hold on enough, and who are not able to hold on at all. And the difference between toddlerhood and adolescence is that independence is not just in relation to family: it also involves separation and individuation from authority figures—like schools, governments, social cliques, cultural expectations, religious institutions, etc.

YA literature frequently touches on themes of independence and freedom—so many teen characters strive to redefine themselves and the world around them. These struggles are what make YA such a fascinating genre: we are writing and reading about that precise period in life where rebellions are born, where innovation happens, and where the status quo is challenged. It’s vibrant and alive, because anything is possible.

Here are three books that highlight very different flavors of personal freedom:

47 by Walter Mosley
In this historical-fantasy, a slave boy visited by worlds beyond our own, seeks the mental as well as physical freedom to live by the sage words: “neither master nor nigger be.”
This is a contemporary novel about an anxious, suicidal, high-achieving teen searching for the freedom and independence to endure life's ambiguities.

Nothing by Janne Teller
Freedom is nothing! Nothing is freedom! Out to prove their lives have meaning, a group of classmates learn about freedom and independence through a series of sadistic rituals and joint sacrifice in this literary, existentialist romp.

What about your characters? How do they find their freedom? What does it look like and what does it mean to them?
Stephanie Kuehn

Stephanie is the William C. Morris award-winning author of Charm & Strange, Complicit, Delicate Monsters, and The Smaller Evil.

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  1. Wonderful post, and these recs are awesome, Steph - I haven't read any of them, but will be heading to the library this week! Thanks!!

  2. Great post. Freedom and what it actually means for my characters is a huge theme in my MS.

  3. Ooh, I have the ultimate example of rapprochement in toddlers.

    I was sitting in the park one day by a huge fountain and saw a little girl (maybe four or five) playing. She slowly crept closer to the huge geyser in the middle, then would get close, and run away, get closer, run away. Eventually, she got close enough touch it and was so proud of herself.


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