Joni Sensel at The Spectacle pointed me to Karen Healey’s essay “Becoming New: Young Adult SFF and the Adolescent Body” at Strange Horizons. Its main thesis:
some of my favourite young adult reading, then and now, is that which deals metaphorically with the tumultuous changes of puberty and adolescence.This lack of total satisfaction is what I’ve heard author Ellen Howard call “the price of fantasy”—a story shouldn’t offer unalloyed wish-fulfillment, but a trade-off, not unlike growing up itself.
It's not hard to divine the fears and hopes bound into a story about a girl changing herself into a new, magical being at the same time she becomes aware of her sexuality, or a boy trying to cope with superstrength, or a group of teenagers who discover that their parents are all supervillains. But such metaphors make those hopes and fears one step removed, allowing them to be sympathetically explored in all their complexity, without beating the reader over the head with ideas they may shy from if presented up front. . . .
All in all, I think I prefer YA where the protagonists aren't ever totally satisfied with their transformations. I like fiction that acknowledges the difficulty and terror of acquiring new bodies and new attitudes, but promises that change is not only inevitable, but can be a mindful and ongoing process of self-making, aiming for better days ahead.
Adolescence isn’t only a matter of physical transformation, of course. It’s usually accompanied by a social transformation, and that too has its reflection in fantasy literature for young people. Sometimes it takes the form of a first job assignment (The Giver, City of Ember, the first volume of Monster Blood Tattoo). Sometimes it’s a forced departure from home (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter, The Homeward Bounders). And of course sometimes all manifestations of adulthood—new bodies, urges, responsibilities, and relationships—occur at once.