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What is Young Adult Literature?

April 23, 2011

The OUtsiders - SE Hinton

Well, the question had to come up – it’s an ongoing discussion that sometimes surfaces, and sometimes gets heated, as these things do. I’m not going to define it exactly, but here’s a little background to the discussion:

A fairly comfortable view is that:

Young Adult Literature is literature written about adolescent characters and for adolescent readers.

So, you get  explanations like this: “In the lengthy history of publishing, the emergence of a distinctive body of literature suitable for adolescents is a relatively recent development.  It was only after World War II that educators, parents, and publishers began to realize that readers from roughly twelve to eighteen years of age had distinctive needs and tastes in literature.  Young adults required their own unique genre.

With the publication of such ground-breaking books as S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and Paul Zindel’s The Pigmanin the late 1960s, the development of this new literary form gained momentum. Although young adults continued to read both the classics and other books originally intended for adults, they gravitated to this new literary form that addressed their individual reading needs.” [1]

…which implies social groupings…

Obviously, there’s a specific (or not so specific!) ‘age’ group that this literature is aimed at. In his article, ‘Young Adult Literature for young adult males’ (The ALAN Review 26(2)1999), Sam Gill points out that:

“Aidan Chambers, author of challenging YA fiction and a critic of children’s literature, maintains that every group needs its own literature (Chambers 1996). According to Chambers, adolescents constitute a minority in our modern society, and like any minority, adolescents need a literature to call their own. Chambers even goes so far as to consider adolescents an oppressed group that needs to shed its shackles.”

This is an interesting thought – and certainly worth exploring, but to see adolescents ‘as a group’ is problematic in its own right… who defines this group? what defines them? how does such a definition change over time and across cultures?

The Pigman - Paul Zindel

Of course, we can’t forget the role of the adult in the creation and dissemination of this literature:

As Richard Flynn writes, “adults are inevitably and inextricably implicated in both the production and reception of texts for young people – for better and sometimes for worse.  And they are also implicated in the very definition of the genre – as Perry Nodelman succinctly puts it at the end of his brilliant new book, The Hidden Adult: Defining Children’s Literature… ‘Children’s literature is literature that claims to be devoid of adult content that nevertheless lurks within it’ (341).” [2]

It’s for this reason that one must consider the nature of print culture when looking at the sociopolitical milieu YA literature grows in.  Although Young Adult Literature is usually contrasted with ‘adult’ literature, it is not to be entirely defined by the age group to which it supposedly appeals.  The political aspects of this literature need to be considered too.

…certainly, distinctions are usually made between YA Lit and ‘adult’ lit… which brings us to ‘the crossover novel’:

Harry Potter

That this idea is even up for discussion is a commentary on the politics of the genre.  There are books on this ‘phenomenon’ – Rachel Falconer’s The Crossover Novel: Contemporary Children’s Fiction and Its Adult Readership, for example.   Such studies give us terms like ‘crossover reading’ to explain the somehow surprising notion that adults read certain novels published primarily for children/young adults.

You have to look at this ‘genre’ with an awareness of the constrictive way in which its ‘target audience’ is understood.

Distinctions are also made between Children’s Literature and Young Adult Literature:

Roberta Seelinger Trites makes interesting distinctions between children’s and adolescent literature.  She states that “the crux of defining adolescent literature as distinct from children’s literature resides in the issue of power.  While in children’s literature, growth is depicted as a function of what the character has learned about self, growth in adolescent literature is inevitably depicted as a function of what the adolescent has learned about how society curtails the individual’s power.  The adolescent cannot grow without experiencing gradations between power and powerlessness.  Consequently, power is even more fundamental to the genre than growth is.” [3]

“Everything,” Trites writes, “in adolescent literature is designed to teach adolescents their place in the power structure.  …Ultimately, most adolescent novels carry some ideological message that reinforces the need for the adolescent to conform to the status quo.” [4]

She raises really interesting points about YA Literature as a form of cultural expression, noting, for example, that:

“adolescent literature is all-too-often dedicated to teaching the intended reader that her or his subject position is inherently flawed and will continue to be so until s/he becomes an adult. In that sense, adolescent literature is probably the only genre in the world designed to propel the reader out of her or his own subject position.” [5]


“In fact, the very existence of the YA novel depends on a cultural ability to question the power relations that construct the individual.”[6]

If you want to get a sense of what YA Literature is, Roberta Seelinger Trites’s article is absolutely worth a read.

In fact, this whole faith-in-age-groups-thing means that literature is even aimed at ‘tweens’ now, too

But I’m not going down that track of thought just now… (you could get into discussing the question ‘what is genre?’ from here quite easily)… still this does raise questions about ‘representation.’

Representations of girlhood and boyhood:

The target audience of Young Adult Literature is understood in a particular way.  There are ‘scientific’ studies that explain how adolescents are ‘different’ (Consider, ‘What Makes Teens Tick’ in Time 10th May 2004, among other articles)  The teen brain and all that.  And you only have to look at the legal system to see that there are strong cultural ideas about adolescents being different.  How adolescents are represented to ‘themselves’ through such literature is often the subject of analysis.

Its not surprising, then, that an important feature of this genre is provided by the themes that it often (supposedly) deals with (sex… eating disorders… body issues… identity formation… coming of age problems/decisions/experiences… ‘teenage angst’… femininity and masculinity… etc.).  These themes are focused on in much of the criticism (much more so than in criticism of ‘adult’ literature).  What else is focused on? I have to think for a moment…

Problem Fictions…

These texts often deal with (or are expected to deal with/marketed as dealing with) the concerns that supposedly go with this agegroup (the no-longer-child, but not-yet-adult).

On Criticism…

Kay Vandergrift makes this interesting statement in her section on ‘Feminist Readings‘:

Feminist literary criticism should be of particular concern to those who work with youth literature because this is a form of literature through which predominately female authors, editors, teachers, librarians, and parents share cultural values with young readers. Thus, youth literature is often excluded from the canon as a literature created by one marginalized group for another. In spite of female dominance in the field, most texts deemed worthy of study have been written by men.”  I’m not sure what I think of this, but as a claim, it is worth considering and feminist theories certainly do offer a lot to criticism… as do masculinist studies and cultural theories, etc..

And obviously I’m advocating Roberta Seelinger Trites’s consideration of power in this genre.

Jeffrey S. Kaplan points to three strands of analysis in his article, ‘Recent Research in Young Adult Literature: Three Predominant Strands of Study’ (The ALAN Review, 34(3) Summer 2007, pp53+).  Each of these strands seems to be a form of cultural didacticism – and this is absolutely a ‘critical’ approach that is often taken with the genre of YA Lit (people wonder, What does this novel say about…? How does this novel teach its readers about…? etc.).  Is this approach taken more with this genre than with others? Is it an approach that is made legitimate by our pedagogical views of adolescence?  hmmm

Further information:

Definitely read Seelinger Trites, R. (2001). “The Harry Potter Novels as a Test Case for Adolescent Literature.” Style 35(3): 472-485

There are heaps of other articles, too (especially in CLAQ, but look in any journal that works in this genre!).  The ALAN Review 35(1)2007 – and other issues – has a couple of freely available articles considering this question.


[1] pvii John T Gillespie and Corinne J Naden (1997) Characters in Young Adult Literature.  Detroit: Gale Research. (Characters in Young Adult Literature Contents)

[2] p97 Richard Flynn (2009) “Children’s Literature and the Authority that ‘lurks within'” Children’s Literature Association  Quarterly. pp97-98

[3] p473 Seelinger Trites, R. (2001). “The Harry Potter Novels as a Test Case for Adolescent Literature.” Style 35(3): 472-485

[4] Ibid. p480

[5] Ibid. p481

[6] Ibid. p482

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