Sunday, March 15, 2009

Characteristics of Young Adult Literature

By Lonica Rowley

Young adult and adult fiction often overlap boundaries. Part of the difficulty, historically, with getting publishers and literary critics to acknowledge this literary genre lay in actually defining the genre. In fact, even today, well after young adult fiction has been recognized by many critics, there are many works of fiction which continue to vacillate between the two categories. However, there are certain characteristics that continue to appear and define the young adult genre; the following are some of the most significant.

  1. Stories are told from the viewpoint of young people. Most young adult fiction is told from a first person perspective and is written from the eyes of a young adult. There may be multiple perspectives or plot lines in a single work, but they will all most likely be told from the perspective of a teenager. Essentially, teenagers like to read about other teenagers. Even if the story doesn’t necessarily center on a young adult, it will often be told from a youngster’s perspective. For example, you could easily argue that To Kill A Mockingbird is really an adult story that revolves around Atticus and Tom Robinson’s court trial, but since the story is told from the perspective a Scout, a young girl, young adults relate more easily to the tale.
  2. Young adult stories often get rid of all adult figures. This often allows the young adult to shine in center stage and receive credit for all the work they accomplish throughout the story. Adults are often missing or only play a minor role. An incredible number of stories eliminate any and all adult figures, take Lord of the Flies for example. Certainly, the boys in the story would not have started hunting one another had an adult figure been around to guide and lead them. If, by chance, an adult does figure into the story, they are rarely a parent of one of the characters. More often, any adults in a tale will be more of a mentor figure that the teen has sought out and approaches on their own terms.
  3. Young adult literature is fast-paced. Many teens struggle to read for enjoyment at all, let alone willingly plow through a lengthy novel on their own initiative—of course, the Harry Potter series was a ground-breaking work on this front. Most young adult fiction is quick to read and quick to develop. In order to accomplish this task, the young adult genre is often marked by a limited number of characters and narrative events. Furthermore, the language flows naturally and changes and develops with the current times—popularity in speech and trends is often important in young adult fiction.
  4. Young adult literature includes a variety of genres and subjects. While I often refer to it simply as “fiction,” the genre is really more than that. Young adults take interest in non-fiction, poetry, drama, science fiction, historical fiction, and even graphic novels, to name just a few. In fact, all types of literature are now being written to appeal to a young adult population. Teens’ tastes vary just as much as adults; they like to read about a variety of subjects and issues in a number of different literary forms. On the same front, young adult authors can feel comfortable writing about other cultures or customs. Not all stories need to be told from a well-understood, American middle-class perspective. Certainly, teens’ interest is piqued by learning about a different experience. In part, that’s one of the greatest values of literature—learning about places and people unlike you. Teens recognize that and can thoroughly immerse themselves in expanding their horizons. Indeed, educational research shows that the teen years are a great time, developmentally, for teens to learn about life outside of themselves.
  5. Young adult books are optimistic and characters make worthy accomplishments. Adults often get turned off by a teenaged protagonist that acts like they know more than adults, but in fact this is a major appeal to teens. The ability to succeed on their own terms and in their own way really appeals to young adults. In fact, change and growth is perhaps the most common theme appearing in young adult literature. All works of literature in this genre explore the theme to some extent. In most cases, the protagonist loses innocence as part of the passage from childhood to adulthood. This gaining of maturity would, potentially, affect them for the rest of their lives. The inherent need to learn, grow, and overcome appeals to teens of all ages.
  6. Young adult novels deal with real emotions. At a time in life when hormones often rule, teens take particular interest in emotions and want to see them accurately represented in the fiction they read. Often books deal with similar emotional struggles: acquiring more mature social skills, achieving emotional independence from parents and other adults, developing a personal ideology and ethical standard, achieving a masculine or feminine sex role, etc. By following the development of these feelings in a fictional character, teens are often able to work out their own angst and emotional struggles.

While this is only a brief view of young adult fiction, these defining characteristics often help to establish and corral the genre. Certainly, once you are aware, it becomes easy to see the reoccurrence of these characteristics when reading young adult literature.

Much of this information is taken from the book Literature for Today’s Young Adults by Kenneth Donelson and Alleen pace Nilsen. Certainly, if you are interested in learning more about this thriving literary genre, this is one of the most highly-reputed texts in the field. I would strongly recommend this entertaining and informative text to anyone curious about the field.

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