Adolescents face a difficult challenge in life; the confusion of not yet and already. They want the freedom of childhood, while longing for the privileges of adulthood. There is a desire to be grown up, but a fear of the responsibility. Literature gives the reader an opportunity to experience worlds not readily available. It also gives a real-life picture of what some adolescents and teenagers do face. VanderStaay is a reader, teacher, and writer, who states, “The fiction they read should flinch from none of this ‘reality.’ But it should also point to the possible, which is the purpose of YA literature” (52). Literature and film for adolescents should do what it does for all people: educate and entertain. And that is precisely what it does and will continue to do. YA literature will always entertain, while at the same time influence and impact the reader with the political or cultural agenda of the writer.
YA literature since its inception has been an extension of fiction literature for all other ages. It can cover all genres. YA literature can be most basically defined as literature written about teenagers, written for teenagers, and marketed to teenagers. It is an opportunity to see new worlds, visit far off and even fantastical places, learn new things, and be introduced to opportunity. In the quest to define YA and to differentiate between teen, New Adult, and crossover, Imogen Williams states, “To me, YA means challenge – encountering diverse protagonists and situations I’ll never experience myself (including being a teenager again) but which stretch me to empathize with and contemplate” (Williams). YA literature and film can provide the adolescent with the courage to face difficult circumstances like Ponyboy in The Outsiders, to stand up to one’s own beliefs even when different from his or her parents like Sam in My Brother Sam is Dead, and to learn that pursuing one’s dreams should not be put on hold like Louise in Jacob Have I Loved. Patrick Ness states it this way, YA is “finding boundaries and crossing them and figuring out when you end, who you are and what shape you are” (qtd. In Williams). The years of middle school and high school can be difficult as children discover who they are, face changes and challenges that are new to them, and answer the age-old question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Because of this, YA literature always has a main character that is a teenager. It is written with a first person perspective and does not always have a happy ending. It covers the topics that teenagers struggle with as they transition between childhood and adult responsibilities.
As culture shifted in the 1900s and the gap between child and adult grew, the need for YA literature seemed to follow. As adolescents grew too old for children’s books, but not quite ready for adult literature, writers began filling the need with books that covered hard topics but in an approachable manner. These books also managed to focus on the social and cultural issues of the time they were written. S. E. Hinton focused on the changing culture of the 1960s in her novel, The Outsiders, dealing with realistic issues including the uninvolved parents of the Socs and the social struggles of the Greasers. Christopher Collier and James Lincoln Collier wrote with an interesting twist of placing their novel, My Brother Sam is Dead, in the American Revolution, but still handling the tough topics of the complications of war for a generation that was conflicted over the Vietnam War. Jacob Have I Loved was written in a time when the individual and individualism was becoming more prevalent. Katherine Paterson connected with YA readers in that time as Louise struggled to find her identity on an island where everyone else seemed to have their place, passion, and pursuits.
In the 90s, there was a more prevalent turn to relative truth and the perception that life is what man believes it to be. At the same time, there was a patriotic duty as America was thrown into the Gulf War. Avi covered both patriotism and perceived truth in his novel, Nothing But the Truth. Philip’s perception of truth wreaked havoc on his local school while the outside world viewed him as the patriotic citizen he was not. His perspective that the world hates him and everybody is against him is the angst of every teenager. At the turn of the century and in the middle of concerns of Y2K and the end of the world, dystopian novels found their way into YA literature. The Giver and its sequels give consideration to the “what if” questions of teenagers. It ties in fantasy, special powers, life in community and the evils of mankind that allows the reader to escape real life and imagine for good or for bad what life could become.
YA continues to reach its readers with real life issues and non-storybook endings. Because YA literature does not always have a happy ending and often covers hard topics, parents and educators alike can be and should be cautious about the books they introduce to young people. The heavy topics of cultural issues, political differences, even religious beliefs will continue to flood the readers’ market with literature that can educate while it entertains.
Marketing of YA books shows that this category of literature will continue to grow. As VanderStaay states, “if sales of YA literature are any indication, our teenagers want to hear about the adult world in all its misery, joys, and temptations. They want the facts straight up. But they also want to learn how to enter into that world without being soiled by it, to swim amidst its degradation without degrading themselves” (VanderStaay 51-52). This does not mean that the only option for teaching novels in Reading and English is limited to The Catcher in the Rye or Lord of the Flies. True to life literature like Wonder by RJ Palarico (physical differences), Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman (mental illness), and Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli (racial tensions) can teach about the real-life challenges. Historical novels like Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, and Sophia’s War by Avi, are currently used in schools to educate middle schoolers and young adults in social studies classes. And in the category of Cancer Lit, books are popping up for every decade, including more recent Halfway Normal, by Barbara Dee, which tells the story of Norah Levy who “has just completed two years of treatment for leukemia and is ready to go back to the ‘real world’ of middle school” (front book flap). The explosion of literature for young adults has opened doors for even struggling readers.
As Solomon reminds his reader, “of the making of books there is no end” (KJV Ecc. 12:12). There will always be stories to tell and someone will write them down. Many should be read and shared and read again. Others, will gather dust and be pulled from library shelves and be forgotten. YA literature does not always become classic literature, but just like the stories it tells, it has possibility. Possibility that takes the reader to new knowledge and new places. Even children’s literature can teach us that “the more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go” (Seuss). However, not every place is worth going and not every book is worth learning from. When looking at the political and cultural topics that are showing up in YA today, one wonders whether literature influences the culture or if culture influences literature. They seem to go hand in hand and the path that both are taking can be scary to a conservative Christian parent, teacher, pastor or other influencer of young lives.
All reading should be done with discernment and through the lens of a Biblical worldview. Christian parents and educators alike should take the time to research the books their children read and should build a biblical foundation for these young people. Romans 12:2 reads, “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (KJV). John admonishes, “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world” (1 Jn 4:1). And Paul states, “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ” (Col 2:8). Each verse is a reminder that God has called the Christian to be wise in consumption of knowledge from the world.
YA literature can be completely honest and completely false all at the same time. Therefore, readers must show discernment and be ever aware of the words of T.S. Eliot, “It is the literature which we read with the least effort that can have the easiest and most insidious influence upon us” (Eliot 204).
Avi. Nothing But the Truth: A Documentary Novel, Orchard Books, 1991.
Collier, James Lincoln and Christopher Collier, My Brother Sam is Dead, Scholastic Inc, 1974.
Dee, Barbara. Halfway Normal. Aladdin, 2017.
Eliot, T. S. “Religion and Literature.” The Christian Imagination, Waterbrook Press, 2002, pp. 197–208.
Hinton, S. E. The Outsiders, Penguin Group, 1995.
The Holy Bible: Containing the Old and New Testaments. T. Nelson, 1977.
Lowry, Lois, The Giver, Houghton Mifflin, 1993.
Paterson, Katherine, Jacob Have I Loved, Thomas Y Crowell Books, 1980.
Seuss, Dr. I Can Read with My Eyes Shut, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, 1978.
VanderStaay, Steven. “Young-Adult Literature: A Writer Strikes the Genre.” The English Journal, vol. 81, no. 4, 1992, pp. 48–52. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/819930.
Williams, Imogen Russell. “What Are YA Books? And Who Is Reading Them?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media Limited, 31 July 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/books/ booksblog/2014/jul/31/ya-books-reads-young-adult-teen-new-adult-books.