Kicking It Up beyond the Casual: Fresh Perspectives in Young Adult Literature

Article excerpt

Adolescent. Teenager. Young adult. These terms for this awkward phase of life shiver with connotations. And why not? As adults, we raise them, teach them, live among them, and most definitely write for and about them. They perplex us. Indeed, young adults are spectacularly unique and much on our minds. We fret over where they are and what they are doing, whether texting while driving or, perish the thought, sexting a friend.

Adolescents are the focus of research in neuroscience, of political drama, of public policy debates; they are in the news, on TV, the subjects of movies, and on trial in our courts. Young adult issues surround us: the Supreme Court's decision in Roper v. Simmons, the social/sexual debate concerning the gender of the South African sprinter, Caster Semenya; a bullying incident in South Hadley, Massachusetts, that led to yet another suicide and to criminal charges against several teens; the solo ocean voyage of Jessica Watson; the Baylor basketball prodigy who coldcocked an opponent in the heat of a game, breaking her nose, and whose coach, commenting on her player's action, noted "While she looks like this big, big woman out there, she's really a kid when you're around her.... And we forget that"; and the serious case of Omar Khadr (just now, after years in prison, coming to trial) as discussed by the psychologist Laurence Steinberg. Also, popular pieces about the literature written for and about young adults have been appearing in recent magazines and newspapers. And, we must also include the extensive research and deliberations on adolescent reading habits, literacy policy (e.g. statements found in the NCTE and the IRA), and educational reform. Amid this attention, Young Adult Literature (YAL) remains a growth industry. We should not be surprised.

Not only are trade publishers offering new fiction titles and touting new authors, but the educational publishers are marketing new course textbooks, while they update older ones, to aid in the teaching of the genre. Such texts are often required for undergraduates and graduate students studying to become English teachers. Even though No Child Left Behind has meant a more general focus on "real" literature with YAL relegated to trying to spur on less able readers, public school English departments have begun to include more YAL in the curricula. (1) (This has been a painfully slow process that is now, thankfully, beginning to gain traction in many areas of the country.) New anthologies of stories and poems geared toward YA's continue to appear from various publishers. A myriad of articles in newspapers and magazines have discussed such topics as death wishes in teen fiction, the parent problem in Young Adult Literature, and the coming of age of YAL. After all, adults are reading these books now, especially books about misfit teens and fantasy worlds.

Another factor sparking renewed interest in YAL is the author crossover factor. Writers usually not associated with YAL, such as Sherman Alexie, Francine Prose, and Jim Shepard, just to name a few, have jumped headlong into this sea and made noticeable splashes in the genre. It must be noted that long before the entry of these writers, established YAL authors pushed and redefined the boundaries of our conceptions of Young Adult Literature, moving the genre forward in new, exciting ways: YAL writers such as Walter Dean Meyer, Robert Cormier, Chris Crutcher, Chris Curtis, Nancy Farmer, Judy Blume, Kathryn Lasky.

Given the burgeoning attention to YAL from the media, writers, and publishers it is quite natural for academics to set their sights on it in invigorating ways. Thus we have eleven substantial examples of new trends toward reexamining YAL. These essays, the topics for this special issue of Studies in the Novel devoted to current ways of thinking about Young Adult Literature, demonstrate that it is, indeed, a hot time not only to be writing but to be studying YAL, to be rethinking and re-conceptualizing YAL as a genre. …