Academic journal article English Journal

Illuminating Discourses of Youth through the Study of First-Person Narration in Young Adult Literature

Academic journal article English Journal

Illuminating Discourses of Youth through the Study of First-Person Narration in Young Adult Literature

Article excerpt

Young adult literature (YAL)- defined in this article as literature written and marketed for teenagers-is often celebrated as a literary genre that takes adolescents seriously. However, because YAL is written for adolescents by adults, it always represents, first and foremost, what adults think adolescents want, need, and care about, and who adults think adolescents are (Cadden; Nodelman and Reimer; Trites). It is not surprising, then, that YAL sometimes supports dominant ideologies and discourses about adolescence found within society at large (Sarigianides; Thein, Sulzer, and Schmidt). Rather than conceiving of adolescence as a socially constructed category, these discourses conceptualize adolescence as a universal, developmental phase marked by raging hormones, rebellion, impulsive and myopic behavior, mimicry of peers, and prototypical identity crises related to sex, drug and alcohol use, bullying, and suicide (Lesko). These dominant discourses of youth limit and constrain the ability of adults (including teachers) and young people to see adolescents as complete, complex people with a range of interests, needs, desires, experiences, and ways of participating in school and life.

Mike Cadden argues that the first-person narration that predominates in YAL can intensify the power of dominant discourses of adolescence in YAL because such narration both feels authentic in its intimacy and-on the surface-offers only a single, dominant perspective on the adolescent experience. In other words, first-person YAL narration, despite being constructed by an adult, reads as truth about the adolescent experience that isn't questioned by competing perspectives that are available in other narrative forms.

Cadden suggests, however, that it is possible to find what Mikhail Bakhtin would call "doublevoicedness" or multiple voices within first-person narration. For the purposes of this article we interpret Bakhtin's notion of "double-voicedness" as the idea that in every word an author writes, she is not only sharing her single voice or perspective, but she is also responding to and anticipating her potential readers' needs and desires. This response and anticipation constitutes additional "voices"-a doublevoiced textual quality. Double-voicedness serves different purposes in different texts. Sometimes it serves to reify one dominant and didactic message for readers. Other times, it generates competing perspectives that pose unresolved questions with which readers can actively engage.

In this article we offer an interpretive heuristic for locating and examining double-voicedness within first-person YAL with the goal of illustrating how such an examination illuminates an ideological conversation about the needs and desires of youth. Grounded in the three-part literary concept of the narrator, the narratee, and the implied reader (Prince), our heuristic unravels first-person narration, uncovering and directing attention to narrative layers as they work together in double-voiced ways to either sediment and reinforce particular discourses of adolescence, or provide competing perspectives and dialogue about what it means to be an adolescent.

Our heuristic takes adolescents seriously by providing them a method for attending to and critiquing assumptions about youth found in YAL. Further, it takes YAL seriously as a genre for study in the ELA classroom by specifying a method for critiquing a textual feature that functions uniquely and prominently in YAL: first-person narration.

The Narrator/Narratee/Implied Reader Triangle

The heuristic we offer can be imagined as an interpretive triangle (see Figure 1). The three points of the triangle are the narrator, the narratee, and the implied reader-three concepts derivative of readerresponse theory (e.g., Iser, Prince). The narrator-a familiar concept-is the voice that tells the story. Although literary texts use a variety of narrative forms, first-person narration, in which a character uses his own voice to tell about his experiences and thoughts, is a hallmark of YAL (Schuhmann) and the focus of this article. …

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