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  • Young Adult Literature Evades the Theorists
  • Caroline Hunt (bio)

Adolescent literature has been "coming of age" for over a quarter of a century if you count from The Pigman and The Outsiders, more than half a century if you count from Seventeenth Summer. Beginning in 1992-93, this coming of age has been marked by quasi-official rites of passage—such as a widespread acceptance of the grown-up name "young adult"; commemorative issues of English Journal and Journal of Youth Services in Libraries; and individual articles in other journals. As Richard Peck points out, young adult literature has become "a second-generation literature now for the children of our first readers" (19). Other acts of recognition range from the positive (increased speculation about whether a canon of young adult literature can, or does, exist) to the pessimistic, exemplified by Marc Aronson's "The YA Novel Is Dead and Other Fairly Stupid Tales." The field is mature in some ways—here I use the word "mature" as we might speak of a "mature economy"—but unstable or regressive in others.

As the literature has developed, so has the study of that literature. (In reviewing its history, I deal primarily with fiction because recent theory about children's literature centers on fiction.) I suggest that the study of "adolescent" literature has developed in a rather different way from that of children's literature in general, and that one result of its peculiar development has been a striking lack of theoretical criticism.

The first problem is that virtually no theoretical criticism attaches to young adult literature as such. Theorists in the wider field of children's literature often discuss young adult titles without distinguishing them as a separate group and without, therefore, indicating how theoretical issues in young adult literature might differ from those in literature for younger children. Important critical books of the 1980s take it for granted that young adult books and books for younger children are essentially alike. Jacqueline Rose's The Case of Peter Pan; or The Impossibility of Children's Fiction (1984) does not treat young adult titles as in any way unlike those for younger children, and neither does Juliet Dusinberre's Alice to the Lighthouse: Children's Books and Radical Experiments in Art (1987). Zohar Shavit, in Poetics of Children's Literature (1986), similarly considers juvenile literature as more or less unified and does not separate works for the upper age ranges.

Moving into the 1990s, one can see theorists noting some key distinctions; still, they do not, on the whole, address young adult books separately. Sometimes they do not address them at all. The concept of the child employed in Peter Hunt's Criticism, Theory, and Children's Literature (1991) clearly describes a preadolescent being; Hunt cites Nicholas Tucker's list of the characteristics of children, including "spontaneous play, receptivity to the prevailing culture, physiological con straints (children are generally smaller and weaker), and sexual immaturity (which implies that certain concepts are not immediately relevant to them)" (57, my italics). Accordingly, most of Hunt's examples are from the mid-range of children's books—for readers past the toddler years but not yet in their teens. This schema has the merit of consistency (and implies a distinction between children and adolescents) but appears to exclude any systematic examination of young adult books.

John Stephens, in Language and Ideology in Children's Fiction (1992), covers a broader age range, including a number of young adult texts: Jan Needle's My Mate Shofiq, Robert Cormier's After the First Death, and books by Rosemary Sutdiff, Ursula LeGuin, and Cynthia Voigt. Stephens shows his awareness of age differences in a brilliant account of ideological manipulation in picture books for younger readers; however, he pays specific attention to differences at the upper end of the age line only occasionally, as when he states that traditional values in Leon Garfield occur "in a context which renders them contingent. . . . especially . . . in Garfield's novels for older readers" (230, my italics).

Perry Nodelman, too, lumps young adult books in with other children's books in the first edition of The Pleasures of Children's Literature (1992); the only section to...


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