- Young Adult Women’s Literature
When we first discussed the possibility of a special issue to mark the transition between our tenures as editors of Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, it did not take us long to settle on the topic of children’s and young adult literature. Enough essay clusters and special issues of the journal had been published in recent years on the field in which we both specialize—the eighteenth century—so we gravitated to another area in which we knew we have a shared interest. This decision held an irony, though, that has guided our thinking about the field of young adult and children’s literature as this issue has come together: while we both consider ourselves to be fans of young adult literature, and while we both have taught courses involving children’s or young adult literature, neither of us has published in this area. That the idea of undertaking scholarly research in this field had never occurred to either of us was, we began to see, an indicator of a tacit yet powerful divide in contemporary literary studies.
At least until the recent rise of crossover blockbuster series like Harry Potter (1997–2007), The Hunger Games (2008–2010), and Twilight (2005–2008), children’s and young adult literature has been largely a world unto itself, with its own publishers or divisions of larger publishing houses, its own bestseller lists, its own agents, and its own systems of marketing. Likewise, while scholarship on children’s and young adult literature is flourishing right now, it often operates in some separation from general literary studies, with its own organizations and journals and with specialists in this area anchored in education almost as often as they are in English or comparative literature departments. These surely are not bad things, for children’s literature lends itself to interdisciplinary study, and the dedication of whole journals and societies to this area facilitates vibrant conversations. At the same time, the minimal integration of children’s and young adult literature into general literary study, a compartmentalization borne of notions of what counts as real literature and what merits serious research, suggests decades of lost opportunities for wider, intellectually richer conversations.
After all, what is young adult literature? Several texts from earlier eras that are now centerpieces of the English literary canon were originally marketed to young adult readers. Consider Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Pamela: or, Virtue Rewarded (1740), one of the most famous and widely discussed texts of the eighteenth century. At the time of writing this preface, a keyword search for “Richardson” and “Pamela” in the Modern Language Association International Bibliography yields 467 articles, dissertations, chapters, and books that discuss countless aspects of this text: [End Page 287] its influences, its composition, its structure and post-structure, its migration into other languages and lands, its class and gender dynamics, its politics and theology, its feminist or anti-feminist aspects, and its afterlife in chap-books, burlesques, and paintings. Pamela might justifiably be regarded as a saturated object of study, yet a glance at the title page of the first edition reminds us that this novel originally was “Published In order to cultivate the Principles of Virtue and Religion in the Minds of the Youth of Both Sexes.”1 It is, in other words, young adult literature. To be sure, this aspect of Richardson’s novel has not gone unnoticed, but it has not been at the center of conversations about this text.2 Pamela also has not received much attention from specialists in children’s and young adult literature, a category often described as coming into existence towards the end of the eighteenth century. For the most part, this novel has fallen onto one side of a fence between what are basically two different fields. It has become big-L Literature rather than children’s literature, with—let us be clear—attendant associations of seriousness and scholarly status.
The division between these two types of writing is, of course, a division borne of intellectual hierarchy, a sense of what counts as worthy of study. For this reason, we think that the relationship...