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Young Adult Literature and Adolescent Identity Across Cultures and Classrooms: Contexts for the Literary Lives of Teens

reviewed by Kara L. Lycke - March 10, 2011

coverTitle: Young Adult Literature and Adolescent Identity Across Cultures and Classrooms: Contexts for the Literary Lives of Teens
Author(s): Janet Alsup (ed.)
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415876990, Pages: 240, Year: 2010
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In the final chapter of Young Adult Literature and Adolescent Identity Across Cultures and Classrooms: Contexts for the Literary Lives of Teens, editor Janet Alsup writes of her changing interests over the years in young adult literature (YAL). It has “shifted from the literary and pedagogical to include a psychological dimension….” (p. 205) which includes adolescent identity development and its connections to the fiction they read. She wonders about the mutual gaze of author and young reader as they engage one another through relatable characters, settings, and situations. Contributors to this book share Alsup’s interests and probe literary, as well as pedagogical and psychological dimensions of YAL.

The introduction of the book explains that YAL has undergone a major transformation since the 1960s. We’ve come a long way since S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (1967), but owe, at least in part, the attention on YAL’s current popularity to the legacy of Hinton and other early writers in the genre. The seriousness with which readers young and old, publishers, and literary organizations have considered literature written for people aged 12-20, the age range established in this text of YAL readers, has helped to launch YAL as a legitimate literary genre. Alsup and her collaborators, many of whom are graduate students at her home institution Purdue University, have put together an intriguing collection of chapters examining the connections between YAL and adolescent identity with special attention to the diverse forces that shape who we become and how. The book draws primarily on social theories of learning, reading, and development; critical theories of race and sexuality; and social historical theories of literacy and analysis of literature, and has the potential to inspire a great depth and breadth of conversation and work (research and teaching) among graduate students and faculty of education and literacy. This collection of chapters will fuel my own work in examining the convergences between literacy practices and identity development, and many of the chapters will make their way onto my reference lists for years to come.

This well-conceived book is organized into three sections followed by an introduction: “Who Are the Teens Reading YAL?,” “Why Should Teachers Teach YAL?” and “Why Are Teens Reading YAL?” Each section of the book includes explorations of literary and identity theories, instructional practices which include YAL, and analyses of selections of young adult novels, short stories, and poems. The first section “Who Are the Teens Reading YAL?” takes on some of the heaviest theory as it introduces and applies conceptions old and new explaining identity development, interpretation of literature, and their connections to issues of culture. Each chapter in this section has a distinct voice and offers a range of views on YAL, including particular attention to African American YAL, depictions of Chinese Americans in YAL, queer identity in six young adult novels, Arabic YAL, and Mexican American YAL. The chapters build to a view of identity as discursively and culturally constructed.  

The message is clear that diverse and authentic representations of racial and cultural groups in YAL positively impact adolescent identity development, but it renders the first section of the book as mislabeled. A more appropriate title might be “Who Are the Teens Featured in YAL” or perhaps “Identity Representations Across YAL.” I expected to learn from this section about young people who are reading YAL, their perceptions about and motivations for reading in the genre and their favorite books. The introduction to Part I reminds us that early YAL was written primarily for (and I would argue about) white middle-class suburban teens, and today we see literature for and about young people of many national, racial, linguistic, cultural, and sexual affiliations who live inside a variety of social and economic circumstances. The chapters focus on these issues, how they are addressed in YAL, and then each chapter turns briefly to how and why we might teach particular literary works. The actual readers of YAL and these issues are alluded to, but rarely directly addressed except as recipients of these texts. Though the authors do exemplary work to bring to life specific cultural groups—black, Chinese American, queer, Arabic, and Mexican American adolescents and the people in their lives—through the literature they analyze, their reports on teaching and research, and their own life experiences, they do not tell us much about the adolescents themselves who engage with these texts.

Joy Dangora’s chapter probes Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry (Taylor, 1976) to illustrate how historically situated and contemporary narratives that include African American perspectives are crucial for “creating a more accurate and complete historical picture” (p. 19) and to “foster positive black identity development” (p. 29), especially for adolescent males who are being left behind in school. Nai-Hua Kuo’s chapter proposes four “suggestions” to discern quality multicultural literature for classroom use through works of fiction, memoir, and a graphic novel featuring Chinese Americans. Kuo shows that the identity struggles of the characters in quality literature featuring Chinese Americans reveal the conflicts, “painful journey,” and personal enlightenment (p. 42) that come with living between cultures. James R. Gilligan’s chapter examines six YA novels, published between 1982 and 2006, for their discursive construction of queer identity. Linguistic themes are illustrated through the synopses of these novels, including the inadequacy of language, the inaccuracy of labels, and the unreliability of the actions of characters in these narratives for conducting necessary identity work related to sexuality in a world of shifting and fluid identity constructions. Nisreen M. Kamel Anati’s chapter explores the notion of cultural authenticity in YAL through a presentation of themes and values in Arab culture. Her close examination of the novel Habibi (Nye, 1997) illustrates how a novel can exemplify, even with a few minor cultural misrepresentations, authentic contemporary Arab life. This discussion closes by underscoring the unambiguous theme of the first section: the positive shaping influence YAL can have on adolescent identity when students read authentic representations of themselves.

Part II of the book, “Why Should Teachers Teach YAL?” conveys reasons for including YAL in curricula: to motivate “recalcitrant readers,” to please readers’ tastes, to encourage young readers to read in the canon, and for personal growth of young readers (p. 109). Like in the first section, Part II does not deliver what it promises. Each of the reasons why teachers might include YAL is inferred in the four chapters that follow, but only Lisa Schade Eckert’s chapter, “Beyond the Comics Page: Pedagogical Opportunities and Challenges in Teaching Graphic Novels,” is directly on the topic of why teach YAL (or in the case of Jeff Spanke’s chapter, why not). This is not to say the chapters do not raise relevant issues related to YAL, because they do. Aliel Cunningham writes about the important role fantasy YAL plays in engaging the hearts and minds of youth. I would like to know more specifically about why and how the author thinks fantasy should be taught. Jeff Spanke’s chapter conducts an intriguing inquiry regarding the captivity of adolescence in a capitalist culture and interrogates the questionable role of YAL in the process of releasing adolescents into maturity. Regrettably, a conspicuous lack of reference to contemporary literature that could illustrate this fascinating observation leaves the reader with little to probe the substance of his scrutiny.  

Part III, including only two chapters, explores “Why Are Teens Reading YAL?” from the perspective of college-aged adolescents. Gail Zdilla explores the appeal of YAL in retrospect and current-day practices of her college sophomores. Alsup, after surveying 200 university freshman and eighth-graders, interviewed three female participants as they read a YAL selection together, and then focused on one university student’s reflections on that novel. Taken together, these two chapters provide insight into older adolescents’ interests in and connections with characters and identity themes in YAL as well as the choices they make for what to read and why. A lingering question raised by Alsup is one of culture and identity. She reminds us about the “value of reading about someone different, someone perhaps a little more difficult to relate to…” as a way to help fill in our inadequacies for emotionally and cognitively understanding the lives of others (p. 213). The demographic reports of these two chapters demonstrate a predictably strong female affinity for YAL; however, discussion of the context of ethnicity/race, nationality, sexuality is ignored and the reader is left to assume a culture of readers that aligns with the dominant demography of public school teachers: white, middle class, Christian (culturally), as well as female.

As the theories drawn upon to explain identity and adolescent development range across social perspectives, so do the authors’ perspectives and experiences as well as the topics and issues raised. The book’s chapters speak to one another and their ideas resonate, but do not always converge. For example, in Chapter 5, Anati discusses the cultural authenticity of Arabic YAL and how readers, both Arabic and Anglo, might come to see the Arab world as it is represented in YAL. The following “companion chapters” examine Mexican American cultural values and their representations in The Jumping Tree (Saldaña, 2001) and The Tequila Worm (Canales, 2005) and the role of Mestizaje, a hybrid language blending English and Spanish used by Mexican Americans. It is impossible to read across these three chapters without thinking intertextually about issues of cultural authenticity and identity representations. It is for this kind of cross-chapter conversation and the critical questions raised, both explicitly and sometimes more tacitly, that this book should be read by scholars of adolescent identity and literacy.



Canales, V. (2005). The tequila worm. New York: Wendy Lamb Books.

Hinton, S.E. (1967). The outsiders. New York: Viking Press.

Nye, N.S. (1997) Habibi: A novel. New York: Simon Pulse.

Saldaña, R. Jr. (2001). The jumping tree. New York: Dell Laurel-Leaf.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 10, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16360, Date Accessed: 5/17/2022 5:01:53 PM

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About the Author
  • Kara Lycke
    Illinois State University
    E-mail Author
    KARA L. LYCKE is an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at Illinois State University where she teaches secondary content literacy and methods of instruction and assessment. Her current research follows three strands: content area preservice teachers’ changing definitions of literacy and text, convergences and divergences of youths’ literate identity development across contexts, and youth perceptions of the role of archetypal characters found in traditional and multi-media narrative texts. She recently published a chapter “Reading and Writing Teenage Mothering: Reconceptualizing Literacy Practices with and for their Children” in the book Literacy in Times of Crisis: Practices and Perspectives.
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