Discussing Difference in Young Adult Literature

By: Leah Milne

One question I ask students on the first day of my Young Adult Literature course is to define the field itself. As we craft a broad definition of Young Adult (YA) literature, one of the characteristics that always inevitably comes up has to do with relatability or being able to see oneself and one’s experience in the text. By the end of the semester, I’ll have brought up this characteristic numerous times to discuss the ways that YA literature asks us to empathize with others, even and especially across history and lines of gender, race, ability, and so on.

For now, though, I ask, “What about young adult texts that you can’t directly relate to, or texts that feature characters whose looks and/or experiences are not like your own?” Answers vary, but generally include the presumed universality of certain types of adolescent experiences, such as learning to get along with family members, falling in love, and so on. Even as I agree with them, I point out, for instance, that Jenny Han’s series about protagonist Lara Jean, including To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (now famous on Netflix), is about a girl who falls in love, sure, but is also specifically about a mixed race girl who falls in love, and… isn’t that important? Whether they agree or not, I find it valuable to discuss identity and difference within YA literature in light of this ever-cited reason of relatability. While these “universal” experiences may indeed have cross-cultural resonance and while finding reflections of oneself is important, throughout the semester, we work through why it is also important to pay attention to differences highlighted within YA literature and its related categories of middle-grade and new adult literature.

Speaking of which, the other question that yields varying responses relates to the age range of young adult literature. I’ve received responses as young as 6-8 years and as old as 25-35. The range illustrates the increasingly amorphous quality of the field, with middle-grade literature targeting the 8- to 12-year old range and new adult literature aimed at 18- to 25-year old readers. I also use the range to discuss difference in terms of when one “feels” like a young adult, or how soon one might have what we could call “typical” young adult experiences. When we discuss banned books, for instance, I point out how many banned books are based on true experiences of young adulthood or are even outright memoirs (such as Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings), indicating that some may deem actual young adult experiences as inappropriate for young adults to read.

My final question has to do with their reasons for taking the course. While almost all cite general education or majors-related requirements, many further mention a love of YA literature itself. As you might imagine, this reason does not come up in many of my other lower-level courses, especially out of the mouths of non-English majors. (The popularity and importance of children’s and YA literature is even reflected in this blog.) The course’s relative popularity, then, has given me many opportunities to explore, along with students, exciting young adult literature titles that deal with race and identity in increasingly unique and specific ways.

The issue of stereotyping, for instance, carries great resonance with students, and one can find many opportunities to discuss the topic within the category of young adult literature. Part of why I find pedagogical value in the topic is that discussing stereotypes helps us trouble the line between universality or relatability and specificity. Novels such as I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez or Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson tackle issues of intersectionality stereotyping with grace, but do so within very specific familial and cultural circumstances. In Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel American Born Chinese, for example, we might discuss how Jin’s teacher mispronounces his name—an experience many students recognize—but then also talk about how the teacher goes on to misrepresent Jin’s national origins, claiming that he “and his family recently moved to our neighborhood all the way from China” (30), when they actually only came from as far away as San Francisco.

That this stereotyping often stems from people in power—bullies, teachers, parents, and so on—is not lost on students. In fact, we may make a good case for young adult literature as being all about issues of power and authority, but this too benefits from understanding different contexts. For instance, in Elizabeth Acevedo’s free-verse novel The Poet X, Xiomara has to take on not only her mother but also her mother’s devout Catholicism as she grapples with her feelings about a boy in her biology class and her burgeoning love for slam poetry. Meanwhile, Randy Ribay’s Patron Saints of Nothing deals with a Filipino-American teenager named Jay who investigates his cousin’s death amidst President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug wars. Jay not only confronts multigenerational authority issues within his own family but also discovers his lack of authority in a foreign country, realizing that—even with his family’s background in the Philippines—his life in the US has blinded him to his inability to fully understand what living in the Philippines is really like.

It’s also vital to note how young adult literature reflects the dynamic evolution of discussions of race over time. Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give is the best known in an emerging subgenre of YA literature dealing with police brutality against African Americans, which also includes Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s All American Boys and Nic Stone’s Dear Martin. Related genres speak to the very real dangers of racism and gun violence, such as Eric Gansworth’s Give Me Some Truth and Jen Storm’s graphic novel, Fire Starters. Historical novels—such as John Lewis’s all-ages graphic trilogy March and Rita Williams-Garcia’s middle-grade novel, One Crazy Summer—can further illustrate shifts in contemplating racial identity even as the characters themselves experience them. Lewis, for instance, recalls when he first realized that the black school children had hand-me-down buses, “just like our schoolbooks” (48), while the three young sisters in One Crazy Summer are at a Black Panther-run breakfast for schoolchildren program when they learn the difference between the words “colored” and “black” (66).

Finally, given the number of graphic novels I mention here, it is worth noting the power that graphic novels have to speak to this notion of difference and relatability. Nate Powell’s art in the aforementioned March is so realistic that we can use photographs to identify the faces of John Lewis, fellow author Andrew Aydin, Diane Nash, Rosa Parks, and more. Superhero comics are also increasingly showing young adults of color doing heroic acts, and include the Afro-Latino Miles Morales as Spider-Man by Brian Michael Bendis, Muslim American Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson, and Ironheart by Eve Ewing. The added element of the visual—which asks readers to visually see others, rather than just themselves on the pages—further challenges presumptions of universality.

Of course, the above examples are just a few in a growing selection of texts that can help launch conversations about difference in young adult literature. Organizations such as We Need Diverse Books, The American Library Association, The Brown Bookshelf, and the CBC Diversity Initiative can help you further examine this dynamic field.

Milne author photo


Leah Milne is assistant professor of multicultural literature at the University of Indianapolis. She is currently completing a book on self-care and authorship in multiethnic fiction. Her work has been published in journals and edited collections including African American Review, Postcolonial Text, and MELUS. You can contact her via her website (http://www.leahmilne.com/).




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