One of the most useful resources for Young Adult Literature is YALSA, or the Young Adult Library Services Association. You can visit their site for lists of the best YA novels and more information about the defining characteristics of the genre. Also see this list from Rolling Stone, that has some great books on it, which may be of use for your final project. Without further ado, let us proceed to thinking about definitions.
Young Adult Literature isn’t necessarily a definitive genre. Rather it is the result of publishers and authors working together to determine how best to market literature to a particular audience—namely those between the ages of thirteen and eighteen. Not surprisingly, in most cases, the protagonists of YA fiction are usually also in this age range.
Although this audience first garnered attention in the nineteenth-century, it really wasn’t until roughly the 1970s, that writers began to write specifically for this group. Key early examples include Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970) and Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974). Now it is very common for writers to build their career with the intention of being a YA novelist.
As a result of the genre’s growth, older literature is now frequently post-defined as YA, especially in cases wherein a protagonist deals with the trials of coming of age as in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. See this list of “29 Classic Young Adult Books That Changed the World,” for examples of several post-defined books and some newer classics meant for a YA audience too.
Because the genre has been conceived to reach a younger segment of the population, it has become stigmatized as less than literary and popular. A stroll through Barnes and Noble or Books a Million can be enlightening in this regard. How is YA lit marketed? What assumptions and categorizations do we make about the marketing of books that might cause us to dismiss YA literature?
Our syllabus is arranged to address the chronological development of YA lit, its marketing, and the evolution of its subgenres. As a class, we can analyze the syllabus itself, and probably dig into your own reading past to note some defining characteristics and evolutions of the genre across time.
As regards to defining YA lit philosophically, it helps to imagine young adulthood as a state of being. When you were a young adult what interested you? What worried you? How did you feel about your parents, your struggles, your friends?
Add to this the fact that young adult literature is primarily written by adults with a nostalgia for and sometimes a hatred for their own young adulthood. These adults often now have children of their own. How does this distanced perspective influence how we understand the genre? Hemmings article is about this perspective.
It may help to fully understand Hemmings if you know more about Little Hans and his relationship to the Oedipus Complex. Scholars like Harold Bloom think of the Oedipus Complex as the foundational plot motor for almost all novels. Taken literally (and from a feminist perspective), this would be pretty problematic—basically all human stories are about men trying to kill their father’s because they are in love with their mothers—but! we can also read this more liberally; We are all striving to overcome the influence and identity of our parents to find ourselves, only to discover in later life that we’ve turned into them. Why might Little Hans and the Oedipus Complex be particularly important for the YA Genre?