Little Hans and Defining Young Adult Literature

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?

A blind Oedipus Embracing Antigone and Isme. The picture originally appeared on Craig White’s “Literature Courses” site.

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4 thoughts on “Little Hans and Defining Young Adult Literature

  1. I think the Oedipus complex is something that—when looked at liberally does seem to happen in YA lit. Whether these individuals are simply ignoring the rules, or doing everything their parents tell them not to, the rebellion against one’s parents is one that occurs frequently in things dedicated to younger audiences. However, it’s an important part of adolescents and growing up. One has to question and go against all they know to figure out who they are. While, that’s not precisely what the Oedipus complex means—it’s something close. This is rebellion, and questioning, is often what leads our protagonists on their journeys. Alice goes down the rabbit hole because of this want to not behavior in such boring manners and behave in the norm.

  2. I agree with you, A’isha! It also makes me wonder if a similar thing can be applied to dystopian novels that are focused more on societies being the “bad guy”. I know it’s not exactly the same thing as parents, but there are also a lot of dystopian novels about young adults and teens defying society’s expectations and rules (The Giver, The Hunger Games, Matched, etc.) and how that could fit into it. Is it the author applying characteristics of their parents’ beliefs that they didn’t like growing up with? Or is the author trying to show through their main characters that they would have liked to have been an important figure when they were younger who stood up for their beliefs even while facing against a large or more powerful group of people?

    • jillskywalkerhamill,
      I do believe a similar concept can be applied to dystopian novels. As we grow up, we not only begin to rebel against or question the beliefs and actions of our parents but also those of society. A big part of becoming independent adults is forming our own beliefs, which don’t always align with the views of those around us. Sometimes we need to accept these differences, rather than conform to what society is telling us to think. As far as what dystopian novels reveal about the authors’ views about their upbringings, I believe either of the options you proposed are entirely possible; although, I don’t believe these are the only two possible explanations.

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