Conversations and Controversies in the Field
Volume 48: Issue 2 (Winter 2021)
Submissions due: July 1, 2020
The publication of Robert Cormier’s classic YA novel, The Chocolate War, in 1974 not only put young adult literature (YAL) on the literary map, but also sparked long-held conversations and controversies in our field. For starters, what counts as YA? We know Cormier didn’t set out to write a YA novel with The Chocolate War, but through marketing and sales it became a hit with teen readers. Former ALAN president Jennifer Buehler says in her (2016) book, Teaching Reading with YA Literature: Complex Texts, Complex Lives, that the definition of YAL depends on who you’re talking to—publishers, young adult readers, literary critics, and teachers all define it differently. In addition, while teachers and parents wondered if Cormier’s novel was “too dark” for teens (an argument recirculated with the publication of Meghan Cox Gurdon’s Wall Street Journal article in 2011), Cormier’s novel also silenced critics of the genre—YAL could indeed be sophisticated, beautifully written, and thought-provoking, and prove as timeless as canonical literature. Almost 50 years later, however, advocates for the genre continue to have to prove its sophistication and worth to critics who deem YAL okay for pleasure reading, but not for serious classroom study.
These are but just a few conversations and controversies that continue in the field of YAL. We see others play out almost daily in social media—again, long-standing debates about who can write for whom; whose voices and lived experiences get represented in the genre and whose don’t; and why the number of books by and about people of color in the genre remain low, as reported annually by the Cooperative Childrens’ Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
In this issue, we are interested in where you and the adolescent readers in your lives might be positioned within these conversations and controversies—how do they play out in your advocacy for the genre and in your reading lives? What are some other conversations and controversies you see playing out in the field? We invite correspondence about ideas for articles, and submission of completed manuscripts. Here’s a partial list of topics, meant only to suggest the range of our interests for this issue:
- In the wake of the #metoo movement, we wonder: how do you negotiate your use of and advocacy for YA books by authors accused/convicted of sexual harassment? In his article “Magnificent Things and Terrible Men: Teaching Sherman Alexie in the Age of #MeToo,” published in English Education in 2018, college instructor Jeff Spanke writes, “…maybe I’m not really in a position to say whether or not we should teach these books …. Maybe I should leave that to someone a little more qualified, who was actually once touched by Alexie’s words in some way other than intellectual. Maybe it’s not my fight, and I should just teach the stuff I want and think is good and damn the rest of the mess of it… And maybe that’s just an excuse. Cognitive laziness to avoid cognitive dissonance. That nagging sense of privilege that nullifies the process of negotiating discomfort so I can sleep when I get home… And maybe that’s how I should teach this book in the future, with an eye toward the cracks in the lens, as opposed to simply through it.” We also like the questions Spanke poses in his English Education article, so we’ll include them here: “How can we interrogate the works of the world’s Alexies without supporting the Alexies themselves? What does support mean anyway? Can we read Alexie without supporting him? Should we? Do the immoral/unlawful actions of artists preclude such work, or as teachers, can we find space to honor the integrity of creations while still acknowledging the flaws of the creators? What do we risk when we can’t or don’t even try? Where do we draw the line between creating safe spaces in our classrooms and pretending the outside world isn’t dangerous?”
- Last year, debut YA author Kosoko Jackson withdrew his debut novel, A Place for Wolves, from publication due to excoriating criticism on Twitter and Goodreads. Two years prior, in 2017, Laurie Forest’s Y.A. fantasy début, The Black Witch, became the object of intense scrutiny, weeks ahead of its publication, after detractors slammed it as a white-savior tale. The writer Kat Rosenfield’s New York magazine piece “The Toxic Drama of YA Twitter,” which centered on the “Black Witch” outcry, revealed that many of Forest’s fiercest critics had not read her novel, and others conflated the perspectives of racist characters with that of the author herself. In a 2019 New Yorker article, Katy Waldman defines the “call-out-and-cancel culture” of YAL on social media and wonders, “What is the difference between a marketplace of ideas and a Twitter mob?” We wonder, too, what roles do social media (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, blog comments) play in creating conversations and controversies in our field? How has social media changed the ways we think and talk about the genre and issues in our field?
- A long-standing tension in the field of YAL is the homogeneity of the publishing world, which remains, on the editorial side, 82% white and less than 2% Black, according to a 2015 survey by Lee & Low Books. In a recent post on the “Reading While White” blog, Megan Schliesman problematizes whiteness in Newbery and Caldecott award selection processes. She argues for greater transparency—who are committee members and how do they make award decisions? Schliesman says,”Committee members’ work is informed by their individual identities and opinions and insights and experiences as they participate in a process that is far from empirical, although it sometimes seems as if we’re expected to believe that it is. The award criteria they consider to arrive at a decision doesn’t make the definition of “most distinguished” a fixed, objective target. Nor does the fact that it’s an effort shared among 15 people working toward numerical consensus. It is a process deeply informed and shaped by who is participating. And when award committees have been majority white, there is added danger in not acknowledging this subjectivity when it comes to thinking about how we do what we do.” How are you working to name, confront, and disrupt racism and the normalization of whiteness in the publishing industry and book award selection processes? What insights or perspectives can you share from working with publishers and/or serving on awards committees?
- Reader identification and textual relevance continue to be under-researched areas in our field. Literacy researcher Katie Sciurba pushes back on the dichotomous “mirrors and windows” concept of textual relevance and says adolescent readers’ identities are complex, multidimensional, and flexible and thus require new understandings, especially about the personal and dynamic nature of reader response. Also, drawing on the work of Django Paris, Scuirba says teachers and researchers tend to “assume unidirectional correspondence between race, ethnicity, language and cultural ways of being, which impacts common ideas about what texts are or will become relevant to students, especially students of color.” We wonder: what do we mean when we say YA books are “relevant” to teens? What do teens mean when they say something is “relevant”? What role does relevance play in reading motivation and engagement?
- Youth lens theory presents the idea that adolescence is a construct, and draws on the work of Nancy Lesko to posit that developmental and biological beliefs about adolescents/ce are rooted in racist, classist, and sexist beliefs about youth and society. What then do we make of YAL, a genre written for and about adolescents, if our foundational understandings of adolescence/ts are suspect?
- The word “empathy” gets thrown around a lot by YAL advocates—many in our field suggest reading adolescent fiction makes readers empathetic. How do we know? How do we define empathy? Vygotsky described symbols in texts that provoke readers’ imaginations. Rosenblatt also described cues and codes in texts that provoke response. Are there symbols or cues and codes in YA fiction that provoke empathy? Is it character identification? Text features? Does empathy lead to social action?
- Ruth Graham, in a 2014 article published in Slate Magazine, shamed adults for reading YAL because the genre “consistently indulges too-simple and satisfying endings” and “lacks the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world.” According to recent statistics, however, 55% of today’s YA readers are adults. This adds to the complexity of defining the genre and who it’s for. We’d love to hear from you—adult readers of YAL—on why you read the genre and what it does for you! What would you have to say back to Ruth Graham and other YA-naysayers?
- Other ideas? Would love to hear them!
Reading the Body in Young Adult Literature
Volume 48: Issue 3 (Summer 2021)
Submissions due: November 1, 2020
Today’s teens are assailed with images of idealized beauty and perfect bodies, whether it’s carefully curated selfies in their social media feeds, Photoshopped images in magazines, pictures and videos from friends, or the young adult (YA) novels they read. YA books can sometimes reinforce the idea that all you need to live your best life is a makeover. Fortunately, a new trend in YAL counters this oppressive notion with books that encourage body positivity. In Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy, a smart, funny high school girl struggles not with her weight, but with her ability to see herself as someone who’s worthwhile and deserving of happiness. In David Levithan’s Hold Me Closer: The Tiny Cooper Story, a Broadway musical script is the format for this hilarious and campy young adult novel about a boy’s journey of self-discovery as a “big-boned” gay teen. In Elizabeth Acevedo’s National Book Award-winning Poet X, main character Xiomara, an Afro-Latina teen, struggles with her body image and her mother’s religion in an oppressive, patriarchal culture. Jennifer Niven’s Holding Up the Universe deals frankly with fat-shaming, bullying, depression, and peer pressure. In Louise O’Neil’s Only Ever Yours, the setting is a near-future dystopia where women are valued only for their beauty and fertility, genetically engineered and trained from a young age either to produce male children as official wives or provide sexual companionship as concubines.
We invite correspondence about ideas for articles and submission of completed manuscripts. We would especially love to hear from teens about how they feel about the portrayal of bodies/body image/body health in YAL. Here’s a partial list of topics, meant only to suggest the range of our interests for this issue:
- Body positivity is a social movement rooted in the belief that all human beings should have a positive body image, while challenging the ways in which society presents and views the physical body. What are your favorite YA books that counter oppressive discourses/beliefs about beauty and body image? What YA novels are you reading that portray characters who don’t think “fat” is a bad word and reclaim it to live their best lives?
- In her YA novel, Fat Girl on a Plane, Kelly DeVos writes, “Your body is no one’s business but your own. We are more than just our bodies. We are the sum of our abilities and accomplishments and hopes and dreams and friendships and relationships. It’s what we are inside that matters.” In The Other F Word: A Celebration of the Fat & Fierce, editor Angie Manfredi writes, “Your body is perfect. Yes, Yours. Exactly the way it is, right now in this second.” How can teachers and others who work with young people use the YA genre to spread the message that our bodies are “perfect” and “we are more than just our bodies”?
- Body-shaming (criticizing yourself or others because of some aspect of physical appearance) can lead to a vicious cycle of judgment and criticism. Messages from the media (and in YA literature) can imply that teens should want to change, that teens should care about looking slimmer, smaller, and tanner. And if teens don’t, they may be at risk of being the target of someone else’s body-shaming comments. How do you see body-shaming at work—or countered—in the YA genre?
- In her book The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games, Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas theorizes that when characters of color appear in YAL, TV shows, and movies, they are often marginalized or subjected to violence, reinforcing for audiences that not all lives matter. How are racialized bodies described/presented/read in the genre?
- In Piecing Me Together, author Renee Watson considers body size and image as but one of her main character Jade’s identities, intersected in complex ways with race, gender, and position. Why and how do these intersections matter for young adults? How else do we see these intersectional identities play out in the genre?
- Viewed through the lens of medicine, the body is a text that offers clues to health and illness, yet clinical readings are never entirely objective. Culture informs and distorts how we examine, accept, reject, and analyze our bodies. How do representations of the adolescent body in the YA genre position illness/health; gender, racial, “able-bodied,” and/or trans identities; and teen’s rights (or lack of rights) to control their own bodies?
- Literary theory has been dominated by a mind/body dualism that often ignores the role of the body in reading, yet some reading researchers claim that reading is an embodied experience, both in the sense of multisensory engagement with a physical text or reading device, and as “embodied cognition,” where language and cognitive processes pertaining to semantic information processing are neurological and thus embodied. What is reading as a physical and/or embodied practice like for you and the teen readers in your life? What role(s) do the eyes, hands, postures, and reading positions play? What about physical spaces? Where do you read? What happens to the mind/body as you read?
- Youth lens theorists encourage us to push back on stereotypical ideas about adolescents and their bodies (e.g., adolescents are “hormonal” and “moody” because they are going through puberty). How does the YA genre circulate and/or counter stereotypical beliefs about adolescent bodies?
- In David Levithan’s Every Day series, the main character A spends his life waking up in a different body every day, and is forced to live as that person until the day ends. At the heart of the series are the questions: What is a soul? And what makes us human? How can the YA genre be used with young people to consider such important questions? How do the young people in your life answer these questions?
All submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please see the ALAN website (http://www.alan-ya.org/page/alan-review-author-guidelines) for submission guidelines.