Finding the Words That Fit: The Second Story For Females in Young Adult Literature
Caroline S. McKinneyI looked into her face deep below the surface of her eyes where the wisdom is stored. There are answers there all right. Good sturdy answers fashioned by Ruth to fit Ruth. Nothing there in my size (Greene, Summer of My German Soldier, 1973, p. 76).
Patty Bergen, the memorable main character of this award-winning novel, is thirteen years old when her story begins. She tells about her poor relationship with her abusive father and uncaring mother, and the courage that she draws upon in order to hide the escaped German soldier. She longs for answers about her self, relationships, and how to define a life of worth, but she won't find them in the words of her father or mother. Those words are harsh and critical. Only Ruth, the African American housekeeper can offer hope, belief and vision, but even those words are not enough for Patty. For her, and for many girls, finding words that fit means being able to seek out those words through a journey that may be both inward and outward.
Patty is an outstanding young adult female character, and strong by almost any definition of the term. However, definitions of strength when applied to girls or any female characters are not simple. Recent studies of adolescent girls indicate that the choices they make, the ways in which they seek identity, and their views of autonomy and independence are complex. Lori Stern writes in Making Connections (Gilligan, Lyons and Hanmer, 1989):
Adolescent girls represent the embodiment of a fascinating paradox. While theorists of adolescence describe a time of separation, individuation and autonomy seeking, theorists of female development have observed that for women, the importance of strong relationships does not abate. In other words, theory tells us that by virtue of being female, adolescent girls especially value their connection; while by virtue of being adolescent, they are attending particularly to their separation (p. 73).
Until the past decade there was relatively little research about girls and their own coming of age experiences. Most of the major studies focused on boys, based on an assumption that boys and girls have similar needs when it comes to achieving an identity and independence. More recently, however, the findings from psychology and women's studies have revealed that girls have some different needs, pressures, and expectations. Approaching adolescence, coming of age, finding an identity present challenges that are now being studied and recognized. Moreover, these studies are revealing that girls have different ways of knowing. How girls perceive themselves in relationship to others determines to a great extent how successfully they are able to grow and achieve identity.
Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger and Tarule (1986) have listened to the real stories that girls have told, and their words do indeed confirm what Gilligan has called a "different truth" for girls. In their book, Women's Ways of Knowing, the authors identified five ways of knowing that reflect "basic assumptions about the nature of truth and reality" (Belenky, et al., p. 3). These ways of knowing have a direct connection to how girls perceive themselves in relationship to others and to their own worlds. Girls who see that truth and knowledge exist outside of themselves, residing elsewhere, as the property of some outside authority figure, are unlikely to develop an inner voice. Without inner voice, girls are unable to construct for themselves the kind of knowledge that allows them to become strong enough to achieve identity and transform relationships with others.
Gilligan's (1989, p. 14) description of the knowledge that girls have as "being underground" has prompted many of us who work with young adults to consider what this knowledge is and how it can be pulled out into the light for examination. Furthermore, Gilligan (1982, 1989) and Belenky et al. have explained that for many girls, finding the words that could adequately describe their experiences or their ways of knowing was a frustrating task. Frequently, the girls in their studies would preface their remarks with statements like, "I don't know..." (Gilligan, 1989, p. 14). Consequently, for girls there is not only some confusion about how to develop their own inner voices, but even how to articulate their own ways of knowing, seeing and coming to understand. A girl's way of knowing, development of voice and identity and self concept are all intricately interrelated, tightly woven together. This is where the value of young adult literature is most apparent: In the best of young adult novels that feature female protagonists, girls can see reflections of themselves. These reflections are not fixed, but moving and changing, and hopeful.
Patty Bergen not only had to find the strength to hide her German soldier, but she also had to develop her own voice to guide her as she took actions. As she was beginning adolescence, she not only had to examine her own personal value system, but she also had to decide which voices would continue to give her self knowledge and which words and labels she would choose to refine, reform, or ignore. Part of her task as she moved from childhood to adulthood was to find a belief in herself, not an easy endeavor since she had few people in her life to guide her. Only Anton, the German soldier, could give her new words to try on, unfamiliar but hopeful ones, full of faith and optimism - ones that would fit her new, emerging self. His friendship is invaluable to her, but it is only part of the story. After he dies, Patty must stand alone and face the consequences of her action, and single handily construct a personal way of knowing that allows her to grow. This strength, evident in many of the strong young adult female characters of the past two decades, is one of the hallmarks of the best of realistic fiction for young people. It is a kind of "second story," perhaps the most important one for girls.
Yet, if we consider that girls need to find identity in relationship to others, then it becomes apparent that girls need other kinds of rites of passage. This thinking offers a challenge to ways in which we currently examine roles for girls in literature, and the question of equity with boys. Some critics have indicated that girls should have roles that allow them to take journeys to discovery, as the boys have. This focus on equality has overshadowed another need: to define themselves in relationship to others. Rather than finding self or voice through an experience of physical isolation, girls may need an experience that allows them to define independence differently. Stern (1989) has described this difference in Making Connections:Recent theorists have postulated that females' relational ties are strengths and that the role of these relationships in development should be understood in this context.... If some sort of breaking away is a central concern of adolescence while connecting to others is a central concern for females, then we expect that for female adolescents, the conflict between these opposing tendencies will create a major existential dilemma (p. 74).
When viewed this way, the desire for independence becomes a complex perspective that involves needing connection with others, while finding self. In essence, finding identity means having the strength to transform relationships while creating a satisfying identity that will sustain the adolescent girl while she makes the transition into adulthood. This is no small feat, and we are beginning to recognize and understand what Gilligan means when she, and other researchers have described conflicts such as pleasing others versus pleasing self, being nice versus being selfish, and the desire to be considered good. These dilemmas arise from the multiple voices heard by the girls. These conflicting voices and roles are only one part of the extraordinary work that girls have to do in their own unique coming of age stories. These stories, when the outcome is successful, involve real work that results in transformation first of self, and then in relationships.
An examination of critically acclaimed young adult novels from the past three decades reveals that many very strong female protagonists do exist. Some of the most popular realistic fiction found on the ALA Best of the Best List provide some outstanding examples of female characters who have successfully constructed a way of knowing that allows them to achieve identity and build a stronger relationship with others. From Head's Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones to Wolff's Make Lemonade, there is a wealth of fine stories that feature interesting plots, and also tell the second story for girls. These are not necessarily girls who have been allowed by their authors to do extraordinary deeds, assume roles traditionally the domain of boys, or undertake independent journeys to new places. Although there are some of these, such as Maisie Potter in Spinelli's There's A Girl in My Hammerlock, most of the characters are involved with situations and conflicts that involve friends or families. In some cases, these characters have had little or no control over their previous or new situations. At first, these girls may appear to be victims; but, as they grapple with conflicting voices, they begin to create a stronger self. They take a journey within themselves where they find personal voice, qualities of strength, caring and knowing that allow them to create new harmony within their existing worlds. In this respect, young adult realistic fiction is hopeful or optimistic (as described by Donelson and Nilsen, 1994) and provides the readers with a satisfying conclusion to the novels.
This complex series of challenges faced by girls who are coming of age makes a "second story." It exists under the salient features of plot; and, without an attentive reading, this story may be overlooked completely. In many young adult novels the plot includes a kind of situation shift in which girls find that they are propelled into a new circumstance that "forces" them to begin that journey of self discovery whether they are prepared or not. Some of these situational shifts have been chosen or created by the young person, but in realistic fiction the shift is often unforeseen. When the female protagonist is able to use the situational shift in order to help her to grow, gain a sense of self or transform relationships, then she has demonstrated not only a successful rite of passage but also her own emerging strength. A few examples from some of the novels from the ALA Best Books list demonstrates the point.
Realistic novels for young adults frequently feature main characters who have had adult concerns thrust upon them at an early age. Responsible for younger brothers or sisters, for bringing home financial support, providing for an ill family member and other traditionally adult roles may leave the young person unprepared to face an adolescence if they haven't been able to experience a full childhood. For these characters, the task of continuing to please or support others may conflict mightily with the need to find an identity that includes vision for a better or different way of life. Often the other family members have taken for granted the contributions of the adolescent girl, and thus, some kind of precipitating event propels the girl into a situational shift that becomes an opportunity for change. Beth Herndon in Naylor's Send No Blessings experiences such a shift when she learns that her mother is expecting another baby. As the oldest child in a large, poor, but loving family, Beth has been expected to carry a very large load. As she begins to long for a future, she experiences anger and frustration when she considers that, with the new baby, she will be expected to continue to care for her siblings. Beth grows through this opportunity. Indeed, this is her story, how she takes the news of another "blessing" and begins to develop her own inner voice. At first it is one of anger, isolation, and confusion. Later, it is the sweet voice of a young woman who has not only found self, but understanding and compassion for her illiterate father, and the ability to blend all the voices of others into a harmonious whole that doesn't drown out her own.
Amazing Gracie also tells the story of an incredible girl who has felt responsible for her mother ever since she was a small child. Since her mother suffers from severe depression, Gracie strives to foresee difficulties and to control the conditions that could precipitate an episode. However, when her mother remarries a man who appears to be irresponsible, and the family has to move, Gracie must confront the issue of control. How much responsibility does she have for her mother's illness? How can she continue to control variables in their lives? The move forces her to start again, accept change, and most of all, come to terms with the fact that she has her own work to do in becoming an adolescent. Like Beth Herndon, Gracie does not need to find her identity in isolation. She doesn't want to destroy her relationships, she wants to reconstruct them. A strong character, Gracie not only transforms herself into a young person who can clearly articulate her own needs, but can help others to discover their own.
When Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones was published twenty-eight years ago, the plight of the unwed mother had been largely unexplored in literature. Ann Head's novel is told in the first person, which allows July Jones to describe her own feelings as she copes with marriage and impending motherhood. A teenager from a comfortable middle class family, her inner voice was made up of "good girl" talk that included a clearly defined role that she was supposed to assume. However, July finds that nothing in her world has prepared her for the decisions that she needed to make. By relinquishing control over her life to well intentioned parents, she has run the risk of having her future decided for her. When July loses the baby, the families assume that she and Bo Jo will divorce and resume their former lives. July realizes that she loves Bo Jo, and they defy the wishes of outside authorities and decide to remain married. July's inner voice is developed when she allows herself to truly explore her own needs, but she maintains her close connections to her family.
Twenty-four years after Head's novel was published, Berlie Doherty wrote Dear Nobody. In alternating points of view, Helen and Chris tell the story of their relationship and what happens to it when Helen discovers she is pregnant. Not wanting to interfere with his plans for college, Helen doesn't tell him. Instead she writes letters to her unborn child, while keeping her secret from Chris. She almost decides to have an abortion but changes her mind and finds that she wants to keep the child. When Chris learns about the baby, he realizes that he isn't ready for such a responsibility. Helen, however, has found a lovely connection between the birth of her child and her relationship with her mother and grandmother. She begins her last letter to Chris: "I think I'm exactly where I want to be at this moment of my life." She concludes her letter with a description of the healing that her baby, Amy, has brought to the generations of women in her family, "It was as though Amy were a fine thread being drawn through a garment, mending tears" (p. 232).
A role in which girls frequently find themselves in fiction is that of victim. However, in many of the best young adult novels, girls are able to overcome violent circumstances. These girls do not continue to be victims, but instead, reach deep within to find a strength that transcends the experiences into ones that promote growth. A virtual classic of young adult literature is Peck's Are You in the House Alone? When Gail is raped by a boy from a respected family in the community, no one wants to believe her story. Although she feels betrayed by family and friends, she is determined not only to seek justice but to speak out loudly in an attempt to be an advocate for other girls who might become rape victims. Although some reviewers have criticized this novel for treating superficially the extreme trauma caused by rape, it nonetheless tells a story of an exceptionally strong girl who hears her own voice and acts upon it.
Lois Duncan has written some outstanding suspense stories in which the lives of female protagonists have been touched by violence. Killing Mr. Griffin, which tells of a teenage prank against an English teacher resulting in murder, features Susan McConnell who is an accessory to the crime. Unable to live with herself, isolated by her guilt from her family, she eventually finds the courage to testify against the others. April Corrigan in Duncan's Don't Look Behind You (1990) is uprooted from her community when her family is put under the FBI federal protection program and whisked out of town. At a time when a young person should be finding an identity, she has literally to change her outward appearance, find a new identity that includes a name change, and leave her boyfriend. By the end of the novel, April has become a heroine, and she has found an acceptance of her new life. Again, April is a character who demonstrates great strength by finding that her relationship with her family is more important than anything that she had to leave behind.
The ability to take extreme adversity and turn it into an opportunity for growth is one of the qualities of strength that gives young adult female characters some of their greatest appeal. Heidi in Flight #116 Is Down is alone when a plane crashes on her family's estate. In the course of the story she rescues victims, performs numerous acts of courage and demonstrates a cool head in a crisis. The second story for Heidi is that she also begins to find another, more mature self. During the hours of coping with tragedy, she begins to shed her childish other self, one that had been largely defined by others, and instead discovers a competent young woman.
Izzy, Willy-Nilly, the tragic story by Cynthia Voigt of a girl who loses her leg in a car accident, is not only a story of courage but of finding a new identity when the old one is no longer adequate. Izzy's inner voice must change to allow her to become stronger, wiser, accepting and forgiving. In the long lonely days in the hospital, she feels lonely and isolated from others, including her family. She knows that she is no longer the Izzy she was before the accident. It is when she discovers that there is another emerging Izzy that she allows herself to reconnect to others and transform her vision of self. Voigt provides vivid descriptions of the "Little Izzy" voice in Izzy's head, one that has to be tamed, controlled, accepted, refined and ultimately recreated.
There are adventures to be had, such as the one Hobbs provides for Jesse in Downriver, but that journey, like the ones in Oneal's A Formal Feeling and In Summer's Light, takes the characters on an outward journey so that they may make an inward one. Conflicts abound, and young adult literature is filled with stories about adolescents who are rebelling against parents and authorities. Yet, as pointed out by Mary Pipher in Reviving Ophelia:At the same time, girls want to stay close to their parents. They may even argue as a way to maintain a connection. Fights are a way of staying close and asserting distance at the same time.... Much of girls' behavior is not what parents think. The surface behavior is not all there is. The deep structure is on a quest for an autonomous self. The distancing and hostility are not personal.
Just as a girl's surface behavior may not indicate what is really going on, the stories of girls found in young adult novels have more than one level. Coming of age and finding growth, identity, and self is a complex building process that takes strength to construct. In young adult literature, the best stories provide those layers, and the strong voices to echo the knowledge that has largely remained underground for girls. Thus, at the conclusion of the novels, there is a strong single voice and it speaks for girls, a kind of verbal beacon, providing illumination and discovery. Isobel, from Izzy, Willy-Nilly sums it up when she exclaims:"Oh, wow," I thought. It was the richness of it, the richness in me; there was so much more than before. Better too, I had to admit it, although if I could have gone back and changed things I wouldn't have hesitated for one minute to do that. I didn't know what to think, but I wanted to stand there for another minute or five, just being myself. (p. 261).(p. 261);
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Head, Ann. Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones. Putnam, 1967.
Hobbs, Will. Downriver. Atheneum, 1992.
Naylor, Phyllis. Send No Blessings. Atheneum, 1991.
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Spinelli, Jerry. There's A Girl in My Hammerlock. Simon and Schuster, 1992.
Stern, Lori. "Conceptions of Separation and Connection in Female Adolescents." In Carol Gilligan, Nona P. Lyons, & Trudy J. Hanmer (Eds.), Making Connections. Harvard University Press, 1989.
Voigt, Cynthia. Izzy, Willy-Nilly. Atheneum, 1986.
Wolff, Virginia Euwer. Make Lemonade. Henry Holt, 1993.
Caroline McKinney, a frequent contributor to The Review, teaches children's and young adult literature at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Having four daughters has encouraged her focus on strong female protagonists.
Copyright 1996, The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN # 0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.
Reference Citation: McKinney, Caroline S. (1996). Finding the words that fit: The second story for females in young adult literature.The ALAN Review, Volume 24, Number 1, 11-14.