ALAN v27n1 - Professional Connection - Developmental Junctions of Text And Experience in Young Adult Literature

Volume 27, Number 1
Fall 1999

Professional Connection

Kathleen Carico, Editor
Guest Reviewer Elaine J. O'Quinn

"Developmental Junctions of Text and Experience in Young Adult Literature"

An Essay Review of

Conflict and Connection: The Psychology of Young Adult Literature, by Sharon A. Stringer

Heinemann Press, 1997. ISBN 0-86709-415-X (paperback); 102 pages

I remember sitting in my tenth grade English class one long ago autumn day, thumbing in search of myself through the anthologized text just issued by the teacher.

I was in the grips of full-fledged existential adolescence. Uncertain, veiled, feeling profoundly alone and needing desperately to find key understandings to the monumental questions of teenage existence, I remember myself as a thoughtful, if naive, fifteen year old, a girl looking hard to find outside reassurance of the things she sensed must surely exist more tangibly beyond the confines of self. She sits, that girl, with shining auburn hair falling quick past bent shoulders, randomly turning then discarding page after page of inert literature, literature that resembles nothing of the breaking life she knows. The literary pieces she discards are as foreign to her then as "Metal Week" is to me now. In resignation, she closes the text, retreats into her thoughts, and stares out the window into the bandstands of an empty athletic field. Much there is inside of her that remains unexpressed and appears will remain inexpressible in the traditions of her high school classroom. Much there is presented from the world outside of self that bears no visible connection to who she is coming to be.

It is many years before that girl grows to be this teacher. And it is only when this teacher finally has a classroom of her own that she discovers the integral world of adolescent literature, though at the time the genre has no real name or, if it does, she is unaware of it. Stocking the classroom shelves with the understandings of Blume, Hinton, Zindel, Lowery, Cormier, Lipsyte, Duncan, and Speare, the teacher is certain that some other shiny-haired girl or boy will catch, in the story and face of such fiction, at least a casual glimpse of their own changing and temporarily jumbled interior. In the longings of Meg Chalmers and Alfred Brooks, in the conflicts of the Greasers and Socs, in the alienations of Adam Farmer and Kit of Blackbird Pond, she hopes students will find some solace of recognition as she vividly recalls the urgency of her own lonesome search for meaning.

Like that earnest teacher, Sharon Stringer also cares about what teachers may effect in teens. She stirs us to remember that we cannot escape our charge to find a way to spark students to deeper understandings of self through association to others. A thorough unveiling of the parallels between adolescent psychology and Young Adult Literature is the paradigm Stringer proposes as a means of realizing this sometimes difficult commitment.

Though the important links between the developmental challenges of adolescence and the themes of YAL are what are most clearly outlined in Conflict and Connection by the author as she carefully details her way through the issues of teenage rites of passage, Sharon Stringer's work in a more profound manner provokes the reader to examine and question the problems inherent in the generally limited ways schools and society at large allow or do not allow for the conflicted changes, emotions, and actions of youth. By subtly suggesting that a broader recognition of the complex emotional and behavioral concerns of young adult life must be solicited by teachers, parents, and teens themselves if meaningful as well as purposeful growth is to occur, Stringer's writing attempts to holistically balance the scale that measures the conditions of adolescence, a scale that has become disproportionately weighted with the isolated, meted demand for purely cognitive knowledge and is tipped by the manufactured stereotypes of public perception of who teens are.

In Conflict and Connection , the thematic issues of adolescent literature are paralleled with the teenage struggle for identity in an effort to alert readers to the very real hurdles of developmental self-understanding, hurdles that can be substantially negotiated in more favorable ways than has historically been the case. Stringer's suggested vehicle for encouraging successful movement beyond these psychological milestones of youth is, as has been established, the fiction of young adult novels. It is in the imaginings of these works, and not in the microscopic dissection of classic texts nor in the socially accepted false notions of youth as uninterested in anything beyond self, that adolescents can positively recognize and appreciate and model a life familiar to them. Stringer helps readers understand the possibilities of these written works by introducing an important identity concept at the start of each of her chapters. She then moves through the psychological intricacies of each concept, intertwining, as she goes along, concrete examples of each as found in the literature with quick, clear understandings of relevant psychological principles. At each chapter's end, she succinctly summarizes the most salient point of her presentation in a brief, but thought provoking conclusion.

American society tends first to group people and then to judge them according to an imposed "normative" scale. Teenagers are especially vulnerable to criticism and rejection as they begin to explore, accept, or deny the encroaching complexities of life in the adult world. Without fully knowing how to respond to such intricacies and because they ARE painfully aware of the perceived images of who they are, teens sometimes overreact to situations rather than reflectively respond. And there is no doubt that these overreactions cost them personally and publicly. Ironically, adults, instead of responding with the reflective insights of which they are capable, regularly complicate the issues of youth by trusting in oversimplified social stereotypes and/or expecting more "mature" insights from teens than may be developmentally possible. Rather than acknowledging the realities of modern society that teens must struggle to adjust to and working to change the conditions of those realities, many adults mistakenly believe that the only way to "help" adolescents "be prepared" is to rope and saddle them to some mythical horse of adolescent passage. Stringer maintains that it is by being allowed an opportunity to relate to familiar events, circumstances, and feelings of a variety of characters, such as those offered in the stories of YAL, that teens are better able to measure, weigh, and balance the demanding complexities of their own lives, inviting them to feel less insular without dispelling the uniqueness that youth sense is so critical to maintain.

Aside from the issues of development from which they cannot escape, teens are also forced to take on the cultural issues of adulthood that they did not help create but which they must, nonetheless, negotiate. At the extremes of their misunderstandings, adults either throw up their hands and abandon teens to these complex concerns, or blame them for their inexperienced "take" on a cultural environment that even the most optimistic of adults must concede is fairly unhealthy. In her text, Stringer advocates that for teens to develop more than just a superficial understanding of the social "normative" (one that, by the way, is so distorted that we should be standing in awe at how well our youth does despite the conditions they have been dealt) and grasp more deeply the bounded and unbounded potential of their personal "norm," they must find an agent that allows them to relate the tensions and differences of their particular lives to the lives of those around them.

YAL, she contends, affords teens an opportunity to do this in a safe and satisfying way. Though Stringer in no way attempts to tell teachers how to teach, she does give them concrete, developmental legs to stand on as they witness students exploring the vast ranges of adolescence. She invites them to trust the processes of growth that teenagers must experience from within and to allow those processes to be enriched by that which they can find to hold on to from without.

As a teacher of English and English education students, and as a firm believer in Rosenblatt's reader-response theory, I wholeheartedly agree with the point Stringer so well makes. If we do not want students to, as Mike Rose notes, "turn off or distance themselves or clam up or daydream, ... deny or lash out, acquiesce or subvert" (128), then we must provide them with classroom opportunities that recognize their battles, applaud their progressive endeavors, and respond to their emotional dilemmas. In short, if we want what we teach to provide for students' developmental needs and temper their on-going battles with the personal growth of self and the public understanding of others, it is necessary to balance the matter of knowledge that proliferates in the exterior with the substance of self-knowledge which rests only within. YAL helps us to do this.

When I tell people who are not educators about the joys of my work with adolescents, they are often quick to express to me that, for their life, they cannot comprehend what I could possibly find enjoyable about such an age. Immediately they call up erroneous impressions of teens as hostile, uncooperative, troubled, and reckless. On the surface it appears true enough that if we look at the avalanche of issues central to this time of life---issues of self-expression, family, friendship, value conflict, academic and creative ability, ethical choice, sexuality, rebellion, and delinquency (all of which, Stringer reminds, are the universal themes of growing up)--there does seem everything to abhor and little to embrace. But if these processes of growth are looked at as gems of possibility to be gleaned rather than mountainous impasses meant only to obstruct, something different reveals itself. If we consider the researched facts that, like everything in a sensationalized culture, the problems of youth have likewise been exploited and exaggerated, we come to different conclusions about how to best help adolescents discover purposeful adulthoods.

Given the opportunity to meaningfully connect personal experience, knowledge, and feeling to a picture of the life situations of others and the cultures of which they are a recognizable part, adolescence becomes a time of reflection and interpretation with the potential for epiphany and increase. As Stringer unquestionably shows through plentiful examples, Young Adult Literature encourages teens to access in a positive fashion the multitude of tensions that plague not only their lives but the lives of those they know as well. Through this non-threatening and open-ended medium that allows for empathy, consideration, and a recognition of circumstance, desire, and consequence, teens are able to envision more fruitful recourses to problems, alternative ways of handling conflict, and the repercussions of any variety of risks that their limited life experience may not allow for. By permitting students to intuitively parallel the lines of their own psychological development alongside the lives of young adult characters and their actions as found in the literature, what at one moment seems the impossible feat of adolescence suddenly has the prospect for success. A reading that allows a look beyond the surface personalities of a text into the organic contexts of it provides a space for teens to sort through and assimilate both what they know and what, in their own way, they are capable of discovering. Together, the developmental aspect of their personal psychology and the literature they connect to strike a balance that checks the extremes of who teens are often thought to be. They are no more devil or saint or ogre than the rest of us. Though their demons and angels and monsters may happen to play out in all directions in a relatively short period of time, and sometimes, to everyone's dismay, all at once, their means of handling these personae are certainly no worse than the methods employed by surrounding adults. In their effort to know self, teens sometimes appear to be consistently discarding the face of what others find familiar. But this is simply their way of unmasking, of making critical choices.

As she unveils for readers the cultural myths that surround teens and suggests the impact the continued misunderstanding of such distorted projections can have on teens and adults alike, Stringer makes note each time of the sense of alienation that the state of adolescence brings. Young people want to feel as though they belong, but they need invitation and assurance that they truly are a welcome and recognizable part of the larger world. And in the end, it is up to the society at large to invite teens into the public world as intimate and not stranger. However, by propagating teen stereotypes and narrowing understanding through association with the most negative of those stereotypes, stereotypes which, as Stringer's research consistently indicates, are most often not real, what is imposed on teen relationships is an ironic isolation that is self-defeating for everyone, both teen and community. Providing opportunities for YAL in the classroom is a gesture that can aid in nurturing a teenager's desire for broader connection to the world. YAL enlists readers as active participants in life rather than as solitary victims of it, encouraging them to know they are not alone in the dilemmas they encounter and the problems given them to solve. Through their relationship with a literature intended specifically to amplify an understanding of self, teens inadvertently and, to the extent they are able, purposefully enlarge their understanding of others.

Stringer does not wave a disembodied mystical hand over the crowds to dispel the cultural myths that besiege adolescence. Instead she engages the reader through careful and sound documentation of recent psychological and sociological studies to truly consider the reality of adolescence and how teens may be encouraged in their growth in ways that unite rather than separate. To her credit, the psychology she provides is not heavy-handed. Though she supplies ample references within the field of developmental psychology to support her major premises, Stringer is also especially attentive to audience and provides a comfort level for the reader both in approach and detail that corroborates rather than complicates what she has to say about the value of YAL. Her presentation of what could be a rigorous psychological discourse on one end or an endless litany of psycho-babble on the other is, in actuality, a conversational exploration of the important revelations of the professional genre of psychology as applied to the professional genre of the named literature. As an audience member with limited knowledge of the technicalities of psychology, I was especially pleased with this aspect of the text.

In the preface of Conflict and Connection Stringer marks teachers, parents, and teens as the audience she wishes to reach with her text. Though I think all but the most mature teens would best benefit from this text through a vicarious application of it rather than a structured personal reading (probably what Stringer intends anyway), I agree there is much here to benefit both teachers and parents. Parents will come away from the text breathing a sigh of relief in recognized glimpses of their own teenage children and with an enriched understanding of the range of "normal" in the developmental stages of adolescence. They will be comforted to discover that most public views of American youth are highly distorted and that teens are no where near as unreachable as cultural myths would have us believe. Too, parents will clearly see important reasons for reinforcing the positive aspects of teen relations, know better how to attend to and respond in a supportive way to the more subtle signs of dangerous risk-taking and emotional disturbance, and pay closer heed to the daily conflicts of teens seeking to make meaning of the world by examination of personal experiences in it. Familiarity with the wealth of texts in this genre that are available to their children might also prove helpful. Simply reading some of the literature that Stringer recommends will provide parents with insights not always possible when dealing with issues that have an immediate effect because of personal proximity.

Teachers will find Stringer's book helpful and useful in a variety of ways. Those who are testing the waters of YAL for the first time will be provided a more than adequate taste of the wide range of texts available in this genre and will be pleased by the depth of psychological understandings that Stringer proposes the texts offer. The author gives an abundance of examples to support various themes and does an excellent job of boiling down to a few sentences what the texts are mostly about. She offers information that moves beyond simple plot lines to include problems of character, situation, and resolution. Readers are given a number of keys intended to open the doors of YAL in ways that allow for teachers to deal with the most sensitive of issues. For example, in the chapter on sexuality, Stringer reminds us that ambivalence about sexual feelings is "normal" for teens. She assures us that young people need and grow from honest conversations about sex and that healthy perspectives of sexuality can only be born through grappling with the universal struggles of intimacy which consistently butt up against personal identity.

Stringer succeeds in her goal of providing numerous, relevant examples of developmental conflict as seen in the literature, and easily links those conflicts to the real world struggles of youth, providing both teacher and student with points of consideration and discussion that ordinarily might be left unaddressed. The topics covered in the text will prove beneficial to any teacher planning thematic units and wishing to include a novel or a selection of novels to round out a particular unit. There is a wide variety of texts offered up as choices for engaging both the main cores and subsequent strands of various discourses. Stringer's selected themes, which include everything from "Finding My Niche" to "Right from Wrong: I Wish I Knew What to Do," and her detailed discussions of each theme could easily provide springboards for getting a class started on a central issue for a planned unit through the use of any one of the books she references in each chapter.

As I was writing this review it so happened that I was also reading Cynthia Voigt's novel On Fortune's Wheel (1990). I found myself applying much of what I had just read in Stringer in ways that I generally might not have done. In Voigt's main characters I saw many of the developmental traits of youth that Stringer suggests be considered. Birle and Orien's struggle throughout the text is to find the peace inherent in self-knowledge. In doing so, both must make important decisions about right and wrong; both must come to new understandings about family and make important decisions about the loyalties of friendship; both must consider the emotional responsibilities of sexual discovery; and both must come to grips not only with the conflicted values and ethics of the world of which they are a part, but must decide within the limits of that world on a personal code of conduct that allows them to be true to their own idea of self. In retrospect, I see many similarities between the struggles of these fictional characters and the struggles of the teens with whom I work and have worked. While it is true that none of the teens I know have ever had to figure out how to escape the literal captive bonds of ropes, chains, and collar bracelets, I've certainly seen enough of them struggle with the symbolic restraints of class, race, gender, family, and circumstance to be convinced they will find much to hold onto in Voigt.

Teens, even in their subcultures, are not a hopeless, self-destructive group hell bent on making miserable the lives of all they encounter. They have never been this, though there are many adult agencies who would have us believe so. If anything, they are victims of a culture who superficially embraces what their youth represents in image, but who abandons them in what their age requires in substance. Stringer's book suggests a way to provide this much needed substance, a way that is respectful, applicable, meaningful, and educational. What she offers as a way of better understanding the challenges of youth is a perfectly intelligible psychology of development. In her caring about such an important issue, she has taken the time to carefully show the rest of us how the principles of her own discipline can be realized through the vehicle of a more common discipline. I know of at least one shiny-haired youth who could have profited from such a revelation.

Works Cited

Rose, Mike. Lives on the Boundary. New York: Penguin, 1989.

Rumi. The Essential Rumi. Trans. C. Barks. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1995.

Voigt, Cynthia. On Fortune's Wheel. New York: Fawcett, 1990.

Elaine J. O'Quinn is an assistant professor in the Department of English at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. She is currently working with Teacher's College Press on a book based on her dissertation, on imagination in teaching.

Copyright 1999. 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 in any form.

Reference Citation: O'Quinn, Elaine J. (1999). An essay review of "Conflict and connections: The psychology of young adult literature" by Sharon A. Sringer. The ALAN Review, Volume 27, Number 1, pp. 60-63.