ALAN v27n1 - A Portrait of Popularity: An Analysis of Characters in Novels from Young Adults' Choices for 1997

Volume 27, Number 1
Fall 1999

A Portrait of Popularity:
An Analysis of Characteristics of Novels
from Young Adults' Choices for 1997

by Rosemary Chance

Editor's note: This article reflects work that Rosemary Chance completed after receiving
the ALAN Foundation Award for Research in Young Adult Literature in 1995. ---psc

Selecting books for young adults is difficult. There are several aspects to this problem. These aspects include why young adults read, what they read, and who selects what they read. They read for information and for pleasure. They read to escape the confines of their own lives, and to better understand their world. Gender, age, and personal reading preferences influence young adults' book selections. Some young adults select books published especially for their age level; others select books published for adults. Young adults may read a novel because of its plot, theme, style, or other literary characteristics.

Adults who select YA books for libraries and classrooms and who review YA books may have different criteria for selection than young adults have. Besides selecting books for adolescents for their informational and recreational needs, professionals select books to expose young people to classic literature and to help build students' reading skills.

Reading interest, reading preference, and reading choice studies provide information that can be valuable to librarians and teachers who select books for YAs. For instance, some researchers conclude that young adults prefer to read about protagonists who are the same gender as the reader (see, for example, Beyard-Tyler and Sullivan 1980 , Carlsen 1980 , Issacs 1992 , Langerman 1990 ). Other researchers conclude that young people want stories to take place in the present or recent past (see, for example, Chong 1996 , Gibson 1992 , Karrenbrock 1983 , Wallis 1997 ). Such studies are based upon the same assumption: Book choices young people make reflect their preferences and interests in reading topics, genres, and literary characteristics.

Definitions of the terms "preference" and "interest" help clarify the purposes of these studies. "A preference is a disposition to receive one object as against another" ( Getzels 1966, 97 ). For instance a reader may prefer first person point of view to third person point of view. To indicate such a preference, a reader chooses between two reading elements, selecting books written on first person over books written in third person. Unlike preference, "interest" follows a more active course. According to Getzels, "The basic nature of an interest is that it does induce us to seek out particular objects and activities" (97). For example, a reader who specifically searches for books about horses shows an interest in the animals if his interest comes from his personal desire for information about them. Because preferences and interests are personal motivations, it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine a young person's exact motivation for selecting a book. However, we can examine the concrete evidence of choice. A "reading choice study," such as the one I describe herein, is a study of print materials selected and read from a collection.

The purpose of this reading choice study was to analyze literary elements of YA novels young adults have chosen to read. I studied the novels that had been identified as favorites by a nationwide group of 7th-12th graders, who rated books for the 1997 Young Adult's Choices project, a project that has been sponsored annually since 1989 by the International Reading Association. (Please see Appendix A: Young Adult Book Choices, 1997 .) I analyzed literary elements by recording and discussing data about each novel on a checklist designed for this study. I examined seven literary elements defined by Lukens and Cline in A Critical Handbook of Literature for Young Adults (1995). These seven literary elements are character, plot, point of view, setting, style, theme, and tone. (Please see Appendix B: Data Sheet for Book Analysis ). A major question guided this reading choice study: What are the literary characteristics of the YA novels that are chosen and preferred by young adult readers? A secondary question also directed this study: How do the findings of this recent study compare with the findings of previous studies?

Conducting the Study

I analyzed the twenty-three novels of Young Adults' Choices (YAC) for 1997, since these books bad proven to be popular with adolescent readers. Analysis of reading interest and preference studies indicate the most accurate methodology for determining reading interest is the observation of books read ( Purves and Beach 1972 ). Thus, the use of a YAC list provides the opportunity to study YA novels chosen, favored, and read by young adults.

I designed an instrument based upon definitions of literary elements and their specific characteristics discussed by Lukens and Cline (1995). The instrument consists of eight categories: a book identification category and one category for each of seven literary elements. First, I recorded data under a book description category and under each of seven literary elements. Second, I interpreted data by example and discussion according to the concept of educational connoisseurship promoted by Elliot W. Eisner (1979): "The act of knowledgeable perception is, in the arts, referred to as connoisseurship. To be a connoisseur is to know how to look, to see, and to appreciate" (193). My longtime experience with YA books and with young adults provides me with the background and the perception to which Eisner refers. A final step to this research process was the comparison of findings of individual reading interest, preference, and choice studies with findings of this study.

The results of my analysis of novels from YAC for 1997 reveals specific characteristics based upon the seven literary elements of character, plot, point of view, setting, style, theme, and tone. These characteristics create a picture of a popular novel. In this study,

  1. all novels (100%) have round protagonists

  2. the large majority (91%) of protagonists are dynamic characters.

  3. Almost all novels (96%) are progressive in action rather than episodic. Of the three patterns of progressive plot, the third or traditional pattern of rising action, climax, and falling action is dominant (70%).

  4. The dominant (43%) type of conflict is a dual conflict composed of person-against-self and person-against-person.

  5. A majority (70%) of novels are told from the first person point of view.

  6. The type of setting divides almost evenly between integral (52%) and backdrop (49%). The most frequent (43%) function of setting is to clarify conflict.

  7. Of the variety of major stylistic devices, imagery is the most frequently used (35%).

  8. The type of theme divides almost evenly between explicit (52%) and implicit (48%). Becoming self-aware and responsible for one's own life is the most common thematic idea (52%).

  9. The majority (74%) of novels are serious in tone.

An awareness of the characteristics of popular YA novels may aid professionals in helping YAs select novels they will enjoy reading. A comparison between findings of previous studies and findings of this study shows some similarities and some differences. The variations in methodologies among studies made a one-to-one comparison impractical. In the majority of previous studies, novels chosen by YAs have the following attributes: well-developed characters, progressive plots, more conflicts with self or with another person than any other type of conflict, first person point of view, integral settings, a mix of stylistic devices, explicit themes, no dominant themes, and the appeal of humor.

The most important finding of this particular study relates to character. The majority of these novels are character-driven as shown through the seven literary elements. First, protagonists are round and dynamic, indications that they are well developed. Second, the majority of the novels have conflict that centers on people, person-against-self and person-against-person. Third, protagonists tell their stories from first person point of view, providing an intimate view of the characters. Fourth, backdrop settings illuminate character. Fifth, the major thematic idea is becoming self-aware and responsible for one's own life. It is possible that the readers were searching for characters whom they can relate to or recognize as they identified their favorite books.

Several writers and researchers in the field of adolescent literature have concluded that young people progress through specific stages of reading development as they mature. In 1960, Margaret J. Early published an article entitled "Stages of Growth in Literary Appreciation." There are three stages in her theory: unconscious enjoyment, self-conscious appreciation, and conscious delight ( Early 1960 ). For example, in the middle stage, self-conscious appreciation, readers move away from the simple pleasure of what happens in a story to begin judging elements of the literary piece. Rather than being swept away with the action of the story, readers may pause to notice a literary element, such as theme ( Carter and Harris 1981 ). In a similar fashion, G. Robert Carlsen's "Flow Chart of Developing Concerns in Literature" illustrates five stages: unconscious delight, vicarious experience, seeing oneself, philosophical speculations, and aesthetic experience ( Carlsen 1974 and 1980 ). According to Carlsen, one of the rewards of seeing oneself is "suddenly meeting ourselves, encountering situations similar to our own, rediscovering our own emotions and relationships" (1980, 24). Later, Carlsen divided the stages of reading development of YAs into three stages: early adolescence (ages 11-14), middle adolescence (ages 15-16), and late adolescence (last two years in high school) ( Carlsen 1980 ). In middle adolescence Carlsen suggests that for both boys and girls "Literature becomes a way of seeing themselves and of testing possible solutions to their own problems" ( Carlsen 1980, 40 ).

Then in 1985, Alleen Pace Nilsen and Kenneth L. Donelson included "The Birthday Cake Theory of Reading Development" in their textbook, Literature for Today's Young Adults. Their theory identifies six developmental reading stages, from birth to college-age students. Three stages are applicable to young adults: third to sixth grades, junior high and high school, and upper high school and college. It is during the fourth stage, junior high and high school, that readers enjoy finding themselves in a story; finding their friends, enemies and other people of interest; and checking out the "facts" presented in realistic, problem novels. Nilsen and Donelson's ideas provide insight into the reading choices that young adults make, according to their age levels. For this study these theories aided in the interpretation of data collected on YA novels. As shown through round and dynamic characters, plot conflict, first person point of view, the importance of setting, and dominant thematic idea, these novels are character-driven. This focus on character fits the developmental stages of YA reading.


Some final words about this study relate to its original purpose. First, this study describes a popular YA novel based on YAC for 1997, and it shows that popular YA novels are primarily character-driven. Teachers and librarians who select and purchase books for YA collections can benefit from this information by providing books that will appeal to a certain population of YA readers. Second, this study agrees with most previous studies investigating literary elements of YA novels. Comparisons between this study and previous studies cannot be considered conclusive until more research is done using the same definitions. Third, this study provides a clear definition of a reading choice study and recommends the use of definitions of literary elements by Lukens and Cline as standards for future research.

For practitioners, librarians, and teachers who work with adolescents, the findings from this study will add to general information for improving readers' advisory, the art of recommending books ( Edwards 1970 ). The results of this study can be useful in making initial reading recommendations to groups of adolescents or to individual young adults whose particular or individual reading tastes are not known. In this study I did not know the readers as individuals, only as residents of the United States in grades seven through twelve. This study did not study the readers, it examined the books they chose. By looking at the books young adults chose, I was able to make generalizations about literary elements of YA novels that appeal to unknown readers. This synthesis of the characteristics of YA novels provides a beginning point for librarians and teachers as they help young adults locate books they enjoy.

Works Cited

Beyard-Tyler, K. C. and H. J. Sullivan. "Adolescent Reading Preferences for Type of Theme and Sex of Character." Reading Research Quarterly. 16 (1980): 104-120.

Carlsen, G. R. Books and the Teenage Reader: A Guide for Teachers, Librarians and Parents. 2nd ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1980.

Carter, B. and K. Harris. "The Children and the Critics: How do their Book Selections Compare?" School Library Media Quarterly. 10 (1981): 54-58.

Chong, D. K. "Popularity and Critical Acclaim in Children'sLliterature." Diss. San Jose University, 1996.

Early, Margaret. "Stages of Growth in Literary Appreciation." English Journal. 49 (1960): 163-66.

Edwards, M. A. "Youth, Books, and Guidance." North Carolina Libraries 38 (1970): 8-14.

Eisner, E. W. The Educational Imagination. New York: Macmillan, 1979.

Getzels, J. W. "The Problem of Interests: A Reconsideration." In H. A. Robinson (Ed.), Reading: Seventy-five Years of Progress. Supplementary Educational Monographs 96: 97-106. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gibson, J. "Notable Books for Children and Children's Choices for 1991: Structural Analysis and Comparisons of Fiction for Middle Readers." Diss. Texas Woman's University, 1992.

Isaacs, K. T. "Go Ask Alice: What Middle Schoolers Choose to Read." The New Advocate. 5 (1992): 129-144.

Karrenbrock, M. H. "Characteristics Discriminating between Most and Least Often Preferred Books of the Georgia Children's Book Award Lists, 1972-1981." Diss. University of Georgia, 1983.

Langerman, D. "Books and Boys: Gender Preferences and Book Selection." School Library Journal. 36 (1990): 132-136.

Lukens, R. J. and R. K. J. Cline. A Critical Handbook of Literature for Young Adults. New York: HarperCollins College Publishers, 1995.

Nilsen, A. P. and K. L. Donelson. Literature for Today's Young Adults. 2nd ed. Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman, 1985.

Purves, A. C. and R. Beach. Literature and the Reader: Research in Response to Literature, Reading, Interests, and the Teaching of Literature. Urbana-Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois, 1972.

Wallis, J. M. "Children's Favorite Novels: An Analysis of Books that Have Won Multiple State Popularity Awards." Diss. University of Houston, 1997.

"Young Adults' Choices 1997." Journal of adolescent and adult literacy. 41 (1997): 209-216.

Appendix A: Young Adults' Choice, 1997
(Novels Only)

Byalick, Marcia. It's a Matter of Trust. San Diego, CA.: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995.

Cascone, A. G. If He Hollers. New York: Avon Books, 1995.

Cole, Sheila. What Kind of Love? The Diary of a Pregnant Teenager. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, 1995.

Cottonwood, Joe. Quake! A Novel. New York: Scholastic, Inc., 1995.

Curtis, Christopher Paul. The Watsons go to Birmingham-- 1963. New York: Delacorte Press, 1995.

Dygard, Thomas J. Infield Hit. New York: Morrow Junior Books, 1995.

Hahn, Mary Downing. Look for Me by Moonlight. New York: Clarion Books, 1995.

Hesse, Karen. A Time of Angels. New York: Hyperion Books for Children, 1995.

Hurwin, Davida Wills. A Time for Dancing. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1995.

Karas, Phyllis. The Hate Crime. New York: Avon Books, 1995.

Koller, Jackie French. A Place to Call Home. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1995.

Lynch, Chris. Slot Machine. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995.

MacGregor, Rob. Prophecy Rock. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1995.

McCants, William. Much Ado about Prom Night. San Diego, CA.: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995.

Nelson, Vaunda Micheaux. Possibles. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1995.

Park, Barbara. Mick Harte was Here. New York: Random House, Inc., 1995.

Plummer, Louise. The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman. New York: Delacorte Press, 1995.

Rinaldi, Ann. The Secret of Sarah Revere. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995.

Soto, Gary. Summer on Wheels. New York: Scholastic, 1995.

Strasser, Todd. How I Changed my Life. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1995.

Taylor, Theodore. The Bomb. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995.

Williams, Karen Lynn. A Real Christmas This Year. New York: Clarion Books, 1995.

Woodson, Jacqueline. From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun. New York: Scholastic Inc., 1995.

Appendix B:

Data Sheet for Book Analysis of Novels from Young Adults' Choices for 1997

Book Description

Author: _________________________________________________________________

Title: ___________________________________________________________________

Publisher/Copyright Date: _________________________________________________

Character Type of protagonist: Example(s): round, flat _________________________________________


Examples)s: dynamic, static ______________________________________


Plot Type of plot:

Type of major conflict:
Example(s): progressive, episodic, other ____________________________


Examples(s): person against self, person against nature, person against person,
person against society, other _______________________________________


Point of View Type of point of view: Example(s): first person, omniscient, limited omniscient, objective/dramatic, other ____________________________________________________________


Setting Type of setting:

Function of setting:
Examples(s): integral, backdrop ___________________________________


Example(s): setting that clarifies, setting that acts as antagonist, setting that illuminates character, setting that affects mood, setting that acts as symbol, other ____________________________________________________________


Style Major devices: Example(s): allusion, figurative language, symbol, connotation, hyperbole, understatement, dialect, imagery, other


Theme Type of theme:

Common thematic Ideas:
Example(s): explicit, implicit _____________________________________


Examples(s) becoming self-aware and responsible for one's own life, understanding marriage and parenthood, fostering hope despite differences, becoming aware of interdependence, dealing with the sense of isolation, judging by appearances, understanding the nature of society, acknowledging contradictions, other ____________________________________________


Tone Major tone: Example(s): serious, lighthearted, other _____________________________


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: Chance, Rosemary. (1999). A portrait of popularity: An analysis of characteristics of novels from Young Adults' Choices for 1997. The ALAN Review, Volume 27, Number 1, pp. 65-68.