ALAN v22n2 - THE LIBRARY CONNECTION - Future Directions: An Interim Analysis of Twenty-Five Years of Research on Young Adult Literature

Volume 22, Number 2
Winter 1995
Betty Carter, Editor
Texas Woman's University, Denton, Texas

Future Directions: An Interim Analysis of Twenty-Five Years of Research on Young Adult Literature

by Elizabeth Poe, Barbara G. Samuels, and Betty Carter

The year 1993 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of Hinton's The Outsiders and Zindel's Pigman , the two titles often cited as heralding the beginning of contemporary young adult literature. What does that anniversary and level of maturity mean to the field and to those who work in it? During these 25 years, a body of published critical analysis of young adult literature has flourished in a variety of forms -- journal articles, conference proceedings, dissertations, and entire books. To help meet the need for more efficient access to this research, Elizabeth Poe and Barbara Samuels are in the process of compiling an annotated and categorized bibliography of journal publications and research in young adult literature. Although the compilation is still in the process, an account of the procedures used to gather information and an interim report on the findings provide insight into publications in the field of young adult literature. With Betty Carter, a former president of ALAN , Poe and Samuels examined the collected materials and found that they suggest possible directions for future investigation and attention. It seems that in an academic field, what we study, what we write about, and what we share with our colleagues is the framework for the discipline and documents how it will be viewed. In many ways, the research we engage in and the articles we write define the profession. Even a preliminary look at the material gathered suggests past and future directions.

The need for an annotated bibliography of publications about young adult literature became apparent several years ago. In 1989, when the Children's Literature Assembly (CLA) and the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English ( ALAN ) co-sponsored a joint workshop on Research in Children's and Adolescent's Literature, one of the issues discussed was the difficulty of locating research on young adult literature. Because of the nature of the genre, it is often indexed as children's literature and sometimes as adult literature. Although Jane Bingham, professor of children's literature at Oakland University, had compiled an annotated bibliography of articles and dissertations in children's literature, her compilation omitted many research reports in the field of young adult literature. [1] Her work pointed out the need for a comprehensive annotated bibliography devoted solely to research reports, journal articles, and dissertation abstracts on young adult literature. Agreeing that this would be a useful undertaking, Poe and Samuels discussed the matter at the next ALAN Executive Board meeting. After gaining the Board's endorsement, they began work on the bibliography project.

Using funds provided by the ALAN Research Foundation and a grant from the University of Wisconsin-Eau-Claire, Poe conducted a DIALOG electronic data base search of ERIC, Dissertation Abstracts International (DAI), Library and Information Science Abstracts (LISA), and the Modern Language Association of America Bibliography (MLA). Psychlit and Library Lit were searched separately.

DIALOG descriptors limited the search to research reports and articles written in English from 1967 to 1992 on young adult literature and young adult authors. Books, chapters, papers, and conference proceedings were excluded from the search in an attempt to set workable parameters for the project. The DIALOG search extracted 1,876 records that were stored in a database file and later converted to Pro-Cite, a data base management program designed specifically for handling bibliographic information. [2]

Sorting annotations by journal revealed that 158 journals published in the USA, Canada, Germany, France, Australia, Great Britain, Spain, Brazil, and South Africa had been cited. Some publications, like SIGNAL, BookLinks, and Booklist , had no listings; other obvious sources of information like The ALAN Review and the Journal of Youth Services in Libraries had only a few records. Some, like The Horn Book Magazine, had many listings. To ensure that all articles in major journals in the field were included, Poe and Samuels consulted colleagues, Current Index to Journals in Education ( CIJE ), and Urlich's International Periodicals Directory, and compiled a list of 15 key journals for further analysis. [3] To ensure that the bibliography is as comprehensive as possible, these 15 major journals were assigned to colleagues in the field of young adult literature who annotated relevant articles not already included in the data base. English educators, reading specialists, and librarians throughout the country worked on this part of the project.

Poe and Samuels are currently editing all entries and will draw upon the extensive capabilities of Pro-Cite to organize the articles according to major categories. They will also cross-reference and index the entries to produce a reference tool that will provide students, teachers, and scholars easy access to research information and journal articles in the field of adolescent literature. The bibliography will cover the first 25 years of what has been termed "young adult literature."

Preliminary Findings
Although this research is still in progress and the final analysis is far from complete, a preliminary examination of the project uncovered a 25-year-old paper trail that not only furnishes a perspective on the field, but also allows interested professionals opportunities to consider subjects of primary interest in the past along with those areas that deserve attention in future research. A partial analysis of what has been written in the field and the research that has been conducted outlines the strengths and the limitations of the world of adolescent literature and provides suggestions for future research.

Recommended Booklists
Much of young adult literature filters down to teens, its primary audience, through sources such as librarians, teachers, or parents. In order to recommend titles, discuss various books, and help young adults develop their own independence in book selection, these adults must know the literature. They discover it though their own reading, and they also depend heavily on booklists. As a practical tool, booklists are important, and not surprisingly they comprise the greatest attention in the professional literature. These lists include publications by professional organizations such as the International Reading Association, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the American Library Association; book review and book selection columns in journals aimed at teachers or librarians, or more selected lists such as Best Books for Young Adults; and curricular material published by state education departments, school districts, or individual teachers. Lists of books to fulfill numerous needs are readily available from a variety of professional sources.

While vital to the field, all too often, though, these lists appear as compilations of subjective recommendations, when in fact they often are the product of a rigorous selection policy. To eliminate this perception, selectors must share their processes and policies with their audiences. After all, booklists not only serve young adults, but they also help teachers and librarians begin to develop their own selection skills.

Articles by Young Adult Authors
Articles and opinion pieces written by authors also provide an important dimension to young adult literature and comprise the second largest number of the total publications. Collected biographies, interviews, individual autobiographies, and critical works about particular authors allow both librarians and teenagers opportunities to study favorite writers in depth or have extended encounters with old friends. Richard Peck, for example, has written about teen pressure groups, the responsibilities of writers of young adult novels, and his own writing processes. [4] Lloyd Alexander has discussed his writing of fantasy literature that appeals to young adults and teaches them about the problems of humanity. [5]

The danger in some of these works, however, comes when they turn into an open forum that encourages authors to go beyond their expertise to discuss concerns such as adolescent psychology, readers' advisory, teaching methodology, reading motivation, and library programming. These subjects represent areas that many authors know little about and can discuss only in terms of anecdote and personal experience. This trend signals a professional abdication of the business of librarianship and education.

Author Studies
If research in young adult literature is to mirror that in other areas of literature, then author studies conducted by others should certainly form the cornerstone of the discipline. They are beginning to emerge. Pamela Sissi Carroll's study of the novels of Sue Ellen Bridgers as Southern literature provides a fine example. [6] So does Anita Moss's analysis of the Gothic and grotesque qualities in the novels of Virginia Hamilton. [7] But, the field is still young, and the pool of meritorious authors is by definition small. In the future this strength must continue by highlighting those authors worthy of attention.

Critical Analysis
As expected, many of the articles and research studies concentrate on the literature itself, including critical analyses of the themes and characters of specific novels. Articles like Susan Mengers' that analyze the choices made by characters in the novels of Cynthia Voigt appear regularly in the professional journals. [8] If young adult literature is to be considered a scholarly field, these articles are certainly necessary and significant. However, so far the scope of writings has been limited. The proliferation of studies on fiction define young adult literature as a discipline grounded completely in novels, in direct contrast to the public definition of young adult literature that typically includes all the materials young adults read. If the profession wants others to recognize the variety in the field, then its research should reflect the diversity with more critical articles on poetry, essays, drama, expository prose, and biography.

Adult Books for Young Adults
It's also time to take a serious look at those adult books that appeal to young adults. Based on the research, the profession is in danger of defining young adult literature as those books published in juvenile divisions of publishing houses, even though librarians and teachers know that by the time a teenager is about 14, he or she is primarily reading adult works. Future study should consider the following questions: What makes an adult book appeal to an adolescent? What should selectors be looking for? Beyond length, are there inherent differences between adult books for young adults and young adult books for young adults?

Topic Analysis
One of the approaches used to incorporate young adult books into the school curriculum is thematic units. Much of the current research, including a growing number of dissertations in the field, seems to be focused on this kind of critical analysis of literature. Two examples are dissertations from the University of Tennessee. One study about death awareness in young adult fiction analyzes whether the portrayal of death in novels is realistic. [9] Another examines the young adult protagonists' search for identity theme in philosophy, religion, and world literature. [10] Other studies have looked at subjects like divorce and separation, [11] foster home situations, [12] alienation, [13] family images, [14] ethnic identity, [15] athletes, [16] and censorship. [17]

The proliferation of this kind of topical analysis suggests caution to professionals in the field. The numerous studies that concentrate on subject in fiction -- such as image of teachers or librarians, [18] parents, [19] or child abuse [20] -- also limit perceptions of the literature by subtly defining the field as one composed of problem novels. Here again, the professional publications mitigate against the professional insistence that the study of young adult literature has grown beyond simple treatises that define a book as simply one about rape, or sexual discrimination, or divorce. More studies that actually focus on theme rather than subject are needed if the discipline wants to expand the perception of young adult literature.

Social Issues
Articles that examine social issues through literature also deserve close scrutiny. There's a fine line between outlining what has happened and what should happen. The latter suggests a didacticism that mature literature has dropped. Authors must be free to tell their own stories, without trying to cope with a preset social agenda that tiptoes around those ugly realities of life such as bigotry or sexual harassment. Society embodies many evils, and if books accurately picture that society, then they will naturally reflect some imperfections. In recent years researchers have looked at a number of gender issues in adolescent literature and some have made inappropriate suggestions. Asking women to take prominent roles in historical fiction, for example, clouds the very real and dramatic stories that took place in another time. If we don't watch it, then all our historical fiction will more closely resemble Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman , rather than The Witch of Blackbird Pond . Reviewers, literary critics, and curricula developers must be alert to these misuses of literature to promote a particular social agenda.

Reading Interests
How do young adults make their reading choices? For many years, studies or discussions of teenagers' reading interests have formed a body of the research in young adult literature. Karen Beyard-Tyler and Howard J. Sullivan detail two studies that investigated adolescents' preferences for type of theme and sex of character in contemporary realistic fiction, for example. [21] Another study relates reading interest to students' personal and academic characteristics. [22] Betty Carter's dissertation examines the circulation records of nonfiction books in middle school libraries to determine students' interest in nonfiction. [23] A dissertation by Elizabeth Fair compares the Iowa Books for Young Adults poll from 1982-1989 with other reading interest studies to determine the validity of previous research on reading interests. [24] Whereas earlier interest studies like Norvell's [25] asked students to respond to titles of books, stories, or poems, some of the more recent studies of students' interests seem focused in the issues involved in readers' choices of certain types of books.

Research in reading interests also needs to grow beyond these traditional methodologies, those that ask young adults to list favorite lines, choose preferred subjects, select interesting summaries, or study circulation of library books. Since the multitude of permutations from each design produces different results, researchers should look deeper through correlational studies. In addition, interest studies need to expand beyond what young adults prefer to what they are actually reading. Are these lists of interesting subjects or selected summaries on interest inventories reflected in the books young adults choose to read? This whole area is much more complex than the concentration on topics, authors, and subjects indicates. Here is where there's great room for descriptive studies of a few readers, or nonreaders: of their processes, of their attitudes, and of their actual relationships with text.

Reader Response Theory
These relationships with text have taken the form of research in reader response theory. Research concerning young adult literature now comprises a respectable body of knowledge in the area of reader response, as more investigators are paying attention, not to the characteristics of a book in a vacuum but to how individuals respond to that book. Studies have considered responses to characterization, [26] to young adult compared to adult fiction, [27] as well as to the behaviors, thinking processes, and language used in response to young adult literature. [28] Elizabeth Poe's dissertation study, for example, looks at the responses of pregnant teens to young adult novels portraying protagonists with problems similar and dissimilar to the reader's problems. [29] Other studies have examined responses to literature developmentally, investigating whether readers respond differently as they mature. [30] Reader response is clearly a growing area of focus for those studying young adults and their reading today.

Other Related Research
Nonetheless, in addition to studying reader response research, professionals must also apply other critical theories to the discussion of a work. Someone adhering to a Marxist philosophy will have a different perspective on a particular piece of literature than someone using a feminist approach. If the field is to be taken seriously, then it must be approached from several critical bases.

Similar to reader response, yet deserving of separate notice, is the research relating adolescent developmental tasks or identity with the literature young adults are reading. Bleich studied the psychological and social characteristics of adolescents in young adult literature. [31] Others have looked at gender [32] and racial issues [33] in the literature in developmental terms as well. A study at the University of South Africa investigated whether the reading of realistic teenage fiction can help adolescent girls facing developmental tasks deal with their femininity, approaching womanhood, as well as the tasks of socialization. [34] Richard Abrahamson examines death as a developmental task in young adult novels. [35] Published writing in the field suggests that literature for teens both describes and supports developmental issues.

Reading Advocacy
Reading advocacy in classrooms and libraries accounts for a number of articles in the past 25 years. Both teachers and librarians write about successful methods for stimulating reading and involving students in books that appeal to their developmental needs. Examination of the factors that encourage youth to read should continue.

Elements of Literature

Finally, there is one area that has been neglected, but that certainly deserves a place in future research. Although there have been studies of genre, [36] we have not seen many studies on elements of literature --characters and setting in addition to theme (not subject), for example. In particular, a void exists concerning structure and how readers deal with various elements such as multiple narrators or temporal shifts. After all, while topic outlines the subject of a book, structure determines how readers will approach a topic or character or situation.

This analysis of bibliographic references in the field of young adult literature is just beginning. When all the entries are categorized in Pro-Cite, we will have a more accurate sense of what has been published. But this interim view of the publication record in the field offers a glimpse of where we are and where we should progress. Admittedly these suggestions do not blanket the future of research in young adult literature. But, they do provide some areas for concentration and some issues to consider. Research is not just an empirical tool that exists apart from a discipline. Rather, it is a defining instrument that gives scholars an opportunity to tell others what it is that's important in a given area.

End Notes

1. Jane M. Bingham, and others, "Research in Children's and Young Adult Literature: An Annotated Bibliography of Articles and Dissertations, 1985-1988." (Unpublished document prepared for the National Council of Teachers of English, CLA/ALAN Research in Children's and Young Adult Literature Preconference, Charleston, SC, 1989.)

2. Pro-Cite. Ann Arbor, MI: Personal Bibliographic Software, Inc.

3. The 15 journals identified were The ALAN Review, BookLinks, Booklist, Bookreport, Children's Literature in Education, Children's Literature Association Quarterly, Emergency Librarian, Hornbook, Journal of Youth Services in Libraries, The New Advocate, Lion and the Unicorn, School Library Journal, SIGNAL, Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA) and the Wilson Library Bulletin.

4. Richard Peck, "Growing up Suburban: `We Don't Use Slang, We're Gifted,'" School Library Journal 32 (Oct. 1985): 118-19.

5. Lloyd Alexander, "Fantasy and the Human Condition," The New Advocate 1, no.2 (Spring 1988): 75-83.

6. Pamela Sissi Carroll, "Sue Ellen Bridgers' Southern Literature for Young Adults" (Auburn Univ. 1989. Dissertation Abstracts International 52/7-A.

7. Anita Moss, "Gothic and Grotesque Effects in Virginia Hamilton's Fiction" The ALAN Review , 19, no.2, (Winter 1992): 16-20.

8. Susan Mengers, "Self-Sacrifice or Self-Development? Choices Made by Characters in the Novels of Cynthia Voigt," Journal of Youth Services in Libraries 2 no.3 (Spring 1989): 250-55.

9. Mary Lord Beasley, "The Effect of Death Awareness on the Protagonists of Selected Adolescent Novels" (Univ. of Tennessee, 1981), Dissertation Abstracts International 42/9-A.

10. Wallace McDonald Beasely, Jr. "The Self as the Source of Knowledge: A Philosophical Study of the Identity Theme in the Adolescent Novel" (Univ. of Tennessee, 1980), Dissertation Abstracts International 41/8-A.

11. Richard William Gifford, "A Content Analysis of Selected Adolescent Novels in Dealing with Divorce, Separation, and Desertion, Published between January 1970 and May 1979" (Univ. of Colorado at Boulder, 1980), Dissertation Abstracts International 42/1-A.

12. Carolyn Elizabeth Ellison, "A Study to Determine the Credibility of Foster Homes Situations Portrayed in Contemporary Realistic Fiction for Purposes of Reading Guidance" (Michigan State Univ., 1982), Dissertation Abstracts International 34/5-A.

13. Charles Eugene Bayless, "An Analysis of the Alienation Motif in Secondary School Literature" (Duke Univ., 1975), University Microfilms no.75-29,490.

14. Joy Hubbard Bernard, "The Image of the Family in Young Adult Literature, 1967-1979" (Arizona State Univ., 1981). Dissertation Abstracts International 42/10-A.

15. Pamela Patrick, "The Characterization of Native Americans in Children's and Young Adult's Fiction, with a Contemporary Setting by Native American and Non-Native Americans Authors: A Content Analysis" (Florida State Univ., 1981), Dissertation Abstracts International 52/7-A.

16. Edna Earl Edwards, "A Comparison of Factors Affecting the Success of Athletes in Selected Junior Novels and Biographies" (Florida State Univ., 1969), Dissertation Abstracts International 31/3-A.

17. Myrna Marlene Bump, "Censorship Practiced by High School Librarians Prior of (Actual) Book Selection" (Kansas State Univ., 1980), Dissertation Abstracts International 41/7-A.

18. Mary Adams Tanzy Crume, "Images of Teachers in Novels and Films for the Adolescent, 1980-1981" (Univ. of Florida, 1988), Dissertation Abstracts International 50/01/A.

19. Joyce Burner, "All in the Family: Parents in Teen Fiction." School Library Journal 35, no.15 (Nov. 1989: 42-43.

20. Carolyn Baggett, "The Specter of Child Abuse in Realistic Fiction for Children," Catholic Library World 54, no.9 (Apr., 1985):371-74.

21. Karen Beyard-Tyler and Howard J. Sullivan, "Adolescent Reading Preferences for Type of Theme and Sex of Character," Reading Research Quarterly 16, no.1 (1980): 104-20.

22. Stanley Bank, "Assessing Reading Interests of Adolescent Students," Educational Research Quarterly 10, no.3 (1986): 8-13.

23. Betty Bogdon Carter, "A Conduct Analysis of the Most Frequently Circulated Information Books in Three Junior High School Libraries" (Univ. of Houston, 1987), Dissertation Abstracts International 49/2-A.

24. Elizabeth Rhae Fair, "What Young Adults Like to Read: A Comparison of Iowa Books for Young Adults Data from 1982-1989 with other Reading Interest Studies" (Univ. of Iowa, 1990), Dissertation Abstracts International 52/3-A.

25. G.W. Norvell, The Reading Interests of Young People (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State Univ. Pr., 1973).

26. Carroll Brundage Coley, "Reader Response to Androgynous Characterization in Juvenile Fiction at Second, Fifth and Seventh Grade Levels" (Washington State Univ., 1980), Dissertation Abstracts International 41/5-A.

27. Michael Louis Angelotti, "An Comparison of Elements in the Written Free Responses of Eighth Graders to a Junior Novel and an Adult Novel" (Florida State Univ., 1972), Dissertation Abstracts International 33/6-A.

28. Kenneth Michael Cutts, "The Focusing Behaviors, Mental Processes, and Types of Language Used by Selected Seventh Graders While Reading and Responding to a Chapter from an Adolescent Novel" (Univ. of Iowa, 1978). Dissertation Abstracts International 39/6-A.

29. Elizabeth Ann Poe, "Reader Response of Pregnant Adolescent and Teenage Mothers to Young Novels Portraying Protagonists with Problems Similar and Dissimilar to the Readers'" (Univ. of Colorado at Boulder, 1986), Dissertation Abstracts International 47/6-A.

30. Philip M. Anderson, "Evaluative Response to Poetic Convention at Four Grade Levels," Research in Education (June 1990). (ED 314749).

31. Linda Lee Bleich, "A Study of the Psychological and Social Characteristics of Adolescence in Adolescent Literature" (Indiana Univ., 1980), Dissertation Abstracts International 41/6-A.

32. Linda Kathryn Christianson, "Becoming a Woman Through Romance: Adolescent Novels and the Ideology of Femininity" (Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison, 1984), Dissertation Abstracts International 45/5-A.

33. Estelle Woodland Brown, "Emerging Concepts of Social-Development Tasks of the Young Black Adolescent in Ten Selected Black Junior Novels" (Temple Univ., 1974). Dissertation Abstracts International 36/6-A.

34. Sigrid Green, "Adolescent Girls and Their Socialization Through Reading Realistic Teenage Fiction: The Roles of the School Media Centre" (Univ. of South Africa, 1987), Masters Abstracts 28/2.

35. Richard F. Abrahamson, "The Ultimate Developmental Task in Adolescent Literature," Research in Education (Mar. 1979). (ED 161075).

36. John Arthur Cohen, "An Examination of Four Key Motifs Found in High Fantasy for Children" (Ohio State Univ., 1975). Research in Education (July 1976). (ED 119185).

Elizabeth Poe is an associate professor in the Department of English at Radford University in Radford, Virginia. Barbara G. Samuels is an associate professor in the School of Education at the University of Houston-Clear Lake in Houston, Texas. Betty Carter is an associate professor in the School of Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman's University in Denton, Texas. This article is based on a presentation given at the National Council of Teachers of English Conference, Richmond, Virginia, March 1993. The Fall 1993 issue of Journal of Youth Services in Libraries printed a version of this report.