YA Literature is the Rodney Dangerfield of the literary world. When it comes to critical theory and recognition from scholars, it gets no respect. Some label YA with the term juvenile or even worse, call it "mind candy." Part of the problem is the somewhat arcane theoretical base used to define what "literature" is. We may find ourselves asking, what exactly is Deconstruction? Is it a theory or a nontheory? And do you have to be a feminist to accept Feminist criticism? New Criticism? It’s not that new anymore, is it?
In a perfect world, we would be able to apply these theories to the literature we read in our classrooms. But it’s hard enough to get adolescents to read without having to face this kind of intellectual exercise. If only, I’ve lamented at some of my most melodramatic moments, someone would write a book that examines young adult literature using the same theoretical lens that is usually reserved for the "good" literature. Fortunately, John Noell Moore has done just that. His new book, Interpreting Young Adult Literature: Literary Theory in the Secondary Classroom (Heinemann, 1997), crosses the boundary between pedagogy and literary studies methodology. The result is a new way of looking at what fiction means and how it can be taught to the adolescent reader. Moore creates a new approach to analyzing YA literature, one that goes beyond the historical biography/figurative language treasure hunt rut that is so easy to fall into.
In the introduction, Moore explains that he wrote the book after being struck by the complexity of young adult literature. He realized that one was capable of applying new theories to YA. In the first chapter, he explains why critical analysis should be applied to adolescent literature and then defines each stream of literary thought in a succinct paragraph. Moore dedicates each chapter to a particular literary theory and then uses this theory to examine a specific young adult novel. He begins with Formalism, providing a brief history of the theory (popularized in the US by Brooks and Warren under the term "New Criticism"). After the definition is set, he applies the new tool to M. C. Higgins the Great, a story about a young black man living in a strip mining community. Methodically, Moore takes the novel apart, peeling up layers of meaning that would have been overlooked if using another interpretive methodology (or none at all).
In subsequent chapters, Moore delves into Archetypes, Structuralism, Deconstruction, Reader-Response, Feminism, Black Aesthetic, and Cultural Studies. Each theory is applied to a young adult novel, which he interprets accordingly, and then he suggests alternative novels that could be approached in the same fashion. In essence, he is suggesting fresh ways of considering what books are and how we read them.
In the last chapter, Moore takes a look at the classic Jacob Have I Loved, using each of the theories to demonstrate how a young adult novel can be approached. This method requires multiple readings of Jacob Have I Loved: with each pass he finds new meanings (which are not necessarily compatible with meanings drawn out by other methods). This is the finest chapter, showing how theory can be applied in a practical sense.
I have to admit that I was skeptical about Moore’s book when I picked it up. Though an English major, I don’t have much use for literary theory, finding it tedious even when applied to canonical literature. Moore, however, presents the critical methods in such a masterful way that I am convinced that literary theory has a place in the teaching of YA literature in the secondary classroom.
And for those who enjoy a piece of Deconstructionism, this book is a great read.
S. David Gill is a doctoral student at the University of Tennessee. He taught English for seven years in the Chattanooga Public Schools.
Copyright 1998. 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: Gill, David S. (1998). "John Noell Moore’s Interpreting Young Adult Literature " The ALAN Review , Volume 25, Number 2, 44.