Contemporary Young Adult Fiction: Topics, Themes & Place

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  • 0:02 The Rise of Young…
  • 0:35 Qualities of Young…
  • 1:49 Changing Young Adult…
  • 3:19 Trends in Young Adult…
  • 5:08 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

Young adult literature has grown and expanded in the last 50 years. In this lesson, you'll learn about the topics, themes, and places that appear in young adult fiction, and you'll have a chance to test your understanding with a short quiz.

The Rise of Young Adult Literature

Think back to middle school and the book that may have been the first one some of your classmates actually read, S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders. There's something authentic about that book that hooks teens. Perhaps it's the fact that it was written by a teenager, for teenagers. Unlike books about adolescence written by adults, The Outsiders refuses to be nostalgic and sugar-coated, and it's remained popular, even fifty years later.

In this lesson, we'll look at the main topics, ideas, and places that have been used in young adult fiction, and we'll try to chart the current course of this type of literature.

Qualities of Young Adult Literature

Based in part on the popularity of The Outsiders, publishers in the decades that followed wanted to cash in on the young adult audience. Young adult literature was created to fill that gap between books written for children and those written for adults.

In the 1980s and '90s, there was almost a formula for these books. The main character was a teen dealing with teenaged problems, and the story was told through that particularly teenage voice. These teen issues were usually coming-of-age topics like sexuality, drinking, drug use, identity, beauty, dating, and popularity. Unlike children's books, young adult fiction often avoids the neat happily-ever-after ending. Many of the books of this time period took place in realistic settings: neighborhoods, cities, and schools, but at the same time fantasy and science fiction novels started appearing. These books dealt with many of the same problems, but readers enjoyed the escape offered by their fantasy settings.

Changing Young Adult Literature

Let's look at the classic young adult novel from the mid-'80s, Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. You can use this best-seller to see how the supposed rules of young adult literature were already being broken.

The main character is a child rather than a teen, but he narrates the book from a more mature perspective because his intelligence is so advanced. Most of the book takes place in an orbiting space station, but life within that station is not that different from the boarding schools in other young adult books. Ender, the protagonist, struggles with issues of popularity, parent and sibling relationships, and identity, but he also takes on bigger questions about the use of violence, the responsibilities of power, and the morality of genocide. For a book about a kid, it's heavy stuff! Also, the typical length for young adult literature was closer to 200 pages, but Ender's Game is well over 300. And teenagers ate it up.

Examples like Ender's Game show the change in young adult fiction, away from formulaic books about teens to the incredible diversity represented in today's books. Contemporary young adult lit can be long or short, it can be heavy or light, and it can take place in a small town in the South or as far away as an alien world. As diverse as it is, there are still recent trends and indications of upcoming ones.

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