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Literature for Today's Young Adults
Kenneth L. Donelson and Alleen Pace Nilsen - 2006


  • Printz Award
  • Graphic Novel
  • Poetry or Verse Novel
  • Coming of Age
  • Realistic/Edgy/Problem Novel
  • General Nonfiction 
  • Biography, Autobiography, or Memoir
  • Multicultural
  • Historical Fact or Fiction
  • Supernatural, Horror, or Vampire
  • Mystery or Thriller
  • Science Fiction or Fantasy
  • Romance, Sports, or Adventure
  • Censored or Challenged
  • ALEX Award Winner or Adult “Market” Author
  • Audio Title
  • Humor

Good, how?
Nomination Justification

Titles are nominated on the following five basic criteria areas:

•    literary quality
•    resonance with the developmental needs and concerns of the adolescent
•    relevance to the teen experience
•    significance -- a contribution to the literature that breaks ground in some important way
•    fulfillment of genre expectations (as reflected in lecture content and additional reading)

Archetypes in Literature and Pop Culture

The term "archetypes" has its origins in Carl Jung's theories. He said universal, mythic characters -- archetypes -- reside within the collective unconscious of people the world over. Archetypal images represent fundamental human desires and evoke deep emotions. Each of the 12 archetypes in literature and pop culture symbolises a basic human need, aspiration or motivation. An archetype is a human type in its purest form: the classic hero, outlaw, ruler, etc. Each type has its own set of values, meanings and personality traits

The 12 Pearson-Marr Archetypes

Innocent: Every era has myths of a golden age or of a promised land where life has been or will be perfect. The promise of the Innocent is that life need not be hard. Within each of us, the Innocent is the spontaneous, trusting child that, while a bit dependent, has the optimism to take the journey.

Orphan: The Orphan understands that everyone matters, just as they are. Down-home and unpretentious, it reveals a deep structure influenced by the wounded or orphaned child that expects very little from life, but that teaches us with empathy, realism, and street smarts.

Warrior: When everything seems lost, the Warrior rides over the hill and saves the day. Tough and courageous, this archetype helps us set and achieve goals, overcome obstacles, and persist in difficult times, although it also tends to see others as enemies and to think in either/or terms.

Caregiver: The Caregiver is an altruist, moved by compassion, generosity, and selflessness to help others. Although prone to martyrdom and enabling behaviors, the inner Caregiver helps us raise our children, aid those in need, and build structures to sustain life and health.

Seeker: The Seeker leaves the known to discover and explore the unknown. This inner rugged individual braves loneliness and isolation to seek out new paths. Often oppositional, this iconoclastic archetype helps us discover our uniqueness, our perspectives, and our callings.

Lover: The Lover archetype governs all kinds of love—from parental love, to friendship, to spiritual love—but we know it best in romance. Although it can bring all sorts of heartache and drama, it helps us experience pleasure, achieve intimacy, make commitments, and follow our bliss.

Destroyer: The Destroyer embodies repressed rage about structures that no longer serve life even when these structures still are supported by society or by our conscious choices. Although this archetype can be ruthless, it weeds the garden in ways that allow for new growth.

Creator: The Creator archetype fosters all imaginative endeavors, from the highest art to the smallest innovation in lifestyle or work. Adverse to stasis, it can cause us to overload our lives with constant new projects; yet, properly channeled, it helps us express ourselves in beautiful ways.

Ruler: The Ruler archetype inspires us to take responsibility for our own lives, in our fields of endeavor, and in the society at large. If he/she overcomes the temptation to dominate others, the developed Ruler creates environments that invite in the gifts and perspectives of all concerned.

Magician: The Magician archetype searches out the fundamental laws of science and/or metaphysics to understand how to transform situations, influence people, and make visions into realities. If the Magician can overcome the temptation to use power manipulatively, it galvanizes energies for good.

Sage: The Sage archetype seeks the truths that will set us free. Especially if the Sage overcomes the temptation of dogma, it can help us become wise, to see the world and ourselves objectively, and to course-correct based on objective analyses of the results of our actions and choices.

Jester: The Jester archetype urges us to enjoy the process of our lives. Although the Jester can be prone to laziness and dissipation, the positive Jester invites us all out to play--showing us how to turn our work, our interactions with others, and even the most mundane tasks into FUN.

The world of Teens and Technology: 
Developmental and Reading Implications

From Linear to Hypertext
Thinking Outside the “Book”

“Youth are leading the transition to a fully wired and mobile nation.”
-- Pew Internet & American Life Project, Teens and Technology

"Today's teens view technology not only as a part of life,
but as a way of life."
-- Debra Lau Whelan, Generation Tech

"The more willing adults are to recognize the important role that technology based reading has in teen lives, the more likely it is that teens will start to think of themselves as readers (and the adults will think of them as readers, too.) After all, that’s what we want, isn’t it? We want a world of readers, not just a world of those who read books."
-- Linda W. Braun article, Reading - It’s Not Just about Books

87% of U.S. teens aged 12-17 use the internet.

75% of online teens (about 2/3rds of all teens) use instant messaging, compared to 42% of online adults

32 % of all teens IM every day

Close to nine in ten teens are Internet users. The big spike happens in 7th grade.

Information Literacy / Fluency is . . . the ability to critically assess and select credible information on the net.


Joyce Kasman Valenza -- The Neverending Search Blog 

Pew Internet & American Life Project, Teens and Technology
PIALP -- Social Networking Websites and Teens

Article: Teens tune out TV, log on instead
Could texting slang be good for kids?
Study shows IM is OK

"Radical Change” in Reading
Understanding YAL in the Digital Age

 "One way to marginalize a group of people, including children [and teens] is to deny them access to information." (Dresang)

Dresang, Eliza T. Radical Change: Books for Youth in the Digital Age. New York: H.W. Wilson, 1999.

The Net Generation
-- The first generation to grow up alongside technology. According to Kate McClelland, "They are completely comfortable . . . completely engaged" with computers.

…The intellectual challenges and emotional satisfactions youth find in reading are similar to what they find in the digital environment and unlike their experiences with TV.

Emerging voices, emerging issues . . . the adolescent quest to know and explore

Teens are heavily visual and impulsive with shorter attention spans which translates into an ability to process visual information very quickly.


The digital environment is a "social landscape that connects and communicates across geographic lines."

Radical Changes

Graphic Novels and Comics

“…our own judgments of what constitutes literary merit . . .
places students in the position of seeing literature as a ‘medicine’
that will somehow make them better people . . . When students
view literature in this light, they resent it, and literary works remain
a mystery that they cannot solve.”
-- Rocco Versaci,
How Comic Books Can Change the Way Our Students See Literature

"Aside from engagement, comic books also help to develop
much needed analytical and critical thinking skills . . .
A common goal, regardless of the level we teach is to help
students reach beyond the page in order to ask and answer
deeper questions that the given work suggests about art,
life, and the intersection of the two."
-- Rocco Versaci

Comics in Education

Why they work for teens:
  • Teens read them
  • Particularly appealing to boys and reluctant readers—quick pace a plus
  • The hero and superhero themes often portrayed (more in comics) have particular appeal at this time in life.
  • Studies show that comic book reading doesn’t compete with book reading.
  • Attractive format and accessibility helps with language development (reluctant readers, second language learners).
According to Matt Freeman, in his article “The Case for Comics” published in Reading Today, educators who have used comics in their classroom have reported "remarkable results…[with] reluctant and at risk readers.  The blend of words and pictures helps them visualize and begin really making meaning . . ."

"Coming of Age" and 
Realistic / "Edgy" / Problem Novels

Excerpts from Connecting Young Adults and Libraries
By Patrick Jones
  1. Show YAs being independent from adults
  2. Reassure YAs they are "normal"
  3. Present role models
  4. Demonstrate problem solving in action
  5. Allow to feel like winners / overcoming odds
  6. Display relationships of all sorts
  7. Capture intensity and uncertainty of their life
  8. Help development of socially responsible behavior
  9. Explore lives of other teenagers -- but mostly . . .
  10. Help YA understand or validate  their own lives
Just as each generation has its day of remembrance, so does every person. That singular, yet ultimately shared changing experience, is the soul of young adult fiction.

The real genius in many of these books is the ability of the authors to capture the intensity and essence of adolescence, and thus have relevance to the lives of readers.  Readers respond to these books because they reflect their hopes, dreams, fears, and daily worries.

These books send a real message, and this perhaps seems the most profound distinguishing characteristic, is that life is often unkind, sometimes unfair, and never uncomplicated.

" . . . depicting the teen scene as it is, rather than how adults would like it to be . . ."

When books start to chart uncomfortable territory, by being too scary, too real, too honest, too vulgar, then many recoil. Whenever books for kids push the envelope by saying new things in a new way often with a new attitude there are those who think things are going "too far." . . . They are radical departure away from books which are formal and normal.

Focus of many of these titles is on the outsider.  As teens grapple with identity issue, books which show young men and women disturbing the universe provide both comfort and release. Many titles go further by also presenting unusual methods of telling a story, using language, and other stylistic elements. These books are linked not by morality or subject matter or even style, but rather an attitude of honesty.


Sullivan, Ed. “Some Teens Prefer the Real Thing: The Case for Young Adult Nonfiction.” English Journal 90.3 (2001): 43-47.
  • “Nonfiction is not just about information . . . for many young adult readers . . . it serves the same purposes as fiction does for other readers; it entertains, provides escape, sparks the imagination, and indulges curiosity”
A Universe of Information: The Future of Nonfiction. By: Carter, Betty, Horn Book Magazine, 00185078, Nov/Dec2000, Vol. 76, Issue 6
  • "Nonfiction books provide more than mere information. They have the power of bringing the real world, with all its wonder and history and imperfections and idiosyncratic inhabitants, into a youngster's consciousness."
  • "Aware of the kinds of personal connections youngsters search for in their reading, fine nonfiction authors foster associations between writer and reader by providing direction for thinking or doing."


Dr. G. Kylene Beers documents three distinct categories of aliteracy:

Dormant - views reading as a positive activity / aesthetic reader
Uncommitted - views reading as a positive activity / efferent reader
Unmotivated - views reading as a negative activity / efferent reader


According to Thomas W. Bean and Nicole Rigoni:

"Multicultural young adult novels offer a context in which issues of power and identity can be explored in a critical fashion. Yet, in the brief world of novels and their characters, there is a danger of maintaining the status quo of hegemonic power structures, stereotypes, and easy solutions to difficult issues. The nature of current young adult multicultural literature is such that characters struggle with ethnic and cultural identity issues, sometimes making progress toward identity clarification, sometimes finding that conflicting cultural norms and expectations drive them toward assimilation or separatism . . . Carefully crafted multicultural novels lend themselves to multiple interpretations and the consideration of social justice issues . . ."

Teens are questioning both who they are and the boundaries of authority. They’re developing the quality of empathy in their understanding and connection to their fellow human beings and they’re at their zenith of idealism. The potential to connect at the deepest human level to the broad spectrum of experience offered through the portals of multicultural literature converges all of these elements at the perfect time to shape the adult perceptions, communications, interactions, and actions they will realize in the future. As stated in the text:
  • Young readers can identify with characters who straddle two worlds because they have similar experiences in going between the worlds of adulthood and childhood.
  • Motifs that commonly appear in ethnic-based stories—including loneliness, fear of rejection, generational differences, and troubles in fitting into the larger society—are meaningful to teenagers.
  • Nearly all teenagers feel that their families are somehow different (Nilsen and Donelson 299).
The social justice potential of knowing and bridging all of those possibilities is extraordinary, and multicultural literature, at its best, is a critical doorway to recognizing in all its potential manifestations the human family that biologically defines us as a single race. And our literary era of “radical change” defined by Eliza Dresang has had an explosive impact on the perspectives and life experiences portrayed in the literature.

Horror - Supernatural /
Mystery - Thriller

No other genre so closely parallels the developmental progression of the adolescent years. The intensity and thrills play directly into the heightened emotional drive. Fear, in its own way, is exhilarating. Fear strikes at the very heart of the emotionally turbulent landscape of adolescence.

Joseph DeMarco’s article, Vampire Literature: Something to Sink Your Teeth Into states:

 "Adolescence is a time when nearly all is confusion, nagging questions, fathomless problems and a frightening plethora of choices. Teen readers are confronted with the horrific prospect of growing up, of finally separating from family and becoming responsible adults."

The Thriller

Two types of Mysteries:
Mystery novel . . . do not know who committed the crime or what the answer is until the end of the story

Suspense novel . . . there is a race against time because the protagonist knows who committed the crime but must prove it before the criminal is able to silence him or her

Patty Campbell

"Publishers call the books ‘mystery-horror’ to make this distinction, but they are really suspense thrillers with an occasional gory scene. The qualities that make them so popular -- tight, suspense-filled plots with an irresistible page-turning pull. . . . Heroes and heroines are invariably adolescents, usually attractive and popular, and members of a group -- to allow for the possibility of multiple mayhem. Adults are in the remote background -- of no help. . . Thus the teens are thrown to their own resources to do battle with the killer. . . . The goriness itself is part of the appeal to teens. These books connect in a deeply metaphorical way with adolescent concerns about being different, rejected. . . Revenge for slights is a frequent motif, relating to teens' concern with peer group acceptance. Trust, loyalty, and betrayal are common themes."
  • Does it encourage the reader to explore the reasons behind the actions rather than merely portray a terrifying or gory situation?
  • Does the literature have characteristics of well-written science fiction and fantasy?
  • Does it have strong themes, well-developed plots, nonstereotypic characters, and pleasing writing styles? 
  • Does it provide a sense of escapism of sheer enjoyment?  

Fantasy / Science Fiction / Science Fact

Glimpses of the Extraordinary -- Spring Lea Henry

Science Fiction and Fantasy come closest to fulfilling and literally embodying the archetypal quest theme . . . but these odysseys occur outside and beyond the parameters of our known world, relying on the infinite landscape of the imagination to address larger themes of human existence and universal truths.

Bonnie Kunzel, in her article What Is Science Fiction, says this about the perennial teen appeal of these two genres of “speculative fiction”:
According to David Hartwell, noted science fiction editor and author, the Golden Age of Science Fiction is twelve. That’s the age when so many of its fans get hooked for the first time, and many continue to remain hooked as the years pass. Science fiction and its companion genre of fantasy are acknowledged by many as the literature of the best and the brightest, the challenging, complex, rewarding, frequently extremely lengthy tomes that are devoured by teenage and adult fans in ever growing numbers.

Ursula K. Le Guin: “Fantasy…isn’t factual, but it is [always] true” . . . true to the human condition, true to the most eternal emotional and ethical conflicts. It is how these issues are translated via imaginary realms that most distinguishes the two. I define it as “impossible possibles” (Fantasy) vs. “possible impossibles” (Science Fiction).


Tamora Pierce, “more than any other genre, is a literature of empowerment" . . . but empowerment brings trials.

rites of passage; the central figure grows in stature as the quest evolves

Subgenres within Fantasy include:
  • Dark fantasy—more ominous though not necessarily terrifying. Characters can be human, animal, or any manner of fantastical creature. Protagonists can be flawed and imperfect and the supernatural is always woven into the fabric of the work.
  • Epic—Much more in the vein of a traditional grand quest with more noble protagonists. Magic plays an integral role.
  • Historical—Time travel or altered history.
  • Modern and Magical Realism—The contemporary world crosses paths with the mystical.
  • Science Fantasy—A hybrid blend of science fiction and fantasy features.

Subgenres within Science Fiction include:
  • Hard Science Fiction—Steeped in science. Scientific theories and constructs are integral to storyline and events.
  • Media Tie-Ins—this should be very familiar to the "Star Trek" fans in our group.
  • Space Opera—The epic dramas and relationships take center stage and play out in the cosmos as opposed to Wisteria Lane.
  • Speculative — There is an emphasis on social issues and potential cataclysmic consequences of negligent, ignorant, corrupt, and/or abusive practices within the context of larger human issues. The protagonist is the conscience in conflict with the threat, a situation particularly magnified in dystopic (as opposed to ideal utopic) universes.
  • Temporal/Dimensional—Alternate worlds, parallel universes, time travel kinds of scenarios.


"You have not converted a man because you have silenced him." 
-- Morley

Censorship, an act of suppression, is an issue that dates back at least as far as the time of Plato and as long as conflict and opposition have existed within the human condition. One cannot address the issue, however, without first defining the concept, along with the additional context of intellectual freedom, which for our purposes, will focus on the American paradigm though the principles are universal.

"Censorship is 'the actual removal, suppression, restricted circulation of literary, artistic, or educational materials...on the grounds that they are morally or otherwise objectionable.'"
(Reichman qtd. in Tomlinson and Lynch-Brown 237)

"The rationale for their [those who seek to censor] actions is the belief that they have the correct view of what is truthful and appropriate and they must impose these views on others in order to protect three basic social institutions: the family, the church, or the nation." (Konvitz, 2003, qtd. In Bucher and Manning)

"These people assume that if a book goes against their personal beliefs then it must be wrong, offensive to others, and might negatively influence young minds" (Bucher and Manning, 341-342).

It is essential to realize that censorship can happen, any time, anywhere for any reason; it is capricious and arbitrary and no reading or youth advocate can afford to be complacent or assume that this only occurs in certain parts of the country or among certain populations.

Censors believe there is a direct correlation between exposure to a behavior or belief and its immediate imitation.  Censors don't trust teens to think, evaluate or synthesize for themselves-a perspective in stark contradiction to core developmental needs of the age.

Censors are often driven by righteous certainty that theirs is the only correct interpretation and discount opposing views.  Ironically, there's little realization that the intense spotlight translates into heightened interest and sales for the work targeted.

Strategy . . .

At the initial stage, when the challenge is often introduced by a concerned parent, the emphasis should be on direct resolution. The first step is always active listening and respectful dialogue.  Very often the parent wants to air concerns and feel like comments are truly heard, so it is critical for the teacher, media specialist, or librarian to offer that opportunity and signal a strong willingness to work together with the parent to resolve the issue.

The parent should be made familiar with the school or library collection policy, so a clear understanding of how selections are made is conveyed.

From day one in a classroom, media center, or library, the collection policy should be read and understood, along with the specific protocol for dealing with challenges specific to the school, district, or library.  In addition, internal and external networking should take place to connect with veteran educators or librarians who have confronted this in their own careers to discover how they addressed it, as well as identifying critical state and national organizations dedicated to supporting the professional through a challenge.

Video from The National Coalition Against Censorship:

  • Censorship: An Educator's Guide by Pat Scales:
  • National Coalition Against Censorship:
  • Random House for High School Teachers: Censorship and Banned Books:
  • NCTE Position Statements on Censorship and Intellectual Freedom:
  • ALA Censorship Basics:
  • ALA Banned Books Week:
  • VOYA June 2011 Special Issue on Intellectual Freedom:
  • YALSA Intellectual Freedom Resources:

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