Regardless of how you define it (and there are many definitions), Young Adult Literature, like the category adolescence and teenager, can be located somewhere between a concern with the monstrous and a concern with the outsider. As such this course has something of two beginnings. We will begin with a discussion of monsters and adolescence with excerpts from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein serving as a key touch stone, but as we fill in and rush through the modern history the beginnings of which Frankenstein helps initiate, we will examine how the category of monster is related to the idea of the outsider, how historically political and cultural rhetoric have worked out the space of the center and the margins of the known, the real, the human, and the good via the creation, villifying, and revelling in monsters. In particular as we turn to more cotemporary moment of the 1960s when by a more strict market account the category of Young Adult Literature begins, we will pay attention to the way in which the category of adolescence lends itself to the monstrous and the making of monstrous outsiders particularly along the lines of class, race, gender, sexuality, nationality, language, body type, ability, etc.
When S.E. Hinton published The Outsiders in 1967, she was 15 years old. The novel was a ground breaking portrayal of youth society. By the late 1960s, even as young people rebelled against conformity and protested war, racism, sexism, and other inequalities, mainstream America largely believed that childhood was a protected and natural state of innocence. Portraying gangs, violence, ruthless social organization, and real difficulties in coming of age, Hinton’s novel left an indelible impression on American readers and the publishing industry which recognized these themes as particularly popular (read marketable) with young and older readers alike. Though Hinton’s age was seen as essential to her perspective, what we now call young adult literature has little to do with the age or perspective of the actual writer. Instead, driven largely by market demands to reproduce a sensational product, YA literature names an adult intent to reach an audience that is other than itself. It announces a culture’s desire to educate, entertain, but most of all to imagine and define the other (not adult) reader.
In this course, we will return to the idea of the monstrous outsider and monster outside in literature that can be called “young adult” literature not necessarily because it targets young adult readers but because it is working from within a young adult experience. Paying particular attention to the idea of the monstrous teenager and the normal adult, we will ask: What exactly is “adult”? How do ideas of “adult” and “youth” get pitted against each other? And what is the relationship between “adult” and ideas of blackness, femininity, queerness, and other qualities that have often been associated with childishness? Ultimately we will try to understand how young adult literature both helps clarify the limits of the category adult and the possibilities of being near but still outside that designation.
Shortly after I wrote the initial course description, the grand jury verdict came back for Officer Darren Wilson and the “Black Lives Matter” movement exploded. It is not that I had not been thinking about what makes the black teenage boy so monstrous in an American (already read white) imagination. Certainly I’ve been very focused on this question at least since Trayvon Martin’s death, and in less articulate ways since I was myself a teenager. But as I saw that the notion of monster along with ideas of gender, race, and class were prevalent themes in the texts I chose, I decided we would be remiss if we didn’t think about these texts and the ideas around them within the light of both history and the contemporary moment. I have given the title of the course a sub title, “A Hood Project.” The hope is that we will think of the discussions and work we do in this class as more than school work but also as an ongoing and necessary project that has begun before us and will continue after this class. Still by the end of this course I hope we in particular will have found different ways to think in and beyond the classroom about the relationship between adolescence and blackness. I hope that we can write about both the problems and also the radical possibilities of those young people we call (explicitly or otherwise) monsters: that is to say of juvenile delinquents, hoods, freaks, and outsiders. The title hood project is a play on words. It is a play between between the idea of a neighborhood (a delineated geographically delineated physical space that binds a group of people), a hood (or a hoodlum), and childhood and adulthood (as temporal and developmental neighborhoods). Adolescences, Teenage, Young Adult, Youth all become ways of talking about the liminal (in between) space between these two hoods.
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
American Born Chinese by Gene Leun Yang
A Lesson Before Dying by Earnest Gaines
Monster by Walter Dean Myers
Additional readings posted online in the syllabus or emailed as attachments to students.
*may be acquired for free online, with kindle or ibooks