Common Themes in Young Adult Literature
Young adult novels may focus on the coming-of-age experiences of teen protagonists, but that doesn't keep readers outside this target audience from enjoying them. Dealing with teen issues such as conflicts with authority, as well as darker ideas like economic struggle and loss, the genre's exploration of universal themes can teach both young and older readers valuable lessons about dealing with challenges and forming a strong self-concept.
Dealing with Family Conflicts
Family feuds, sibling rivalries and parents who just don't understand are all common sources of tension in young adult books. Often, the main character's family is going through a crisis or conflict that threatens to have severe ramifications for their future, causing increased stress on the main character. In Judith Clarke's "One Whole and Perfect Day," for example, 16-year-old Lily is afraid of what her brother's engagement to a Chinese girl could mean to her racist grandfather. More recently, E. Lockhart's "We Were Liars" explores Cadence Sinclair's struggle to fit into the perfect facade of her rich family after a severe brain injury.
Fighting for Individualism
Dystopian literature, which pits the protagonist against a totalitarian society that opposes his goals, may seem like a relatively new trend, but young adult authors were exploring this conflict long before "The Hunger Games" hit the shelves. In the early 1960s, Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time" was seen as a warning of Communism's destruction of individualism, while Lois Lowry's "The Giver" focuses on a young man who glimpses the immorality of the perfect world he's grown up in. Often, these books deal with the teen angst, rebellion and defensiveness brought on by economic hardship and lack of personal freedoms.
Struggling with Mortality
Multiple young adult novels, from classics like "Where the Red Fern Grows" to modern favorites like "Tears of a Tiger," feature young protagonist dealing with the death of a close friend or family member. Often, these novels give teens a realistic, emotional portrayal of grief, showing how the young characters draw on memories, family and friends to help them overcome their loss. In Markus Zusak's Nazi Germany novel "The Book Thief," for example, Death himself narrates the story of Liesel Memminger's loss of her family and struggle to use reading and language as a way to survive her difficult circumstances.
Reaching New Self Knowledge
While the challenges of survival, angst and loss may at first leave young adult protagonists confused, they often emerge with a clear realization of who they are and what they are capable of. Having been tested by crisis, they're able to confidently move forward with this new sense of identity. At the beginning of John Green's "The Fault in Our Stars," for example, 17-year-old Hazel is dying of cancer, depressed and plagued by the uncertainty of her parents' future once she is gone. Her friendship with fellow cancer patient Augustus Waters, however, reveals her inner beauty and strength and gives her hope in spite of what lies ahead.
- The Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults: The Printz Award Winners Under a Microscope: Content Trends, Committee Challenges and Teen Popularity
- National Public Radio: What's Terrifying Teens in Today's Young Adult Novels? The Economy
- New York Public Library: RIP BFF: Teen Novels About Death and Dying
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