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From Holden Caulfield to Harry Potter, young adult literature strikes chords for all ages

Over the past two years, Elon University senior and Lumen Prize recipient Michelle Nussbaum has used a top award for undergraduate research to pinpoint the reasons many older readers find comfort in novels written for adolescent audiences.

Elon University senior Michelle Nussbaum with her Lumen Prize mentor, Assistant Professor Scott Proudfit

By Erin M. Turner ‘15

Why are many adults interested in reading stories about adolescents? And what drives this interest and leads older readers to grow attached to younger characters like those in the Harry Potter fantasy series?

These are questions that Elon senior Michelle Nussbaum has spent the past two years exploring with support from the university’s top prize for undergraduate research.

Nussbaum and her project “The Caulfield Effect: An Interdisciplinary Examination of Adult Identification in Young Adult Literature,” which draws its name from the protagonist of J.D. Salinger’s classic 1951 coming-of-age novel “Catcher in the Rye,” are the latest to be featured this year in a series of E-net profiles on Lumen Scholars in the Class of 2014.

“I fell in love with the topic of adults being interested in young adult literature, because there is something very innocent and human about it,” Nussbaum said.

Working with her Lumen Prize mentor, Assistant Professor Scott Proudfit in the Department of English, Nussbaum identified three theories that explain older readers’ interest in young adult literature. People are always coming of age, she said, and constantly seek narratives to help them through transitional periods, which is something that young adult literature seems to offer.

She also found that young adult literature helps answer questions about identity, such as “who am I?” and “where do I fit in with the people around me?” and “how do I deal with love?” Regardless of age, Nussbaum said, many people ask themselves such questions throughout life, which always makes young adult literature relevant.

Finally, young adult literature stirs a feeling of nostalgia for easier times when questions about identity were deemed normal and life appeared simpler. Because young adult literature is a complex and influential genre, Nussbaum said, it definitely is not just for young adults.

Nussbaum also studied how texts can be conducive to readership and fandom. She interviewed individuals passionate about the Harry Potter fantasy series by author J.K. Rowling to determine the nature of their intense interest.

“I found in conducting my interviews with fans that there was a huge sense of community around the texts,” she said. “Each fan had a story about how the novels brought him or her closer to family or friends, or even made them new friends. I made the connection between the emphasis on friendship in the novels and the way many Harry Potter fans see the novel as a way to meet new people to show how readers of the text, especially adult readers, can use the text to broaden their social circles, both with the characters in Harry Potter and also with other fans.”

The Lumen Prize, awarded for the first time in 2008, provides selected students with a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate their academic and creative achievements. Lumen Scholars work closely with faculty mentors to pursue and complete their projects.

Efforts include course work, study abroad, research both on campus and abroad during the regular academic year and summers, internships locally and abroad, program development and creative productions and performances.

Proudfit praised Nussbaum’s growth over the past two years.

“We joke that Michelle is like one of the protagonists in the young-adult novels she is researching—one who emerges from her shell and 'finds her voice' in the course of 150 pages,” he said. “In delving so deeply into this coming-of-age-focused project, Michelle has come of age herself. She has become very political, very outspoken, much more mature, and more involved in campus issues, particularly in terms of women's issues.

“In some ways, Michelle simply made the transition from student to scholar, but in other ways her project has, more broadly, opened up new possibilities for how she will define herself in the future.”

In addition to her undergraduate research, Nussbaum is a member of the Kappa Delta sorority, and she serves as president for the campus chapter of the Sigma Tau Delta English honor society.

After graduating this month from Elon University, Nussbaum intends to return home to Maryland to prepare for graduate school. “I plan on doing some traveling and a lot of volunteering in my year off,” she said.

Eric Townsend,
5/20/2014 10:00 AM