An English major studies representations of adolescent power in young adult literature, a genre for and about adolescents but written almost exclusively by adults.
CELEBRATE! Week offers an annual opportunity to highlight the academic and artistic achievements of Elon students and faculty. Each day this week, we'll be putting the spotlight on a student scholar's research — what they are seeking to find out, and who they became interested in their project.
Name: Nicole Galante
Area of study: English Literature
Major(s): English, concentrations in Literature and Professional Writing & Rhetoric
Minor(s): Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies
Faculty mentor: Megan Isaac, associate professor of English
Title of research: Literary and Social Narratives of Young Adult Power
Young adult literature is all about power. Critics like Roberta Trites and Maria Nikolajeva choose to define the genre by the way themes of power affect the narratives of young adults. They argue that ideas of power are central in developing the plots and themes of novels in the genre. Simultaneously, youth rights theorists argue that adolescence is a period void of all power. John Holt, father of the philosophical youth rights theory, argues that the social construction of the period of adolescence creates a relationship between adults and adolescents that is unequal: one in which adults hold all power and wield it in a way that represses the power of adolescents around them. Holt calls for an abolition of this arbitrary and socially constructed institution in order to restore power to adolescents, a group he believes has been needlessly oppressed.
A stark contradiction about adolescent power emerges when looking at young adult literature through a youth theorist lens. John Holt asserts that adolescence is a period void of all power and repressed by adult influences, but young adult literature, a genre for and about adolescents, is all about power. The gap between these two ways of thinking calls theories of adolescent power and scholarship about young adult literature into question, and furthermore demands a more nuanced study of power than has been done in the past. My research explores this contradiction.
In order to understand how power operates in the genre, I selected twenty-one contemporary realistic, award-winning American novels and focused on power in four nuanced contexts: mental health representations, LGBTQ relationships, book banning incidents, and narration strategies. My research demonstrates contradictions surrounding adolescent power that reveal the intricate relationship between young adult literature and power and how literature shapes ideas about the kinds of power young adults can or should wield.
In other words:
I studied representations of adolescent power in young adult literature, a genre for and about adolescents but written almost exclusively by adults. Adolescence, in general, is a period void of most power and repressed by adult influences, but the young adult literature is all about power. My research explores this contradiction and how it manifests in the genre.
Explanation of study:
In order to understand how power operates in the genre, I selected 21 contemporary realistic, award-winning American novels. All novels have either won or been long- or short-listed for the Michael L. Printz Award or the National Book Award, the two most sought-after prizes in the field. I chose to focus on award winners in order to ensure that all the books I examined were of high literary quality and had a significant audience. Definitions of adolescence vary with time and place, and consequently there is no standard definition of the age group that is agreed upon by all. In order to narrow the scope of conceptions of adolescence, all novels have been published in the past twenty years (1999-2019) and have achieved success (in the form of awards) in the United States. This selection criteria ensures cultural relevance and a shared understanding of what it means to be an adolescent. Along the lines of standardizing what it means to be an adolescent, I’ve chosen to define the age group as high-school-aged, only choosing novels with protagonists in high school. Finally, working within these parameters, I purposefully chose novels that give attention to character diversity on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, and ability. Past literary studies have either ignored representation altogether, or only studied it as it pertains to marginalized groups. By design, I strove to study adolescence in a broad and inclusive way. I used this set of novels as a case-study to study power in its nuanced contexts in the genre.
What made this research interesting to you? How did you get started?
I’ve always loved young adult literature. Growing up, the genre provided me with a comfort that the real world never could. When I came to Elon I realized that I could marry my personal passions and academic pursuits in interesting and innovative ways. During the spring of my first year, I took a young adult literature course, which introduced me to scholarship in the genre. I also took a feminist philosophy course that increased my exposure to theories of privilege and oppression. One day in this class, my professor briefly mentioned the intersection of childhood and oppression. I began to wonder how this oppression might manifest itself in the literature I love: a genre for and about adolescents, written almost exclusively by adults. From there, the Elon College Fellows Program and my mentor Dr. Megan Isaac helped me make meaning of this intersection.
How has undergraduate research contributed to your experience at Elon?
Undergraduate research has been the single most rewarding experience I’ve had while at Elon. My project afforded me the opportunity to take something I love and run with it. I’ve never been in a situation where I could spend two-and-a-half years taking complete ownership of an academic endeavor. Throughout the process, I’ve developed curiosity, creativity, and resilience. These skills have permeated outward to affect all other work I’ve done at Elon. Furthermore, my relationship with my mentor has strengthened my bond with the English department and the University as a whole. It’s the best feeling to have someone in your corner reassuring you that your academic pursuits are worthy and important.