Themes in Young Adult Literature: Alienation

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2813

Titles Discussed

All the Truth That's in Me by Julie Berry

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

33 Snowfish by Adam Rapp

Thematic Overview

For many young adults, their teenage years are spent developing a self-identity, shaping the ideas and beliefs that will guide them over the next decades. Along with...

(The entire section contains 2813 words.)

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Titles Discussed

All the Truth That's in Me by Julie Berry

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

33 Snowfish by Adam Rapp

Thematic Overview

For many young adults, their teenage years are spent developing a self-identity, shaping the ideas and beliefs that will guide them over the next decades. Along with this very personal task, however, comes the social task of finding a community outside of one's family or home life. While a person's childhood identity is deeply entwined with the role in the family, the young adult identity is newly developed in relation to others, and as such, the search for community and the search for self are often indistinguishable tasks.

While ideally this process of change would result in finding a loving and supporting community, in reality, many young adults instead experience alienation, feeling entirely alone and cut off from both the broader society they are trying to enter and the home life they may be trying to escape. Alienation is, in fact, at the core of the stereotypical teenager, a figure often portrayed in popular culture as being angst ridden, sullen, and withdrawn. Since the emergence of young adult literature as a distinct genre in the mid-twentieth century, it has likewise been populated by the alienated teenager. J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951), a classic of both young adult literature and modern fiction, features Holden Caulfield, an alienated youth who thinks everyone he meets is a “phony.” While Salinger's book has been met with ample controversy and censorship, the broad appeal of the “troubled teenager” as a sympathetic and relatable character, particularly to young adult readers, has solidified its place in the canon.

Following the popularity of problem novels in the 1970s, young adult literature in the 1980s and onward increasingly addressed political and cultural topics. While Holden Caulfield felt a general sort of angst about growing up and entering the adult world, protagonists in later novels often felt alienated due to specific cultural or identity-based positions. Any aspect of difference, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) identities, immigration status, or physical disability, holds the potential to alienate youth from their peers and communities. As there is no true “normal teenager,” every young adult reader experiences some aspect of difference, making the potential for alienation universal. The 1980s and 1990s also saw a rise in young adult literature addressing traumatic and violent events, including rape. Such literature explores further dimensions of alienation, with traumatized protagonists abruptly shifting from feeling included in peer groups to feeling alone and alienated because of the violence they experienced, about which they often feel unable to talk.

While alienation is a difficult topic for many young adults, it also holds great potential, especially when novels addressing this theme are presented in a classroom as part of the development of critical reading skills. Alienation places a protagonist at a remove from society and from peers, and this remove can often be an opportunity to critique and challenge cultural norms. Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak (1999), Adam Rapp's 33 Snowfish (2003), and Julie Berry's All the Truth That's in Me (2013) all situate the traumas and oppressions faced by their characters in the context of greater societal problems, thus highlighting the tension between the young adult protagonists and the world they are about to inherit and possibly change.


Alienation is presented through a particularly violent and graphic narrative in Adam Rapp's 33 Snowfish, with characters encountering a society defined by exploitation and abuse. As the novel opens, protagonists Custis, Boobie, and Curl are flee on a road trip across Illinois, having stolen both a car and Boobie's baby brother. Through flashbacks, the characters' backstories are unveiled. Seventeen-year-old Boobie, whose real name is Darrin Flowers, is a pyromaniac who murdered his parents; ten-year-old Custis has escaped from a man who kept him prisoner and forced him to appear in pornographic films; and fourteen-year-old Curl has fled an aunt who forced her to work as a child prostitute in their small apartment. While Boobie rarely speaks, the group stays together, stealing to survive and planning to sell the baby, while Curl expresses a desire to marry both of her companions. They stay for a while in an abandoned van in the woods, but the midwestern winter takes its toll; first Curl dies of exposure, and then Boobie disappears, presumed dead. Custis and the baby are finally found by Seldom, a reclusive older man who takes them to his cabin, where they develop family-like bonds.

The three main characters must deal with two forms of simultaneous alienation: they are alienated from society (an alienation they embrace in both radical and sometimes destructive ways), and they are alienated from one another, having never learned how to form healthy or productive relationships with peers or family. The narratives switches from the perspective of one character to another, revealing how their histories have formed their senses of alienation. Boobie, for instance, is driven by his violent outbursts and pyromania, with his destructive tendencies replacing speech as his method of communication and human connection; we see this both in his sections of the narrative, which are filled with violent drawings rather than language, and through the perspectives of others, who integrate his muteness into their ersatz family structure.

Custis, by contrast, is verbose in his sections and in conversation with others, his language studded with profanities and inappropriate remarks. While he is able to communicate in one sense, his childhood trauma has left him with wildly skewed ideas of what it means to connect with another human, even one he might truly care for. Even Seldom, the man who welcomes Custis and shows him that a family is possible, is at first met with scorn, Custis describing him with a racial slur on their first meeting. Even when together, all of the characters experience alienation, being unable to see themselves as loved or accepted due to histories of traumatic abuse that prevented human connection and affinity. Despite the extremity of this violence, however, the novel does offer hope, with Custis, Seldom, and the baby forming something like a family—and, importantly, a family that exists outside of the strictures and norms of the society that caused Custis such harm in the first place.

While the violence at the heart of 33 Snowfish is shown graphically and often, the violence in Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, is obscured for most of the text, leaving the focus instead on the emotional experience of alienation following a violent act. Speak is the story of Melinda, a girl who finds herself ostracized from her friends as she enters her first year of high school, with the entire school angry at her for calling the police on a party that summer. As she is openly mocked and tormented, she finds small solace in a few places—her friendship with a new girl named Heather, her work in art class, and a janitor's closet in which she often hides. Retreating further into herself, Melinda largely stops speaking, constantly chews her lips, and begins failing her classes. Her anxiety is further heightened whenever she encounters a boy she calls IT, who flirts with her aggressively. Once she begins skipping school, she finally reveals through the narration that IT (actually named Andy) raped her at the party, which led to the phone call to the police. When Andy begins dating her best friend Rachel, however, Melinda slowly begins to speak: first writing Rachel an anonymous note to warn her, then writing a warning about Andy on the bathroom wall, and finally telling Rachel about the rape. Rachel at first reacts with anger. However, when other girls share their own experiences with Andy on the bathroom wall, Melinda is empowered and begins to speak about her trauma with others.

Melinda's alienation is rendered in large part through her inability to communicate with others, which in many ways includes the readers and Melinda herself. The novel is written in the first person, and Melinda's thoughts are often brief and poetic, staying in the present tense with fairly few exceptions. While she obliquely references the rape in her narration, it is not until the novel is nearing its end that she directly acknowledges the violence she experienced. This narrative style mimics Melinda's inner monologue, and as such, the fact that she does not acknowledge the rape directly means that she is unable to state that reality even to herself. This creates a dilemma—Melinda is largely mute throughout the book, finding herself incapable of speaking to peers or family about even the most banal of topics; in order to speak to others, she must first acknowledge the rape to herself, yet in order to acknowledge the rape, she needs the support of others. Her alienation is a kind of cruel trap, especially considering that it only takes acknowledgment of the rape to explain her phone call to the police and end the ostracism and bullying she has been experiencing. Speak, however, does not keep Melinda trapped in the double bind of silence and alienation. Instead, she slowly finds ways to communicate: drawing inspiration from studying suffragettes in social studies class, embracing the anonymity of the bathroom graffiti, and learning to express herself metaphorically through her work in art class. As the novel ends and she first reveals the rape to her art teacher, it becomes evident that her alienation was in some ways also a tool, with Melinda retreating from the world in order to protect herself until she gathered the strength to challenge Andy and the culture that had treated her with such cruelty.

All the Truth That's in Me, by Julie Berry, likewise features an adolescent girl who has lost her voice and must learn to speak again. In this case, however, the silence is literal, as the protagonist, Judith, has had her tongue cut out. Set in an unspecified historical setting that resembles, but is not identified as, the colonial United States, the novel opens when Judith is eighteen. At fourteen, she disappeared from her small town along with another girl; the other girl was found dead several days later, and Judith returned after two years, maimed and mute. Rather than warmly welcoming her back, the community believes that she lost her virginity while gone, making her a “fallen woman” and a social outcast, a situation worsened by her muteness. With even her own mother treating her cruelly, Judith takes small comfort in her growing friendship with Lucas, a boy she has loved for her entire life.

When a small army of men attack the town, Judith makes the brave choice to return to the man who held her captive, knowing he has a supply of ammunition and explosives. Her actions save the town, but a new series of violence and misunderstandings unfolds after the battle, as the kidnapper is found and identified as Lucas's father. Judith and Lucas are both put on trial for their perceived crimes—Judith under suspicion of having been involved in the murder of the other missing girl, and Lucas for, as the town believes, having known about his father all along. With the encouragement of an older woman and the love of Lucas, Judith finally manages to speak the truth of her experience: it was the missing girl's father who killed her, and Lucas's father had held Judith prisoner in order to protect her from this man. When he found himself sexually obsessed with Judith, he cut out her tongue and sent her home, hoping her forced silence would protect her from the real killer.

While Melinda's narrative in Speak is an internal monologue, Judith's first-person narration is addressed directly to Lucas, her lifelong love. This creates a narrative tension, with Judith revealing the truth of her experience to Lucas on every page, yet at the same time unable to actually speak those truths, even when Lucas acknowledges that he loves her too. Judith lives in an extreme of alienation, an outcast in a small village and the victim of constant physical and sexual violence, with even her supposed savior cutting out her tongue and threatening to sexually abuse her. Yet she also longs for the human connection that will undo that alienation. The prose constantly presents this struggle in plain, direct language: “To tell the truth will make me loathsome in your eyes. Even more than I already am,” she declares. Yet she immediately continues, “I pledged to give you all the truth that's in me.” Because this is rendered as direct address, the experience of longing is heightened, as readers are put in the position of Lucas while still having access to the thoughts that Lucas himself cannot hear. At the same time, those thoughts—and, by extension, Judith herself—are shown to be quite powerful. It is only Judith who has the knowledge to save the town when it is attacked by the outsiders, and likewise it is Judith alone who knows the real danger in the town, revealing the killer who lives among their small community. When she finally triumphs in the end by using her voice and sharing her story, it is evident that her alienation, and by extension alienation in general, is not simply the problem of the one who is alienated; rather, both the individual and the community suffer when any one person is alienated from the society.


Alienation has been a constant theme of young adult literature since the formation of the genre, yet the specifics of how and why teenagers feel alienated continue to change as societies evolve. While in the past teenagers found their lives fairly fixed in the realms of family and school, modern teenagers are more likely to find themselves in broadly public spaces, such as malls, parks, train stations, and highways. Even more significantly, teenagers are forming their identities in the virtual world of social media as much as in the physical world of peer interactions. As a result, teenage alienation has the potential to take place on a much broader scale than in the past, and likewise to carry with it broader social implications.

In many young adult novels, this means that protagonists are not simply encountering individualized experience of alienation, as with Holden Caulfield and his discontent, but rather are experiencing a politicized alienation that recognizes the societal and political roots of the problems the protagonists face. As young adult literature is also often concerned with teaching readers how to be engaged and thoughtful citizens of society, this often means that such alienation must be overcome not just to feel at home among peers but also to change the culture that created the alienation in the first place. This general trend can be seen across a wide range of subgenres, from young adult dystopian literature featuring protagonists who are fantastically and violently kicked out of their communities to romance novels in which LGBT youths must challenge the dominant society in order to win acceptance of their genders and sexualities. While alienation is still a problem in these novels, it is also importantly a source of potential change.

Even as teenagers are increasingly in constant technological communication with peers, their sense of alienation is generally as strong as it has ever been, and their desire for novels that reflect that alienation in nuanced and contemporary ways remains. Regardless of whether such novels are set in historical time periods or imagined dystopias, in small towns or major urban centers, teenagers still turn to them as remedies for their own alienation—the protagonists providing a sense of peer connection—and for the promise that they might one day emerge from their experiences of loneliness and dissatisfaction, sharing their own voices in order to better the broader world.

Further Reading

  • Alsup, Janet. “Politicizing Young Adult Literature: Reading Anderson's Speak as a Critical Text.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 47.2 (2003): 158–66. Literary Reference Center. Web. 14 May 2015. <>.
  • Bean, Thomas W., and Karen Moni. “Developing Students' Critical Literacy: Exploring Identity Construction in Young Adult Fiction.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 46.8 (2003): 638–48. Literary Reference Center. Web. 14 May 2015. <>.


  • Barth, F. Diane. “Social Media and Adolescent Development: Hazards, Pitfalls and Opportunities for Growth.” Entering the Digital World: Cybertechnology and Clinical Social Work Practice. Ed. Laura W. Groshong and Faye Mishna. Spec. issue of Clinical Social Work Journal 43.2 (2015): 201–8. Print.
  • Brown, Monica R., Kyle Higgins, and Kim Paulsen. “Adolescent Alienation: What Is It and What Can Educators Do about It?” Intervention in School and Clinic 39.1 (2003): 3–9. Academic Search Premier. Web. 14 May 2015. <>.
  • Cart, Michael. Young Adult Literature: From Romance to Realism. Chicago: ALA, 2011. Print.
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