Themes in Young Adult Literature: Choices and Transitions

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2612

Titles Discussed

The Sin-Eater's Confession by Ilsa J. Bick

Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A. S. King

A Step from Heaven by An Na

Jumped by Rita Williams-Garcia

Thematic Overview

The theme of choices and transitions is central to young adult literature in America. Young adults are aware they may...

(The entire section contains 2612 words.)

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Titles Discussed

The Sin-Eater's Confession by Ilsa J. Bick

Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A. S. King

A Step from Heaven by An Na

Jumped by Rita Williams-Garcia

Thematic Overview

The theme of choices and transitions is central to young adult literature in America. Young adults are aware they may be required to make life-altering choices that could affect them as they transition from child to adult. Literature featuring a young adult protagonist who experiences change and transition can often resonate with certain key aspects in a reader's life, reinforcing the importance of the overall theme. It is the belief in the ability to make independent choices that has shaped the American national self-concept, starting in late childhood and moving into and through adulthood, allowing people to affect their own destiny.

Since the idea of choices and transitions is so central a theme in American culture and literature, it is no surprise that some of the first literary works that appealed to a young adult readership in America, like Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and its sequel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), helped to give this theme a central place. Theme remains a critical factor in deciding whether books appeal to a young adult readership. In Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943), the theme's centrality helped make the novel and its popular teenage protagonist, Francie Nolan, a runaway success with young adult readers.

Young adults continued to like and read books that featured young protagonists making difficult choices and transitions, even though these novels were not yet specifically marketed to them. J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders (1967), with troubled teenager Ponyboy Curtis, appealed to young readers.

In young adult fiction, its own literary category since the 1970s, social, cultural, and political events have shaped the kind of choices faced by teenage protagonists. In Rita Williams-Garcia's Jumped (2010), African American teenage protagonist Leticia Moore confronts the issue of female-on-female violence in American schools. An Na's A Step from Heaven (2001) looks at the choices faced by protagonist Young Ju Park as she transitions from a four-year-old Korean immigrant to a college-bound American high school graduate. Finally, Young Ju has to make a choice regarding domestic violence, which can be seen as a key contemporary social problem in American society. In Ilsa J. Bick's The Sin-Eater's Confession (2013), white protagonist Ben observes the hate-crime murder of his gay friend, Jimmy. The novel relates to such real-life hate crimes as the fatal assault in 1998 on Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, and the murder of Arthur “J. R.” Warren, a gay man, by two male teenagers, in 2000. Ben, who is not gay, must decide if he will tell the authorities what he knows about the death of his friend, but the truth comes at a price to Ben, who fears being linked romantically to his deceased friend. Similarly, Vera Dietz, the protagonist in A. S. King's Please Ignore Vera Dietz, witnesses a disturbing scene, on the night her former friend, Charlie Kahn, dies. Charlie hurt and humiliated Vera while the two were in high school, and now Vera agonizes over telling the authorities the truth—which would restore Charlie's good name and punish the culprit who set a pet store ablaze.

In these four young adult novels discussed below, the protagonists must make painful choices as they transition from adolescence into adulthood. Each transition brings a different outcome. All together, these four novels illustrate the ongoing importance of the theme of choices and transitions in contemporary American young adult literature.

Works

In Rita Williams-Garcia's Jumped (2010), three teenage girls, Leticia, Dominique, and Trina, attend a New York City high school and make choices that in two cases effect a transition in their lives. Each has made her own choices leading up to the crucial decisions that form the narrative's turning point, and each tells the story from her perspective.

Leticia Moore is in the hallway at school when she overhears Dominique Duncan threaten to attack Trina. Leticia must then decide either to warn Trina of the impending attack or to say nothing. Leticia has chosen to take high school and life as easy as possible, resulting in her assignment to a remedial morning geometry class, which she resents. One morning, Leticia sees the pretty, overconfident, and bouncy sophomore Trina, who loves creating art, walk through the middle of a group of sophomores that includes Dominique Duncan, a benched basketball player. As Trina sees it, “I ease through these girls.” Dominique sees this as a personal affront. She mentally accuses Trina of moving “like she don't see I'm here and all the space around me is mines.” To her two sidekicks, Dominique vows to beat up Trina after school is over. The conversation is overheard by Leticia but warning Trina would go against Leticia's previous choice of not getting involved at school.

Jumped makes it clear that Dominique is very angry about being unable to play in the high school basketball games because she is failing to maintain academic standards and playing on the basketball team is everything for this “all-ball girl.” Dominique chooses to reject the clear-cut instructions of her coach: “Kick up your grades and I'll play you.” Leticia decides not to warn Trina about the impending attack, and Dominique ends up hurting Trina so badly in the after-school fight that she is hospitalized and in need of “reconstructive surgeries.” Trina has now transitioned from a care-free, spunky sophomore into a traumatized victim of violence. Dominique has become a juvenile delinquent. Six months after the attack on Trina, Leticia sees Dominique on TV, unrepentant, at a correctional facility. Only Leticia makes no transition, continuing to live her complacent life.

Williams-Garcia's characters in Jumped diverges from her characters in her earlier novels, who make the right choice, whereas both Dominique and Leticia make the wrong choice. In Blue Tights (1988), African American protagonist Joyce Collins is cut from ballet, much as Dominique is benched. Yet Collins finds artistic and personal fulfillment joining an African dance troupe. In Like Sisters on the Homefront (1995), Williams-Garcia gives her fourteen-year-old African American protagonist Gayle a great-grandmother who helps her to make positive choices.

In An Na's Michael L. Printz Award–winning novel A Step from Heaven (2001), Young Ju Park transitions from a four-year-old girl, unable to make decisions for herself, to a college-bound teenager, capable of making hard personal choices.

In the beginning of the novel, Young Ju's parents make the choice to emigrate from South Korea to the United States. Young Ju's mother, Uhmma, who is pregnant, tells four-year-old Young Ju that in America “you can grow up to be anything you want.” Her brother, Joon Ho Park, is born in America and is favored by their father, Apa.

Initially, when Young Ju and her family come to America, Young Ju lies to please her family and to create a more pleasing fantasy world for herself. Young Ju's mother takes her to get a perm, and when her mother asks if she likes her new, curly hair, she lies and says, “Yes.” Young Ju also lies to her friends about where she lives because she is embarrassed by her family's shabby apartment. She tells the parents of her white friend, Amanda, to drop her off in front of a nice home she claims is her family's and then has to walk a few miles back home. This lying gives moral ambiguity to her character.

Young Ju is forced to make her biggest choice when she must call the police after her alcoholic father, in a drunken stupor, violently beats her and her mother. Her choice changes the fate of the family. Uhmma declines to press charges against Apa, but Apa leaves and returns home to Korea. Uhmma buys a home after her husband leaves and Young Ju transitions to college, paying for school with a scholarship. Young Ju's choice to call for help shows her assumption of personal responsibility as she gets older. In the end, the choices Young Ju makes provide more opportunities and a better life for her mother, her brother, and herself.

Throughout Ilsa Bick's The Sin-Eater's Confession (2013), the twenty-year-old narrator, Ben, is a Marine Corps medic deployed in Afghanistan who is still agonizing over the wrong choices he made in his senior year at high school. While in high school, Ben decided not to intervene when a hate crime was committed against his gay friend, Jimmy, in a deserted Wisconsin state park. The night of Jimmy's death, Ben was to meet Jimmy in the parking lot of a coffee shop; however, when Ben arrived at the coffee shop parking lot, he saw Jimmy get into a car with an unidentified person in a hoodie. Ben decides to follow the car and witnesses a group of people beat Jimmy to death in the park. After the murder, Ben stays silent and does not share his observations with the police. He blames himself for Jimmy's death, thinking, “I had let Jimmy die alone.” This choice makes Ben feel guilty, but he makes it nonetheless because he fears being linked romantically to Jimmy. Jimmy may have had sexual feelings for Ben, but Ben adamantly declares, “I'm not gay.”

Ben tells the story of his choices and of the impact of those choices in an unaddressed letter. Bick uses long, confessional flashbacks to structure the plot of The Sin-Eater's Confession; this is the same structure she employed in her book Drowning Instinct (2012). In his letters, Ben writes that his choice to befriend Jimmy forced him to make difficult choices. Jimmy confesses his desire for Ben, but Ben does not reciprocate those feelings, and he decides to end their friendship.

The ending of Bick's novel is left open. Ben still has a choice to tell the truth but does not say whether, or to whom, he might send his confessional letter. Ben considers himself the eater of sins. He feels that by serving his country as a Marine he is atoning for his sins and those of his community.

A. S. King's Please Ignore Vera Dietz revolves around the central choice that Vera Dietz has to make as she transitions into her senior year at high school. In September, Vera attends the funeral of her former best friend, Charlie Kahn. Vera feels resentful that her “best friend [is] dying after he screws [her] over.” Silently, Vera blames Charlie's new girlfriend, Jenny Flick, as “the reason he's dead.” Vera has information about Charlie's death: he was unjustly blamed for setting a pet store on fire. Yet, because Charlie hurt her, Vera is unwilling to tell the truth and to clear Charlie's name.

As Vera ponders whether or not to share this knowledge, King tells the story of Vera's transition from a twelve-year-old girl to a high school senior through a series of flashbacks. These flashbacks are occasionally interrupted by chapters from the viewpoint of Vera's thirty-something-year-old father, Ken, and the ominous Pagoda, an abandoned restaurant. The voice of the Pagoda resembles a Greek chorus. This technique foreshadows that of King's later novel Everybody Sees the Ants (2011), where the ants provide a Pagoda-like commentary. The deceased Charlie also speaks in the novel, insisting, “I didn't have a choice” in the events leading to his death.

After agonizing for nine months, Vera finally decides to clear Charlie's name. Vera's father brings her to the local police to make her statement. Vera tells the police that Jenny torched the pet shop because Charlie decided to break up with her. After her statement, Vera feels she has transitioned from the coward “invisible Vera Dietz to invincible Vera Dietz.”

Together, the four protagonists of the four novels mirror a large spectrum of what young adults may or may not do when faced with making a tough choice. At first, all four choose to stay silent in the face of some dark events. This reflects the pressure to keep silent, experienced by many young readers. Eventually, faced with making a choice, some of the four characters act differently. Their choices are embedded in a wide range of contemporary social and personal issues. In the end, Young Ju makes the courageous call to the police to report her abusive father, and similarly, Vera goes to the police with her father, Ken. Each has transitioned into a responsible young adult, a moral choice. In The Sin-Eater's Confession, Bick deliberately leaves the novel open-ended as to whether or not Ben decides to mail his letter and share his dark knowledge. Leticia is a weaker character than the rest. She chooses to remain silent and fails to accept responsibility. All four characters illustrate how powerful, central and appealing the theme of choices and transitions is for young adult literature in America.

Conclusions

Among American scholars, there is a general consensus that the themes of choices and transitions are central to young adult literature; it gives this fiction greater cultural relevance and helps to form a strong background for analysis. For instance, Crag Hill, in his essay “Dystopian Novels” sees this happening in the science-fiction genre, where the story is a “typical coming-of-age trope in young adult literature.” Hill also says that teenagers are “making choices on their own terms with full awareness of the positive and negative consequences.” These choices affect not only the literary characters themselves but their communities as well.

Michael Cart, senior editor and former president of the Young Adult Library Services Association, expresses a similarly positive conviction regarding the persistence of these themes. In his 2012 book Young Adult Literature: From Romance to Realism, Cart explains that in young adult literature the range of subject matter is becoming more daring, and the form in which young adult fiction is presented, including graphic novels or e-books, has and will change. Yet the themes of choices and transitions will remain a key defining element of young adult fiction, and it will keep its cultural significance in America.

Scholarly guides used for teaching young adult literature emphasize how important and useful the themes of choices and transitions can be. This view is expressed, both explicitly and implicitly, in such major guides as late Kenneth Donelson's Literature for Today's Young Adults (2012) and Carl Tomlinson's Essentials of Young Adult Literature (2014).

Scholars continue to discuss how the key themes of choices and transitions are at the cutting edge of new movements in American culture and literature. For example, in the essay “Out of the Closet and into the Open,” Laura Renzi, Mark Letcher, and Kristen Miraglia praise young adult novels featuring alternative sexual transitions experienced by teenage characters. The three scholars suggest that American young adult literature will “continue to push the boundaries for possible transitions of their characters in the future.”

Further Reading

  • Hayn, Judith A., and Jeffrey S. Kaplan. Teaching Young Adult Literature Today: Insights, Considerations, and Perspectives for the Classroom Teacher. Lanham: Rowman, 2012. Print.
  • Tomlinson, Carl M., and Carol Lynch-Brown. Essentials of Young Adult Literature. Boston: Pearson, 2007. Print.
  • Trupe, Alice. Thematic Guide to Young Adult Literature. Westport: Greenwood, 2006. Print.

Bibliography

  • Cart, Michael. Young Adult Literature: From Romance to Realism, 2010. Chicago: ALA, 2011. Print.
  • Cole, Pam Burress. Young Adult Literature in the Twenty-first Century. Boston: McGraw, 2009. Print.
  • Donelson, Kenneth, and Alleen Pace Nilsen. Literature for Today's Young Adults. Glenview: Scott, 1980. Print.
  • Hill, Crag. The Critical Merits of Young Adult Literature. New York: Routledge, 2014. Print.
  • Tribunella, Eric. Melancholia and Maturation: The Use of Trauma in American Children's Literature. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 2010. Print.
  • Wolf, Shelby Anne. Handbook of Research on Children's and Young Adult Literature. New York: Routledge, 2011. Print.
  • Younger, Beth. Learning Curves: Body Image and Female Sexuality in Young Adult Literature. Lanham: Scarecrow P, 2009. Print.
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