Themes in Young Adult Literature: Divorce

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2758

Titles Discussed

That Summer by Sarah Dessen

How to Build a House by Dana Reinhardt

What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen

Thematic Overview

It was not until around 1970 that “no-fault” divorces became somewhat common across the United States. These divorces allowed couples to end their union without either...

(The entire section contains 2758 words.)

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Titles Discussed

That Summer by Sarah Dessen

How to Build a House by Dana Reinhardt

What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen

Thematic Overview

It was not until around 1970 that “no-fault” divorces became somewhat common across the United States. These divorces allowed couples to end their union without either person showing wrongdoing, such as cruelty or adultery. This general legalization indicated a greater acceptance of divorce in general, with the end of marriage seen less as a traumatic and shameful failure that must be avoided at all costs and more as an unfortunate but sometimes unavoidable reality. This evolving attitude toward marriage also reflects shifting gender norms—while marriage in the nineteenth century largely signaled a union in which a wife would be subservient to a breadwinning husband, by the end of the twentieth century, marriage was widely considered a romantic partnership, responsive to the needs and desires of both partners.

However, political and cultural debates around marriage and divorce did not often focus exclusively on adult partners but turned attention to the effects of divorce on the children of those adults. For many young adults, the teenage years involve both their first romantic relationships and the beginning of their separation from the childhood home and family. A parental divorce can both upset the idea that romantic unions should last for a lifetime and radically disrupt the stability of the home from which young adults are just beginning to establish their independence. Because of this, divorce has been an important and recurrent topic in YA literature since the 1970s. However, what divorce can or should mean has rapidly changed.

In 1970, the divorce rate jumped rapidly to 33 percent of the total number of marriages that year. YA literature in that decade featured a number of novels in which teenage protagonists find their world upset by the announcement of parental divorce. These novels, however, focused primarily on dealing with the divorce itself, as well as the social awkwardness and shame that many young adults might feel as their parents split. By 1985, however, divorce rates had reached 50 percent. With that increase, divorce no longer seemed as shameful or traumatic as a topic; instead, many teenagers experiencing parental divorce would find themselves with a number of peers who had already lived similar experiences. Reflecting this, YA literature more commonly shifted its focus to the reality of living after, rather than during, a divorce. Protagonists learned to live with (and sometimes love) stepfamilies, while concepts such as “family” and “home” were no longer homogenous, but rather ideas that could be revised by every individual.

While the commonality of divorce means that social pressure and shame are less common themes, the radical disruption of the childhood home still has varied repercussions for YA protagonists, making the theme a perennially common one for YA writers. Sarah Dessen's novels That Summer (2006) and What Happened to Goodbye (2011) both explore divorce in the same small city but feature protagonists with markedly different strategies for processing the changes in their lives. While still centered on a divorce, Dana Reinhardt's How to Build a House (2009) features a young woman who comes from a blended family and who, in turn, must rely on her previous experience while developing her identity in the face of radical change at home. In all cases, the divorce presents unique challenges to the protagonists; in turn, each character must chart her own path in emerging from the change with a strong sense of individuality and identity.


While divorce is a catalyst of change in That Summer, it is only one change among many in the life of fifteen-year-old protagonist Haven. The novel is set during the summer of her father's remarriage and her older sister Ashley's first marriage, yet it regularly flashes back four years, to a summer that Haven has come to idealize. During the season of the flashbacks, her mother and father appear happy together, the father not yet having left the mother for a young woman with whom he works. Likewise, Ashley is dating Sumner, a boy who is warm and generous to the entire family, which helps Haven and Ashley bond. In contrast, the current summer is filled with change, including Haven's rapid growth (which makes her feel alienated from her own body) and the changes in her social world, with her closest friend dating older boys and getting herself into trouble. The changes begin to feel too rapid and too drastic to Haven, especially as she fails to bond with Ashley's fiancé. Eventually, she attempts to abandon her life before it can abandon her, running away from home and hiding in the woods. There, Ashley discovers her, revealing that she and Sumner broke up because he had cheated on her, just as their father had left their mother for another woman. This revelation causes Haven to grasp the degree to which she had been idealizing the past, which in turn allows her to better appreciate the present and the coming future.

In That Summer, the immediate moment of divorce is less important than the trajectory of change that it initiates, a change that Haven experiences by comparing her present moment with the past narrative of “that summer” four years prior. The divorce is addressed early in the text and presented as a matter-of-fact reality—it is difficult on the family, but not excessively tragic. “My mother had read all the books about divorce and tried hard to make it smooth for me and my sister,” Haven explains, revealing that the family viewed divorce as something that could be properly managed, worked through with the right resources. What Haven struggles with, then, is the encroaching reality that adult life (and particularly romantic relationships) are not as simple and joyful as she once believed. Regarding her father's new marriage, it is the uncomfortable knowledge of his bride's young age (only five years older than Ashley) that upsets Haven, in large part because of the implication that physical attraction to youth took precedence over family commitment in her father's life. Likewise, she views Sumner as a perfectly kind and gentle boy, stating, “Sumner was the kind of person that you wanted to sit with in the sun and spend the day,” idealizing him as a figure of safety. Because Haven's first-person narration regularly shifts between these two summers, the novel is able to establish the emotional differences between these time periods while also making clear the ways that Haven deludes herself. When she eventually has her break and flees the family, she must reconcile these different perceptions, both acknowledging the imperfection of the past and the good of the present moment. Ultimately, this synthesis is a turn toward self-growth, with Haven realizing the ways she has been preventing others in her family from experiencing happiness, instead deciding to support Ashley's wedding and the future joy it promises.

How to Build a House is similarly structured between flashbacks and a present, first-person narrative, although in Reinhardt's novel, the disjuncture of the divorce propels the main character into positive change and personal growth rather than self-delusion. The novel alternates between sections labeled “Home” and “Here.” In “Here,” the protagonist, Harper, arrives in Tennessee after a tornado destroys a small town. Harper is volunteering for an organization that rebuilds houses, and while she is deeply invested in environmental politics, she also alludes to the fact that she is fleeing a difficult year back home in Los Angeles. In the “Home” section, the details of that year are slowly revealed. After her mother died when Harper was two, her father remarried, and Harper was raised in a blended family, becoming best friends with her stepsister, Tess, and even connecting with her stepmother's former husband. When Harper is a teenager, however, her father and stepmother announce their seemingly sudden divorce, and Tess makes out with Harper's on-again, off-again romantic partner at a party, causing a drastic rift between them. As Harper processes these changes while volunteering in Tennessee, she also slowly comes into her own, developing a new romance with a boy from the town and learning to focus her energy on the future rather than the past.

Harper's story is driven forward by an overriding metaphor of building homes (both literal and figurative), a site of meaning of which she is herself aware, stating early on that “I know a thing or two about people whose homes have been destroyed.” This previous knowledge is important to how the novel progresses. Unlike Haven, who finds her world shattered by her parent's divorce and is forced to accept the messiness of romance and life, Harper has already learned how to form new families and develop affinity in nontraditional homes. She has thrived in a family defined as much by her father's atheism as by her stepmother's Judaism, has learned to count her stepsister's birth father as part of her family, and even ventured on her own sexual relationship with a close male friend who is not her boyfriend. Harper is not a character unprepared for the disruption of divorce, then, even as she does experience stress about the changing relationship with her family members. Her challenge instead is one of learning to build a future in order to maintain her past. She must build her own future by developing new skills, pursuing her political passion of environmental preservation and social activism, and engaging in a mutually respectful romantic and sexual relationship with a new boyfriend. She also must build a future for others, providing and nurturing compassion through the activism of the construction project. It is only once she has learned to take care of herself that she can engage once more with her family in Los Angeles, confident and strong enough to extend her compassion to a family that has made mistakes but still loves one another. The novel's closing scene emphasizes this change—the physical house constructed and Tess having arrived in Tennessee, the sisters drive across the country together, returning to Los Angeles. For the first time, a “Home” section exists not in California but rather in the open space of the road trip, with Harper sharing the knowledge that, while they might not know exactly what roads will lead them home, “One way or another, we'll find the road back.”

While Harper has some familiarity with the disruption of divorce, the protagonist of What Happened to Goodbye embraces that disruption in order to avoid the difficult challenges of personal growth and young adulthood. Set in Lakeview (the same city as That Summer), What Happened to Goodbye focuses on Mclean, a teenager whose parents divorced two years prior. Following that divorce, Mclean has moved with her father roughly every six months, forcing her to adjust to new cities, new schools, and new social groups. Mclean deals with this constant change by embracing it, and with each new school, she selects a new name and personality, leaving behind whatever friends she makes when the next move comes. In Lakeview, however, she sticks with her old name and, in turn, begins to develop friends through her authentic personality, even developing a crush on a boy, Dave. When these new friends discover the social-media profiles of her old personalities, Mclean worries that the relationships will end. However, after an emotionally tumultuous weekend with her mother, she decides to reach out to Dave, and she slowly realizes that her friends simply want to support her, not judge her for her past. When the novel ends, Mclean has accepted Lakeview as a home, electing to stay there rather than move on with her father to a new city.

Divorce initiates a shift in identity for both Harper and Haven. But while they both resist this change at first, Mclean embraces it as a tool of self-preservation, with her false identities preventing anyone from experiencing (and in turn hurting or abandoning) the “real” Mclean. Through the first-person narration, she confesses the link between her identity and the divorce to the readers, declaring, “Since my parents' split, I hadn't had much faith in relationships and even less of an inclination to start any lasting ones of my own.” The fact that Mclean can share this insight with the reader is indicative of a central tension in the novel—while her inner life is filled with sharp observations and intentionality, her social life is defined instead by anonymity and distance, preventing anyone else from truly experiencing the richness expressed through her narration. For Mclean, then, in order to process and move on from the disruption of the divorce and her constant relocations, she must reconcile the disparity between her interior life and her social life. Narratively, this occurs when she goes on vacation with her mother and, after mishearing a conversation, feels unwanted by her mother and in turn further alienated from both family and friends. In this moment, she reaches out to Dave (trusting her peers for the first time), who in turns reaches out to her parents. When the parents realize the pain that Mclean has been hiding, they are able to talk openly about the divorce, initiating a process of healing and growth. From that moment on, the novel presents a Mclean who still struggles at times but has learned that it is only through sharing her true self with both family and friends that she can find happiness.


From the start of the twenty-first century and onward, roughly 50 percent of marriages in the United States have ended in divorce, often while children still live at home. In reflection of this commonality, a large number of YA novels include divorced or blended families without making the divorce a central theme. Rather, divorced parents (of either the protagonists or peers) provide some contextual background. The divorce perhaps influences the actions of the characters but is not treated as the major preoccupation in the novels. Even when divorce is a major theme, it is rarely the only major theme—in the novels discussed above, for instance, divorce is only understood in the context of other significant events in the characters' lives, from Haven's changing body to Harper's environmental activism.

At the same time, while divorce is common, it is not easy, especially for teenagers who are likewise involved in the tumultuous emotions and radical change associated with developing their identities as young adults. For this reason, divorce remains a perennial topic for many writers, the most astute of whom address the specificity of divorce through a contemporary lens. This is the case with What Happened to Goodbye, in which identity is heavily influenced by social media, and in How to Build a House, in which it is a complex and loving blended family (rather than the original family of birth) that experiences divorce.

Divorce is rarely easy, even when it obviously presages a positive change in the life of a young adult or the family in general. However, modern teenagers live in a world in which they not only have seen many happy, thriving adults who have experienced divorces but also one in which they are likely to anticipate divorce as a possibility in their own lives, no matter how optimistic they might be at the moment. While the boom in novels that focused on divorce in the 1980s is unlikely to repeat itself, the number of novels in which divorce plays some role has risen drastically since then. In turn, young adults have developed a heightened sophistication in understanding divorce and in reading literature that presents adult relationships with complexity and candor.

Further Reading

  • Dessen, Sarah. Interview by Roger Sutton. Horn Book 85.3 (2009): 243–50. Literary Reference Center. Web. 31 May 2015. <>.
  • Williams, Juan. “Analysis: Long-Term Effects of Divorce on Children.” Talk of the Nation (NPR) 24 Oct. 2000. Newspaper Source. Web. 31 May 2015. <>.


  • Cart, Michael. Young Adult Literature: From Romance to Realism. Chicago: Amer. Lib. Assn., 2011. Print.
  • Issitt, Micah. “Divorce Rate: Overview.” Points of View: Divorce Rate (2014): 1. Points of View Reference Center. Web. 31 May 2015. <>.
  • Ming, Cui, and Frank D. Ficham. “The Differential Effects of Parental Divorce and Marital Conflict on Young Adult Romantic Relationships.” Personal Relationships 17.3 (2010): 331–43. Academic Search Premier. Web. 31 May 2015. <>.
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