Themes in Young Adult Literature: Identity and Self-Discovery

Start Free Trial


Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2308

Titles Discussed

Uglies by Scott Westerfield

The Meaning of Consuelo by Judith Ortiz Cofer

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Thematic Overview

Questions of identity and self take on new urgency as students enter high school. So many life-shaping decisions loom large on the horizon....

(The entire section contains 2308 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this Themes in Young Adult Literature: Identity and Self-Discovery study guide. You'll get access to all of the Themes in Young Adult Literature: Identity and Self-Discovery content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Summary
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Titles Discussed

Uglies by Scott Westerfield

The Meaning of Consuelo by Judith Ortiz Cofer

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Thematic Overview

Questions of identity and self take on new urgency as students enter high school. So many life-shaping decisions loom large on the horizon. There are classes and specializations that must be chosen, clubs that will either look good on a college application or bring genuine enjoyment to decide among, and opportunities to volunteer or work at companies that will give the student a peek at a future career—if only the student knew what he or she wanted to be.

For the young adult reader, struggles with identity and the process of self-discovery touch at the heart of their experience. They stand at the edge of adulthood, and they want to know as much about what they can expect as possible before that take that next big step. The problem is that it is hard to know what you want to know when you are not even certain who you are.

Before the emergence of young adult literature as a genre, questions of adolescent identity were not often explored in literature. The first novel to gain a young adult audience for its exploration of these themes was The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. Published in 1951 for an adult audience, it is now a staple of YA literature. In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield's attempts to bring meaning to the losses he has experienced are futile. How can he bring meaning to events he does not understand? How can he understand the motives of others when he cannot even make sense of his own?

Holden Caulfield may have been one of the first questioning teenagers in literature, but he was hardly the last. Changes in American society and culture took place in the 1960s and 1970s, when Vietnam War protests, the black power movement, and the feminist movement brought a new intensity to questions of identity and self-discovery. Efforts to get in touch with the inner self spawned personal empowerment programs.

The introduction of the birth control pill in 1960 and the legalization of abortion in 1973 introduced additional possibilities for women. Their sexuality was suddenly perceived as something that was within their control. By the 1980s, the theme of identity and self-discovery had become a permanent fixture in American culture. It was inevitable that it would occupy a prominent place in young adult literature.

One especially notable exploration of identity and self-discovery in the teen years came in the form of a film. The Breakfast Club (1985), directed by John Hughes and starring a group of teens who would go on to fame as the “Brat Pack,” packed years of angst into a one-day detention session in a single room. The film is an enduring classic, in part because of its searing look into the struggles of adolescents.

By the 1990s, J. K. Rowling would immortalize the search for identity and purpose of Harry Potter and his friends. Rick Riordan would follow suit with Percy Jackson and the Kanes—three more young adults in search for answers about the self.


To know oneself can be a difficult proposition, especially for a teenager. It implies an ability to take an unflinching and dispassionate view of one's true motives, wants, and needs. Uglies, The Meaning of Consuelo, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, all published in the first decade of the twenty-first century, follow young people in their attempts to sort these things out and figure out their place in society.

Uglies (2005), by Scott Westerfield, explores the theme of identity and self-identity by juxtaposing a teen's need for autonomy with a societal desire for perfection in a dystopian society where every teen receives plastic surgery when he or she turns sixteen. Once the surgery is completed, the teen moves to an area that is home only to others who have achieved similar perfection.

On the surface, this practice takes a lot of pressure off the teens. All they have to do is have the surgery as anticipated. Then they can move on with their lives with others who are similarly perfect.

There is just one problem: the surgery that makes everyone perfect also damages the brain, making them unable to realize their full potential. The central question of Uglies is whether the trade-off is worth it. The answer is not as straightforward as it would seem. The surgery is mandatory, so to escape the surgery, one must escape the society. Of course, the authorities have a lot at stake. They are not about to allow anyone to truly have a choice in this matter. The ramifications of that cause conflict and bloodshed. At least one teenager in the book has the chance to make her own choice about the surgery, but the decision she makes is not necessarily the one that is best for her self.

The book leaves many questions unanswered. These include questions about the ethics of the surgery, the importance of the search for a cure to reverse the effects of the surgery, and the need for the surgery in the first place. It is a lot for a young adult reader to contemplate, but Uglies, and the rest of the series that follows, has been hugely popular since it first came out.

The Meaning of Consuelo (2003), by Judith Ortiz Cofer, tells the story of a Latino family living in Puerto Rico in the 1950s. American investment is changing the island. At the same time, the family is undergoing a series of mounting tragedies. As trouble grows and the younger sister in the family, Mili, shows increasing signs of being mentally ill, Consuelo, the older sister, must take on an increasingly adult role. Not only must she help to watch her sister night and day, she must serve as the one to console her mother during this difficult time.

Consuelo has her own problems, though. She is turning fifteen. She is ready to be more independent just at the time when her family is shrilly insisting that she put the family first. Consuelo resents this, but more than resenting it, she is aware of the ways in which these competing expectations are changing her. Stung by the fact that her fifteenth birthday—a significant birthday in her culture—is not acknowledged at all by her family, she not only spends the evening with the boy she likes but also has sex for the first time. Rather than bringing them closer, however, it ends up driving him away.

Consuelo has seen her older cousin and close friend Patricio leave Puerto Rico and create the life he wanted for himself in America, and begins wondering if she should do the same. She is reluctant to leave her family, but she is equally reluctant to stay where she is. “I had to find other ways to survive,” she says. “And I had to leave La Casa de la Mama Isadora and start my story in a completely new place.” This awareness on her part is part of her growing sense of identity and self-discovery. Consuelo recognizes that she could stay where she is. Her parents love her and will have space in their lives for her again after their grief has lessened. But she does not want that space any more. “I no longer wanted the part I'd been assigned,” she says. She wants to construct her role in the world for herself rather than allow her parents to do so for her, even if this means “becoming the character always offstage, the one who can be talked about and reinvented according to the demands of the tale or the motives of the teller.”

When Consuelo both recognizes and accepts the price she will pay for an identity of her own, one that is separate from her family, she has completed an essential step in her quest for independence.

In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), the protagonist, Junior, is faced with a similar dilemma. Junior is an intelligent, creative teenager living on an impoverished American Indian reservation whose underfunded high school cannot give him the knowledge he hungers for. The adults on the reservation—including Junior's equally smart older sister, who is unemployed and living in their parents' basement—all seem to have been trapped by poverty into lives of broken dreams and wasted potential, a fate which Junior hopes to avoid. Given the chance to attend a school in a wealthier (and very white) suburb, he leaps at it but soon finds his situation more complicated than he expected. He has difficulty fitting in with the students at his new school, most of whom have never seen an Indian other than the school's cartoonish mascot. Yet he also no longer fits in with his former friends on the reservation, who now see him as a sell-out—a “part-time Indian.”

His best friend, Rowdy, is not happy for him, nor are most of the other people he knows. It is not a matter of being jealous of Junior's good fortune as much as a matter of being angry that he makes them face up to their own wasted potential. Junior is smart enough to understand that but is not sure what to do about it. He is simply attempting to define his own identity and discover his place in both of the worlds he now inhabits.

By the end of the school year, Junior is far more self-aware than at the start. As he has settled into life at his new school, he has come to terms with straddling two worlds and belonging, as he thinks of it, to many different tribes. He manages to reconcile with his old friends as well; when they make up, Rowdy calls him an “old-time nomad,” moving around in search of the best resources as Indians used to do before they were placed on reservations. Still, Junior has conflicted feelings about the prospect of leaving his family and friends behind: “I hoped and prayed that they would someday forgive me for leaving them. I hoped and prayed that I would someday forgive myself for leaving them.” He has made considerable progress in his journey of self-discovery, but the journey is not over.


While Uglies tells a tale with a central theme of identity and self-discovery set in a dystopian society, both The Meaning of Consuelo and The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian set their stories in realistic settings. With The Meaning of Consuelo, it was set within a large and loving Puerto Rican family. As the family was faced with change to the island, change to their prospects, and change within the family, Consuelo was faced with the changes that go with becoming a young adult. Her journey was complicated by the mental illness of her younger sister, her father's infidelity, and the social mores of her culture. Consuelo's navigation of these obstacles and the part they play in making her the woman she is becoming add a layer of depth to the story, making it not simply a coming-of-age story, but also a richer examination of the sticky bonds of culture.

For Junior in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, the journey is just as complex. He knows, as does Consuelo, that his path must lead him away from everything he knows. Yet Junior realizes the formation of his identity and quest for self-discovery cannot be completed within the narrow confines of the reservation. He also knows that his tribe is an integral part of who he will become. His task will be to reconcile these two opposites and to reach a place of peace.

All three of these works were well received. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian received the National Book Award, and top or best book of the year designations from Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal,, and Kirkus Reviews. Both Uglies and The Meaning of Consuelo also received multiple awards. In all three books, the themes of identity and self-discovery are played out against a conformist background. In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and The Meaning of Consuelo, this conformist background is the harder to escape and leave behind because the protagonists' beloved families are part of this conformity. To leave that behind means walking away from everything familiar and facing new challenges that cannot be anticipated because they are not part of the character's experience. To take this step as a young adult is especially difficult. That difficulty is a key part of the draw of these novels.

Further Reading

  • Blasingame, Nilsen. Literature for Today's Young Adults. Boston: Pearson, 2014. Print.
  • Cart, Michael. Young Adult Literature: From Romance to Realism. Chicago: Amer. Library Assn., 2010. Print.
  • Chance, Rosemary. Young Adult Literature in Action: A Librarian's Guide. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2014. Print.


  • Barcott, Bruce. “Off the Rez.” New York Times. New York Times, 10 Nov. 2007. Web. 10 May 2015. <>.
  • Bucher, Katherine, and KaaVonia M. Hinton. “Exploring Contemporary Realistic Fiction.” Young Adult Literature: Exploration, Evaluation, and Appreciation. 3rd ed. New York: Pearson, 2014. 125–58. Print.
  • Cole, Pam B. Young Adult Literature in the 21st Century. New York: McGraw, 2009. Print.
  • Rev. of The Meaning of Consuelo, by Judith Ortiz Cofer. Publishers Weekly. PWxyz, 1 Nov. 2003. Web. 15 May 2015. <>.
  • Lynch-Brown, Carol G., Kathy G. Short, and Carl M. Tomlinson. Essentials of Children's Literature. Harlow: Pearson, 2014. Print.
  • Strickland, Ashley. “A Brief History of Young Adult Literature.” CNN. CNN, 15 Feb. 2015. Web. 10 May 2015. < adult-fiction-evolution>.
  • Rev. of Uglies, by Scott Westerfield. Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 23 June 2012. Web. 14 May 2015. <>.
Illustration of PDF document

Download Themes in Young Adult Literature: Identity and Self-Discovery Study Guide

Subscribe Now