Themes in Young Adult Literature: Social Problems

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2778

Titles Discussed

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Thematic Overview

Adolescence is the time during which many people first become seriously aware of social problems, particularly social problems that intersect with their lives and the lives of their...

(The entire section contains 2778 words.)

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Titles Discussed

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Thematic Overview

Adolescence is the time during which many people first become seriously aware of social problems, particularly social problems that intersect with their lives and the lives of their peers and families. From first encounters with teenage pregnancy and sexual abuse to the realities of alcoholism and homophobia, teenagers are likely to encounter social problems not as broad and abstract concepts but as lived realities with real and immediate effects on their own lives.

Young adult novels began to seriously turn their attention to social problems shortly after the genre began to be recognized as distinct from children's literature. As the development of the young adult novel was a time during which major publishers and writers were first recognizing the maturity of teenage readers, many of the early young adult social-problem novels were in actuality moralistic tales that lacked the sophistication of other classics of young adult literature. Despite this, one of the first works to be described as a problem novel was S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders (1967), which explores the intersections of poverty, gang violence, and the daily lives of orphaned teenagers. Hinton's book is a superb example of literary complexity, developing nuanced and realistic characters while squarely confronting social realities that were rarely seen in young adult literature at the time. While the 1970s saw a number of poor imitations that attempted to re-create the crass language and dramatic plot structure of The Outsiders but failed to craft such engaging and thoughtful characters, the novel also paved the way for similarly realistic and valuable works for decades to come.

While there have been successful problem novels for decades, it is also true that the realities of social problems are in constant flux, and every generation of teenage readers encounters social realities that would be unfamiliar to the generation preceding them. Because of this, the advancement of different social justice movements has gone a long way toward making problem novels possible. Feminist activists in the 1970s and 1980s, for instance, helped make it acceptable for young adult novels to portray girls dealing realistically with pregnancy and sexuality, while the gay and lesbian rights movement has likewise made novels that deal with homophobia more acceptable for younger readers. While the issues might change, however, these novels are connected by the unique experience of adolescents confronting social problems in earnest. As teenagers begin to develop their adult identities outside of the home and gain new perspective on both their family life and the world in general, their understanding of personal and intimate experiences often shifts to become a more complicated understanding of the workings between the personal and the social.

In the twenty-first century, the vast majority of young adult novels deal with social problems in one form or another. Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak (1999), for instance, focuses on the reality of rape, while Gene Luen Yang's 2006 graphic novel American Born Chinese squarely confronts lived realities of racism and immigration from the perspective of a second-generation Chinese American teenager. As part of the trend toward realism and sophistication in contemporary young adult novels, however, even those works that do not focus their attention on a clear social problem are likely to include secondary characters facing divorce, substance abuse, poverty, misogyny, or other socially formed issues.

Works

S. E. Hinton's seminal young adult novel The Outsiders centers on its narrator, Ponyboy. Living with his brothers after the death of their parents in a car accident, Ponyboy finds an ersatz family unit in a gang called the Greasers. All boys from the impoverished part of town, the Greasers face constant harassment and violence from a richer gang called the Socials, or “Socs.” After Ponyboy and some of the other Greasers hang out one evening with two girlfriends of the Socs, Ponyboy is attacked by a group of Socs who attempt to drown him in a park fountain. He is saved at the last minute by his best friend, Johnny, who stabs and kills one of the Socs. Ponyboy and Johnny go to hide out in an abandoned church for a while. When they return to their safe spot one day, they find it on fire, with some children trapped inside. While rushing inside to save children, Ponyboy and Johnny are both injured, and they end up in the hospital, with Johnny in critical condition. The Socials and the Greasers then agree to have a massive fight. When it is over, Ponyboy returns to the hospital to find that Johnny has died. Further worsening his emotional condition, a friend and fellow Greaser attempts to rob a grocery store and is killed by the police. Deeply distraught and uncertain of himself, Ponyboy begins to find comfort in his English class, where he sits down to write his own story.

While a number of social problems come into play during The Outsiders, from the alcoholism of family members to Ponyboy's reality as an orphan, the greatest social reality influencing the novel is the class disparity between the Greasers and the Socials. It is this disparity that sits at the heart of their constant battles, and it is also the poverty in which the Greasers live that leads to them being dismissed and judged by others in the town, teachers and police officers among them. Ponyboy is well aware of this reality; it is the reason he initially hides his interest in literature from others, believing that it is an inappropriate passion for someone of his class background. As the novel progresses and he spends more time interacting directly with the Socs and their girlfriends, however, he begins to understand these class barriers to be a false construct, enforced socially but not accurately representing either the Greasers or the Socs. Thus begins the process by which Ponyboy must reconcile his lived personal experiences of poverty with the socially constructed reality. In his younger years, he takes for granted many of the barriers and exclusions he faces because of his economic class, but as he begins to interact more with the world outside of himself and develop his adult identity, he begins to question his circumstances, integrating the social and the personal together into a more complex worldview. This new understanding allows him not only to fight more earnestly on behalf of his friends, defending them in the face of oppression, but also to develop a sense of sympathy for the Socs, understanding that they too are trapped in a class system that divides people unfairly. At the close of the novel, Ponyboy has experienced an incredible amount of loss as a result of these violent class divides, but he is now able to turn to literature for insight and solace, effectively crossing that class barrier in order to assert his own identity more fully.

The violence of social problems likewise shapes the life of Melinda, the protagonist of Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson. Rather than facing her problem among a group of friends in similar positions, however, Melinda believes herself to be so totally alone that she cannot even acknowledge the reality of that violence to another person. The novel begins as Melinda is starting a new year of high school. Her old friends and social network have disappeared, and instead the entire school is mad at her for having called the police on a party the summer before. As Melinda falls into a deeper and deeper depression, she begins skipping class to hide in the janitor's closet and receiving uncharacteristically poor grades, with the slight exception of her art class. While she connects with a new student and befriends a boy in her science class, these connections prove tenuous until Melinda finally finds herself able to share her secret: she was raped at the party, resulting in the call to the police. She is motivated to overcome her silence in part by the realization that her former best friend, Rachel, had started to date her rapist, Andy. Although Andy becomes violent again, Melinda is empowered by sharing her story, and as she slowly regains the acceptance of her classmates, she also shares her story with her art teacher, hoping to prevent Andy from committing further acts of violence.

The violence Melinda experiences creates a radical rift between her personal, interior world and the social world from which the violence was born, a rift that is itself reflected in the narrative style and voice of the novel. Her first-person narration makes this clear in a number of ways, not least among them the fact that she is able to articulate large parts of her daily experience to the reader, yet is unable to acknowledge the reality of the rape throughout most of the novel or to say more than a few brief words to her peers or teachers. Melinda further enforces this rift by referring to others primarily by nicknames; Andy, in particular, is known only as “IT” through most of the novel. Just as the social problems of poverty and gang violence cause Ponyboy to reconsider the relationship between his own life and the social structure of his town, the social problem of rape makes it impossible for Melinda to live as a functional and active member of the social world of her high school.

Because Melinda so rarely interacts in a meaningful way with others, the novel stays largely observational throughout, with any action muted and filtered through Melinda's internal narration. The interiority of Melinda's narration has another important implication, serving as a reminder that adolescents can never truly know what their friends and peers are experiencing. Even Rachel, Melinda's former best friend, is quick to judge Melinda and to cast her aside in favor of personal social gain, and when Melinda finally shares the truth with her, she struggles to accept it. The divide that Melinda creates between herself and her classmates becomes a tool that helps her finally accept that she was raped—it is only in an imagined scene with talk-show host Oprah Winfrey that she fully admits the reality to herself—which in turn allows her to bridge the divide between personal pain and social problems in order to live as an outgoing, socially connected teenager again.

Although it features less graphic violence than Speak and The Outsiders, Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese likewise focuses on a protagonist who finds his self-identity ruptured by social problems. The main character is this three-pronged story is Jin, a son of Chinese immigrants who is raised in an overwhelmingly white town. Constantly teased because of his race and the immigration status of his parents, Jin has only one true friend, a Taiwanese boy named Wei-Chen. Their friendship suffers when Jin kisses Wei-Chen's girlfriend, which Jin is motivated to do after a popular white boy tells him that he should not date a white girl at their school. Jin then fantasizes about being transformed into a blond-haired white boy named Danny. Danny is relatively popular at school until his Chinese cousin, Chin-Kee, visits, constantly embarrassing him in social spaces (Chin-Kee is drawn as a stereotype of a Chinese immigrant, complete with an exaggerated accent and traditional outfits). Danny finally gets into a fight with Chin-Kee, who then reveals himself to be the mythical Monkey King, a powerful martial artist who has come to Earth to keep an eye on his son, Wei-Chen. With the encouragement of the Monkey King, Danny returns to his true identity as Jin and makes amends with Wei-Chen, realizing the importance of their friendship both despite and because of the prejudice they both face.

Jin's need to reconcile social problems with his internal sense of self is initiated not by an act of overt violence but rather by countless smaller acts of racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, and similar aggressions. People, including his teachers, frequently mispronounce his name, for instance, and he avoids hanging out with a Japanese student named Suzy (Wei-Chen's eventual girlfriend) after they are teased that they must be in an arranged marriage. The relentless acts of racism at first cause Jin to internalize and recreate the social problems with which he struggles. When Wei-Chen shows up at school and is clearly a new immigrant, Jin redirects the teasing he has experienced onto his new friend, saying that he must be “fresh off the boat” and putting him down for any behaviors that Jin views as stereotypically Asian. The process of overcoming these social problems is a largely internal one, with Jin spending less time challenging the racism perpetuated by others and more time cleansing his own attitudes of anti-Asian sentiments. To render this visually, the graphic novel incorporates the magical story of Danny and the Monkey King. Rather than suggesting that Wei-Chen is actually the son of the Monkey King, this mythical narrative instead brings a deep sense of Chinese cultural heritage into the present moment of the American school. By engaging with this narrative and learning from the Monkey King, Jin goes through the internal process of growth that allows him to again enter the social world of the school and affirm his bond with Wei-Chen. While the racism of his environment still exists, Jin's new self-confidence allows him to be more fully himself, just as Melinda finally learns to speak again after acknowledging the truth of her rape and as Ponyboy allows himself to write after realizing how false the divides of the class system truly are.

Conclusions

The term “social problems” can refer to an incredible range of cultural realities. While some are consistent over time—racism, misogyny, and poverty have remained constant problems since before the first young adult novels were published—other problems arise in new forms with shifting cultural attitudes and political realities. Online bullying, for instance, reflects the ongoing reality of bullying while presenting new challenges through the specificity of social media.

Because of these shifting realities, teenagers constantly experience social problems that previous generations might not have experienced, or might have experienced in radically different forms. For young adult novels, this means that contemporary social problems are a fruitful and consistent topic. More importantly, however, this reality highlights the unique experience of independence and autonomy that many teenagers feel as they first interact with problems that are not entirely personal, but also not entirely social. Confronting a social problem is not simply about finding a better life for the individual, as Melinda, Ponyboy, and Jin all manage to do. Rather, it is about improving the world for peers and for future generations as well. Melinda, for instance, demonstrates incredible bravery in speaking openly about her rape, and in doing so she helps protect other girls from experiencing the same violence. Jin likewise manages to improve his own social standing by confronting his internalized racism, while also paving the way for a fuller, healthier relationship with Wei-Chen and Suzy.

While novels focusing on social problems are often difficult reads due to their honest portrayals of violence and challenging subject matter, they are also often novels of strength and endurance, demonstrating that adolescents are as capable of changing the world and directing the future as adults are. As new problems continue to arise with which adults have little familiarity, teenage protagonists confronting social realities prove themselves again and again to be valuable, complex characters in the genre of young adult literature, showing that the transition to adulthood is less about accepting the world as it is and more about making the world what it should be.

Further Reading

  • Alsup, Janet. “Politicizing Young Adult Literature: Reading Anderson's Speak as a Critical Text.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 47.2 (2003): 158–66. Literary Reference Center. Web. 7 July 2015. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=11455383&site=lrc-live>.
  • Sardina, Martel. “The Outsiders.” Masterplots. Ed. Laurence W. Mazzeno. 4th ed. Vol. 2. Pasadena: Salem, 2010. Literary Reference Center. Web. 7 July 2015. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=103331MP424609820000724&site=lrc-live>.

Bibliography

  • Davis, Rocío G. “Childhood and Ethnic Visibility in Gene Yang's American Born Chinese.” Prose Studies 35.1 (2013): 7–15. Literary Reference Center. Web. 7 July 2015. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=87070527&site=lrc-live>.
  • Snider, Jessi. “‘Be The Tree’: Classical Literature, Art Therapy, and Transcending Trauma in Speak.” Children's Literature in Education 45.4 (2014): 298–309. Print.
  • Tribunella, Eric L. “Institutionalizing The Outsiders: YA Literature, Social Class, and the American Faith in Education.” Children's Literature in Education 38.2 (2007): 87–101. Academic Search Premier. Web. 7 July 2015. <https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ehh&AN=24486924&site=eds-live>.
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