Themes in Young Adult Literature: Teen Pregnancy and Parenthood

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2913

Titles Discussed

After by Amy Efaw

The First Part Last by Angela Johnson

Someone like You by Sarah Dessen

Thematic Overview

One of the first young adult novels specifically focusing on teenage pregnancy was published in 1968, and by the 1970s, pregnancy and parenthood had become popular topics for young...

(The entire section contains 2913 words.)

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Titles Discussed

After by Amy Efaw

The First Part Last by Angela Johnson

Someone like You by Sarah Dessen

Thematic Overview

One of the first young adult novels specifically focusing on teenage pregnancy was published in 1968, and by the 1970s, pregnancy and parenthood had become popular topics for young adult literature. As publishers turned their attention to problem novels exploring social issues, these early works typically attempted to educate teenagers on the risks and downsides associated with teenage sexual activity, presenting pregnancy as a disastrous outcome that could be avoided with proper behavior. These novels were almost always written from the perspective of the teenage girl, included limited information on birth control, and framed pregnancy as a reality that prevents future happiness in relationships, education, and careers.

Influenced in part by the feminist movement of the 1970s and advancements in women's rights such as the US Supreme Court's landmark decision in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in the United States in 1973, and the increased popularity of the birth control pill in the same decade, teen pregnancy and parenthood novels in the following decades began to shift their focus away from didactic and moralistic tales and to instead feature a greater variety of perspectives on the teenage pregnancy experience. Although teenage pregnancy and parenthood are rarely celebrated in novels from the 1980s and beyond, pregnant teenage characters are more often presented as complex characters navigating a challenging situation rather than simply as people who have committed an unforgivable lapse in judgment. Likewise, the widening range of options available to teenage girls who find themselves pregnant, including abortion and social services, has widened the scope of the genre. At the same time, while teenage birth rates peaked in the late 1950s (at nearly one hundred births for every one thousand teenage girls aged fifteen to nineteen), that number has since steadily declined with only a few brief spikes, reaching less than twenty-seven births for every one thousand teenage girls in 2013. Fewer contemporary teenagers experience pregnancy and parenthood directly, and therefore fewer have direct knowledge of what pregnancy can mean.

As teenage pregnancy novels remain popular into the twenty-first century, a larger number also avoid painting teenage sexuality itself as inherently problematic, and characters are less likely to experience pregnancy or parenting as a punishment for their actions. Sarah Dessen's 1998 Someone Like You, for instance, features a protagonist whose own exploration of her sexuality is influenced by her relationship with her pregnant best friend. Similarly, Angela Johnson's The First Part Last (2003) focuses on a teenage father who consciously decides to raise his child despite having other options available to him. Finally, Amy Efaw's 2009 novel After features a teenage girl who throws her baby into the trash in a desperate act of denial. Rather than demonizing this main character, however, the novel presents her plight with sympathy and compassion. In all of these cases, as in the best presentations of teenage pregnancy and parenthood, the choices of the characters are not framed as moral lessons for teenage readers but rather as literary explorations of difficult and life-changing choices.

Works

Someone Like You is told from the perspective of Halley, a teenage girl whose life is shaped by her relationship with her best friend, Scarlett. As the novel opens, Halley is away at summer camp when Scarlet calls and tells her that the boy Scarlett has been secretly dating, Michael, has died in a motorcycle accident. As Halley comforts Scarlett throughout the funeral, she meets Macon, Michael's best friend, and the two begin a romance. Halley increasingly feels distant from her mother, especially when her mother disapproves of the new relationship despite never meeting Macon. Eventually, Scarlett tells Halley that she is pregnant with Michael's child. While Scarlett's family sets up an appointment for an abortion, Scarlett decides she wants to keep the baby, and Halley supports her decision. Halley's relationship with Macon continues to progress, and Macon regularly pressures Halley to have sex, which she does not feel ready to do. After another fight about their sexual relationship, Halley and Macon get in a car accident, and Halley is seriously injured. The accident causes Halley to break up with Macon and also initiates a conversation with her mother, during which the two decide they need to stop arguing and work on becoming close again. While Halley is at prom, Scarlett goes into labor, and Halley accepts a ride from Macon to the hospital. After Scarlett's baby is born, Halley sees herself surrounded by supportive friends and family, and she begins to feel optimistic about the future once again.

Dessen's novel is notable for the amount of agency and intelligence it bestows on the teenage main characters, both of whom rely on the support and insight of one another in order to make major decisions in their lives. This is made clear from the moment Scarlett decides to keep her baby rather than perform the abortion her mother has scheduled for her; already at the clinic, it is Halley she contacts to take her home, and while Halley at first offers some confusion about Scarlett's choice, she also instantaneously decides that she must support Scarlett above all else. Scarlett's pregnancy then progresses along many plot lines that are familiar themes of problem novels—the two characters visit doctors together, the pregnancy is discovered by other students at the school, and a good deal of information about reproductive health is shared with the reader. What distinguishes it, however, is that both Scarlett and Halley maintain their agency throughout this process. Even when they confront difficulties or struggle with the realities of what pregnancy and parenthood might mean, they always prove themselves (rather than their parents or doctors) to be the best authorities on what is preferable for their lives and their bodies. For Halley, this agency is reflected back to her own sense of her sexuality; while she makes a different choice than the choice Scarlett made when she declines to have sex with her boyfriend, this decision is also treated as the “right” decision and likewise is made with the confidence and trust of her best friend. In the end, both girls do turn again to their families for support, realizing that the wisdom and guidance offered by their parents is also valuable. However, their journey through first romance and through pregnancy is never defined by anyone but themselves, and as such both the consequences and rewards of their choices are presented not as warnings to keep teenage readers on any one particular path but as realistic explorations of what it means to navigate sexuality as an adolescent.

Like Scarlett, Bobby, the main character of The First Part Last, also chooses to raise his baby, despite having other options available to him. Bobby's story is told in chapters that alternate between a present in which he is in New York City and raising his baby, Feather, on his own and a past in which he and his girlfriend Nia face the reality of her pregnancy. Early on, Bobby and Nia both face the diverse reactions of their friends and family, who judge the teenagers while also showing sincere care and love for them. As Bobby attempts to hold on to his childhood self in the past sections, the present sections show him dealing with the reality of being a single father, including the exhaustion he constantly faces and the seeming impossibility of maintaining his efforts in school, let alone his social life. The past sections reveal Bobby and Nia deciding on adoption for their child, which their parents support. In the future, Bobby increasingly feels like he has become an old person and that no one (including his teachers or family) will be capable of properly understanding or supporting him through fatherhood. Finally, the novel reveals that Nia had suffered eclampsia during the pregnancy, which put her in an irreversible coma. Immediately after the birth, Bobby meets Feather and realizes he wants to raise the baby, foregoing the adoption. As the novel ends, Bobby realizes that New York is not where he wishes to raise Feather, and he moves to live with his brother in Heaven, Ohio.

The First Part Last is a rare example of a teenage parenthood novel that focuses on the father, and, furthermore, one that focuses on a father who chooses to be involved in the life of his child rather than abandon the baby and mother, as is often the case in novels warning of the dangers of teen pregnancy. In order to explore this character, the novel alternates between chapters in which we see Bobby the father dealing with the reality of his life and Bobby the teenager dealing with the possibilities that pregnancy presents. For Bobby, this change is inseparable from his conception of himself as a man as he becomes responsible for his own decisions. In the chapters that precede the birth of Feather, his energy and attention are focused squarely on spending time with his friends and getting enjoyment out of life whenever possible. As soon as Feather enters his world, however, the gravity of the situation dramatically shifts his priorities: school suddenly becomes important, as he believes he needs good grades to provide for his baby; while he misses his friends desperately, he knows that any spare time must be spent with Feather; and perhaps most important, he decides that he should give up living in the city he loves in order to provide a more stable environment for Feather's childhood. Bobby also narrates a good deal of his emotions and thought process in internal monologues, stressing the things he feels he cannot say out loud to friends, family, and medical professionals, including the pain he feels regarding his sacrifices and the joy he experiences from the love Feather gives him. On a whole, then, the novel accomplishes a complex portrait of a changing person, someone who remains a mystery even to those closest to him. Parenthood is no one thing to Bobby, but rather it is a nuanced experience in which an old self he loves is lost and a new self, equally as loved, emerges.

While Bobby is an easily likable character in his choice to love and support his child, the main character of After, Devon, presents readers with a teenager who at first seems monstrous, even evil. As the novel opens, Devon sits on her couch in a haze, home sick from school. In quick succession, her mother returns home and the police arrive, having found a newborn baby abandoned in a trash can nearby. Devon's mother pulls Devon's blanket off of her, revealing that she is soaked in blood, and Devon is immediately arrested and taken to the hospital. The novel unfolds from within the juvenile detention center where Devon is placed, and as she talks to her lawyer and a psychiatrist, she slowly recalls the events of her pregnancy and the traumatic birth. As Devon's mother has always been promiscuous and provided Devon with an unstable, often unloving home, Devon had promised herself that she would never have sex, believing it to be the cause of her mother's problems. Eventually, she admits that she had broken that rule once, and her subsequent denial spiraled out of control, leading her to hide the pregnancy, even from herself, and abandon the baby. Although Devon's mother does not visit her at all in prison, she does arrive for the hearing, in which a judge decides whether Devon will be tried as an adult (facing life in prison) or a juvenile (facing five years). Through confronting her mother and hearing the testimony of others, Devon finally accepts the truth of what she had done and decides at the novel's close to plead guilty to the charges.

At first glance, After is reminiscent of the 1970s problem pregnancy novels, in which the choices of the main character (particularly to be sexually active) lead to horrible and life-altering consequences. Rather than a morality tale meant to dissuade teenagers, however, After is a sympathetic exploration of a character who made an unthinkable choice, and its main function as a novel is in leading readers to see Devon as a complex and even likable character. In large part, this is done through the narrative device of Devon's fractured memory. Readers only gain as much knowledge about Devon's past as she can summon at any one time. At the novel's opening, this means that she comes across as an emotionally stunted and cruel teenager, watching television without a care while her child suffers and nearly dies in a trash can outside. As she slowly recalls the unloving environment in which she was raised as well as the deeply traumatic experience of being pregnant alone, however, readers begin to understand why she might have been lead to such a violent action, and she transforms from a selfish villain into a teenager dealing with incredibly difficult challenges entirely on her own. In this regard, the core tension of After is not much different from that of Someone Like You, despite the situations being radically different from one another. While Scarlett made some unwise choices throughout her pregnancy, she also had the support and love of Halley, which lead her to happiness at the novel's end. Had Devon even one person in whom she could confide the truth of her circumstance (or indeed, who even took the time to notice she was pregnant), she likely would not have made the decision to abandon her child. After does not hide from the more gruesome aspects of its story, rendering the night of the birth and Devon's shocked reaction in vivid detail. Rather than scaring readers into avoiding pregnancy or sexual activity, however, the power of these scenes ultimately lies in their insistence on the need for teenagers to receive support and guidance no matter the choices they have made.

Conclusions

A large number of pregnancy and parenthood novels for young adults still linger around tropes that have been present since the 1970s: girls who engage in sexual activity out of naïveté, boys who abandon their pregnant partners, and adoption as the only nonparenting option at the novel's end. While some valuable novels have been written that engage with these basic plot points, the novels that diverge from this script are increasingly popular among teenage readers, many of whom have the sophistication and life experience to know that pregnancy and parenthood are incredibly varied experiences.

In part, the tension between the problem novels and the more nuanced, realist novels reflects another cultural tension, that between abstinence-only sexual education and comprehensive sexual education, which educates teenagers about birth control and other reproductive health options. Evidence shows that comprehensive sexual education is the most successful at lowering pregnancy rates among teenagers, and indeed, as comprehensive education becomes more popular, the rate of teenage pregnancy in the 2010s is at one of the lowest points it has been in the past century. While these broader social realities shape the way writers present pregnancy and parenthood to teenage readers, they also mean that representations of pregnancy in teenage novels are sometimes inconsistent with what pregnancy means in the lives of contemporary teenagers. A literature review by Kristen Nichols in an article for the ALAN Review found that, in novels published after 1990, only 10 percent of pregnant teenager characters chose to get an abortion, while 40 percent of actual pregnant teenagers in that time elected for an abortion. Similarly, while only 3 percent of teenagers in reality give their baby up for adoption, an incredible 35 percent of teenagers in novels made that same choice.

On a whole, these statistics show young adult novels have some way to go in honestly addressing pregnancy and parenting as it exists in the lives of teenagers. While the emotional complexity of characters such as Devon, Bobby, and Scarlett is engaging and while their stories manage to explore their difficult choices without the moralistic undertones of many problem novels, the genre of young adult pregnancy novels on whole still fails to provide teenagers with adequate representation of the choices and challenges they face. Regardless of the broader problems with representation, however, the rare novels that do succeed in crafting literary explorations of pregnancy from the perspective of adolescents have been wildly successful with readers and educators and will certainly continue to flourish as the genre expands to include more stories, more diversity, and more choices.

Further Reading

  • Chance, Rosemary. Young Adult Literature in Action: A Librarian's Guide. Santa Barbara: Libraries Unlimited, 2014. Print.
  • Coffel, Cynthia Miller. “Strong Portraits and Stereotypes: Pregnant and Mothering Teens in YA Fiction.” ALAN Review 30.1 (2002): 15–20. Web. 13 July 2015. <http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/ALAN/v30n1/pdf/coffel.pdf>.
  • Davis, Joy B., and Laurie MacGillivray. “Books about Teen Parents: Messages and Omissions.” English Journal 90.3 (2001): 90–96. Print.
  • Nichols, Kristen. “Facts and Fictions: Teen Pregnancy in Young Adult Literature.” ALAN Review 34.3 (2007): 30–38. Web. 13 July 2015. <http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/ALAN/v34n3/nichols.pdf>.

Bibliography

  • Cowley, Carol, and Tillman Farley. “Adolescent Girls' Attitudes toward Pregnancy.” Journal of Family Practice 50.7 (2001): 603–7. Academic Search Premier. Web. 13 July 2015. <https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mnh&AN=11485709&site=eds-live>.
  • “Teen Pregnancy: Trends and Lessons Learned.” Guttmacher Report on Public Policy 5.1 (2002): N. pag. Web. 13 July 2015. <https://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/tgr/05/1/gr050107.html>.
  • Younger, Beth. Learning Curves: Body Image and Female Sexuality in Young Adult Literature. Lanham: Scarecrow, 2009. Print.
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