Gender in YA Literature

Sample Syllabus Five for teaching with Crosscurrents of Children's Literature, Oxford University Press

One of the most important issues of young adult literature is gender performance, focusing on how young adults learn to define and act out their own gendered identity. This topic has been an aspect of the genre from the very beginnings with Mark Twain and Louisa May Alcott.  The purpose of this course is to explore the way gender is constructed in YA novels, including changes that have taken place over time.  While this anthology has excellent selections, it will be helpful to have the students read extra assigned primary texts, especially recently published books.  


Brown, Joanne and Nancy St. Clair. The Distant Mirror: Reflections on Young Adult Historical Fiction. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006.

Cadden, Mike. “The Irony of Narration in the Young Adult Novel.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 25.3 (2000): 146-154.

Cuseo, Allan A. Homosexual Characters in YA Novels: A Literary Analysis, 1969-1982. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1992.

--. Declarations of Independence: Empowered Girls in Young Adult Literature, 1990-2001. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2002.

Nash, Ilana. American Sweethearts: Teenage Girls in Twentieth-Century Popular Culture. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2006.

Rehak, Melanie. Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women who Created Her. Orlando: Harcourt, 2005.

Trites, Roberta Seelinger. Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature.  Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000.

--.  Waking Sleeping Beauty: Feminist Voices in Children’s Novels. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1997.


Gender Paper. Because the focus of this class is gender, the purpose of this paper is to make students more aware of how gender is presented in a text.  The students will choose one YA novel and do a close reading, focusing on the presentation of gender. Outside sources are optional.

Challenged Book Project. Many books labeled YA are the very books that are banned or challenged; often that challenge has something to do with gender or sexuality. Each student will read one challenged YA book and do some background research. They will then give a five-minute presentation explaining where, when and why the book was challenged, and will give any responses to that challenge that they can find or deduce. While the focus of this class is gender, it may be helpful to have some students choose books that were banned for other reasons as a point of comparison for the whole class.

Book Award Paper. Dozens of awards are given to children’s and young adult books by many different organizations. Usually, these awards are given by adults to books that they believe are “good” for young adults. The purpose of this paper is to explore the assumptions behind a particular award. The student will read one YA book that has received an award, and will research the requirements for that award. Then, the student will write a short paper. First, the paper will show how this particular book meets the requirements of that particular award: for many awards, this should not take more than one paragraph. The rest of the paper will be spent exploring the presentation of gender in this book, and what that implies about the assumptions that lie behind the award. If the book has been challenged or banned, this issue also needs to be explored: where does the tension lie in a book that is awarded by one set of adults, but challenged by another?

Annotated Bibliography. For this project, the students will read 10 YA novels on one gender-related issue in YA literature. This could be a general topic, such as “homosexuality,” or a narrowed topic, such as “social status of female heroes in YA fantasy.” For each book, the students will write roughly one page describing the text, explaining how it deals with the topic at hand. If you choose to have the students give presentations on this project, each student can take five minutes to explain trends that he or she found in the books read.

Book to Movie Paper. Many YA books have been adapted to film. When this adaptation happens, often changes are made in the way that issues are dealt with. For this paper, the students will read one YA book that has been adapted for film, and then watch the movie. Attention will focus on the way gender is presented, and the students will write a paper about the changes that were made. Based on this analysis, the students will then come to some conclusions: which medium appears to be more willing to deal with which issues?  Which appears to be more conservative? What is the basis for your conclusions? 


For this syllabus, readings can be grouped in different ways. Because presentations can be very helpful for several of the papers listed, the readings are not divided by week, but by suggested categories. This way, additional readings and in-class presentations can be worked around the other readings.   

Critical Materials

Introduction to Part 5: Boys’ Books and Girl’s Books

“‘As the Twig is Bent’: Gender and Childhood Reading” Elizabeth Segel

“Cinderella: Saturday Afternoon at the Movies” Louise Bernikow

“Boys Will be Boys: The Making of the Male” Marina Warner

“Review of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” William Dean Howells

“Huck, Continued” E. L. Doctorow and David Bradley

“A Little Ghostly History” Leslie McFarlane

“Keeping Nancy Drew Alive” Sara Paretsky

“Teaching Banned Children’s Books” Mark West

“Is that Book Politically Correct? Truth and Trends in Historical Literature for Young People” Hazel Rochman, Masha Kabakow, Diane Stanley


From Hard Times Chapters 1-3, Charles Dickens

From Little Women Chapter 8 “Jo Meets Apollyon,” Chapter 7 “Amy’s Valley of Humiliation,” Chapter 9 “Meg Goes to Vanity Fair,” Chapter 34 “Friend” Louisa May Alcott

From The Adventures of Tom Sawyer Chapter 12 “Tom Shows his Generosity”

From The Adventures of Tom Sawyer “Self-Examination—Dentistry—The Midnight Charm—Witches and Devils—Cautious Approaches—Happy Hours,” “Becky in a Dilemma—Tom’s Nobility Asserts Itself” Mark Twain

From Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain

From Anne of Green Gables Chapter 10 “Anne’s Apology”

From The Tower Treasure Franklin W. Dixon

From The Secret of the Old Clock Carolyn Keene

From Tom Brown’s School Days Thomas Hughes

From The Man Without a Face Isabelle Holland

From Forever… A Novel Judy Blume

From Jacob Have I Loved Katherine Paterson

From Weetzie Bat Francesca Lia Block

“Twins” Vivian Vande Velde

“Juvenile Court” Sara Henderson Hay

From The Watsons go to Birmingham—1963 Christopher Paul Curtis

“Am I Blue?” Bruce Coville

Return to list of sample syllabi

Sample syllabus prepared by Melody Green

Contact Tina L. Hanlon with questions or comments on this site.

Updated: August 16, 2010   |   Return to Home Page: Crosscurrents of Children's Literature