History of Young Adult Literature

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

Compared to most genres, young adult literature is fairly young; by some scholars’ estimation, it began a little over 100 years ago, with Mark Twain and Louisa May Alcott; according to others, it did not begin until 1942, with the publication of Maureen Daley’s Seventeenth Summer, or in 1951, with the publication of  J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. One of the challenges of teaching this genre is that due to both its newness and the quickly changing nature of its audience, there are few texts that can be called canonical. The majority of Young Adult literature goes in and out of print very quickly and it is a growing and evolving field of literature. 

When using this textbook as a text for a Young Adult literature class, you will want to keep the introductions to the sections in mind. Read them; pick out the ones that will be most helpful for what you want to focus on. You will also want to require a couple of other texts; this could be required reading for the whole class, it could be a list of books you choose to have them read and give presentations on, or it could be texts you allow them to choose. Some of the books you will seriously want to consider are Seventeenth Summer and The Catcher in the Rye, as well as Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Pay attention to what is new: The Alan Review, a journal of YA literature, can help with that. Remember that YA literature is a genre driven by continually changing issues. You don’t necessarily have to go for the most extreme books; for example, Paul Ruditis’s Rainbow Party may have made the news because of its graphic focus on oral sex, but that does not mean many of the people it is supposedly marketed toward actually read it.  

PURPOSE: To trace the history of Young Adult literature, following the historical development of the genre, ending with current trends. This class will also focus on defining the characteristics of YA literature.


Billman, Carol. The Secret of the Stratemeyer Syndicate: Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and the Million Dollar Fiction Factory. New York: Ungar, 1986.

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

Brown, Joanne and Nancy St. Clair. Declarations of Independence: Empowered Girls in Young Adult Literature, 1990-2001. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2002.

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

Cart, Michael. From Romance to Realism: 50 Years of Growth and Change in Young Adult Literature. New York : HarperCollins, 1996.

Hogan, Walter. Humor in Young Adult Literature: A Time to Laugh. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2005.

Makowski, Silk. Serious About Series:Evaluations and Annotations of Teen Fiction in Paperback Series. Ed. Dorothy M. Roderick. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1998.

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.


Issues Paper: Young adult literature focuses often on issues such as identity, race, gender, sex and sexuality. For this paper, students will read one book that focuses on an issue, and explore how that issue is developed in the text. It will be a close reading with some outside research; if applicable, the research will include information dealing with the accuracy of how the issue was presented. 

Media Project: Young Adults take in their stories from many other sources besides the traditional book. This includes Manga, graphic novels, video games, film, television series and commercials, anime, magazines, web sites…. This project involves researching one media form for young adults, exploring the history and development of that form, as well as exploring the issues involved with that medium that directly relate to teens. That could include issues discussed in the media themselves; it could include issues that are brought up regarding that media.

Definition Paper: In Defining the Universe, Roberta Seelinger Trites gives a description of Young Adult Literature. Other critics and theorists have given other descriptions. Choose one of these descriptions, and apply it to one YA novel, showing what, according to this definition, makes this book a YA novel.

Canon Project: Each student will make an annotated bibliography of books that they feel are canonical to YA literature. The project will need an introductory paragraph explaining how they are describing and defining YA literature, and then each entry in their bibliography will have not only a quick summary, but an explanation of why that student believes this book to be canonical.

Challenged Book Project: Many books labeled YA are banned or challenged. Each student will read one challenged 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 come up with.

Fantasy Paper: Each student will read one YA fantasy book and show how, even though it is fantasy, it explores the same issues that realistic or historical young adult fiction does.

History Paper: Each student will choose one YA novel and write a paper explaining how the book reflects the values of its time, and showing where the text fits in with the history of YA literature.


Instead of dividing the readings into weeks, as the other syllabi in these samples do, the readings are grouped by category. With such a short history of YA literature, the readings can be arranged in different ways, depending what the instructor chooses to focus on. A strict timeline would need other texts inserted where the instructor chooses. This allows for flexibility in inserting presentations as well as supplemental reading.


Preface and Introduction to Part 1: To Teach or to Entertain?

“Precepts, Pleasures and Portents: Changing Emphases in Children’s Literature” Sheila Egoff

Early Texts:

From Hard Times Chapters 1-3 Charles Dickens

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

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

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

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

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

First Half of the 20th Century:

From Anne of Green Gables Chapter 10 “Anne’s Apology” L. M. Montgomery

From Tom Brown’s School Days Thomas Hughes

From The Tower Treasure Franklin W. Dixon

From The Secret of the Old Clock Carolyn Keene

Second Half of the 20th Century:

From Forever… A Novel Judy Blume

From The Island Gary Paulsen

From The Man Without a Face Isabelle Holland

From The Abduction, “On Writing The Abduction Mette Newth

From Jacob Have I Loved Katherine Paterson

“Night of Passage” Lee Harding

Recent Texts and Trends:

From Weetzie Bat Francesca Lia Block

“Am I Blue” Bruce Coville

Vivian Vande Velde “Twins”

Sara Henderson Hay “Juvenile Court”

From  A Wreath for Emmett Till Marilyn Nelson

Critical Texts:

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

“Insiders, Outsiders and the Question of Authenticity: Who Shall Write for African American Children?” Nina Mikkelsen

“On Writing The Abduction” Mette Newth

“Fantasy” C. W. Sullivan III

“Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” Ursula K. Le Guin

“Liking and Not Liking Fantasy” Perry Nodelman

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

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

“A Little Ghostly History” Leslie McFarlane

“Keeping Nancy Drew Alive” Sara Paretsky

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

“Teaching Banned Children’s Books” Mark I. West

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

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

“Hope and Happy Endings” Katherine Paterson

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