Possibilities and Power in Young Adult Literature: Finding Agency in Scholarship - National Council of Teachers of English
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Possibilities and Power in Young Adult Literature: Finding Agency in Scholarship

This blog post was written by NCTE members Sarah J. Donovan, Ashley S. Boyd, and Terri Suico.


When something is happening in the world that makes us feel powerless, which is happening a lot lately, teachers might respond by using the tools we do have some power over, which are reading, writing, thinking, collaborating, teaching. And in our teacher-educator role, that sometimes looks like proposing a class, doing a presentation at a conference, organizing a book group, or even writing a book. It feels empowering, agentive, to put something into the world that might make some change.

In 2018, amidst increasing anti-immigration legislation, Sarah wrote a chapter for Moving Beyond Personal Loss to Societal Grieving (2019) about how her junior high students read Refugee by Alan Gratz (2017). She shared ways to support students grappling with literary and real loss and grief. Writing about her classroom felt like agency in that it centered her students’ voices and reading experiences.

With increasing book censorship, Terri proposed a new course at her university, Banned and Challenged Children’s and Young Adult Literature, creating a space for students to engage in shared reading and dialogue through an intersectional lens.

And recognizing the multitude of social justice issues surfacing in the lives of youth, Ashley began Reading for Action (2019) to support teachers in efforts to imagine ways to spur students to action.

What Else Is Out There?

Our own work reading and thinking about young adult literature as a response to the social landscape and desire for agency prompted our thinking about what resources were out there for teachers to do the same. As teachers and scholars, we wondered what else in our field had been written over the years that not only validated the texts we taught but advanced methods of teaching.

This curiosity around the books written about young adult literature led us to our project, where we, along with several other researchers, read and evaluated almost 200 scholarly books about young adult literature that were published between 2000 and 2020. (See English Education.)

Going in, we anticipated that many of the books in our data set would focus on pedagogy and employ the model of offering ideas and strategies for teachers to use before, during, and after reading a book. These were the types of texts we not only were familiar with as teacher educators but had also contributed to.

As we immersed ourselves in the data, we were amazed at the variety of approaches and topics encompassed in the books. Some served as annotated bibliographies in book form, which was invaluable in the early 2000s, before Book Tok and websites like Goodreads gave people the platform to share recommendations. We fondly referred to these texts, as well as others from the early 2000s, as “cheerleading books,” since they championed young adult literature as it was entering its second golden age. Other books reflected educational and societal events and challenges ranging from the adoption of the Common Core State Standards to the rise in gun violence, with titles such as Contending with Gun Violence in the English Language Classroom responding to tragedies that have become far too common.

Another surprise was that, contrary to our predictions, books on theory, criticism, and research on young adult literature comprised the majority of what was published during the period we examined. This finding reflected a change in perceptions regarding young adult literature. Rather than needing a cheerleader, YAL had become legitimized as worthy of scholarly consideration.

Growing YAL in Classrooms

The growth in books we found on young adult literature is promising, yet we are left wondering if they are helpful and if they are speaking to the needs of teachers who have concerns about bringing YAL into their classrooms. As such, we feel there are a number of actions we can take to address issues in the social milieu.

We encourage scholars researching and writing about young adult literature to collaborate with classroom teachers, and we invite teachers to build connections with those same scholars. (Why not invite them to a department meeting to discuss possibilities?) The surge in books related to youth literature in the past 20 years illustrates that we are trying to figure out how to validate and expand the field in productive ways and respond to the issues of our times. Let’s continue to do it together.

Scholar-educator collaborations can explore What scholarship would be useful? How can we support one another to serve students? What resources do we need to keep YAL in classrooms? The answers to these questions could help guide future scholarship and in turn help all of us wanting inclusive, affirming stories in our classrooms, especially at a time when policies are threatening access to books.

In addition, seeking out existing publications that do support the use of young adult literature and using them to our advantage could be a step. Many journal publications are behind firewalls and/or incur a cost, so let’s reach out to authors for their articles, ask journals to make articles open-access, request that school librarians or local libraries order books that might provide insight and support for a particular area of interest.

The resources that do exist surrounding the use of young adult literature, both theoretical and practical, can be used to develop strong rationales for the works you want to teach and could be leaned on to solicit administrative support as well as shared with parents/guardians and other stakeholders. Even in situations where young adult literature may not be welcomed in classrooms, we could utilize creative approaches to provide students with choices or to lead after-school or community clubs, many of which are documented in the scholarship as well.

As the body of scholarship on young adult literature continues to grow, we are hopeful that these texts provide opportunities for scholars and educators to work together to not only help readers connect with young adult literature but also to find their own agency.


Sarah J. Donovan, PhD, is an assistant professor of secondary English education at Oklahoma State University, Stillwater. She is the founder of Ethical ELA, an open-access professional development site for educators to engage in critical literacy practices. Her publications focus on antibias reading practices of young adult literature and the role of writing in teacher professional development, especially considering poetry pedagogy. She has been a member of NCTE since 2004.


Ashley S. Boyd, PhD, is an associate professor of English education at Washington State University, where she teaches graduate courses on critical and cultural theory and undergraduate courses on English methods and young adult literature. A former secondary English language arts teacher, Ashley’s current scholarship examines practicing teachers’ social justice pedagogies and their critical content knowledge and explores how young adult literature is an avenue for cultivating students’ critical literacies and implementing social action projects. She has been a member of NCTE since 2004.


Terri Suico, EdD, is an associate professor of education at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, IN. She is the book review and interview editor for Student and Scrutiny: Research in Young Adult Literature, an open-access, peer-reviewed journal dedicated to research on YA literature. Her scholarly work focuses on gender dynamics in young adult literature, and she serves on several organizations dedicated to helping readers access inclusive and diverse literature. She has been a member of NCTE since 2006.


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