Trends in 21st Century Young Adult Literature

On March 22, Professor Roberta Seelinger Trites, Distinguished Professor of English at Illinois State University, gave a fascinating lecture on young adult literature to WKU students. The unique topic of the lecture titled “Trends in Twenty-First-Century Young Adult Literature” prompted many literature enthusiasts to gather here, with a warm atmosphere and frequent applause.

Before the lecture, Dr. Hari Adhikari from English Department at WKU gave a brief introduction to Professor Trites. She is the author of Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature and Waking Sleeping Beauty: Feminist Voices in Children’s Novels among others. He also mentioned that Professor Trites has served as the president of the Children’s Literature Association and the editor of the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly.

In her lecture, Professor Trites introduced different genres and formats in 21st century young adult (YA) literature by providing specific explanations and examples. Besides, Professor Trites discussed the themes and trends in 21st-century young adult literature. With her informative lecture, students of English Studies learned about one more potential avenue for further studies. Professor Trites began with the introduction to three major genres in 21st-century young adult literature including Realism, Magic Realism, and Speculative Fiction. She threw lights on those genres as follows:

  • Realism has four branches, which are romantic realism, social justice realism, comic realism, and historical realism. As one of the branches of realism, romantic realism is about life and harsh reality. One example of romantic realism is The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. This novel is a sad story about two teenagers living with cancer in which one of them dies. Comic realism in young adult literature often satirizes the adult culture that is responsible for the creation of the world that teens inhabit. Libba Bray’s work can be regarded as a typical example of comic realism.
  • Speculative fiction cannot happen in the world as we know it. YA fantasy novels belong to speculative fiction. YA fantasy novels include meta-fantasy novels and neoliberal fantasy novels that mostly incorporate capitalist values. Many American fictions involve stories about how they promote the idea that consumer goods must be acquired. For instance, the Harry Potter series which is representative of neoliberal fantasy novels created a material world. Under the category of YA fantasy novels, gothic novels are “didactic” and intend to give teenagers moral lessons on how to behave. Another famous example of this sub-genre is Twilight by Stephanie Meyers, which exposes teenagers to death. Dystopia and science fiction are included in speculative fiction. Dystopia and science fiction contain critics of governments and racism, while they also offer some hope.
  • Magic realism stands between science fiction and reality. It originated in the second half of the twentieth century and is rooted in the criticism of society and politics. Professor Trites also mentioned that the Twenty-First-Century Feminisms in Children’s and Adolescent Literature which she wrote in 2018 also discusses magic realism.

Further, Professor Trites talked about how the story is presented in young adult literature. She elaborated that narratives in young adult fiction mainly emphasize telling stories about young adults. The graphic narrative format, which is also getting established as a popular genre, uses pictures to tell stories whereas some novels using this format don’t use words at all. For example, in American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, there is one scene about the protagonist who is unhappy about the racism he has experienced in the US. The boy is trying to transform himself into European American in his appearance. She stressed that we learn about space and appearance from the pictures in this graphic novel. Meanwhile, Professor Trites reminded us of another interesting fact about the benefits of reading graphic novels: “we use both sides of our brains when we read graphic novels; we use the left brain to read words to get cause and effect while we use our right brain to get spatial information.” Another format of young adult literature is the verse novel, which is written using a series of short poems. The poems accumulate into the complexity of a narrative as intricate as it is found in prose novels.

Before moving on to the Q&A session, Professor Trites briefly talked about some different forms of feminism observed in young adult fiction writing. In the 20th century, she added, feminism was about gaining equality for women. However, in the 21st century, feminism also includes critics of how women and their bodies were exploited traditionally. It also conveys the ideas of eco-feminism.

During the Q&A session which lasted for about 40 minutes, students asked questions actively. These questions ranged from how to distinguish between science fiction and dystopian novels through elaborating the concepts of cyberpunk to whether pictures in graphic novels are likely to lose the information they really want to convey while adding illustrations. Professor Trites answered those questions patiently and clearly. Faculty members including Dr. David Hogsette, Executive Director of CLA, and Dr. Hari Adhikari, who has recently introduced courses on Children’s Literature and Young Adult Literature to English Major students at WKU, also expressed their views and concerns about adolescents as observed in young adult fictions. Dr. Darrly Brock, WKU history professor, and Dr. Jonathan Klassen, an invitee teaching children’s and young adult literature at Soochow University, Taiwan also contributed to the discussion with his insightful comments. This guest lecture not only gave students a better understanding of 21st-century young adult literature but also provided a platform for instructors and students to exchange their opinions and voice their concerns in the areas of their concentration.


English|Chen Junlin

Proofreader|Hari Adhikari

Picture|Sun Ruowen, Han Lu