Does it Matter?
What’s in a name, really? I mean, besides a bunch of
letters or sounds strung together to make a word. Does a
rose by any other name really smell as sweet? Would the
most famous love story in the world be as poignant if it was
called Romeo and Gertrude? Why is what we call
ourselves so important?”
― Julie Kagawa, Summer's Crossing
This has been an interesting year for me professionally. After 18 years of serving on the faculty of the Graduate School of Education at Fordham University, I accepted a position at Hunter College of the City University of New York that began in August. Each and every year from 1997-2015 I taught a course at Fordham, entitled Adolescent Literature in a Multicultural Society. This semester, I am teaching my first course at Hunter, Young Adult Literature in a Diverse Society. As I reviewed the master syllabus for the Hunter course provided me by my new colleagues, I realized that, other than the semantic differences in the titles, the two courses are really quite similar. The primary objective of each (according to the syllabus) is to develop teacher candidates’ content knowledge (of adolescent/young adult literature) and content pedagogical knowledge (of curriculum planning and instructional strategies for teaching literature to adolescents). (See Shulman 1986 to gain an understanding of these constructs if they are unfamiliar to you and you find them intriguing).
As I was working on my Hunter syllabus, I found myself struggling with the repeated use of the term young adult literature, which appeared throughout the document. My Fordham syllabus had been peppered with the term adolescent literature. Somehow, the language difference did not feel right to me. With the course title having the word young adult in it, it seemed wrong for it not to appear in the syllabus; however, so many of the course materials I have gathered and created over the years privilege the word adolescent, so it needed to be there as well. After many revisions and edits, I ended up using the venerable hyphen each time I felt the need to name the body of literature we would be studying together: young adult/adolescent literature. I admit this might be confusing to a reader of my syllabus, and somewhat cumbersome, but I felt that the hyphenated option seemed like the most reasonable compromise.
This internal conflict over semantics (only an English teacher or librarian, right?) continued as I worked on my lesson plan for that first class. For years, on that first night, I have led my students though a series of activities that allowed them to unpack the language of the course title, including an exploration of their understanding and perceptions of the words adolescent, literature, and multicultural. Yearly, working in table teams, my students used their knowledge from prior field experiences and courses in adolescent literacy and adolescent development and learning to collaboratively think about what they knew about the social, emotional, cognitive, and reading development of human beings between the ages of eleven and eighteen (the ages of the students in grades 7-12 that they would be teaching). Our conversations always included a discussion of the connotations and denotations of the terms adolescence and adolescent (in New York, certification for grades 7-12 is called adolescence, rather than the more common secondary used in many states), admittedly most of which are negative. This activity was usually followed by two others, in which we considered the definition of the words literature (often resulting in the agreement that we had two definitions, one for literature (lower case), writ large, the other for Literature, said with a Downton Abbey affectation and held by snooty English majors) and multicultural (a word with which they are quite familiar, given that it is one of the foundations of all adolescence education programs at Fordham). After these three activities, I always tell the story of how I became a scholar of adolescent literature and how I determined the name of the course in 1997 when I developed it in my first year at Fordham. It goes like this…
“It's a funny thing about names, how they become a part of someone.”
― Lois Lowry, A Summer to Die
It all started in August of 1994, when I began my doctoral studies at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and signed up for my advisor’s course, simply titled Adolescent Literature. Ted Hipple, my advisor and professor for that course, would become the most influential character in my personal academic story, teaching me the true meaning of another term, mentor. He shaped my thinking about the teaching of English language arts, the preparation of teachers of English language arts, the role of the teacher education professor and scholar, and the roles and responsibilities of a doctoral mentor. But perhaps most important to this story, Ted Hipple introduced me to adolescent literature, to writers of adolescent literature, to publishers of adolescent literature, and to the field of scholarship focusing on the teaching and study of adolescent literature.
I was recently reminiscing about that first night of adolescent literature with fellow “Hipplites,” David MacInnis Gill and Melissa Comer, and we all remember part of his spiel from the class where he explained the difference in the terms adolescent literature and young adult literature. His preference, he would say, was for the term adolescent literature, which he believed to be more inclusive of literature written for both middle grade readers and those in high school. As David, Missy, and I all recall, Hipple pointed out that adolescence is the accepted academic name for the developmental stage of the readers that the literature we were studying was written and he argued that young adult was a marketing gimmick created by publishers. Proud of having been a founding member of ALAN, The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English, Ted pointed out the use of the word adolescents in the organization’s name (as opposed to young adult), but also noted that adolescents was used as a noun, focusing on the reader, rather than an adjective, which would modify the word literature (thus, literature for adolescents instead of adolescent literature). Indeed, Ted Hipple was both a champion of adolescents and literature written for them, but would always focus on the young reader more than the literature itself.
So while it is too late to make a long story short, I will say that I was very much influenced by Ted’s comments in that first class and had other discussions with him over the years before his untimely death about this, and other semantic choices we make in the field of English education. To be fair, I must note that a review of his impressive CV reveals that he regularly used both the terms adolescent literature and young adult literature in his article and presentation titles, as have I. Nevertheless, as Lois Lowry suggests, “It's a funny thing about names, how they become a part of someone.” The title, content, and instruction of that first course with Ted Hipple did, indeed, become a part of me. I remember having a conversation with Ted after my first course proposal at Fordham had been approved, and he applauded my title, Adolescent Literature in a Multicultural Society, and noted that, he “had taught me well” and perhaps would change the title of this own course.
“I read in a book once that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I've never been able to believe it. I don't believe a rose WOULD be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage.”
― L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
So as I prepared my syllabus and lesson plan for my Hunter course, my thinking about the semantic differences was challenged anew and I was reminded of a conversation I had had a couple of years ago at some NCTE convention (I can’t remember the city, but remember that the conversation happened in some sort of food court during lunch). I recollect commenting to Steve Bickmore and Jacqueline Bach about what I perceived as a fairly even split within our community over the name of our field (in my mind, close to half of us still called it adolescent literature, and the other half referred to it as young adult literature). Steve and Jackie were editors of The ALAN Review at the time, so I asked them if they had noticed a pattern of usage in manuscripts submitted to the journal, and if it confirmed my perception of even usage. I was quite surprised when they indicated that the vast majority of authors used the term young adult literature, or just YA and that this trend had pretty much guided their own use of the term in calls for manuscripts, evaluation rubrics for reviewers, and even their own writing. However, Steve, who has been studying syllabi from adolescent/young adult literature courses across the country, said that many course titles still included the term adolescent literature (which Nilsen and Donelson also note). This conversation came rushing back to me as I grappled with my syllabus and lesson plans.
So several weeks ago, I took a play from the Ted Hipple playbook and sent out an email to “various and sundry” colleagues (those who knew Ted will understand this reference), including professors of English education who study literature for adolescents and young adults, professors of library science, publishers who focus on literature for this audience, a couple of YA/middle grade writers, and middle/high school classroom teachers. I asked them, “Which term do you use to describe the field of literature that we study, adolescent literature or young adult literature? Do you see them as synonymous or do they mean different things?” Almost everyone I wrote to responded. As I read through their answers, a couple of things became clear to me. First and foremost, our field is not split over these two terms. Just about everyone prefers the term young adult literature, just as Steve and Jackie told me more than two years ago. However, while many seem to use the term, almost everyone indicated that they were not in love with it, and a few suggested alternatives that are worth considering.
I received paragraph-length responses from thirteen people. Ten of them indicated that they almost exclusively use the term young adult literature, and if they do use adolescent, it is for variety in their writing. Two additional said that they use both terms equally, with adolescent being synonymous with middle grades literature, and young adult referring to texts more suitable for high school students. Similarly, one respondent, a publisher, said that she considers adolescent literature to be the umbrella term, with middle grades and YA referring to specific audiences within the field (this is in line with my own thinking). Several respondents indicated that both terms were problematic and suggested alternatives. Only one said that they try not to use either. Before I share my own post-survey conclusion, let me provide more specificity from the responses I received.
The idea of the two terms being used to differentiate between literature for young adolescents and older ones was expressed by several of my colleagues. One person suggested that, “young adult has a more mature connotation,” while another stated that, “adolescent is usually more focused on upper elementary/middle school readers.” However, a couple of the experts I polled expressed more substantive issues with the term adolescent. For example, one scholar stated that, “a problem with the term adolescent literature is that adolescence is nebulous, and psychologists point to it starting possibly as young as 9 and reaching up to 23.” That is not the range that anyone considers to be “our field.” Another pointed out that, “the term adolescent is often riddled with assumptions about this time of life, many of which frame young people in deficit-oriented ways and often suggests that all young people engage in this experience in a singular way.” Conversely, another argued that young adult literature, as an umbrella term “seems to foolheartedly have tween experiences wrapped up in terms we have socially used for the older side of the age range.” Finally, one respondent referred to the term adolescent literature as an “archaic term,” (almost as bad as the juvenile fiction moniker used in my own hometown public library in the 1970s) but acknowledged that it was more all encompassing than young adult.
So what I take from all that is that although there is clear agreement that young adult (or YA) is the preferred (if problematic), there are varying (and sometimes conflicting) beliefs about why it is better. Some feel that young adult is used as a more inclusive umbrella term while others feel that although adolescent literature is a more all encompassing term with a broader definition, its potentially negative connotations makes it less desirable, especially considering the goal of making young people want to read more. Three people suggested that they prefer the abbreviated YA to young adult and that the shortened version actually takes away some of the concerns associated with the full term young adult (that many of the readers of this type of literature are not yet really young adults). This is an interesting idea—just call it by the initials and eventually people will forget what they stand for. One person indicated a preference for the term teen lit. Just what I need: another term to consider. But with one exception, they all pretty much agreed that young adult is the term they used most, like it or not.
“What's your name,' Coraline asked the cat. 'Look, I'm Coraline. Okay?'
'Cats don't have names,' it said.
'No?' said Coraline.
'No,' said the cat. 'Now you people have names. That's because you don't know who you are. We know who we are, so we don't need names.”
― Neil Gaiman, Coraline
After reading each of my colleagues’ responses, playing with various ways of coding their language, and trying to be somewhat (semi) scientific with these data, I’ve wondered if maybe I am making too big a deal of this question. Perhaps I need to be like the cat in Coraline—no name needed. After all, I do not have any indication that others are grappling with or even concerned about what we call the field that we study. In fact, most that I consulted in this activity seem to comfortably use whatever term they use (young adult or YA) with a great deal of automaticity, utilizing multiple names interchangeably (sometimes with purpose, sometimes not). Nevertheless, I’m not ready to let it go. Just last night at a cocktail party when I was explaining to someone what my scholarly interests are, I found that whatever terms I used (I tried both adolescent literature and young adult literature), I still had to go further and explain what those terms mean. But their eventual response was rewarding: “That is so cool. I loved those books when I was that age and now my daughter loves them even more-and she has so much more to choose from than I did. I never thought about people, you know scholars, studying them.” (No, I did not have my recorder, but I went to the hosts’ desk and wrote it down as soon as we finished the conversation.) Verification that what we do professionally is cool!
Marshall A. George
Hunter College-City University of New York
I hope all the readers will consider attending the Young Adult & Children's Literature Conference at UNLV June 13-17 2016. The theme of this year's conference is Diversity in Young Adult and Children's Literature/