What Feeds the Imagination: Jonathan Alexander Interviews Kenneth Kidd
By Jonathan AlexanderApril 6, 2017
I recently published my own book-length take on YA and on young readers’ creation of media in response to their favorite authors and works, including not just video reviews but also short fan trailers and sometimes even long “movies” lasting anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes. Certainly, the culture industries seem eager to monetize narrative, turning best-selling YA books into major motion pictures (e.g., Divergent), television series (e.g., The 100), and even video and computer games (Scholastic has some online games based on The Hunger Games so you can take your own chances in the arena). Young people also eagerly engage in their own DIY content production, extending the narratives of some of their favorite characters, creating new characters in video-driven fan fiction, and offering their own commentary on topics and themes explored in YA. Check out Rogue Zohu Productions and their fan film Weeping Willow as one example of creative film-making by a group of young readers. Such works offer timely meditations on the difficulty of growing up in a world that seems to be making it tougher for young people — personally, economically, and politically — to find their way.
So important is such reading and media-making, I would argue, that YA may now be the major literature that feeds the contemporary imaginations of American youth, whether they read or experience YA narratives as books or as multimedia productions. Given the seeming pervasiveness of YA stories in young people’s lives, we should consider how nourishing those narratives are (or are not) to the minds and souls of those who are all too quickly growing up to inherit a complex world. What visions of the future do such stories present, what hopes and possibilities do they inspire?
To approach these questions, I recently interviewed Kenneth Kidd, professor of English at the University of Florida and one of the nation’s leading experts on children’s and YA literature. He is the author of two groundbreaking books in the field: Making American Boys: Boyology and the Feral Tale (University of Minnesota, 2004) and Freud in Oz: At the Intersections of Psychoanalysis and Children’s Culture (University of Minnesota Press, 2011). He has also co-edited three additional books that highlight both the literary and the political significance of contemporary YA: Wild Things: Children’s Culture and Ecocriticism (Wayne State University Press, 2004); Over the Rainbow: Queer Children’s and Young Adult Literature (University of Michigan Press, 2011); and Prizing Children’s Literature: The Cultural Politics of Children’s Book Awards (Routledge, 2017). In this interview, Professor Kidd comments on both the literary and the political aspects of contemporary YA literature.
JONATHAN ALEXANDER: I’ve always been impressed by how socially and politically engaged much of YA is, tackling complex topics from sexual identity and abuse to racism and race relations. Is YA “pedagogic,” and if so, how? What do you make of YA authors’ interest in approaching and grappling with difficult social and political topics?
KENNETH KIDD: Absolutely it is, and in ways that we don’t always identify or recognize. Some of the earliest “adolescent” novels offered critique of class inequities, for instance — I’m thinking of Floyd Dell’s Moon-Calf, published in 1920. For early novels of queer identity and critique we might point to Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding (1946), about which Elizabeth Freeman has written brilliantly. Then along came the problem novel, which was pedagogical for sure, with an ever-shifting set of problems to be worked through. Early on, homosexuality was a problem to be dealt with — but soon that shifted to homophobia, happily from my point of view. Many YA novels tell the story of a protagonist with some kind of difference or otherness and how that difference puts the protagonist in conflict with family, school, society, et cetera.
Not a few writers have been drawn to the form because it allows exploration of serious topics, perhaps slightly undercover. My friends Julia Mickenberg and Phil Nel have shown how “radical” writing often took the form of children’s literature to dodge censorship and get progressive messages through to kids and families, and to some extent that’s been true of YA literature. Some YA literature is taught in schools, too, and/or is stocked in school libraries. In 1967, G. Robert Carlsen put out a reference guide for teachers and librarians called Books and the Teen-Age Reader. A big reason for the upswing of books dealing with social and ethical challenges was the influence of ’60s and ’70s activists on questions of education and public policy (in both the United States and the United Kingdom); this helped authors feel freer to explore difficult themes and to support the general work of improving young lives through awareness of social problems. Some of this material was crudely didactic, but a lot of it was thoughtful and nuanced.
How did you get started studying and writing about children’s and young adult fiction? What drew you to this field?
In my graduate work in the early 1990s, I started planning a dissertation about the wave of contemporary fiction by out gay male writers in the early 1980s. Edmund White’s semi-autobiographical A Boy’s Own Story (1982) sent me back to earlier “boys’ own” material from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and I got more interested in that material. I wound up writing a dissertation on American social and literary “boyology” and its connections to character building (Scouting, YMCA), which eventually became my first book, Making American Boys.
That dissertation made me competitive for a tenure-track position at Eastern Michigan University in children’s literature studies, and at EMU I shifted my major focus to children’s and young adult literature and got involved in the Children’s Literature Association and also what was then the MLA Division on Children’s Literature. I had been interested in the field all along and in grad school had written some children’s book reviews for a NCTE project called Adventuring with Books. But I hadn’t realized you could specialize in children’s literature within literary studies. Many things attracted me to the field and have kept me there — the wonderful community of scholars, first and foremost, but also an openness to topic and methodology and what counts as contributive scholarship. Children’s literature scholars are pretty used to having their subject dismissed or not taken too seriously, and fortunately this has resulted in a very inclusive and flexible attitude as to what’s legitimate work (it could have gone the other way, but thankfully didn’t!). There’s not much gatekeeping, and the field has always intersected with things like folklore studies, popular culture and media studies, children’s/childhood studies more broadly, and so forth. I’ve been able to work on children’s literature in connection with LGBTQ studies as well as theory studies. I’ve been especially fortunate to work at the University of Florida since 1998, as our English curriculum is flexible (no core or distribution requirements) and as the department is very open and interdisciplinary in its thinking, I’ve learned so much from my colleagues and from our amazing graduate students!
YA in particular has caught the attention of many different media makers, from film producers to game designers. What do you make of the transmediation of YA narratives?
It’s a fascinating moment. The love affair with YA literature goes back roughly to midcentury (even though adolescent lit is older than that) and has been wrapped up from the start with popular media like television and film. American Studies scholar Leerom Medovoi, in his book Rebels: Youth and the Cold War Origins of Identity (2005), has pointed out that “teenager,” “rebel,” and “identity” were all pretty much midcentury inventions and were interconnected in literature and in popular media. More recently we’re seeing the translation of best sellers and even so-called blockbuster books into film franchises especially. I think it started with Harry Potter, which of course is an unparalleled phenomenon in terms of scope and impact (I should say that Scholastic, which published Harry Potter in the States and has since become a major player in the book industry, was already on the upswing thanks to the Goosebumps books). Most of the subsequent book series that found their way into film have been more science fiction (rather than fantasy) dystopias — so, The Hunger Games (2008–’10) first, then the Divergent series (2011–’13), et cetera. Most of these have been popular series that film producers are eager to turn into popular film franchises. (There’s a ton of dystopian work that hasn’t and probably won’t find its way to the screen for various reasons.)
Some of the interest in YA specifically is due to YA’s frequent theme of rebellion and/or conflict, alongside the search for personal identity. YA lit is varied and diverse, but much of it is told in first person as well as in present tense, so it might be that its seeming immediacy is also attractive for adaptation or transmediation. I don’t know enough about game design to speculate, but I imagine the fantasy and science-fiction elements are relevant there too.
So much of contemporary YA seems obsessed with the dystopic — which makes some sense given recent economic downturns and political upheavals. What do you make of this turn to the dystopic, and do you see it continuing, or perhaps being met by a counter-trend?
YA lit emerged through the social reform novel and realism/naturalism, and has gradually expanded toward other modes, including fantasy and science fiction. The so-called “problem novel” that was once the staple of YA literature (in the 1970s especially) helped pave the way for dystopian storytelling, in that problem novels pit the protagonist against some social ill, such as racism, or a dysfunctional family, or even (in the case of an innovator like Robert Cormier) against Big Brother. The YA novel almost always invites the reader to identify with the protagonist and his or her search for identity in a bewildering and often harsh and antagonistic world — so there’s a kind of proto-dystopian template there. All that is feeding into the dystopian craze as well. (Also, horror was a YA thing right before — Christopher Pike was very popular, as well as murder-mystery/psychosocial thriller books like Lois Duncan’s I Know What You Did Last Summer ).
Also, YA lit has long been a site for adult anxiety or projections of adult worries — worries about society, growing up, the future, and so forth. YA literature is full of anxious kids and adults both. Some of this reflects back anxiety about the genre, revolving around shifting understandings of audience, acceptable subject matter, and so forth. The unsettled nature of these things gives energy to anxieties around the genre (anxieties that literary criticism picks up and even adopts). YA lit must maintain a razor-sharp tension between innocence and experience and between hope and despair. Derritt Mason is writing a great book on this topic right now, and among other things, he points out that it’s not just that YA lit is anxious but also that we typically expect even the most demoralizing narratives to deliver a hopeful message about the world or the human capacity for survival (in the phrase of the contemporary anti-bullying movement, which Derritt is also writing about: it gets better). Even dystopian novels tend to be utopian in their characterization of protagonists; lead characters are typically heroic and exceptional. In a way, these dystopian narratives continue the allegorical work we see in classics such as Animal Farm (1945) and Lord of the Flies (1954) — which are often taught in schools.
It will be interesting to see what happens. Now that we seemingly live in end times, maybe we’ll be more interested in cheerful stories! Or at least not super-gloomy ones about the end of civilization or the world. I should note that YA literature has always been and remains diverse, and there are a lot of great books out there that counteract or stand apart from this dystopian trend.
I’ve been thinking about YA as a form of “literacy sponsorship,” as a powerful set of narratives that not only entertain us but also teach us about being literate in the contemporary world. I think of The Hunger Games, for instance, as a story about a young woman who has to learn both how she is being manipulated as part of a complex media spectacle (the televised games, and then her “starring” in propaganda videos for the resistance) as well as how to manipulate those media herself. In some ways, this focus on literacy in books for young people isn’t new. Do you have any thoughts on this topic?
That’s a really interesting idea. It’s no accident that some YA titles have been folded into the curriculum. I agree that kids learn a lot from these materials. And I think too that authors are doing some very strategic work. I’ve come to think of some children’s and young adult literature as essentially queer theory for kids, in that the material offers some of the same critiques as queer theory, just in imaginative or creative rather than conventionally critical form. At the same time, it’s an open question what kids are doing with these novels, and how the novels do or don’t invite certain kinds of literacy lessons. Do the lessons of The Hunger Games, for instance, translate into political critique or at least social awareness? I hope so, but it’s hard to say.
Some commentators think that dystopian novels, which seem critical of society in various ways, wind up teaching the reader to submit to the free market more than anything else. Especially since the bad guys are often the government, as with The Hunger Games. M. T. Anderson’s Feed (2002) goes after consumer capitalism specifically, but a lot of the time the critique is of government rather than commerce or capitalism. The other problem I see is that the individual is usually celebrated or held apart from the culture in YA titles, especially in dystopian ones. In some of the dystopian novels the great violation is not so much social oppression as oppression of the individual and the loss of individuality — as, for instance, in Lois Lowry’s The Giver (1993). My point is that titles can be socially progressive and reactionary at the same time, and it’s hard to say what sorts of literacies they are promoting or refusing to promote without talking more to readers. But yeah, I love the idea and think it’s worth exploring further.
What should we — whether young people or adults interested in children’s and YA work — be reading now, and why?
So much great stuff is being published! It really is an embarrassment of riches. There are wonderful YA graphic novels, for instance, some of which challenge ideas about gender and sexuality through particular experiments in form-content relations — I’m thinking of books like Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s Skim (2008) and Ilike Merey’s a + e 4ever (2011). M. T. Anderson continues to be groundbreaking — Feed was of course a work of dystopian genius, as much about the fallout of capitalism as anything else, and his The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing (2006), a historical novel set in 18th-century Boston, is a fantastic read. Some of the more compelling contemporary novels use timeslip themes or magical realism to grapple with racism, environmental destruction, and so forth — for instance, Kiese Laymon’s Long Division (2013), Nalo Hopkinson’s The Chaos (2012), A. S. King’s Everybody Sees the Ants (2011). I read everything by David Levithan and Patrick Ness — Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy (2008–’2010) is fantastic. Another must-read is Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming (2014), a memoir told in verse. The most recent YA title I enjoyed was Nina LaCour’s We Are Okay (2017), recommended by my friend Marah Gubar and set in the first year of the protagonist’s college experience — we probably need more stories about that transition! My guess is that it would teach well, given the themes.
Where is your own research in children’s and YA fiction taking you now?
Joseph Thomas and I just published a collection of superb essays on children’s book awards and the literary and cultural “prizing” of children’s literature internationally. I’m now working on another collaborative project (with Derritt) on the intersections of camp aesthetics and summer camp as a queer time and place, which draws on children’s and young adult literature and media in various ways, as well as on personal recollections. I’m also trying to finish a monograph on the place of childhood and children’s literature (or something like it) inside critical theory and philosophy, which is kind of a sequel to my previous book, Freud in Oz, about the intersections of children’s literature and psychoanalysis.
Jonathan Alexander is Chancellor’s Professor of English at the University of California, Irvine. His most recent book is Writing Youth: Young Adult Fiction as Literacy Sponsorship (Rowman and Littlefield, 2017).
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