Diversity in Youth Literature: The Research

As promised, today I have a post on trends in resesearching “diversity’ in youth literature from Dr. Angel Daniel Matos. Even if you’re not a scholar, you’ll appreciate the attention thatAngel’s piece brings to shifts we’re observing in youth literature. This body of work will continue to grow particularly with the new Research on Diversity in Youth Literature journal, that makes its debut this summer. The journal, edited by Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen and Dr. Gabrielle Atwood Halko, delivers scholarship that attends to issues of diversity, equity, social justice, inclusion, and intersectionality in youth literature, culture, and media.


Research that examines topics and issues on “diversity” has really been gaining momentum in the field of youth literature—which is not entirely surprising given our current political climate in the U.S., and given the rising presence of activist practices (both in the real world and through social media). Recent journal articles in the field have been heavily invested in exploring how texts, communities, and even the field of youth literature make space for certain people, or use space as a way of policing what voices are heard and what walks of life we see reflected in cultural productions. Last year, for instance, The Lion and the Unicorn published an issue that focused on the tensions between minority scholarship/teaching and the field of children’s and young literature, which arose from conversations that were held during the 2016 Children’s Literature Association—and includes necessary and nuanced insights from scholars such as Sarah Park Dahlen, Laura Jiménez, Marilisa Jiménez García, and Michelle Martin (seriously, read this entire issue when you have a chance). Martin’s development of the term “crossover scholarship” is particularly useful in terms of proliferating minority voices. This term refers to research and scholarship that pushes both writers and audiences to traverse identity boundaries in order to represent people who embody identities that are different from the author’s (p.98). Martin highlights the duties and responsibilities of this scholarship, highlighting how it requires scholars to be generous, rigorous, and open to critique. I am interested to see the extent to which scholars respond to Martin’s call, and become more open to using their research as an opportunity for creating space for minority voices, and different ways of existing in the world.

Recent scholarship in the field of youth literature has also been addressing matters of the body, not only in terms of the relationship between bodies, identities, and spaces, but also the extent to which the field of children’s and young adult literature provides opportunities for multiple and distinct narratives to proliferate. This interest in the body has produced important and stimulating research, especially since it draws from many fields of study, including but not limited to queer theory, affect studies, fat studies, temporality, space and place, and gender studies. In the Fall 2017 issue of Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, for instance, Jennifer Putzi explores the prominence of the “wrong-body” narratives in young adult novels that focus on the lives and experiences of transgender girls. Putzi points out how limiting many realistic transgender young adult novels are, in that they focus on binary and normative frameworks that privilege narratives in which transgender people undergo gender reassignment surgery. Putzi examines relatively recent transgender narratives to show how they not only provide a complex and pluralistic take on transgender life, but they also pressure the genre’s penchant for transgender stories focused on the “wrong-body” narrative. Similarly, Ashley S. Boyd and Taylor Bereiter also advocate for designing units and lessons that provide multiple takes on transgender thought and experience. Their article offers educators strategies on how to provide students with the tools and frameworks needed for them to identify problematic transgender narratives in young adult fiction, and to disrupt the notion of binary approaches to gender identity. Lastly, Michele Byers, in one of the more recent issues of Fat Studies, examines representations of fatness in contemporary young adult literature. Here, she discusses the shifting role of fat characters in young adult narratives, highlighting how they have transitioned from cautionary characters to agents that actively disrupt myths and misconceptions about bodies, health, beauty, and futurity. Ultimately, Byers examines the young adult genre’s capacity to make space for non-normative bodies to thrive during a time in which fatness is still viewed negatively.

As can be seen above, researchers have actively been using their scholarship as a political platform. They have been using youth literature as a way of addressing matters of diversity and equity both in texts and in our field of study. Recent scholarship focused on creating space for different voices, and on calling attention to systemic, contemporary issues that perpetuate violence, inequality, and discrimination in our contemporary milieu. In the latest issue of Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, for instance, Katharine Slater examines how The Oregon Trail perpetuates ideologies of colonialism and white supremacy through its structuring of time and space. In a move that I found compelling and indispensable, Slater links the frameworks used in The Oregon Trail to the protests that took place during the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline adjacent to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. Slater’s discussion conducts a close reading of The Oregon Trail, but at the same time, it doesn’t shy away from connecting the analysis to real-world events, and it certainly doesn’t shy away from critiquing how certain ideological frameworks perpetuate damaging supremacist thinking. I am hoping to see more scholarship on youth literature and texts that isn’t afraid to be political and draw connections between textual analyses and current events. And it’s encouraging to see how major journals in our field are providing scholars with the space to be political in an effort to challenge normative and harmful ideological frameworks.



Angel Daniel Matos is an Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University who specializes in children’s and young adult fiction, queer studies, and digital youth narratives. His current book project, tentatively entitled Feeling Infinite, examines how queer emotions, histories, and spaces are shaped and narrativized in 21st century young adult texts and media. Additionally, he is currently co-editing a volume on intersectional spaces in film, television, and media with Pamela Robertson Wojcik and Paula Masood. He has taught courses on queer young adult literature, social justice and activism in youth literature, speculative young adult literature, and adolescence in fiction, film, and media. His work has been published in academic journals such as The ALAN Review and Queer Studies in Media and Popular Culture, and in edited collections such as Gendered Identities: Critical Rereadings of Gender in Children’s and Young Adult Literature (Routledge, 2016), Lessons in Disability: Lessons on Teaching with Young Adult Literature (McFarland 2015), and the upcoming MLA Options for Teaching Young Adult Literature.


Contact Information

Email: amatos@sdsu.edu

Academia: https://sdsu.academia.edu/AngelDanielMatos

Website: http://angelmatos.net

Twitter: https://twitter.com/TheAngelMatos

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