Five "I"s of YA Lit

On YALSA-BK, where I lurk and listen to brilliant librarians who know what teens like to read, I learned this morning about five critical developmental tasks of an adolescent: Identity, Intimacy, Independence, Integrity, and Intellect. As I revise Sparrowblog: The Campaign Rant (Dutton 2007), I realized that my own voice tends to skew "middle-grade" rather than YA, so in this revision I've been striving to make Sparrow's expressions of independence and identity more appropriate for a fifteen-year-old.

The problem is ... I'm wondering if these "I"s apply more to WASP protagonists than to South Asian, Middle Eastern, African, Latino, or Orthodox Jewish teens. Will North American teen readers relate to my Sparrow, who is shy and quiet, and not into rebelling against her parents? In Rickshaw Girl (Charlesbridge 2007), Naima's angst is expressed much differently than her counterparts who don't live in Bangladeshi villages. How do writers from non-Western traditions feature non-western protagonists who don't want to go after independence, intimacy, and identity in the way that a North American reader expects?

Maybe the "I"s of YA lit need a bit of revision out here on the fire escape ... Anyone care to try?


Anonymous said…
What do you mean by 'the way that a North American reader expects'? That's mildly presumptuous, I think. Expressions of independence and identity cover a very wide range of forms and exist in every society. Your blog often-times tries to create an artificial divide between western and non-western. I think you are simplifying things too much.
D said…
Hi Mitali,
I so enjoyed MONSOON SUMMER. Anyway even though I hadn't heard of the 5 I's of YA Lit until today they do make sense to me. I do think that independence doesn't necessarily mean rebellion. I think that getting to a point in ones life where you achieve an identity as an individual and start making important decisions on your own qualifies. Sometimes it means stepping up to the plate and taking over household tasks because a parent can't or it can mean deciding in your own heart that your religious beliefs are more conservative than your parents. I know I'm not saying this well but independence doesn't have to equal rebellion. Perhaps it could be deciding to work with your parents as they do something dangerous in the face of adversity. Sometimes it is independence from doing or thinking like ones friends, peers, or teachers. As a Hispanic one of my biggest demonstrations of independence as a fifteen-year-old was my preference to visit my great-grandparents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins on weekends instead of going to the mall.

I think that teens the world over do go after independence, intimacy, identity, intellect, and integrity in their own way and that non-Western protagonists don't have to do it in the same way as North American teens. And while that way may be very, very different than the North American model it can have intense appeal for North American teen readers.
Mitali Perkins said…
Thanks for your comment, anonymous. This is not a United Colors of Benetton world; I wish it were. People think differently in different cultures; they hear stories differently, too. "The way a North American reader expects" refers to a certain genre of YA lit that features a feisty, I'm-in-charge type of female progatonist ... this kind of fiction seems to be what the gatekeepers are raving about recently. I don't think all readers fit this profile, but it seems to be a commonly produced type of novel.
Mitali Perkins said…
Heather Booth, Teen Librarian at Downer's Grove Library in Illinois, gave me permission to post this helpful comment:

I haven't studied the theory beyond what was covered in my YA lit class in grad school, but I don't necessarily think that the 5 Is can't apply to non-wasp teens. It sounds like maybe the independence one is what is tripping you up the most, but independence doesn't have to mean rebellion. It could be viewing oneself as more autonomous, more self-confident and capable of functioning one ones own, even within the structure of a culture that you describe. Maybe independence to this character is coming to an understanding of her unique role as an individual within her family. Maybe, for this character or other teens, intimacy doesn't allude to romantic relationships, but being able to connect on a different level, a more empathetic level, with others around her including her family.

It just seems to me that any person at fifteen is going to be making a transition from childhood to adulthood -- unless that transition is usually made at an earlier age in that particular culture. So maybe it's just a matter of figuring out what the 5 Is would mean to an adult in that culture in order to know how they would be demonstrated in a teenager.
Mitali Perkins said…
Thanks, D. Very insightful comment. And love your website, by the way!