Advertisement

Children's Literature in Education

, Volume 50, Issue 4, pp 381–399 | Cite as

“No Strings Attached?” Sex and the Teenage Mother in American Young Adult Novels

  • Louisa-Jane SmithEmail author
Original Paper

Abstract

American culture is greatly influenced by conservative and religious views that construct adolescent sexuality as problematic. Consequently, American teenagers are often informed that abstinence is the right moral choice and will allow them to lead a successful adult life. The ultimate punishment for engaging in pre-marital sex is deemed to be teenage pregnancy. This is evident in the way that the adolescent mother is constructed as a deviant citizen who drains the government of welfare payments, rejects family values, and defies the rigid path to economic success advocated by capitalist ideology. Young Adult literature reflects and communicates such dominant societal attitudes to young readers. In this article, four Young Adult novels were selected to see whether negative attitudes towards teenage sexuality and pregnancy were replicated in the narratives. The two novels from the mid-twentieth century, Two and the Town (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1952) and My Darling, My Hamburger (HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1969), reinforced contemporaneous attitudes by presenting adolescent sexuality as wayward and thus punishable with the shame of enforced marriage or illegal abortion. To examine whether such conservatism still exists in the twenty-first century, two contemporary novels, Jumping Off Swings (Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA, 2011) and Me, Him, Them and It (Bloomsbury, New York, NY, 2013), were selected for comparison. These novels contain similar messages since casual sex only led to shame for the female protagonists and the penalty for their recklessness was pregnancy. The novels, regardless of period, reinforce conservative messages that tell adolescents to be wary of their sexual urges, to abstain from sex, and to view teenage motherhood as deviant.

Keywords

Teenage pregnancy Young Adult literature Young mothers Adoption and literature Abortion and literature 

Notes

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Professor David Rudd for sharing his expertise with me and for the support and guidance he has given so generously during the writing of my dissertation and this article.

References

  1. Biederman, Lynn. (2009). From Blume to Block and Beyond: Sex in Young Adult Literature, ALA 2009 Annual Conference Materials. Accessed July 28, 2013 from http://presentations.ala.org/images/f/f6/Sex_in_Young_Adult_Literature_ALA_Conference_Final.pdf.
  2. Bonell, Chris. (2004). Why is Teenage Pregnancy Conceptualized as a Social Problem? A Review of Quantitative Research from the USA and UK. Culture, Health and Sexuality, 6(3), 255–272.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Cadden, Mike. (2000). The Irony of Narration in the Young Adult Novel. Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, 25(3), 146–154.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Caponegro, Ramona. (2009). Where the "Bad" Girls Are (Contained): Representations of the 1950s Female Juvenile Delinquent in Children’s Literature and Ladies’ Home Journal. Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, 34(4), 312–329.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Callister, Mark, Coyne, Sarah M., Stern, Lesa A., Stockdale, Laura, Miller, Malinda J. and Wells, Brian M. (2012). A Content Analysis of the Prevalence and Portrayal of Sexual Activity in Adolescent Literature. Journal of Sex Research, 49(5), 477–486.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Carr, Michael. (1996). From Romance to Realism: 50 Years of Growth and Change in Young Adult Literature. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.Google Scholar
  7. Carter, Caela. (2013). Me, Him, Them and It. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.Google Scholar
  8. Christian-Smith, Linda K. (1987). Gender, Popular Culture, and Curriculum: Adolescent Romance Novels as Gender Text. Curriculum Inquiry, 17(4), 365–406.Google Scholar
  9. Coats, Karen and Fraustino, Lisa Rowe. (2015). Performing Motherhood: Introduction to a Special Issue on Mothering in Children’s and Young Adult Literature. Children’s Literature in Education, 46(2), 107–109.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Cocca, Carolyn E. (2002). From “Welfare Queen” to “Exploited Teen”: Welfare Dependency, Statutory Rape and Moral Panic. NWSA Journal, 14(2), 56–79.Google Scholar
  11. Cockett, Lynn S. and Knetzer, Sarah. (1998). Teenage Pregnancy as Moral Panic: Reflections on the Marginalization of Girls’ Feelings. Knowledge Quest, 26(4), 50–54.Google Scholar
  12. Coffel, Cynthia Miller. (2002). Strong Portraits and Stereotypes: Pregnant and Mothering Teens in YA Fiction. The ALAN Review, 30(1), 15–21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Coffel, Cynthia Miller. (2008). Stories of Teen Mothers: Fiction and Nonfiction. The ALAN Review, 35(3), 45–54.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Coontz, Stephanie. (1995). The American Family and the Nostalgia Trap. Phi Delta Kappan, 76(7), K1–K20.Google Scholar
  15. Crew, Hilary S. (2000). Is It Really Mommie Dearest? Daughter-Mother Narratives in Young Adult Fiction. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.Google Scholar
  16. Davis, Joy B. and MacGillivray, Laurie. (2001). Books about Teen Parents: Messages and Omissions. English Journal, 90(3), 90–96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Day, Sara K. (2013). Reading Like a Girl: Narrative Intimacy in Contemporary American Young Adult Literature. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Delaney, Cassandra Halleh. (1995). Rites of Passage in Adolescence. Adolescence, 30(120), 891–897.Google Scholar
  19. East, Patricia L. and Barber, Jennifer S. (2014). High Educational Aspirations Among Pregnant Adolescents Are Related to Pregnancy Unwantedness and Subsequent Parenting Stress and Inadequacy. Journal of Marriage and Family, 76, 652–664.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Emge, Diane. (2006). I’m Pregnant! Fear and Conception in Four Decades of Young Adult Literature. Young Adult Library Services, 4(2), 22–27.Google Scholar
  21. Felsen, Henry Gregor. (1952). Two and the Town. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.Google Scholar
  22. Furstenberg, Frank F. Jr. (1991). As the Pendulum Swings: Teenage Childbearing and Social Concern. Family Relations, 40(2), 127–138.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Furstenberg, Frank F. Jr. (2003). Teenage Childbearing as a Public Issue and Private Concern. Annual Review of Sociology, 29, 23–39.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Gillis, Bryan and Simpson, Joanna. (2015). Sexual Content in Young Adult Literature. London: Rowman & Littlefield.Google Scholar
  25. Henke, James T. (1976). Six Characters in Search of the Family. Children’s Literature, 5(1), 130–140.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Hoffman, Stanley. (1978). Winning, Losing, But Above All Taking Risks: A Look at the Novels of Paul Zindel. The Lion and the Unicorn, 2(2), 78–88.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Jerome, Kelly and Sweeney, Kathryn A. (2014). Birth Parents’ Portrayals in Children’s Adoption Literature. Journal of Family Issues, 35(5), 677–704.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Kaplan, Jeffrey S. (2007). Recent Research in Young Adult Literature: Three Predominant Strands of Study. ALAN Review, 34(3), 53–59.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Kelly, Deirdre M. (1997). Warning Labels: Stigma and the Popularizing of Teen Mothers’ Stories. Curriculum Inquiry, 27(2), 165–186.Google Scholar
  30. Klein, Norma. (1977). Growing Up Human: The Case for Sexuality in Children’s Books. Children’s Literature in Education, 8(2), 80–84.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Knowles, Jo. (2011). Jumping Off Swings. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.Google Scholar
  32. Kokkola, Lydia, Valovirta, Elina and Korkka, Janne. (2013). “Who Does What to Whom and How”: “Knowing Children” and Depictions of Prostitution in Anglophone Young Adult Literature. Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, 38(1), 66–83.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Kokkola, Lydia. (2013). Fictions of Adolescent Carnality: Sexy Sinners and Delinquent Deviants. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins Publishing Company.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Koss, Melanie D. (2009). Young Adult Novels with Multiple Narrative Perspectives: The Changing Nature of Young Adult Literature. The ALAN Review, 36(3), 73–80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Kraus, Keith W. (1975). Cinderella in Trouble: Still Dreaming and Losing. School Library Journal, 21(5), 18–22.Google Scholar
  36. Leavitt, Sarah A. (2006). “A Private Little Revolution”: The Home Pregnancy Test in American Culture. Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 80(2), 317–345.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Lesko, Nancy. (2001). Act Your Age! A Cultural Construction of Adolescence. London: RoutledgeFalmer.Google Scholar
  38. Lewis, Mark A. and Durand, Sybil E. (2014). Sexuality as Risk and Resistance in Young Adult Literature. In Crag Hill (Ed.), The Critical Merits of Young Adult Literature: Coming of Age (pp. 38–54). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  39. MacLeod, Anne Scott. (1994). American Childhood: Essays on Children’s Literature of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.Google Scholar
  40. Martinec, Barbara. (1971). Popular—But Not Just a Part of the Crowd: Implications of Formula Fiction for Teenagers. The English Journal, 60(3), 339–344.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Marx, Jerry D. and Hopper, Fleur. (2005). Faith-Based versus Fact-Based Social Policy: The Case of Teenage Pregnancy Prevention. Social Work, 50(3), 280–283.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. McKinley, Caroline. (2011). Beyond Forever: The Next Generation of Young Women Protagonists’ Sexual Motivations in Contemporary Young Adult Novels. Young Adult Library Services, 9(4), 38–46.Google Scholar
  43. McRobbie, Angela. (2013). Feminism, the Family and the New "Mediated" Maternalism. New Formations, 80, 119–137.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Meyer, Michael J. (1992). Problems and Prescriptions: Child Abuse in the Novels of Paul Zindel. Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, 317(3), 11–14.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Moore, Susan and Rosenthal, Doreen. (2006). Sexuality in Adolescence: Current Trends. Hove: Routledge.Google Scholar
  46. Morton, Jim. (2010). Cars and Death: The Novels of Henry Gregor Felsen. Pop Void [blog]. Accessed July 21, 2013 from http://popvoid.blogspot.co.uk/2010/02/cars-and-death-novels-of-henry-gregor.html.
  47. Murray, Gail S. (1998). American Children’s Literature and the Construction of Childhood. New York, NY: Twayne Publishers.Google Scholar
  48. Musick, Judith S. (1993). Young, Poor, and Pregnant: The Psychology of Teenage Motherhood. London: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  49. Nichols, Kristen. (2007). Facts and Fictions: Teenage Pregnancy in Young Adult Literature. The ALAN Review, 34(3), 30–38.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Nilsen, Alleen Pace and Donelson, Kenneth L. (2001). Literature for Today’s Young Adults, 6th ed. New York, NY: Longman.Google Scholar
  51. Pattee, Amy. (2006). The Secret Source: Sexually Explicit Young Adult Literature as an Information Source. Young Adult Library Services, 4(2), 30–38.Google Scholar
  52. Reynolds, Kimberley. (2007). Radical Children’s Literature: Future Visions and Aesthetic Transformations in Juvenile Fiction. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Ritchie, Susan, Shuman, Amy and Meckling, Sally. (1992). Inappropriate Fertility: Feminism, Poststructuralism, and the Teen Parent. The Bucknell Review, 36(2), 151–163.Google Scholar
  54. Ross, Catherine Sheldrick. (1985). Young Adult Realism: Conventions, Narrators, and Readers. The Library Quarterly, 55(2), 174–191.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Seifert, Christine. (2015). Virginity in Young Adult Literature after Twilight. London: Rowman & Littlefield.Google Scholar
  56. Sturm, Brian W. and Michel, Karin. (2009). The Structure of Power in Young Adult Problem Novels. Young Adult Library Services, 7(2), 39–47.Google Scholar
  57. Tamney, Joseph B., Johnson, Stephen D. and Burton, Ronald. (1992). The Abortion Controversy: Conflicting Beliefs and Values in American Society. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 31(1), 32–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Tucker, Nicholas. (1993). Children’s Books and Unwanted Pregnancies. Books for Keeps, 78(2). Accessed July 8, 2013 from http://booksforkeeps.co.uk/issue/78/childrens-books/articles/other-articles/childrens-books-and-unwanted-pregnancies.
  59. Watson, Victor. (2003). Introduction. In Margaret Meek, and Victor Watson (Eds.), Coming of Age in Children’s Literature (pp. 1–44). London: Continuum.Google Scholar
  60. Wegar, Katrina. (1997). In Search of Bad Mothers: Social Constructions of Birth and Adoptive Motherhood. Women’s Studies International Forum, 20(1), 77–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Weitz, Tracy A. (2010). Rethinking the Mantra that Abortion Should be “Safe, Legal, and Rare”. Journal of Women’s History, 22(3), 161–172.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Whitehead, Barbara Dafoe. (2008). And Baby Makes Two: Why Teen Pregnancy is on the Rise. Commonweal, 135(17), 8.Google Scholar
  63. Wilson, Helen and Huntingdon, Annette. (2006). Deviant (M)others: The Construction of Teenage Motherhood in Contemporary Discourse. Journal of Social Policy, 35(1), 59–70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. World Bank. (2017). Adolescent Fertility Rate (Births per 1,000 Women Ages 15-19). The World Bank. Accessed April 11, 2017 from http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.ADO.TFRT/countries/1W-GB-US-FR-DE?display=default.
  65. Younger, Beth. (2003). Pleasure, Pain, and the Power of Being Thin: Female Sexuality in Young Adult Literature. NWSA Journal, 15(2), 45–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Zindel, Paul. (2005/1969). My Darling, My Hamburger. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Arts and Media TechnologiesUniversity of BoltonBoltonUK

Personalised recommendations