English 9220

Who gets to be a girl?: Normative and Non-Normative Girlhood  in Young Adult Fiction

Instructor: Professor Miranda Green-Barteet.
Fall Half Course.

Girls’ literature, according to Ashley N. Reese, is “a book written about a girl for a girl reader.” Historically, the primary purpose of girls’ literature, particularly works published in North American and Great Britain, was to help prepare girl readers for womanhood. Texts such as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Eleanor H. Porter’s Pollyanna feature precocious adolescent girl protagonists whose journeys to become well-educated, well-mannered women are key to the novels’ plots. As Reese asserts, much of girls’ literature is “underpin[ned] by the female bildungsroman.” Dawn Sardella-Ayres and Reese contend that girls’ literature typically focuses on the protagonist’s “trajectory of growth and development . . . [and] the socialization of the heroine into the roles of wife and mother remains central to girls’ literature” (34). While Sardella-Ayres and Reese specifically refer to 19th- and early-20th century texts, their comments remain relevant to late-20th and early-21st century texts. Girls’ literature, particularly that written for young adult (YA) girls, may no longer emphasize the importance of girls becoming wives and mothers, but it continues to prioritize the experiences of normative girls and to prioritize their journeys to becoming normative women. Girls who challenge the norm—that is, girls who are not white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, middle-class, and able-bodied—are underrepresented in young adult literature.

In this course, we will consider how normative and non-normative girlhood are represented in books by North American and British authors to try to answer the question: who gets to be a girl? We will study a variety of genres and texts written in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. While we will prioritize young adult literature, we will also consider texts written for adults featuring girls. Texts may include Little Women; Jane Eyre; “Life in the Iron Mills”; Summer; Anne of Green Gables; Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl; The Secret Garden; The Diary of Anne Frank; Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry; Forever; The Hunger Games; Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter; Parable of the Sower; and I am Malala, among others.