20th-Century BIPOC Writers for Young Adults: Re-casting the History of the Genre

deadline for submissions: 
March 1, 2023
full name / name of organization: 
Amanda Greenwell (Central Connecticut State University) and Kiedra Taylor (University of Connecticut)
contact email: 

MLA 2024 (Philadelphia, PA, January 4-7)

20th-Century BIPOC Writers for Young Adults: Re-casting the History of the Genre

Often the history of young adult (YA) literature is tracked by way of key texts written by 20th-century white authors. For example, the first section of Michael Cart’s most recent edition of the well-known Young Adult Literature: From Romance to Realism (2016), “That was Then,” prioritizes white writers as it tells the story of the rise of this burgeoning body of literature; it provides only compartmentalized commentary on the contributions of BIPOC authors, primarily in discussions of the late decades of the 20th century. In 20th-century lists aimed at K-12 teachers and libraries, books by BIPOC authors are often siloed into categories such as "ethnic groups and problems" or "social concerns and problems,” reducing the significance and complexity of their contributions to Otherness. Furthermore, critics examining 20th-century literature for adolescents remark on its ideological position as ranging from apolitical (Ann Scott MacLeod, 1981) to implicitly political (Roberta Seelinger Trites, 2000), a description that may not be upheld by a more diverse archive. In Trites’s treatment, she theorizes young adult literature as pitting the adolescent and their self-identifications against various institutions–but with the overwhelming outcome that the adolescent ultimately acquiesce to institutional mandates. In both MacLeod and Trites, Robert Cormier, a white writer, is a notable exception. 

This history requires interrogation, specifically via considerations of BIPOC-authored contributions to the genre. We invite scholars to theorize how BIPOC writers for teens before 2000 contribute to an alternate or more expansive history of YA literature, one that disrupts or complicates earlier conclusions. While critics have examined such legacies in other types of texts written for youth, such as Michelle Martin’s work on Black picture books, and while several BIPOC YA writers, such as Walter Dean Myers, have had their corpus examined in its own right, we seek to position 20th-century BIPOC writers of YA literature as part of a wider conversation about YA literature writ large. Panelists may take up the following questions, and much more:

  • How do former popular and scholarly understandings of 20th-century YA literature fail to consider the ideologies of BIPOC written texts, and how can those understandings be recontextualized and reinvented by such correctives?  

  • How do these texts complicate or revise constructs of or claims to adolescence, perhaps by exploring the positionality of BIPOC youth in relation to the institution and the adultification of BIPOC young people?

  • What does it mean for BIPOC young people to formulate identity and “learn their role” in the institution when these young folx are often not included in institutionally sanctioned possibilities for power?

  • In what traditions do BIPOC authors write when they create YA literature—or to which traditions can we attribute them as originators?

  • What methodologies are necessary to help us access these texts and read their nuances?

  • What do the status and contexts of out of print books, alternate archives, and other less accessible 20th-century texts for youth by BIPOC authors reveal about the challenges and importance of attending to this work?

  • How do activist efforts surround and infuse these texts and our methodologies, both subtly and overtly?

  • How have BIPOC authors of 20th-century YA literature contended with the institution of the publishing industry, and to what extent does that relationship influence how such authors writing for major presses–or independent presses–have written their adolescent characters?

We seek to convene a panel that examines authors and texts that span several decades and genres and/or forms. 

Please send 300-400 word abstracts to co-chairs Kiedra Burston Taylor (University of Connecticut) and Amanda M. Greenwell (Central Connecticut State University) at kiedra.taylor@uconn.edu and greenwellamm@ccsu.edu by March 1, 2023. Queries welcome. Accepted panelists will be notified within two weeks and requested to confirm participation. MLA membership is required only after acceptance. This is a guaranteed session sponsored by the Children’s Literature Association.