Adolescent Readers in the Search for Meaning: Guiding Teens to Sacred Texts

ALAN Research Grant Proposal

            For several years, in the wake particularly of the spate of school violence reports, I have been considering ways to address the loss of meaning and sense of hopelessness that mark the lives of so many adolescents.  Research regarding Generation Y or the Millennial generation also supports that notion, that adolescents do have a spiritual sense and a concern with finding sources of harmony in their lives.  In addition, my doctoral study focused on identifying literature that could be a site of the sacred or a source of meaning allowing humans to address the large questions of human existence as well as those dealing with relationship to God, to some deity, or some source beyond the human.  In that study, I discussed the underlying concept that all people have the potential, and many the desire, for a spiritual existence, though they many not find this ultimate meaning in a theology or particular orthodoxy.  Adolescents are one particular group engaged in searching for the spiritual and their needs have not necessarily been addressed or identified.

            During the last five years, I have spent much more time with Young Adult literature and with adolescents.  Specifically, I have created proposals and presentations for NCTE, ALAN, and the North Carolina Association of Teachers of English which have addressed a curriculum of non-violence and stories leading readers from prejudice and bias to tolerance and acceptance.  My ALAN research proposal then goes a step further to focus on identifying literature that young adults might find significant in their quest for meaning or spiritual depth and literature that fills the voids many youth experience.  I anticipate creating an annotated bibliography of these books or other genres; the bibliography might parallel the Books for You kind of publications, but it could also include commentary or teaching strategies for using the literature.  The audience for such a work would be young adults, teachers, parents, and any group interested in guiding adolescents on the journey to adulthood.

One part of the research involves a questionnaire for high school students that will help identify works these students already value.  I anticipate working through high school English teachers throughout the United States, having them conduct the actual survey using my questionnaire so that I will have a fair sample of students providing input.  The questions will be similar to the following: What are the most important issues in your life at this point?  Where do you seek answers to your questions about life?  Have you ever read anything that offered you answers to your concerns?  What was this?  If you were recommending some book or reading to a friend what would that be? I anticipate beginning the surveying in early November, the start of my research for this project.

Part two of the project involves working with existing literature.  I plan to read and review both the more “classic” works like The Chronicles of Narnia and canonical works as well as current YA selections.  I have a number of works in a course outline for Literature and the Sacred that would appeal to young adult readers, however, to expand my knowledge of the options, I need to read as many current YA titles as possible.

Donna Fisher, a former librarian and high school English teacher, is my co-researcher on this project.  Her initial plans are to work with some poets like Denise Levertov or Kathleen Norris or John Donne or Gerard Manley Hopkins, who do the “dare to challenge God” writings; novels of redemption and discovery like Kent Haruf’s Plainsong, or with journals and letters by Dickinson, Alcott, and others.  Her explorations would not be limited to the above; these were ideas.  We would both like to interview writers for their perspective on YA literature of the quest for the spiritual.  I have already begun with an informal interview with Sue Ellen Bridgers.  As an accomplished author of young adult literature and of works I intend to include in the collection as well as someone who can be an on-site consultant, Bridgers will obviously be one key writer, but there are many others who could enrich the study.

Initial Bibliography

The ALAN Review

Bushman, John H. and Kay Parks.  Using Young Adult Literature in the English Classroom,

second edition.  Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Merrill, an imprint of Prentice Hall,


Gregg, Gail P. and Pamela S. Carroll, eds.  Books and Beyond: Thematic Approach to Teaching

            Literature in High School.  Norwood, MA: Christopher Gordon Publishers, l998.

Kaywell, Joan, ed.  Adolescent Literature as a Complement to the Classics.  Volumes One-Four. 

Norwood, MA: Christopher Gordon Publishers.

Reed, Arthea J.S.  Reaching Adolescents.  New York: Merrill, an imprint of Macmillan College

            Publishing Company, l994.

Project Budget

Paper and toner for producing the questionnaire, postage,        $200.00

Data Analysis of the questionnaire                                           $450.00

Phone and costs related to interviewing authors                                    $350.00

Total                                                                                        $1000.00