CFP: The Anxious Publics of Literature for Young People

Call for Papers for a panel at the MLA 2016


The readership of children’s and young adult literature has always been diverse. Yet 2014 witnessed an explosion of anxious discourse surrounding adult interest in the genre. Ruth Graham’s polemical Slate essay “Against YA: Adults Should Be Embarrassed to Read Children’s Books” spawned an array of meditations on children’s literature and cultural narratives of “growing up,” including pieces by A.O. Scott in The New York Times Magazine and Christopher Beha in The New Yorker. Together, these articles seem to bespeak a “cultural anxiety of immaturity,” to borrow a phrase from Beverly Lyon Clark, who has traced the prehistory of this phenomenon in her book Kiddie Lit (2004).


Inspired by MLA 2016’s theme of “Literature and Its Publics,” we invite papers that explore anxious public discourse on the boundaries, borders, and content of children’s literature and young adult fiction in relation to their audiences. What is at stake in the maintenance and policing of generic boundaries and normative audiences? How have critics imagined the pedagogical function of children’s and young adult literature as it relates to readers both young and old? In spite of the proliferation of sophisticated works of children’s literature, why do anxieties persist about the genre’s popularity among adults? Does widespread adult interest in children’s literature herald, as A.O. Scott suggests, “The Death of Adulthood”? And if not, what does it suggest about contemporary reading practices?

Possible topics include (but are not limited to):

  • Historical perspectives: the “anxiety of immaturity” then and now
  • Anxious publics of children’s literature versus young adult literature
  • Public discourse about dystopian and post-apocalyptic young adult literature and films
  • The public pedagogy and/or didacticism of children’s literature
  • Theoretical anxiety in children’s literature criticism
  • Anxious digital publics and children’s literature
  • The “real” versus imaginary child in public discourse
  • Young people writing back to children’s literature criticism
  • Fetishizing innocence in children’s literature criticism
  • The emergence of “new adult fiction” in relation to anxieties of immaturity


Please send a 300-word abstract to Derritt Mason ( by 15 March 2015.