Research Communications

Student explores how young adult literature can help us understand adolescent development 


By Taylor Evans

What do the characters Pi, Ponyboy, and Holden Caulfield have in common? Besides being the protagonists of three popular novels, they're also the subject of Spencer Smith's student thesis. Smith, an English major in the Honors Tutorial College, examined narrative psychology in young adult literature.

The relatively new field of narrative psychology views our lives as stories that can be rewritten, Smith explains.

"You can imagine a boy who thinks of himself as lazy and doesn't do work in school," he says. "What a narrative therapist would do is find times in his life when he hasn't been lazy, and then starts connecting those instances and rewriting a narrative in which the boy is no longer lazy, but productive."

Smith's thesis discusses how adolescents, specifically males, develop their identities and the way they narrate their lives. He examined three classic young adult books, Life of Pi, The Outsiders, and Catcher in the Rye, and compares the psychological development of the protagonists to the development of adolescents.

The Outsiders and The Catcher in the Rye often are assigned reading in junior high and high school, and Life of Pi—although written for adults—is generally popular among adolescents. Smith chose books with a similar style, but with enough differences to generate discussion.

"Although they're all told in first-person by male protagonists, the narrators differ quite a bit," he says.

Smith's adviser Joseph Bianco, assistant professor of social medicine in the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, specializes in narrative psychology. He notes that Smith studied an important time in life, when an adolescent is developing his or her own identity and "a sense of person."

"Adolescence is a time when we choose people that are sort of stock characters we want to be like, but we gradually start to realize that people are more complicated than that and we're complicated people," Bianco says. "Spencer has really done a great job of looking at some young adult fiction and tracing the path that these characters follow."

Although this age group is important to study, it is often overlooked, Smith says.

"I was reading a lot about narrative psychology and narrative identity and realized there was kind of a hole in the research with concern to adolescents," Smith says, adding that he felt that literature could add a new perspective.

Smith examined not only literature and developmental and narrative psychology, but also philosophy and social constructivism, Bianco says.

"To me (the thesis has) the ambition of a dissertation but the imagination and the ingenuity of a senior undergrad," he says. "He's combining all these different things in a very interesting and new and intense way."

Smith, who was chosen to participate in Teach for America after his graduation in May, hopes that psychologists will be able to benefit from his research.

"Obviously, the character development of three characters does not replace real-world study," Smith says. "The fact that these characters have commonalities—that they share with the young adult literature genre more broadly—suggests psychologists might be able to use these story arcs to develop research questions."

This article appears in the Autumn/Winter 2013 issue of Ohio University's Perspectives magazine.

Illustration credit: Christina Ullman.