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Teen Girls Read on Maui: Searching for Identity through YA Fiction.

With the popularization of young adult (YA) fiction in recent years, YA book sales have been consistently rising (Brown, 2011; Stampler, 2014). The plethora of characters and stories available on bookstore shelves has grown and with it, the rise of the female voice in young adult literature.

Most authors of YA fiction are women, and the characters are predominantly female (Lewit, 2012). The presence of female authors writing about female protagonists allows teens to encounter and be exposed to diverse versions of the hero/heroine motif. Kokesh and Sternadori (2015) examined the impact YA fiction has on female readers. They discovered that many young readers, ages thirteen through fifteen, profess to use books as guides for behavior in social situations (154), responding to the characterization of females in YA novels as heroines emerging as a strong, independent force and agent of their destiny.

This discovery shows that the presentation of identity in the text, particularly if it gives the impression of authenticity and belonging, can be highly influential in a girls developing sense of self-worth and understanding of socio-cultural expectations as an emerging adult. Observations made during the act of reading can shape these concepts. For teenaged female readers who live in rural, isolated communities, confirmation of authenticity can be a source of comfort, validation, and growth (Becnel and Moeller, 2015).

Looking beyond popular culture representations and influences is important for teen girls and may encourage these readers to discover their sense of worth as formed in their identity. Gaining a strong sense of identity, as authentic to them, is particularly important for youth coming of age in isolated, rural communities.

The research presented here explores ways in which young adult literature can be a catalyst for positive identity formation within the context of rural life for teen girls on the island of Maui. We present this literary contextual review of female-focused young adult literature with the intent to bring awareness to the correlation between community-oriented context and identity formation through the reading of text.


The state of Hawai'i is comprised of eight major islands, of which six are inhabited. Many citizens don't know the local realities of Hawai'i, regarding it only as an agricultural state with a rural culture that has thrived for generations. Maui, the second most populous island of the state, is rich in historical presence and importance. When Hawai'i was a monarchical kingdom (17791893), King Kamehameha I (1758-1819) established the unified kingdom on the island of Maui, naming the city of Lahaina, Maui, his capital in 1802 (Nickerson, 1978, 19). Since that time, Maui has been an agriculturally-driven island as it is rich in natural resources for sugar and pineapple production, cattle ranching, and tourism. When visitors began flocking to Maui during the 1960s, the tourism industry was born, forever changing the landscape of the island. The tourism industry now offers the most viable job options for people living on Maui (Chris Hart and Partners, 2006, 11). Additionally, much of the modern-day population is dealing with uncertain futures due to a changing local economy (HNN, 2016).

Within the last decade, there has been a wave of uncertainty flooding Maui; the future and the sustainability of the people who have generationally resided on the island are endangered due to converging economic shifts and changes. For example, in 2009, the last remaining pineapple company closed after almost a hundred years in production, laying off around three hundred workers (Paiva, 2009). In July 2016, the Makena Beach and Golf Resort, a longtime Kihei resort, shut down and laid off over three hundred workers (Tanji, 2016). Lastly, at the end of 2016, the last productive sugar cane mill closed, and almost seven hundred employees, many whom had been employed by the mill their whole working careers, became jobless (Wood, 2016).

According to the U.S. Census (2015), Maui County (which comprises the inhabited islands of Maui, Lana'i, and Moloka'i) is largely comprised of white (31 percent), Asian (27 percent), Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (9 percent), and African-American (1 percent) ethnicities. UpCountry, Maui, is made up of several different areas, from the coastal town of Paia, up the slopes of Haleakala, through the towns of Hali'imaile, Makawao, Pukalani, Haiku, and Kula. Taking up a vast portion of the island, UpCountry is known as paniolo country--cowboy and rodeo territory. The ranchers and farmers reside on Haleakala's slopes, historically known for the fertile ground benefiting farmers.

Maui's diverse culture is reflected in the student population at the local UpCountry public high school, Reef High School (all proper names are pseudonyms, throughout). Reef HS serves the students who attend the five elementary schools and the single intermediate/middle school for UpCountry. Twenty-four percent of Maui County's population is under the age of eighteen years, boasting a 79 percent graduation rate for 2015 with a 74 percent on-time graduation rate (Hawai'i P-20, 2015 (U.S. Census Report, 2015; Hawai'i P-20, 2015). Also, the Maui County Data Report (2015) reiterates that a diverse group of students live in UpCountry: Chinese, Filipino, Hawaiian, Hispanic, Japanese, Portuguese, and White ethnic students, all attend Reef High School.

Maui is small in population and rural in density. Reef HS, like other high schools throughout the state, has a thriving sports program in which Maui teens are heavily involved. For most Maui teens, however, there exists very little, affordable leisure and recreational activities. There is also a definitive lack of thriving college-readiness initiatives on Maui, and the job market for teens is transient, at best. Due to such a strong local culture, most teenagers do not contemplate life beyond Maui; this localism is part of the island identity and part of local culture.

It is within this rural, island culture of Maui that teen girls access literature at public libraries; stories with female protagonists can promote literacy practices that positively contribute to authentic identity formation for emerging adulthood. Teen readers on Maui live within a specific historical context and demographic that informs their worldview and possibilities for ongoing growth on-island and, perhaps, off-island as well. Clandinin and Connelly (2004) call this literary context-literacy dynamic a "three-dimensional narrative space" where readers articulate '"continuity and wholeness' of literary experience" (Clandinin & Connelly in Lachuk, 2015).


This literature review study explores the question, "In what ways can young adult literature serve as a lens through which Maui teen girls identify agency in YA literature?" This is a localized question with broad implications beyond Maui's teen community. Thus, the approach to exploring this question was to evaluate young adult literature accessible on public library shelves within the state of

Hawai'i. Recently published titles chosen for this study serve to examine the heroine characterization as consideration for identity formation of teen girls. Our approach gives a nod to Vandergrift's Model of Female Voices in Youth Literature (1996). In this model, various themes are cited as female experience in YA texts such as, "strong independent females," "identity," "self-determination," and "memory." These themes are important for positive identity formation; as Vandergrift posits: "[It is important] for young women to encounter the kinds of stories that will provide them with a rich variety of strong female characters, both young protagonists and older women, to serve as role models at critical stages in their development. These stories help to shape the lives of young women" (18).

Vandergrift's call was answered with an increased presence of women's stories published in young adult literature in the past two decades. For example, with the emergence and popularity of authors such as J. K. Rowling (Harry Potter series), Cassandra Clare (Clockwork Princess novels), and Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games trilogy), female-centered protagonists and narratives reflect reader interests in young women's experiences coming of age (Lewit, 2012). Indeed, Lewit asserts that, "YA lit offers heroines to suit every mercurial mood and developmental stage" (para. 11). It is in this vein that we approach our study as a review of YA literature and research that substantiates our position that female-positive and female-centered narratives are an information need for Maui teen girls.


Teens struggle to discover and remain true to their ideas that inform identity construction. For teen girls, social media promotes the concept of the traditional heroine within the promotion of popular culture in digital format. The worth of the heroine of online reality is structured around her looks and brand recognition, and the reward is the love and acceptance received from peers (Herring and Kapidzic, 2015; Spracklen, 2015). Dickerson (2004) observes that in this post-feminist world, even though young women are told they have a world of opportunity to live in, they lack the tools to navigate the options available to them successfully and are afflicted, instead, with self-doubt, anxiety, and a sense of failure.

In addition to the social expectations enforced through social media, teen girls are shaped by other voices and pressures, as well. The pressure to be academically successful, family-imposed expectations, friends, and cultural pressures are each a force in their right, but when combined as a teen's paradigm, these realities weigh heavily on a teen girl's identity formation. With all these pressures, teens often escape the world's demands through books and media. Considering these social demands, there is a need for books to "begin presenting strong females for youth to look up to" (Vandergrift, 1996,17).

Female heroines are role models who girls look up to and learn from (Vandergrift, 1996, 23). With emergence of mighty female heroines in recent YA literature, empowering impressions help shape how girls develop and understand their identity. Even though teens may turn to books and media for entertainment, they are inevitably impressed by social and character influences from the stories in which they immerse themselves (Kokesh and Sternadori, 2015, 154). Specifically, in coming-of-age stories, teens find strong models in characters who mature through difficult circumstances, particularly when the element of realism makes the characters relatable (Vandergrift, 1996, 26). When teens are exposed to various heroine types, the varied responses and reactions to situations equip teens with a broad worldview.

Through YA fiction, young women can be exposed to a variety of heroines and their unique approaches to the experiences they encounter. Modern popular stories portray the heroine as the agent of her destiny and independence. Other types of heroines function between the extremes of the conventional dependent woman and the warrior woman. Teen girls read stories to gain knowledge from characters' experiences as well as glean vicarious knowledge from a similar reality. These experiences broaden their perceptions and understandings about the world. These stories also provide guides to live by (Vandergrift, 1996, 27).

We explored a few recently published YA novels that are accessible via Maui public library bookshelves to identify positive identity formation in stories that can be appealing and meaningful to Maui teen girl readers.

For example, in the YA coming-of-age novel, Juniors by Kaui Hart Hemmings (2015), the protagonist, Lea, has recently moved to Hawai'i with her actress mother. She struggles to find her place in her new home as she is not a local and she's not privileged. Lea becomes enamored with the carefree disposition of the other students attending her private school. Envious of the girls and their slim figures, brand-name clothes, and effortless good looks, Lea compares herself to her peers. Lea is awkward and tongue-tied around boys. In small ways, Lea rebels against her mother and through this independence of resistance, Lea matures and grows into her own identity.

In The Leaving by Tara Altebrando (2016), there are two female protagonists who mature in different ways. Scarlett begins the story dependent on others, but through the course of the novel, she asserts herself and, as she becomes an agent of her future, demonstrates the female voice with a sense of personal expression (Vandergrift, 1996, 19). Avery is independent at the beginning of the story: she takes care of herself and her parents after a life-changing tragedy. During the story, Avery softens and becomes vulnerable, allowing others to help her. While not releasing her independence, Avery allows herself to accept strength and comfort from others, and in this acceptance, gains a sense of community (Vandergrift, 1996, 19).

Sefia is the strong, independent heroine of The Reader: Sea of Ink and Gold, Book 1 by Traci Chee (2016). Assertive in her actions, Sefia navigates difficult situations. Not only does Sefia demonstrate self-sufficiency in taking care of herself, but she also rescues a young man in her travels and supports him as they journey together through difficult circumstances. Through saving herself and others, Sefia is portrayed as a heroine; yet, she also retains the traditional characteristics that allow her to be open to receiving support from her male counterpart. In the end, a partnership is functioning between them in which they each cover the other's weaknesses. Sefia gains a sense of herself as a woman, recognizing how she interacts with others and the ethics through which she gauges the implications and effects of her actions on others (Vandergrift, 19).

Nimona, the titular heroine in the book by Noelle Stevenson (2015), demonstrates a particularly strong identity formation; she is staunchly assertive and independent and she is defined by her actions, her craftiness, and her sense of humor. Bloodthirsty and ruthless, Nimona is unlike any other heroine portrayed in our textual overview. Her bombastic emotions and quick temper make her easy to identify with for developing teen girls. She bluntly demonstrates the strong, independent female heroine, whose self-determination is inspiring (Vandergrift, 19).

Within this brief sampling of YA novels, the characters represent different presentations of heroines who learn from their circumstances and develop into powerful, self-assured characters. Their agency is rewarded, especially as they pursue personal goals and thus bring about their self-determined identity. Though sometimes characters are forced into situations not of their choosing, they turn each situation into their mission. Throughout these journeys, the characters are tested and persevere. In the end, "Females are pictured as reconciling themselves to their circumstances, assuming new responsibilities, and settling in as if at the end of a journey" (Vandergrift, 1996, 28).


The public library is commonly regarded as a community space for social interactions, a place for learning, and can be a place for finding shelter (Agosto, 2007). For teen girls, for whom there is no prescribed "right way" in which identity development occurs, a library offers entertainment materials, practical information, meaningful literature for formal and informal reading, life-skills resources, and physical space in which they can safely explore their emerging identities, ideas, and understandings in an organic way.

Maui, 727 square miles, is served by six public libraries (HSPLS) and one bookmobile. Most of the libraries are housed in small buildings with finite collections serving diverse communities. Most feature a teen area designated only by the books on the shelves. Only one library on the island has a designated teen services librarian. Because teen services and programs are scant, libraries need to actively engage Maui teens in order to serve as a support for positive teen identity development. Given the lack of services and organizations advocating for youth on the island, the public libraries can fill the gap (Braun, Hartman, Hughes-Hassell and Kumasi, 2014).

To begin establishing itself as a teen-friendly center, a library can offer teen-focused services such as a teen advisory board, book clubs, and movie days. Establishing a consistent club where teens know they are encouraged and accepted as they are will allow them to feel welcome, no matter how many times they show up. Having a consistent program establishes the library as a place that teens can count on; special programs specifically for girls will assist them in the formation of positive identities. Interspersing special programs--such as drawing and origami or gaming and manga programs--exposes teen girls to different areas that may awaken a lifelong hobby. To strengthen teen girl agency and to reach teen girls in the broadest way, Maui public libraries could work together to establish a strong supportive network.


Young adult (YA) fiction is often a counter-narrative to pervasive popular and social media, accessible 24/7 from a variety of platforms. As such, YA fiction can be a useful resource for teens making sense of their emerging identity formation in a digital world (Considine, Horton, and Moorman, 2007). In this article, we offered a brief review of young adult research and YA popular fiction to consider youth identity development within the context of the unique and specific information needs of teens girls (ages thirteen-eighteen) living in the rural community of UpCountry Maui, Hawai'i. Because Maui is largely a rural island and has limited resources available to support teens in their development, public libraries are a strong presence with six locations, a bookmobile, and a century-old, active friends group that operates three bookstores across Maui County (HSPLS 2017; MFOL 2017).

This paper presented a review of young adult literature as examples of ways in which fiction in YA library collections can be an effective mechanism through which Maui teens can experience strong characterizations that counter pervasive media representations. This research supports public libraries as a vital community resource that endeavors to expose and encourage young adults to take advantage of different options.

With adult voices and media-based cultural pressures a part of daily discourse for American teenagers, identity formation during adolescence can be a complex journey. Adolescence is a touchstone life-stage during which teenagers are discovering aspects of themselves that can last for a lifetime. Strong female literary characters in YA literature serve as examples of how teen girls can navigate and survive the convoluted aspects of life. They also serve as models of action and role models for teens.

The public library comes packaged with materials and services to support teens as they navigate feelings and new thoughts and to nurture and encourage their exploration of who they are. Thus, the library must act as a supportive advocate and encourage teens to engage in their community by involving them in planning and leadership to acknowledge how qualified teens are and to foster positive identity formation. Feeling trusted and valued in the library encourages teens to grow and develop as individuals, unafraid of acceptance as they assume chosen identities. For teen girls living in rural communities, the public library can serve as an important destination for accessing stories that can forge a continuity of personal experience with literary possibilities for embracing broader dynamics for identity formation.


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Sarah Nakashima is a student in the Library and Information Sciences program at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. Sarah's interests lie in public libraries and how they effectively engage with rural communities. She is also interested in the services and support that libraries offer teenagers in their personal development and interaction with information literacy. She aspires to work in youth services within the public library system of Hawai'i.

Vanessa Irvin is an assistant professor with the Library and Information Sciences program at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. A career-long YA public librarian, Dr. Irvin teaches courses on reference services, public libraries, and diversity services in public libraries. Her research focuses on inquiry-based professional development of public librarians.

This article was peer reviewed by the VOYA Advisory Board.
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Title Annotation:young adult
Author:Nakashima, Sarah; Irvin, Vanessa
Publication:Voice of Youth Advocates
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2018
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