Linda Ackermans: The status of young adult literature in the Dutch literary field

This Research in the Picture spotlights PhD researcher Linda Ackermans. Ackermans’s research focuses on the question what the status of young adult literature is in the Dutch literary field and which pers pectives there are for its further development. In order to answer that question, she undertakes institutional research into young adult literature in the Netherlands.

For her research, Ackermans received a teacher’s scholarship from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). As a result, she works three days per week as a Dutch language teacher in a secondary school, while spending two days per week working on her research. A challenging combination, she admits, but also a very valuable one. “My research focuses on a form of literature which is supposed to appeal to those with whom I work on a daily basis.”

Young adult literature (or YAL) has been an accepted term in the U.S. since the late 1960s. In recent years, it has become a common practice for bookstores to have a separate young adult department. The term ‘young adult literature’ was introduced in the Netherlands in 2009 with the same goal: literature for young adults was to be found in its own separate category rather than in youth or adult literature. This resulted in the creation of a new market segment. However, the appeal of YAL is much broader, as Ackermans explains: “YAL reaches a wider public than the name presupposes: research shows that 55% of all buyers of YAL in the U.S. is above 18 and that 78% of those people buy the books for themselves. I think YAL has something to offer Dutch adults as well. Just look at the success of The Hunger Games or think of Dutch novels such as De gelukvinder (Edward van de Vendel, 2008) and De hemel van Heivisj (Benny Lindelauf, 2010) that first appeared as youth literature and later as adult literature.”

Linda AckermansAckermans continues: “YAL is often seen as a new name for ‘adolescent literature’, a literary genre that has been around for decades in the Netherlands. Adolescent literature is commonly regarded as a genre in which the life phase of adolescence is depicted. Things such as initiation, conflict, and the formation of relationships are common topics in this kind of literature. The adolescent novel in the Netherlands has developed in such a way that it is either categorized as adult literature (e.g. Tommy Wieringa’s Joe Speedboot, Mano Bouzamour’s De belofte van Pisa) or as youth literature (e.g. Floortje Zwigtman’s Een Groene Bloem-trilogy, Els Beerten’s Allemaal willen we de hemel), with the latter two being published in a youth fund. This development has important consequences for the reception of the adolescent novel, especially in secondary education. Some scholars have called youth literature the ghetto neighborhood of the literary field. Previous studies have shown that teachers have this notion that novels produced and published in a youth fund are by definition less valuable and less challenging than novels for adults, but this doesn’t hold up under close scrutiny.”

When she applied for her scholarship, Ackermans emphasized the importance of literary education, quoting the Council for Culture in saying that reading provides access to new worlds and allows readers to enjoy artistic and intellectual reflection on society and history. “Education is indispensable in helping young readers. Teachers are supposed to provide their students with the tools necessary to engage with literary texts and let them reflect on what they have read. The transition from youth literature to adult literature is often very sudden. YAL can possibly ease this process and bridge the two kinds of literature, as it plays into the way they perceive the world and what they value in their lives. At the same time, YAL offers a challenge when it comes to rhetorical devices: on a formal level, it can compete with adult literature and open up new worlds. If students maintain their reading enjoyment, teachers are able to work on the development of literary competence. Positioning YAL within the literary system – which is what I intend to do with my research – can help teachers provide a meaningful perspective on using this kind of literature – also in the highest grades of secondary education.”