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Graduate student studies the world of girls through YA diaries

Nicole Hopwood
May 31, 2019

The moment you ask Rachel Rickard Rebellino what she studies, you understand where her passion lies.

The new PhD overflows with excited energy as she speaks about young adult literature, or YA.

Her passion for YA comes from a deep love of books. One of her favorites as a child was Amelia's Notebook by Marissa Moss. Later in life, Rickard Rebellino met Moss and told the author that she inspired her PhD dissertation.

“I think the books we read as children and as young adults tend to really stay with us and really impact us,” Rickard Rebellino said.

Although her desire to show the value of literature was evident from her receipt of an Ohio State Presidential Fellowship last year, her passion blended into her studies far earlier. In undergraduate classes at the University of Michigan, she took a young adult literature class and tutored students in writing. After deciding to pursue further education, Rickard Rebellino fell in love with the study of children’s literature during her master’s program at Eastern Michigan University.

Once finished with her master’s, she wasn’t sure what to do next. Yet she knew if she went any further with her education, she wanted a unique program. That is why she chose the college’s Literature for Children and Young Adults program.

“My program is really uniquely situated in the education department, so we are thinking about (teaching) actual kids,” she said, “but we also do a lot of literary analysis.”

With the strong support of her program and her advisors, Professors Michelle Ann Abate and Caroline Clark, Rickard Rebellino decided to research the subject that stirred her passion since she was a child: that YA diary books can be a powerful format for examining portrayals of youth and girlhood across time.

Moreover, she wanted to highlight the value of YA diary literature in the literary world, with an emphasis on its being a teachable source for literary analysis and a model for writing.

A timeline of YA diary books

Rickard Rebellino’s research took an interesting approach to studying representations of girlhood in young adult books written in diary format.

She focused on how the narrative style in these novels has changed over the last 50 years. She looked at the female character and used “rhetorical narrative theory to understand how authors use various aspects of storytelling, including its form, to convey particular ideas about the teen years of a girl’s life, or girlhood, to readers.”

Rickard Rebellino had plenty of source material to work with. The 1950s produced a large population of teenagers due to the baby boom after World War II. Publishers jumped at the chance to target this audience and released books for juvenile readers.

The Outsiders, published in 1967, is often credited as the first work of young adult literature, Rickard Rebellino said. The first YA book structured as a diary, Go Ask Alice, was released just a few years later in 1971.

Yet because of the perception that books within this genre were for juveniles, they were not considered to hold much merit compared to adult literature. They were viewed as simplistic narratives for entertainment.

Rickard Rebellino said that during this early period, diary books with female characters tended to feature flat characters who lacked agency. They were not shown as strong, complex or dynamic.

A resurgence of interest in YA literature came in the 1990s after years of slow growth within the genre. The Harry Potter series put a new spotlight on YA books and how they could go beyond simplistic entertainment.

This resurgence also gave way to YA diary novels featuring dynamic stories with strong female protagonists who discuss difficult issues such as race and identity within the narrative.

“I am excited about my research because you can see the shift toward more capable female protagonists over the years,” Rickard Rebellino said.

Powerful literature in the classroom

While a historical context helped Rickard Rebellino understand larger trends and directions in female-focused diary books, she also wanted to theorize how the style of the genre affects the reader.

She analyzed five different novels using rhetorical narrative theory to pinpoint which aspects of the story shifted the old understanding of an uncomplex female narrator needing moral guidance to one showing the “capability of the adolescent narrator.”

The YA genre has come a long way from its founding in the ’50s and continues to push the envelope in terms of themes revealing real issues young people encounter in the world.

As more books such as The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas become popular, teachers are using them in the classroom to capture the interest of students, as well as to discuss tough issues that the narrators experience. These books also can be used to inspire and serve as models for creative writing by young readers. Rickard Rebellino believes her research of the YA diary format demonstrates how complex the narratives within YA literature can be.

Beyond that, she knows her research will help change the discussion about what most people believe YA literature is meant to accomplish.

“YA literature gets a bad rap. If you haven’t read YA, you should really give it a chance,” she said.

Her dedication to her passion helped her achieve the high honor of winning a Presidential Fellowship, which supported the writing of her dissertation during the last academic year. Now with her PhD in hand, she credits her advisors, Abate and Clark, for encouraging her.

With advising support that “helped shaped her as a scholar” and the well-rounded experience that she has had in the program, Rickard Rebellino is prepared to enter the academic world.

More importantly, she continues to work with a passion that goes far beyond her love for reading as a child.

Changing the perception of the skeptical reader is important. Because, as Rickard Rebellino knows, all books, including YA diary novels, have one thing in common: the themes of a book read for pleasure can influence people’s lives.

“Books have power,” she said.

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