Keyword Study

An overarching project in the course for this semester will be your collaborative study of a keyword associated with the discipline and study of young adult literature. Over the course of the semester, you will investigate this keyword as it has been discussed in the scholarly literature of the discipline, as it is used in conversations about young adult literature, and as it is embodied in the texts we study and you read.

You will create two products as a result of this exploration:

  1. A definition for your keyword posted to the YA Lit Keyword Essays site,  an extended essay exploring the definition of the keyword, its usage in discourse in the field of young adult literature, and the implications of this keyword for the way we interpret and view texts within the body of young adult literature.
  2. An analytic essay in which you use your understanding of this keyword to examine example(s) of young adult literature (a single title or perhaps a small set of titles).

The first product will be collaboratively produced, the second will be an individual effort. (If you and/or your group would like to take an existing definition and revise it or enhance it, that is also a possibility; please talk to me before choosing this option.) I suggest working in groups of 2-4 students, focused on a single keyword. (You may, if you’re adamant, work alone on this project, but I will expect you to create the same products as I would groups.) We will discuss possibilities of keywords in class in more detail, but I suggest here two broad types of keywords: words that connect to issues or topics of interest to the field (e.g., identity, young adult, teenager, sexuality, gender, literature, etc.) and words related to genres that are present in the body of young adult literature (e.g., non-fiction, dystopia, romance, graphic novel, etc.).

The rest of the this page discusses some of the elements of this overarching project.

Defining Your Keyword

The definition you post to the essay site will be more than just a dictionary definition of the keyword your group has chosen. It will be important that this definition define the word specifically in the context of a broader study of young adult literature and that the definition provide evidence of careful investigation of how the term is used in discourse in this field and the implications of that usage. We will examine some mentor texts to help you understand more precisely what is expected in this definition.

This is a methodical exploration, and I’d like to provide some suggestions for proceeding. Understand that this is still an experimental project, and I appreciate any feedback you can give on this process; additionally, we may find the process evolving as the semester progresses.

Establish a baseline definition. Prior to looking at other sources, record what the word means to you. What do you think of when you hear the word? How have you heard it used? What connotations does the word suggest from your experience/interactions with it?

Identify synonyms. Are there other words that are used in place your keyword? What do some of these synonyms suggest in terms of different shades of meaning held by your keyword? What do the synonyms suggest in terms of the different contexts (audiences and purposes) in which these words are used?

Explore published definitions. Look for and record some dictionary definitions of your keyword (3-5 definitions from different sources). As you look at these definitions, what patterns emerge? What is emphasized in one source that may not be in other sources? Look to the OED (access it here on a campus connection) for its lists of definitions and the etymology of your keyword. Be sure to look at the history of the word, the way its use and definition has changed over time, and consider how that might influence the definition you write (especially in terms of the connotations associated with a word). I’d also suggest using Google’s ngram viewer and even BYU’s COCA corpora (and others) to look for how the word is used in context. Note that some of you might have keywords that are included in other keyword dictionaries; it’s fine to explore those extended definitions and even cite from them for your work here.

The Keyword as a Lens

Your investigation of the keyword will provide one lens through which you might interpret and respond to the literature you read in the class. As part of this, your group will select three young adult novels as part of your elective reading which treat with or are influenced by the keyword you’ve chosen. So, for instance, if you’ve chosen sexuality as your keyword, you’ll want to identify and read three titles that treat issues related to sexuality; if you’ve chosen the genre of the graphic novel, then you’d choose three graphic novels. I am, of course, happy to help you identify books. Your group will need to approve the list of books you choose with me.

I will dedicate time in class for your group to meet to discuss these books and the progress you’re making on arriving at a definition; you may also choose to collaborate using technology (i.e., a Google doc) or other means, and it’s likely that you’ll need to meet outside of class to discuss the books as well. Your reader’s notebook can provide a space to explore the implications of your keyword for the way you’re reading the texts in class and the chosen books. While your keyword shouldn’t dominate your reading of the texts this semester, I hope it will meaningfully inform the way you respond to and interpret the readings we explore.

Entering the Discussion

Your inquiry into this keyword should also incorporate discussion taking place in the wider discipline of young adult literature. In fact, I hope the study of this keyword will provide an entry point for your immersion in scholarly work in the field.

In addition to the three young adult texts that you read as part of your inquiry, I will also require that you identify and study at least three scholarly pieces (journal articles, book chapters, etc.) connected to the keyword you’ve chosen. These sources should be from appropriate and reputable sources, and I’d suggest looking in some of the same databases and journals that I reference for your inquiry project. But you might also cast a wider net, especially given the newness of some of your terms, and look at non-traditional media (TED talks, YouTube videos, blogs, etc.) where reputable scholars might engage in discussion of these ideas.

I expect that your foray into the scholarly discussion will be reflected in your definition and in your individual essay; I will be looking for evidence that others’ ideas have informed your own, and that you are engaging (in writing) in dialogue with these scholars and their ideas.

Expectations for the Definition

The definition you post to the YA Lit Keyword Essays site will be a collaborative effort, and your group can divide out the work of this part in any way that makes sense for you. I encourage you to review the models that I’ve assigned you for the class and others that are linked from the  site.

The basic purpose of the definition is to (surprise!) define the keyword. But this definition goes beyond a simple, short dictionary definition. Your definition should discuss the word in the context of the field of young adult literature and the kinds of texts and kinds of issues that are of importance in that field. Based on the models we’ve discussed in class, your definition may do some of the following things to accomplish that purpose:

  • describe the etymology (origins) of the word, describe its history, or analyze root words that compose the keyword
  • discuss related words and the connections between those words and the keyword, perhaps showing how different meanings have emerged (and given rise to separate words) in the word’s history
  • describe the evolution of the word, how our sense of what it means has changed over time
  • how different contexts might shape the meaning of the word, providing examples of these contexts and the shifts in meaning

I am requiring that your definitions make ample reference to scholars and what they’ve said about the keyword, showing that your group is joining a broader discussion about the concepts and ideas represented by your keyword. Also, I expect that your definition will also explore any complexities associated with this keyword and its uses, debates about its meaning or implications for the field, or contested aspects of the keyword’s meaning.

Your group’s definition should be about 1000 words in length and must be posted to the keyword essays site. Your definition is expected to reference scholarly (and other, appropriate) sources and those citations should be formatted according to the current edition of MLA guidelines (including a works cited list).

Check the syllabus for a date when the draft is due; the final, polished version of the definition is due at the same time as your individual essay. Instructions for logging into the site and creating this document will be given in class.

Expectations for the Individual Essay

The definition you craft as a group will form the foundation of the work for this essay. Taking the definition, you will individually craft an analytic essay in which you examine young adult literature through the lens provided by your keyword. The young adult books you’ve read as a group are, of course, suitable material for this paper, although you should feel free to include other titles that you’ve read during the semester. Students in the past have had the most success when they either (1) chose a single title or two and explored that small set through the lens of their keyword, or (2) made a meaningful claim about the keyword in general in the context of young adult literature and then explicated that claim by looking across a broader selection of texts (maybe 5-6).

Let me provide an example to help you see my vision for this project. Suppose I had taken the keyword “new adult” for the project, and part of our work with the definition looked at defining the characteristics of this subset of young adult literature and how some of these characteristics are contested (i.e., they cross over boundaries or they aren’t represented broadly in all cases). In my individual analysis, I could look at a couple of books fitting the new adult classification and analyze how they represent these characteristics and how they are examples of why this definition is still problematic or contested. I might hold up one book as a “typical” representative of the new adult subgroup and then analyze a second book for how it meets some of those expectations but not all of them and how that problematizes the definition of new adult. As I explore these two books, I could draw connections to what others have said about this subgroup and it’s defining features. I might also explore how these two books differ from or how they are similar to books in different subgroups (such as middle grade books or traditional young adult books).

Your individual analysis should focus primarily on YA texts, but make reference to your definition and/or to scholarly sources as appropriate to support your thinking. Your essay should also reach a conclusion about the topic (keyword) and its importance or relevance to the study (or teaching or writing) of young adult literature. My expectations are that the essay be 1,300-1,600 words and follow MLA formatting guidelines for citations and references.


I have a grading sheet that will be used to grade both the keyword definition and the individual essay you write on the literature. You can view a PDF version of that grading sheet by following this link.


You can view several examples of the definition from the YA Lit Keyword Essays site. Linked below are are a handful of individual essays from previous students that I think fulfill these expectations well and demonstrate solid analysis of literature through the lens of a keyword (i.e., they received a high grade).