nnocence can be defined in a handful of different ways.The word originates from the latin word innocens which means blameless or guiltless. The prefix in- meaning “not” and nocens which is the participle form the verb nocere meaning guilty or hurtful.[1] During the 14th Century the term Innocence was given in relation to a crime. It had been used to describe someone who is guiltless or free from the guilt of a specific deed. This is still a part of the definition of the term which we use today.[2] The term began to change in 1706 when it took on another definition which described innocence as being free of evil or lacking in understanding. However, it was not until the beginning of the 19th Century that in the United States the idea of innocence in relation to children and the view of children as innocent came into being [3].

The 19th Century was only the beginning of innocence specifically related to children and childhood. While it may not be so now, there was a time when the idea of childhood innocence was only associated with white children. Dr. Robin Bernstein a professor at Harvard University discusses this idea in an interview stating that, “Popular culture suggested that if they weren’t innocent, then they weren’t children. If they weren’t white, they weren’t innocent,” [4]. Obviously the idea of white children being alone in their innocence did not stay. By the 1920s, many African Americans sought to show and earn the idea of innocence for their own children as well [5]. It was from here forward that we began to fully acknowledge and solidify the idea of innocence of childhood and adolescence.

Loss of Innocence

Adolescence is the time where a loss of innocence generally occurs. Childhood is predominantly believed to be a time in which innocence is celebrated and protected. Adults are expected to have lost (at least some degree) of their innocence[6]. Adolescence is the time between childhood and adulthood where this change is made. Innocence is lost by an increase of experiences that will provoke a greater understanding about the world. These experiences include decisions made by the individual and observations of the decisions of others[7]. Part of these changes and increases of new experiences are brought about due to the physiological and emotional changes which then causes adolescents to question the habits and regularities from their earlier developmental period [8]. Innocence is unteachable because it relies heavily on personal experience. For this reason, you cannot teach someone to be innocent, although you can give them experiences that will cause them to lose their innocence[9].

Innocence in Young Adult Literature

Innocence is a very common idea within Young Adult Literature because it is often connected with the idea of Identity and self-discovery. It is rather standard for the Protagonist in a Young Adult novel to begin some journey within which their identity is made more sure, while at the same time their innocence begins to disappear.

There are many examples of Innocence in Young Adult Literature, but here are a few in a little more detail:

The Giver by Lois Lowry

Within this dystopian tale, there exists a society that has completely eliminated all suffering, color, climate and any type of emotional depth. They have created a “sameness” in all of the individuals within this society as well as the actual earth and weather. Following the protagonist Jonas through his 12th and 13th years as he receives the assignment to become the Receiver of Memory, the reader sees him struggle with the new emotions and concepts that are being introduced to him.[10]

Within this tale, the reader is able to see a society that is completely and entirely void of any understanding. The whole society is in a state of total innocence completely unaware of the consequences of their actions and unable to really comprehend and connect to each other. Jonas is a character who is taken from this complete innocence and as he becomes the Receiver of Memory, we see his slow loss of innocence. While Lowry does not say that all the things are inherently good or bad she invites the reader to ponder on the idea of total innocence.

After the First Death by Cormac McCarthy

After the First Death recounts an incident of terrorists taking over a school bus and holding the children and bus driver hostage. The theme of innocence in this book is unique in that innocence is not always depicted as a good thing. Miro, one of the terrorists, is described as being innocent because he doesn’t understand that his actions are wrong. Being brainwashed and indoctrinated from a young age has influenced his moral beliefs. Most people view loss of innocence as a necessary but sad part of growing up. On page 130 of After the First Death, Kate recognizes that Miro’s innocence has turned him into a monster: “She’d always thought of innocence as something good, something to cherish. People mourned the death of innocence… But innocence, she saw now, could also be evil. Monstrous.”[11] Because Miro does not understand the significance of his actions, he does not see the harm inflicted in the loss of individual life. Thus, innocence can be a catalyst for pain. Interestingly, Miro’s innocence leads him to force others (like Kate, Ben, and the children) to lose their innocence. Thus, one does not need to lose their innocence in order to corrupt the innocence of others. Also, because he is depicted as brainwashed and his childhood was outside of his control, the reader pities Miro but doesn’t hate him. It is not possible to blame the innocent.

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Speak follows the story of Melinda, a girl who lived a happy life until she was raped at a party right before entering high school.[12] She becomes a social outcast. The Young Adult theme of loss of innocence is literally represented in this book by Melinda losing her virginity to her rapist. The effects of this loss of innocence on Melinda are drastic. All of the adults in Melinda’s life seem to care about her, but don’t really know how to help her or how to figure out what is going on with her. Melinda is left to struggle alone because she doesn’t have anyone to speak to. This relates to innocence because often when YA protagonists move from innocent to aware, they realize that they are alone. When a person is innocent, they have someone there to protect that innocence (like a parent or babysitter) and often they are surrounded by a support system. When a person reaches adolescence, they experience growing autonomy for the first time and realize what it is like to be alone. This can be both positive and negative for the individual. For Melinda in Speak, this autonomy is negative because it was forced on her before she felt ready to accept it. Melinda’s loneliness stands as a constant reminder of her loss of innocence.

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

This story is told through the eyes of good-guy Clay, who a few weeks after the suicide of a classmate, receives a shoebox full of old cassette tapes from an anonymous sender. He learns that the tapes were recorded by Hannah Baker, the girl who committed suicide, and have been being passed around to 13 specific people who she has chosen because of the role they played in her decision to take her life.

Switching back and forth between Clay’s reactions and Hannah’s stories, readers experience a loss of innocence through bullying, sexual harassment and assault, isolation, grief, and suicide. Clay, who is basically clueless up until he receives the tapes, is in a state of innocence–naive and ignorant of what exactly is going on around him, we see his purity of mind challenged as he is inoculated by the evil and harshness that surrounds him in his own high school and the effect it had on his classmate. This loss of innocence is what the Author, Jay Asher intended. He hoped to open the eyes of his readers to some of the cruelty in the world and the influence that individuals have in hurting each other.

I Am The Cheese by Robert Cormier

Switching back and forth between the psychoanalysis of the memories of a 17 year old Adam, and the state-crossing bicycle journey of 14 year old Adam, is a slowly unraveling story of a teenage boy whose loss of innocence actually makes his mind crack. As his parents reveal to him that they are in hiding for their own protection, Adam suffers from anxiety as his world splits between the innocence of his childhood and the reality of the danger his family is in.

This story explores the loss of innocence and the effects it has on its recipients. As Adam, who is relatively pure because of his lack of knowledge and naivety to the danger surrounding him, is exposed to his family’s situation by his father, the reader is exposed to the psychological stress a loss of innocence causes. The Author, Robert Cormier, attempts to expose his readers to the realities of mental-disabilities, and the trauma of fear, death, and ignorance.

Considerations for Age Appropriate Material

Because Innocence within young adult literature is so closely connected with the idea of a loss of innocence, often times young adult literature can contain and even focus on experiences that are more raw or real.This in turn can then cause parents, guardians, as well as some educators to hesitate using or inviting teenagers to read certain young adult books. There are some who do not agree with and do not want Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak read because it deals with the subject of rape. Yet, with innocence being intertwined with a loss of one’s innocence, it can only be expected that many books will deal with different kinds of experiences, because teenagers are beginning to experience more and understand more than they had before.

Works Cited

  1. Jump up “innocence”. Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. 29 Feb. 2016. <Dictionary.com>.
  2. Jump up “Innocence.” Wikipedia. N.p., 16 Feb. 2016. Web. 29 Feb. 2016. <>.
  3. Jump up Keches, Krysten. “The Invention of Childhood Innocence.” Harvard Gazette. N.p., 29 Apr. 2010. Web. 29 Feb. 2016. <>.
  4. Jump up Keches, Krysten. “The Invention of Childhood Innocence.” Harvard Gazette. N.p., 29 Apr. 2010. Web. 29 Feb. 2016. <>.
  5. Jump up Keches, Krysten. “The Invention of Childhood Innocence.” Harvard Gazette. N.p., 29 Apr. 2010. Web. 29 Feb. 2016. <>.
  6. Jump up Wolgast, Elizabeth. “Innocence”. Philosophy 68.265 (1993): 297–307. Web…
  7. Jump up Wolgast, Elizabeth. “Innocence”. Philosophy 68.265 (1993): 297–307. Web…
  8. Jump up Thornburg, Hershel D.. “Is the Beginning of Identity the End of Innocence?”.The Clearing House 59.5 (1986): 217–219. Web…
  9. Jump up Wolgast, Elizabeth. “Innocence”. Philosophy 68.265 (1993): 297–307. Web…
  10. Jump up Lowry, Lois. The Giver. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell for Young Readers, 1993. Print.
  11. Jump up Cormier, Robert. After the First Death. New York: Pantheon, 1979. Print.
  12. Jump up Anderson, Laurie Halse. Speak. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1999. Print.