“You can’t dismiss something as nonacademic just because of its form or because it’s directed at a certain demographic,” says Jonathan Alexander, Chancellor’s Professor of English. Steve Zylius / UCI

Pop lit protagonist

English professor who studies the genre believes young adult fiction has come of age

Jonathan Alexander first took an interest in young adult fiction – like millions of others over the past two decades – through J.K. Rowling’s ubiquitous Harry Potter series. However, his appreciation of the wizarding world came later than most.

“I really didn’t care for the books when I first read them in the late ’90s. I didn’t think they’d be much to pay attention to,” says Alexander in his Krieger Hall office, amid teetering stacks of vibrant paperbacks. “I guess I was wrong about that one, but I’ve been trying to make up for it ever since.”

The Chancellor’s Professor of English at UCI is a leading expert in the genre and editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books’ young adult section. But he didn’t realize the magnitude of YA fiction until he attended a Harry Potter book release party in the mid-2000s. Surrounded by hundreds of adolescents sporting wizard robes, Alexander was stunned by the unprecedented international fervor the novels had created. It was the perfect study for his field, the impact of literacy on beginning readers.

“Young adult books were getting larger and longer, and people were reading them for pleasure – absolutely loving them. There was an explosion in the genre,” he says. “I couldn’t help but try to figure out what effect YA fiction was having on people’s lives, and for the past decade, that’s what I’ve been doing.” Read more.

Jonathan Alexander’s 5 most influential YA novels

The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton: This book likely started it all in the late 1960s and is still a compelling narrative, written by a very young woman grappling with issues of class and privilege in a small Oklahoma town.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie: A major literary fiction writer tackles the YA genre to spectacular effect in this pulls-no-punches story of a Native American teen contemplating going to a largely white high school off his Indian reservation.

First Day on Earth, by Cecil Castellucci: An eerie but moving YA novel that deserves more attention, this beautiful little book describes the strange relationship between two misfit teens and their connection to a homeless man who says he’s from another planet. Read more.