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The Reading Quilt: Adolescent angst and YA Lit

Jamaica Kincaid explores the mother-daughter relationship.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The journey from adolescence to adulthood has many twists and turns. Emotionally, young people experience turmoil as they try desperately to leave their bubble of comfort and become independent. This quest for independence sometimes inspires young people to make rash and misguided decisions, and these types of decisions are central to the stories that make young adult literature so compelling. Nicknamed YA Lit, the genre started in the ’60s, when life for young people was fraught with violence sparked by racial injustice and political problems.

Each month “The Reading Quilt” provides a short review of a book that a teacher may use to spark conversations about culture and race, along with a learning activity that may help students understand human behavior. Using the acronym QUILT, we offer readers information about the Quality of writing, and Imaginative plot, as well as a mini Lesson plan, and Talking points that stem from the book’s premise. This month, our focus is a YA Lit book that offers the beautiful Caribbean island of Antigua as the setting of teen angst and rebellion.

Jamaica Kincaid, born in St. John’s, Antigua, began her life as Elaine Potter Richardson on May 25, 1949. When she was born, her parents did not anticipate that she would come to be celebrated as the “most important West Indian woman writing today.” Kincaid, the author of many notable books, reveals much of her life in her work. Her novels Annie John (1984) and Lucy (1990) are mostly autobiographical, as is her novel My Brother (1997), which details the heart-wrenching life and death of her baby brother Devon Drew, who died from AIDS.

Quality: Opening with an almost childlike description of her idyllic, albeit sheltered, surroundings and mini-farm, Annie John, the book’s protagonist, reveals her fears, preoccupation with death, and roller-coaster relationship with her mother, who is the center of her universe. First the object of Annie’s adoration, her mother quickly becomes the center of her loathing. The plot, filled with drama, closely resembles Jamaica Kincaid’s life.

Universal theme: Often at the center of much discussion and analysis, the mother-daughter relationship is a theme that authors love to explore. Kincaid’s novel weaves in nuances around homosexuality and separation anxiety that add to the theme’s intrigue. With its extended descriptions of Annie’s idyllic island life, the book soothes the soul as the reader is emotionally swaddled by the relaxing milieu.

Imaginative story: Coming-of-age stories are popular in literature because the journey from youth to adulthood is a fascinating and often painful time. Kincaid captivates readers in Annie John by detailing Annie’s emotional state as she is catapulted into adulthood. This causes a painful tear in Annie’s relationship with her mother. Actually, it sparks a raging war within the child as she grapples with the juxtaposition of her cocoon-like world and the cruel, ugly outside world. This kind of angst is a hallmark of the YA genre.

Lesson plan: YA Lit is growing in popularity, with about 30,000 YA titles published each year. S.E. Hinton, author of The Outsiders (1967), once lamented that the world is ever-changing, yet books for young people are stagnant, their plots not reflecting the reality of life.

“Teenagers today want to read about teenagers today,” Hinton said.

A lesson about Annie John may center on the lives of young people in the public eye who represent the social, political, or racial turmoil experienced by many teens today.

Talking points: In Annie John, Kincaid offers a captivating story of a girl and her mother whose relationship is rife with hostility. Psychologists tell us that the mother-daughter relationship is complicated for many reasons. If this is true, perhaps this relationship has caused pain in thousands of adolescent girls.

The following questions can help spark class discussion.

For the girls:

  1. Describe your relationship with your mother.
  2. Is the relationship nurturing or toxic?
  3. If the relationship is toxic, how can you let your mother know that you are not feeling loved and supported?

For the boys:

  1. The mother-daughter relationship is often complicated. How can you support your mother as she strengthens her relationship with her daughter?
  2. How can you support your sister as she works through feelings of angst?
  3. What significance does being your sister’s big or little brother play in your life?

If boys don’t have sisters, you can ask them to describe their own feelings and relationships.

Rachel Slaughter earned her doctoral degree in Cognitive Studies in Reading at Widener University. Her dissertation explores multicultural literature in private schools through the lens of Critical Pedagogy. The books she has written include one for fathers and sons that provides fun activities to promote reading: “Daddy, REAd to Me (DREAM): The Virtual Trophy Abecedarium and Journal for Fathers and Sons.” To contact her, email For other multicultural literary suggestions, follow her on Google Plus or go to

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