What is Young Adult literature?
by James Rogers
“To see the intelligence in teen literature, we first have to believe in the intelligence of teens.’Jennifer Buehler (2016)
Young Adult literature can change lives. When my sixth grade teacher handed me the book Jackie and Me by Dan Gutman, I was not a reader at the time. I resisted reading like many adolescents. But that year in sixth grade changed me because, as a student, I was interested in mainly one thing: baseball. My teacher identified that and handed me the “Baseball Card Adventures” books all throughout the year. By the time I entered seventh grade, I was a voracious reader, but not of just baseball books; my interests had grown to science fiction and historical fiction—which can all be traced back to that first Dan Gutman book. If it wasn’t for that teacher and young adult literature, who knows what reader, if I even were one, I would turn into.
Young Adult (“YA”) literature, one of the most popular mediums in publishing today, deserves its place in the classroom. A topic of debate is whether YA literature should be incorporated into an ELA curriculum in place of the canonized classic literature. YA fiction presents new opportunities to a dated curriculum and the activities outlined in this portion of the handbook use a decolonial approach to a classroom and curriculum. Students from all backgrounds can be reading an eclectic array of genres: from comic books and graphic novels to poetry collections to biographies of famous celebrities. None of these works are considered “YA;” overall, the majority of ELA curriculum readings are not considered “YA” either (Buehler 2016). Some define YA books as those telling the stories of young protagonists growing into adults, meaning texts like To Kill A Mockingbird, Great Expectations, and Lord of The Flies. Each of those canonical texts are all about young people experiencing the world of adults and its impact on their forming identity; however, these are books written for adults, and are accepted as “good” quality, classic literature. If our goal as educators is to create lifelong readers and a genre of complex texts has emerged geared for adolescents, shouldn’t that dominate the curriculum? Better yet, wouldn’t studying the style and substance that YA literature offers create avenues for students to encounter and appreciate those pieces of literature that are considered “classic” in greater depth later in life? Through reading YA literature and decolonial writing approaches to these texts, students will develop the skills and desire to become lifelong readers, which should be one of our main goals as ELA educators.
Pairing YA Novels with Canonical Texts
Using book clubs can be an efficient way for students to see the value in the classic texts they are required to read. While independent reading time in many schools with the new Next Generation standards deal with creating lifelong interest and having students read what they are interested in during independent reading times, using book clubs to have students explore themes that YA literature shares with canonical texts will be a great way for a teacher to implement YA literature into their curriculum. If students are resistant to the classical texts we are required to read in schools, these YA texts are similar in themes (some are a retelling) to help supplement response to literature department requirements. For students who are interested in the readings, I have included some information to encourage students to consider how themes are portrayed differently/similarities in these works. Teachers can guide students to creating links by asking questions such as:
- What does this specific moment say about the big issue being explored in these works?
- How can these works create a dialogue about this issue?
- Why is one text considered a classic, while another is considered “teen literature”?
Giving students a voice in this debate can help us decolonize the issues at the root of a lot of our conceptual literature units, considering questions like why is YA literature choosing to adopt social justice themes in the 21st century, and further exploring why so many YA books wind up on banned book lists.
Below are books that can pair with a majority of canon texts students will encounter in their educational trajectory. Titles in bold are YA texts.
- To Kill A Mockingbird/Dear Martin by Nic Stone/The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas/All American Boys by Jayson Reynolds and Brandon Kiely –the complexities of race and racism in America and how it impacts minorities.
- One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest/Legend series by Marie Lu (3 books): the moral complications of authority/conformity vs. standing out.
- Othello/One Us is Lying/One of Us is Next by Karen McManus: the complications of how lying/manipulation of one person can impact another person’s motives or actions.
- The Catcher in The Rye/Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman: the complications of how mental illness impacts one’s life academically, socially, and personally.
- Night/Refugee by Alan Gratz: human rights are not specific to one group. What does it mean to be a part of a marginalized group, how does it make oneself reflect differently on how they view themselves, their family, their cultures, their world?
- The Great Gatsby/Great by Sara Benincasa: a YA adaptation of The Great Gatsby that re imagines the story in modern day Hamptons with an LGBTQ+ relationship.
- Of Mice and Men/That was Then, This is Now by S.E. Hinton/Tim’s Stories by S.E. Hinton: students can have discussions of what friendships mean to them, how do events in life morph the people we turn into? What factors us to grow apart from the people we are closet to as we grow up?
- Romeo and Juliet/Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell: unlikely love alliance between people from two separate backgrounds; additionally, regarding Romeo and Juliet’s group belonging and identity aspect, Mexican Whiteboy by Matt De La Pena may provide some insightful discussions into what it means to belong to a culture or group
- Macbeth/Enter Three Witches by Caroline B. Cooney: a re telling of Macbeth from a different point of view; so often we forget with Macbeth that he is the villain of his story as opposed to all other Shakespearean tragedies; what does it mean to be an antihero?
- Hamlet/Saving Hamlet by Molly Booth: Molly Booth’s Saving Hamlet tells the story of a teenager who feels her school’s rendition of Hamlet is destined to fail until she falls through a trap door that sends her to 1601 in the Globe theater; a book that can help students explore both the history and structure of Shakespeare’s plays
Under-the-Radar Titles that Students *Should* Have Access To
With the popularity of YA literature comes the “canonized” YA reading list. Authors like John Green and JK Rowling will dominate classroom libraries (and they deserve to have their place in classroom libraries); however, in my experience, students have both adored these authors and their works while another population of students have resisted the popularity of reading these authors.
One reason I hypothesize why these students are resistant to Rowling and Green’s works are because they’ve been exposed to it so frequently by educators that teachers continue to place those books in libraries expecting students to discover their literary value. It is imperative that students have access to under-the-radar titles that both reflect their interests, appropriately challenge their reading skill level, and are unique in forms of genre. For example, students will often opt to read graphic novels. It is the dominant medium for reading among adolescents with the resurging popularity of the Avengers. As teachers, it is important to identify those students’ interests to help guide them toward other novels in the YA canon.
The importance of literary diversity in the classroom means we cannot just have one genre within the classroom. Students need works that reflect their lives and the teacher needs to understand their students’ interests and backgrounds to encourage reading.
Resources for diverse books:
Decolonized Approaches to Writing Activities with YA Literature
Instead of literary analysis, immerse students in the world of YA criticism (Buehler 2016). In order to do this students can analyze the work of art and its place in their world.
Studying book reviews from publications like Booklist, Bulletin of the Center for Children’s books, Horn Book Magazine, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, and School Library Journal can help students determine characteristics to write their own book reviews, using criticism articles as mentor texts.
Building on this idea of how critics review YA books, students can analyze how an author’s endorsement of texts on the cover of novels creates preconceived notions about the book before you start reading.
The “John Green Effect”
John Green has become so popular that his endorsements can make a book’s popularity rise along with sales. Above are three of the most popular novels published in the past five years; these novels have become three of the most popular titles in the genre. Green’s endorsement is on each cover. Some authors find this to be harmful. For more information, read Aja Romano’s DailyDot article.
Based on this, students can develop their opinions about these books based on the quality of the work of art and write argumentatively about whether or not popular authors, like Green, endorsing titles is beneficial or harmful to YA literature.
Reader Response Activities for YA Literature
Reader response activities are often journals that students can use to reflect on their reading; in essence, a lot of reading response activities are for students to recall information they read, summarize a chapter, or express their reaction. In order to re-define this category in the form of a decolonized approach to reading and writing, students should analyze the implications of book titles, genres authors write, and their own personal reading interests. Below are some activities to help achieve these tasks to make their YA reading meaningful:
- Analyze multiple covers of a different book for an author (even if you haven’t read them)
- What do you notice?
- What does this say about the author’s works?
- How does it change over time?
- Example: Why is a book that recently turned into a movie has such a drastically different cover or how is it similar to the original?
- How would you change the book cover based on what you’ve read so far?
Surely, and mostly often, authors write within a niche genre: Jacqueline Woodson, Kwame Alexander, Jason Reynolds often write books in verse (though those stories vary); John Green’s Abundance of Katherines, Looking For Alaska, and Paper Towns are all very different stories but have similar tropes and characters that students could follow in the realm of realistic fiction. The guiding questions and activities below are a reader response and genre study blend for students to identify their interests in reading.
• What are similarities among an author’s collection of books? Are they vastly different or similar? What does this say about the writer’s position in the YA world?
• Study selection and recommendations of a YA author—what do their own recommended readings suggest about their views and interests surrounding YA literature?
• Why did I choose to read this book? What are the similarities of other books I’ve read? What does that say about my interests as a reader? • Challenge students to write what they have found in the YA books they have already read…..and what they are still looking for in their reading experience. Maybe students love the poetic prose of Jacqueline Woodson or the dialogue in Matt De La Pena books. These approaches to literary devices will provide more meaningful connections.
writing process and craft
Professional writers are almost always willing to share their writing process and, after stories have been published, students can find interviews to learn where a writer found their inspiration to create this story. Students can learn the origin of stories of many works; sometimes it comes from a personal relationship the author has, to a story they heard from a friend, to a current event. Students can learn how the origins of an idea turned into a story through a writer’s process.
- Students will research the origins of a YA novel they read through interviews with the author.
- Students will research the writing habits of that writer. (Does the writer outline their story? Does the writer just do quick writes and pick out the details they like best? Does the writer write journal entries as their characters to gain a better understanding of their story?)
- Have students pick one writing habit of the author they researched to adapt to their own writing process.
These approaches will give students a more thoughtful approach to writing and will prevent monotonous essay writing to just complete an assignment in school.
Resources for use in the classroom:
- This Creative Life podcast (YA authors speak about their writing process and stories)
- A.S. King reflects on ups and downs of her writing life: “The Writer’s Middle Finger”
- Youtube interviews
YA Literature Better Prepares Students to Become Lifelong Readers
With the proper activities that challenge YA literature’s presence in the modern world, students can create meaningful connections to these texts within the state mandated curriculum. Students can have authentic reading and writing experiences in the classroom because these activities help them move beyond the rote memorization of plot points and character names. Instead, they serve as a means to have discussions and write about the purpose of YA literature. If students have authentic moments with both reading and writing in the classroom, they may have a stronger desire to seek reading outside of the classroom. Bringing YA literature into the classroom is a decolonial act in itself because students receive the opportunity to explore stories and narratives that are outside of the canon of literature. With these activities that both meet standards and are alternatively different from traditional response to literature writings or reader response entries, students can engage with a text and the text’s place in the world along with their own place in the world as a reader as well. YA literature will turn our students into lifelong readers that read for both enjoyment and to challenge. As educators, we just need to give them the class time to discover that.
I learned about much of the resources and activities presented here through Teaching Reading with YA Literature: Complex Texts, Complex Lives by Jennifer Buehler. I highly recommend it to any English educator for its insights into the topic of YA literature and classroom activities.