By: Laura Paton, section editor for student literature/art (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Young adult literature is a hot button topic for those concerned with today’s youth, whether that be teachers, people pursuing a degree in teaching, or even people who enjoy reading it themselves, like me.
Everyone has gone through the obligatory reading of the classics in high school, and whether you enjoyed it or not is your prerogative. I am a self-professed lover of the classics (most of them, at least), but lately I’ve been thinking about whether or not that is an effective way of teaching students about literature, especially high school students.
I have never been a reluctant reader, so I cannot make a comment on how books have encouraged me to read; because I have always loved reading. However, it is my belief that young adult literature would provide students (especially reluctant readers) with books they can connect to, and characters with problems not unlike their own.
Kids in high school don’t want to read books set in Victorian England, about 20-something women, or even middle-aged women and men. And while these classics are treasured by many of us, who have learned to appreciate them for what they are; the truth is that many high school students are simply not ready for these classics (and maybe they never will appreciate them like we do).
Does this mean something is wrong with these kids? Some people would say yes, but I say no. While I did enjoy the books I read in high school, I can tell you I devoured books I got from the library much more quickly because they related to me. They were interesting, funny, and yes, easier to read than Henry James of Ernest Hemingway. Just because a book is not challenging does not mean that a student will get nothing out of it. Young adult literature teaches kids about life, and it gives them a constructive way to escape their problems and dive into a world where they can live a different life.
Morgan Gleasman, a senior at UIC, feels very strongly about young adult literature – especially Harry Potter, the popular series by British author J.K. Rowling. “Growing up, it was great to escape to the magical wizarding world, visualizing Hogwarts, and life as a young witch attending school,” said Gleasman in an interview via e-mail. “Not only did these books allow me to create and explore a new world, but they created a sort of “role model” figure in some of the characters. Hermione taught me that being intelligent was valuable, while Harry taught me that being courageous, even when scared, was important. Ron taught me that it was okay to have fun and make jokes. There were many other lessons from the characters themselves, but the “Golden Trio” always stands out in my mind.”
This is a prime example of the benefits of young adult literature. While Morgan is only one person, she stands for many teens who feel the same way. I’m sure if we checked the inboxes of many young adult authors, such as Meg Cabot, Veronica Roth, Margaret Peterson Haddix, and of course J.K. Rowling, we would find Morgan’s words echoed.
Regarding teaching young adult literature, Gleasman also thinks that Harry Potter would be “an excellent book for students, as it teaches core values such as courage, bravery, loyalty, friendship, etc.”
While Harry Potter has been challenged by many people as “promoting witchcraft” (check out this ridiculous site), this is an assertion made by people who clearly have not read the books and discovered the core values that they teach. These are the same types of people who say books like Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson promote sex (when clearly it is meant to provide awareness about rape).
Additionally, Gleasman says that having students read books that they can actually enjoy and engage in is “the most influential thing a school can do.” I can’t help but agree – I know in my personal experience, I have been greatly affected by young adult literature (The School Story, by Andrew Clemens, which arguably has a bit of a lower age demographic than young adult, inspired me to pursue my dream of being a book editor), and has made me enjoy reading all the more. I also think that since young adult books (especially of the supernatural type, which are growing ever more popular) have very big fan bases, it gives young readers the chance to interact with the books (and the authors) outside of school, which will hopefully increase their engagement with books and reading in general!
Brandon Pieczynski, student at the College of DuPage, has this to say about The Giver by Lois Lowry, which he says his 5th grade teacher recommended to him: “I remember reading it and loving the story and how frightening it would be to live in a place with no colors, music, or memories. I of course didn’t understand much of the book until I grew older but….I guess it is kind of a reminder to me to always keep learning and experiencing and making new memories. Most of all I think it made me appreciate the beauty of the world and all of its inhabitants, because without colors, music, or memories, there would be no need for the word beautiful.” Brandon’s apt words represent what I wish could be every student’s relationship with reading – engagement and personal connection with the text.
Hopefully, teachers will begin to see the value of young adult literature in the classroom, and experiences like Brandon’s and Morgan’s can be considered the norm. I really think young adult literature has the power to make more children and teenagers into book lovers, and I believe that has the power to change our world. I’ve quoted this in a previous article, but I think it’s worth doing so again: Ray Bradbury once said, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” Truer words have never been spoken.