The students’ essays candidly and passionately captured the essence of YA; their essays speak for themselves and contribute a significant voice to the advocacy for YA Lit.
The Prompt: In an essay of 750-1,000 words (3-4 double spaced pages), discuss the following: Why YA Literature? In the broad sense, what can YA Literature do to promote and foster literacy or the desire to read in a world where 40% of teens identify as “aliterate” – meaning they can read, but they choose not to? What is the value of YA Lit? Why does it deserve a place in English courses on the university level?
For those of you who plan on teaching, hone in more specifically, describing how you can incorporate YA Lit in high school or middle school. How does YA Literature fulfill the concerns of those who might argue that YA Literature does not deserve a place in the Literary Canon?
Your essay will be evaluated on the specific examples and evidence you incorporate. To that end consider referencing ideas from the six books we read in common, the texts--Literature for Today’s Young Adults (materials from the online handouts) and Adolescents in the Search for Meaning: Tapping the Powerful Resource of Story, the book talks, the Chris Crutcher video presentation; Dr. Bickmore’s YA Wednesdays, and the units of study/annotated bibliographies. As you discuss the importance of YA Lit., highlight points of information you now know about YA Literature, which you did not know before you took this course.
Being a teenager means learning how to function in society, how to speak for yourself even if you are afraid to and as Melinda in Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel Speak, ‘There is a beast in my gut, I can hear it scraping away at the inside of my ribs. Even if I dump the memory, it will stay with me…’ (Anderson). For most teenagers, high school is a very important period in their lives where they learn to speak for themselves…particularly young women could find an important message in Speak, one that is more relatable than the one the Bennet daughters give in Pride and Prejudice…
By having characters that they can relate to, students could be more inclined to read…In Matt de la Peña’s We Were Here the main character is described by another character as ‘a normal kid who did something very bad’ yet continues to beat himself up and believes himself to be a bad kid (Peña). I feel that many adolescents could find themselves in this particular work as many feel the need to be rebellious as teens…
When I was a high school student, I did not read very much. I would be what is considered an ‘aliterate’ student. It was not because I could not read well, it was because I could not find any literature that I could relate to. I could not relate to Jay Gatsby or the pigs in Animal Farm, so I was not interested in the novels at that time. It is because of my personal high school experience that I believe YA literature is important to teach in high school; these characters are ones that I know I would have related to because some of them went through experiences that I did. Many of the characters faced situations that I faced, but I was sadly unprepared for all of them. These novels could have helped me in those times and could probably help a great deal of other teenagers right now. YA literature deserves to be taught in high school as well as in college because of its universality and its importance as a bridge between children’s literature and more academic works. As someone who plans to be a teacher someday, I will try as hard as I can to include YA novels in my classroom…if they [my students] would rather read Whale Talk than The Great Gatsby that’s fine by me because they probably relate more to T. J. than to Jay Gatsby.” Jason
Furthermore, YA literature also presents students with characters and narratives that they can enjoy and maybe even relate to. As a teenager, I felt misunderstood and unimportant. I didn’t think that my voice or my feelings mattered in the ‘real world’ of adults, but I learned through YA literature that I wasn’t alone in my thought process and that how I felt did matter. According to Literature for Today’s Young Adults, before reaching the sixth and seventh stages of literary appreciation – aesthetic appreciation – readers tend to read ‘to find out about themselves, not simply to escape into someone else’s experiences for a few, pleasurable hours’ (LfTYA 5). With that in mind, YA literature can also give the reader a sense of belonging and identity.
…However, I believe the most crucial element of YA literature is the ways in which the books deal with relationships. Whether it’s dealing with parents, friends, teachers, bullies, significant others, authoritative figures, God, or even nature, YA literature usually gives an accurate portrayal of the inner workings of relationships. Karen Hesse’s Witness deals with themes of racism and hate, but also shows the strength of human bonds and love can transcend hate. Hesse’s character Sara Chickering exhibits this love through her mother-daughter type relationship with both Esther Hirsh and Leanora Sutter.
Moreover, Chris Crutcher’s Whale Talk and Matt de la Peña’s We Were Here both depict the difficult struggles of male adolescence. In both novels, the importance of friendship is highlighted especially when confronting problems of that magnitude. Miguel, Mong, and Rondell share the same brotherly love for each other as the Magnificent Seven do in Whale Talk. It’s important for young adults to know their family isn’t comprised [solely] of people that are related to them.” Trang
Probably one of the most important concepts as to why YA literature is so important is that it allows young adults to find an escape from reality. When young adults read YA literature it allows them, in a sense, to broaden their surroundings. The world in which they live will all of a sudden seem a lot [vaster] because of that, those who do not read may have a more narrow-minded view on the world, only drawing on the culture directly around them versus a broader scope of the world that is available in literature. Furthermore, when young adults find a way to escape, they may find a sense of inclusion in the world they read about or in the characters they come to understand and love. Having been a young adult I remember feeling that sometimes people did not understand me, but when I read about a character with similar trains of thought I felt like I was finally understood and that someone cared. Along with this concept of inclusion, young adults will be able to find emotional support from their characters. Young adults are not always placed in certain environments that are ‘ideal,’ and may not have an outlet for pent up emotions; however, reading about a character who is going through the same situation may allow the young adult to find a sense of comfort. What any young adult should not feel is alone. But this can translate to adults as well. When young adults, or adults, feel along there is a desperate need to be understood or to find sympathy, and when that feeling of being alone grows then that is when problems start to arise. That is when depression may set in and if a young adult cannot find an outlet or an escape, then those emotions can be translated into violence. But YA literature can be that emotional support when upheaval ensues.
…YA literature [also] not only teaches young adults, but adults, how to deal with ideas like isolation, fear, or traumatic experiences. Young adults can find comfort that these characters may be going through the same situations or feelings as the reader, but may also learn how to deal, in a healthy way, with difficult issues that arise. For example, in Witness by Karen Hesse, the character Leanora Sutter feels isolation from her racist community. Leanora, having dealt with some racist remarks explains in her own way her isolation: ‘I walked out of school/I didn’t know where I was going./I just walked out/without my coat,/without my hat or rubbers./I didn’t feel the cold,/ I was that scorched.’ Here, Leanora feels ostracized and alone from her community, and she has an emotional response to the discrimination she has endured. Not only is she dealing with racism, a difficult issue to experience, but along with that racism Leanora feels alone in her own home. This book will help young adults to be able to feel a sense of connection to Leanora, especially those who feel alone when dealing with racism…
YA literature addresses so many concepts and ideas that can be translated into adult literature as well. YA literature is a stepping stone towards more complexity as well. While some students may feel that literature is too hard to read or understand, YA literature allows the young adult audience to understand that not all novels are ‘complex’ in language or in concepts. However, certain concepts may seem mature or complex, but can be easily understood in the guise of a YA novel. When students are able to understand the material, it is more likely that they will read it. While many students may see novels as boring or cookie cutter, incorporating fantasy novels may allow students to expand their minds to new worlds, but still find a connection to the world in which they live. Even by reading these novels on a university level, students will be able to use this knowledge for their own classes, but also understand that YA literature does not have to be boring or typical, but can be enlightening and interesting, that even complex concepts can be found in YA literature and can be used in the university canon. Simply put it, reading allows students to gain knowledge of themselves, others, the world, their community…” Mariah
While YA literature is written for young adults, it also extends beyond them. For one, teenagers eventually grow up. They become adults, they vote, they work, they inherit the previous generation’s world and create the way for the future of the next generation. The things that they learn in schools, media, and from experiences shape who they become. Well written YA literature teaches readers to be empathetic, aware, and curious. For these reasons, I also think that it is valuable to YA literature to be involved at the university level. While college students are considered adults, most of them are fresh out of or just a few years from high school. Two years into adulthood, ‘adults’ are still teenagers at eighteen and nineteen years old. College is a big version of high school, with bigger campuses, social networks, people, and consequences. YA literature still deals with the problems of living in this world, and while they may not be as immediate for adults as they are for teenagers, every adult still had to grow up to get there and can relate to experiences of adolescence. In addition to all of this, many adults will interact with adolescents at one point or another. They’ll become parents, educations, mentors, or work in administrations and business that affect the world that teenagers will live in. Many teenagers are subject to the decisions of adults in this way, and YA literature is a great resource for adults to understand how their actions affect them.
Reading is a valuable skill and, like all skills, can be lost or numbed with neglect. The fast-paced nature of YA literature is a great way to sharpen reading skills when [teens are] caught up in the busy routine of this fast-paced world. The fact that it’s written for teenagers does not lessen its value any more than being a teenager lessens the value of a human being. Life can get hard and quality YA literature teaches teenagers that they are not alone and there is more to come. Allison
One characteristic of YA literature (which is closely related to Exeter Quality 6) presented in the online handouts Literature for Today’s Young Adults (chapter 1) says ‘The body of work includes characters from many different ethnic and cultural groups.’ The importance of this characteristic should be duly-noted. In every classroom I’ve been in this year, the backgrounds of students are always mixed. The book talks are proof of how YA literature can reach to all types of backgrounds. Anton’s book talk on The Port Chicago 50 describes the hushed event during WW II in which an explosion killed many African-Americans. Luke’s book talk on Gabi, A Girl in Pieces details the struggles of an overweight Mexican-American trying to fit in during dark times in her life. An assigned book we read, We Were Here follows three young males who are all from different backgrounds: African-American, Mexican, and Chinese, on their journey. These books invite those ethnicities who may have felt marginalized due to the importance of reading canonical works for so long to read YA books that tend to connect to a wider audience.
This course on YA literature has allowed me to view life from a different perspective. I once dismissed the genre simply based off of the negative comments and reviews I would hear from the naysayers. The quick reaction to dismiss something I have yet to try and understand will forever be a valuable lesson. During this semester, I lent a copy of one of my favorite YA novels, The Alchemist, to a friend who was struggling to transition in a hectic time of his life. His response to the book was heartwarming. He revealed to me a few things: he appreciated how the novel was written. The diction was simple and enjoyable which didn’t make it a difficult read. He could connect to the protagonist in more than one way. He revealed the novel made him grow as a person…Most important and also the most joyful part of the feedback is the fact that he shared that book with three other family members. What he gained from the book prompted him to share that feeling with other people. This is the beauty and importance of YA literature… In a day where technology consumes almost every aspect of our daily routine, it was refreshing to see how a book helped my friend in a time of confusion. If a book like The Alchemist influences someone in his late 20s, I can only imagine how it can affect a young adult in middle or high school. Not only is YA literature a valuable part of young adult education…the genre can very well resonate with adults too.” Casey
One other Exeter quality…is ‘Themes that allow the possibility of emotional and intellectual growth through engagement of personal issues.’ Essentially good YA literature will allow students to directly tackle any personal issues that they are facing…There are plenty of books dealing with plenty of different issues, so tailoring a unit to a class becomes easy with resources such as Dr. Bickmore’s YA Wednesdays and our book talks/annotated bibliographies/units of study. (Students’ page) If for example, a Hispanic student is dealing with racial identity issues, I could easily recommend books such as Mexican Whiteboy by Matt de la Peña (Ricky Clark’s book talk) or Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero, (Luke Coulter’s book talk) because I already have background on them. The large number of genres gone over in our unit of studies/annotated bibliographies makes it just as easy to give books to teens for pleasure. If this class has taught me anything, it is that YA literature is a great tool for getting students interested in reading, and one that is severely underused in the classroom. As a student who used to hate reading, I find that when I teach I must make an effort to use these resources to get students interested in reading. However, using YA literature does not mean getting rid of the classics all together, or put any less importance on them. In fact, the units of study/annotated bibliographies taught me that YA literature can help build on or even introduce the canonical works…
When I was in middle school, I was bullied on and off. In 7th grade, I was pushed to the ground and broke my wrist. After that, the same bullies threatened to do it to me again as a sort of sick joke. Despite the support from my friends and family, I never really had the tools for coping with it or even understanding why the bullies would do this in the first place. This led to some depression in high school that I once again had trouble coping with. I can’t help but feel that if I had a work of YA literature such as the book I did my book talk on, Endgame by Nancy Garden, that I could have felt like I was not the only one going through this. While I will always love the literary canon for the great stories it provides, I am the first to admit that teens really need more. They need stories that they connect to, that help show them how to deal with problems they cannot talk about with others. Ultimately, I want to use YA literature in the classroom to help students, to give them a way to cope with life in a constructive way by showing them that they are not alone.” Maximillian
Beyond simply making the book fun to read, this language provides a springboard for the class to explore language. A high school class can discuss how Miguel’s language affects the reading of the story and perception of him, how it affects and marks his relationships with other characters, and finally how Mong’s, Rondell’s, Miguel’s, and Jaden’s voices help establish them as unique characters. This discussion of language can open to a broader discussion of how language and voice shapes all texts and characters, not just those in YA lit. The examination of characters’ unique language and its role in characterizing them can be applied to canonical texts like The Character in the Rye where Holden has an extremely unique voice; Huckleberry Finn where Huck, Tom, and Jim are limited and separated in some ways based on speech. Language is essential in understanding characters as well as ourselves, and this is why Exeter Quality 5: ‘Lively, Varied, and Imaginative Language that is Grammatically Correct’ is so valid…” Tyler
I know that growing up I had my fair share of existential dilemmas, and I too felt alone in dealing with. Through literature, though, I was able to find comfort and answers to many questions. The reason for this is that YA literature provided me with a safe place to confront my personal issues. That is the power of YA literature. It takes complicated adult themes and presents them in a way that adolescents can understand and learn from. In Adolescents in the Search for Meaning: Tapping the Powerful Resource of Story, Dr. Warner explains that YA literature allows readers to vicariously experience difficult themes at a safe and neutral distance (Warner, XIV). One of the things that I learned from this course is that these topics are far from childish. The YA literature that I read in this class touched on serious subjects such as racism, sexuality, rape, death, grief, and depression. These are all issues that adolescents will begin to deal with as they get older, which is why it is important for them to have literature designed to address these themes…” Ariel
The ideas and themes that reside within a YA novel are not only for young adults, but also for anyone at all really. That is the beauty of humanity, that the pain we feel, no matter how unique, can still be universal. There are others out there that go through some of the same things and problems, and there are ways to find them and get to know them by talking and communicating experiences through stories. And maybe, just maybe, by telling others those stories, a community can be formed, a place to belong to. That is why I believe YA literature should be taught to young adults.” Miguel
The first and most obvious trait of YA literature is that it can be entertaining; this allows for the attraction of teens who are reluctant to read. As Miguel brings out in We Were Here, the sole purpose of reading should not be simple to read because it is a requirement, but also to read in order to ‘see what happens.’ Rather than having teens be made to read because they have to, which simply is not an attractive notion, teens would be more involved in reading if they actually enjoyed doing it. Luckily YA lit has no shortage of entertainment. From the magical vibes of Harry Potter to the heated interior of the bus in After the First Death, there is no limit to the material that teens can read to ‘see what happens’ rather than to ‘see what you’ll read because you have to.’
Moreover, the dynamic nature of YA literature further builds its use as a means of entertainment and can attract teens to reading, as YA literature consists of multiple genres, has the ability to take place in any time period, and includes multiples themes; teens will certainly find these qualities attractive, as they have the opportunity to either ‘lose’ or ‘find’ themselves when reading… For instance, many presentations [units of study and book talks] bring out the idea that YA literature can be used as teacher of life lessons. Natalie Collier’s unit of study effectively utilizes the notion of death and the idea that the world can be a tragic place, and brings out the fact that young adults can read stories relating to the theme of death to understand the tragedies that make up their own environment. This can easily be incorporated with a novel such as After the First Death by Robert Cormier, as its violence, fear, suspense, and tragedy reveal to teens that endings aren’t always happy in the real world. On the other hand, Miguel Adea executes his unit of study in a manner that focuses on depressions; he reveals that YA literature teaches teens valuable lessons about mental illness, including the fact that they ‘are not alone.’ Teens can go about this approach by reading Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. They will see familiar effects of depression first hand, and then journey with the protagonist to recovery…” Daniel
The best YA literature contains several qualities that can help imbue this empathy. Unlike ‘much of the literary canon,’ it can ‘reflect experiences of teen readers’ (Literature for Today’s Young Adults). Rather than being about an ancient king, Speak begins on the protagonist Melinda’s ‘first morning of high school.’ By starting with something identifiable and easy to connect with for high school students, Speak is able to ‘go beyond typical experiences.’ Most high school students have not been raped, but walking in Melinda’s shoes as she attempts to survive her freshman year opens that experience up to everybody. This helps those students who have had something similar happen to them by giving them a chance to step outside their own fear and anxiety, and it helps to establish a community around them that is more understanding of the damage that they might have. It fosters empathy and understanding among the entire class – something that a canonical work might have significantly more trouble doing. By addressing a theme that students can connect with, Speak provides a much better opportunity for ‘emotional and intellectual growth’ (Literature for Today’s Young Adults).
This ‘intellectual growth’ leading to ethical understanding is easier to attain with YA literature than it is with more ‘academic’ works, as well. In Whale Talk, T. J.’s mother says ‘as long as we’re going down this road, let’s go all the way.’ She then proceeds to lay out the sequence of events that would occur if T.J. were to assault Mike Barbour. Whale Talk engages the reader’s interest by setting up a typical excuse for justified violence and then subverts the expectation caused by this in an organized, logical way. Whale Talk provides a model for engaging with an emotional situation intellectually, which is a tool directly useful to teenagers’ lives. These tools show up fairly frequently in YA literature. These models almost always appear in themes that emphasize facing past troubles with honesty and integrity, rather than running and hiding. We Were Here’s protagonist Miguel is about to flee America for Mexico when he realizes that he can’t. There is a deep upwelling of emotion within him, and he recognizes that trying to run away from his problems won’t work. He lacks the introspective ability to recognize why, but he intuits it all the same. Similarly, in Witness, Merlin van Tornout decides to stop running from the law and accept what awaits him back in his home town. Canonical works seldom provide these ethical models, and even when they are there, the texts themselves get in the way of the lesson more often than not…” Luke
In fact, good YA literature can bridge a gap between the surface-level simplicity of Winnie the Pooh and the surface-level complexity of Jane Eyre, preparing young adults not only for the increased complexity and critical analysis of adult literature, but also for the increased complexity and critical analysis of their rapidly-approaching development of adult lives. In their book, Literature for Today’s Young Adults, authors Alleen Nilsen and Kenneth Donelson posit that good YA literature contains protagonists who reflect teen readers’ experiences or ‘go beyond experiences so that readers can use the fictional experiences to learn and develop in their own lives.’ Through these characters and their stories, young adult readers can form their stances on their identities and ethics, learning such concepts as love, death, life, fear, courage, depression, hope, self-expression, and human relations. Although the protagonists of YA literature tend to be teen themselves, the depth of themes and variety of perspectives provided in YA literature are universal and readers of any age or background can find entertainment and wisdom in these stories…” Nichelle
Art without emotion is like chocolate cake without sugar. It makes you gag…
The next time you work on your tree, don’t think about trees. Think about
love, or hate, or joy, or rage – whatever makes you feel something, makes your
palms sweat or your toes curl. Focus on that feeling. When people don’t express
themselves, they die one piece at a time. You’d be shocked at how many adults
are really dead inside…
This quote is representative of the book in the way that it expresses the true depth in theme that Speak covers. Many students can and will be impassioned by this kind of insight as it is presented in a way that is clear, concise, and not fogged over with flowery language or content to which teens can’t relate. Young people are in a constant state of finding themselves, and Speak offers a tremendous amount of guidance within its themes.
In addition to Speak’s relatability to teens on a personal level, it has huge potential to be paired successfully with traditional canonical works of literature. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a wonderful potential pairing with Speak. Not only is The Scarlet Letter referenced in the book, Speak, the main characters of each story, Melinda and Hester have common trials that they each go through. One particular commonality between Hester and Melinda is the fact that each of them has been harshly judged by the society around them. Hester is branded as an immoral adulteress, and Melinda is viewed as a reject and troublemaker, both of these labels unfair and incorrect of each protagonist…” Annie
The value of YA literature is underappreciated by most, as I would personally know. Coming to this class I was unaware of just how crucial it was for young adults to be exposed to this literature; but leaving, I would like to go out and promote its value. If I do go into teaching, I will incorporate not only YA literature into my curriculum, but also probably teach [or use] some of the books that we have read in class. The value is in the personal connections with the readers as well as the necessity to think critically -- YA does both. It deserves a place in English courses at both the high school and university level because the themes are relevant to all ages, but especially [to] those in high school. I know personally that I did not connect with the literature that was assigned in high school because it did not relate to me; but YA literature does – it has characters and themes that almost all can relate to because they are so real and have real-life problems. For this, it deserves to be in the literary canon and is vital for the teen reader.” Randi