From S.E. Hinton's breakout tragedy The Outsiders and the "single problem" novels of the 1970s to the darker, genre-based blockbusters, including dystopic bestsellers like The Hunger Games and paranormal romances like Twilight, Young Adult fiction finally met its match with Harry Potter who matured with his readers and with his books. The "HP" series is unique in that it is written just as much for adults as for youth and explores transformation and the complex world between childhood and adulthood: a common theme in YA literature. After JK Rowling hit it big, John Green reintroduced emotional reality with The Fault in Our Stars. This book, among others, marks the inclusion again of single, stand-alone books in a category marked by the series. Also notable in the last decade is some lighter fare. In this "second" golden revolution of young adult literature--a field pioneered by women--many books have wide appeal beyond readers between the narrow age range of 13-18. In fact, over half of YA books are bought by consumers between the ages of 18-45. This is just one reason YA books should be included in the curriculum. They are not just for kids. If adults enjoy them, then they must have literary merit beyond what teenagers like. Their popularity with adults certainly points to the fact that YA books have substance that adult readers respond to just as much as teens do. Moreover, teenagers can relate to the characters and the storylines, which means we are more likely to read them independently--and finish them. Gone will be the days of fake reading! Also, when teachers assign a YA book in a series, that is likely to prompt readers to pick up the next one...or two...or three, even beyond what is required, and isn't that what every teacher dreams of?
Educator and part-time comic Alvin Irby notes that many young readers enjoy humor in their books--not a quality adults look for when they pick books for children. Maybe that's part of the problem, he asserts. When he plans his comedy routines, he must consider his audience, and he thinks teachers, librarians, and other interested adults should do the same for young readers they care about in order to accomplish one main goal: help kids identify as readers. Rather than focusing on skills or levels, we should care about how kids feel about their reading lives. If you identify as a reader, you will do it on your own. However, you won't get a kid to develop an identity without appealing to his or her sense of self unless you appeal to his or her intellectual and aesthetic sensibilities. You must consider young adults as co-creators of knowledge, following the work of education revolutionary Paolo Friere. Irby's number one goal is to get his young readers to laugh--not unlike his goal with his audiences at the comedy clubs where he moonlights. For example, he may have some good jokes about bars: "A pope walks into a bar where he sees a nun, a politician, and a prostitute." But is he going to tell his bar joke in a church? No, that is not the right audience for it. Same with readers. This provides a good argument for reading young adult novels instead of classics in the classroom. Reading Shakespeare or Chaucer as a way to develop reading identities is like telling a bar joke in a church. It won't go over well. However, if you know your audience and you select material they will respond to, it is much more likely they will develop that identity: the cornerstone to being able to uttering that statement that will affect them forever: "I'm a reader."
In the 1940s, comics were wildly popular. Then, a psychologist blamed them for juvenile delinquency, and they fell out of favor. In the last few decades, they have enjoyed a renaissance, even in the classroom where Chicago-based educators like Ronell Whitaker and Eric Kallenborn, pictured above, have used them to supplement or even replace classics that were not successful with struggling readers or reluctant readers. There is research to back up this practice. First, we know that visual representation helps people understand and retain information. When visuals accompany text, people tend to use higher order thinking skills to interpret it. While this is certainly important, it is also fun, which shouldn't be overlooked when struggling readers have been long been disenfranchised by schools that don't seem to be built for them. In fact, in libraries with more graphic novels, librarians note an 80% increase in usage of facilities and, even more startling, a 30% increase in circulation of non-graphic novels on the shelves, just because there are comics near them. That seems astounding. Books seem easier when there are graphic novels nearby, it would appear. Yes, it may be true that comics and graphic novels help readers grow independently but can they actually help us understand the classics? Whitaker and Kallenborn wanted to know the answer to this question, so they tested it in their classroom, first with the epic poem Beowulf. Twenty seven AP students read the classic--half the text only and have the graphic novel. When they were tested on the standardized exam, those who read the graphic novel did 3% less well than the other group. However, when Kallenborn tried his experiment again with Hamlet, the results were reversed. Those students who read the graphic novel fared better than their text-only counterparts. This study suggests that it isn't just YA novels that can replace (or support) classics; updated versions of the classics can also serve an important purpose in our current classroom. It makes sense. When teachers rely on popular culture to instruct, students tune in. This article suggests that graphic novels are another way to support a better, more engaging reading life for teens.
Rajat Bhageria agrees with us. He does not believes teachers should spend so much time on the classics, especially 500-year-old Shakespearean texts in which most of the action occurs off stage. While he does think that some more modern classics, like The Great Gatsby, have merit, in part because students can better relate to the language and to the plot lines. He also thinks there are contemporary novels that better address the human condition as we experience it today. For example, Let the Great World Spin, he thinks is a better, more accessible, equally meritorious text that could easily replace Romeo and Juliet. But he thinks it won't. Why not? First, because he believes that curricular decisions have been made at a distance by leaders who are disconnected from the classroom. Instead of concerning themselves with teaching students how to navigate today's abstract culture by focusing on modern authors, advertising/print making, and contemporary journalism, they are obsessed with tradition: we have always taught it this way, so this way we will continue. He believes teachers are not the answer. Even when they know the material is not engaging, they will not do anything about it because they have invested years in developing their lesson plans, and it would take too much time and effort to overhaul their curriculum. Bhageria doesn't think the system is broken per se, but he believes it could be better. Or rather that we will never know if it could be better unless we try something different. Young adult literature could be the answer, though the author does not believe there is a fighting chance at getting it included in classrooms today. What he forgets is the power of youth to advocate for change on their own behalf. Witness what the Parkland kids have done in Florida for gun laws and how they wielded the potential of social media to galvanize millions of people to march on Washington in March 2018. Moreover, teachers can be students' allies in this change. Most teachers are willing to change their practices to make education more engaging for kids. They don't want to deliver stale material to bored teenagers day after day. They want kids to grow up to be active, lifelong readers, and if retiring some old lessons in favor of new strategies is the key, perhaps many will be down for a partnership with kids who identify as readers and want to adopt a new curriculum that better speaks to the current generation.