A Review Essay: Responding to Young Adult Literature
Kathleen M. Carico
Virginia Monseau's Responding to Young Adult Literature (Heinemann, 1996) well might be subtitled, "Why Can't We Do This in English Class?" (the title of her fourth chapter). The question comes from a young participant in a university/community English festival who, after engaging in an activity centered on young adult literature, cannot understand why this type of activity must be relegated to "extracurricular" status. Monseau's book argues persuasively that it need not.
In each chapter Monseau brings us "into the reading worlds of adolescents and adults" as they respond to young adult literature. She explores not just the numerous ways response can be elicited -- a valuable topic in itself -- but also seeks to discover how different people respond and what happens as a result. In so doing she addresses critics of reader response, critics of young adult literature and, perhaps most importantly, critics of young adults themselves. For part of our reluctance to approve young adult literature may be that, as author Chris Crutcher points out in the forward, we have not learned to respect adolescence, neither our own nor the experiences of adolescents we teach. Monseau's book goes a long way toward garnering that respect as she gives accounts of teenagers, their literature, and the effect of their transactions.
In Chapter One, "Having Their Say," Monseau shows a group of ninth-grade basic students responding to After the First Death (Dell, 1979) by Robert Cormier. The results surprised Monseau and especially the teacher, who had been concerned that the book was too hard, that the students may not read it, and that they may not respond. And how did they respond? With enthusiasm, with questions, with insights. They were interested enough to talk with each other about character motivation, to ask questions in order to clarify understandings, to chide a classmate for not reading the day's assignment, to write about identification with characters. Monseau comments: "Here was a group of supposedly reluctant readers, reading a complicated novel, the structure of which still puzzles teachers and scholars, and showing remarkable insight into the novel's most complex elements" (p. 5). It is clear in this case and in later activities associated with the book that student motivation stemmed from an interest in and an ability to identify with After the First Death, resulting in, at the very least, a sense of respect for their abilities to contribute.
In Chapter Two, "More Than an Easy Read," Monseau offers evidence to support the use of young adult literature with honors students. Accounts of students' work show clearly how the tasks required the students to attend to many of the common elements associated with the literature curriculum, e.g., making sense of plot, characterization, understanding the work of metaphor. These accounts also suggest that, when we let kids engage in well-conceived, response-oriented tasks situated around meaningful works, what they say will be substantive and insightful, and what they accomplish will be as much or more than standards target. In addition to the convincing accounts, in this chapter Monseau includes ideas from various authors for using young adult literature in the honors class.
Chapter Three focuses on using young adult literature in what may be the last bastion of the classic tradition, the twelfth-grade advanced placement class. In one example, students investigated After the First Death as a tragedy. In discussing their considerations for categorizing it as a tragedy, they were able to probe further into the text, into their own views, and into the lives of the characters, thereby exploring multiple perspectives. Later, the students read Crutcher's Running Loose (Dell, 1983) as a companion to Camus'The Stranger (Vintage, 1942, 1989). The pairing served to clarify both novels and gave the teacher another medium through which to consider existentialism.
Chapter Four gives the account of the English Festival that prompted the title question, "Why Can't We Do This in English Class?... ." Chapter Six, "What's Age Got to Do With It? Adults Respond to Young Adult Literature," also deals with adult responses to the literature outside of the secondary classroom setting, showing why it indeed may be a genre "worthy" of the classroom. Monseau reports, "...[M]y students showed me what can happen when a compelling piece of literature -- regardless of its classification--touches the hearts and souls of its readers" (p. 74). What happens in the lives of adult readers can happen in the lives of young adult readers -- and vice versa.
Chapter Five, "Abolishing `Textoids': Individual Response Through Writing," demonstrates how writing in response to young adult literature can reduce the artificiality of school writing tasks while teaching rhetorical skills. After reading samples of student work and taking into account what they accomplished through doing the work, it is hard to imagine going back to teaching "textoids."
In the last chapter, Monseau invites us to consider her conclusions and to draw our own. It is a compelling invitation. The transcripts she provides throughout the book reveal the value of conversations centered on meaningful texts and are well worth our study and consideration. Most of our students are not so different from the ones described here and could benefit similarly. We teachers would benefit by paying attention not just to her students' words -- written and spoken -- but to the words of our own students, as they express, argue about, and question their responses, and as they explore the issues and characters they encounter in young adult literature.
Why can't we do this in English class? The question is an important one, and for all of the people who pass through our English classes -- from remedial to advanced placement -- I argue, along with Monseau: "Surely the responses of students and teachers described in this book are reason enough to try" (p. 102).
Kathleen Carico is an assistant professor of English language arts at Virginia Tech. She was a recent recipient of an ALAN Research Grant.
Copyright 1996, The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN # 0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.
Reference Citation: Carico, Kathleen M. (1996). A review essay: Responding to Young Adult Literature. The ALAN Review, Volume 24, Number 1, 48.