Books for the College-Bound: Choices and Challenges
Diane P. Tuccillo
Introduction: Following a Successful Lead
Every day, teens come to the public library looking for "classics." Often, they are not sure what to read; they just know they need to be reading some of the tried-and-true titles that will give them a head start in preparing for college. Some have lists and ask us librarians to help them select a book they would enjoy. Sometimes they ask for guidance in simply choosing good books. Finding the right book for each teen can be a challenge.
Kate Madison, a colleague who until recently was Youth Services Librarian at the Tempe Public Library (and is now at Multnomah County Library System in Oregon), decided to survey Arizona professors and find out what they recommend for college- bound readers. She developed a reading list as a result of that survey, and she also developed an excellent workshop for students, teachers, librarians and parents to help with guidance in reading college-bound materials. The workshop, held at Tempe Public Library, included booktalks on recommended titles, information on Internet sites that gives resources on college reading and research, and print resources. Students flocked to her workshops, partially because their English teachers were giving them extra credit for attending. After a number of successful presentations, Kate decided to share her plan for the workshop and offered to train me and any other librarians who were interested in preparing and holding similar workshops at our libraries. I was enthusiastic about the prospects of offering such a workshop, because it is always difficult for libraries to find interesting and relevant programming for our older teen clientele. How could I pass by the opportunity to bring eager college-bound readers into our library?
As a means of preparing to learn, I began to research reading material for the college-bound, as Kate had done. I discovered some interesting things. I hope my pointers will help you make the opportunity to recommend reading to your college-bound students a positive, enlightening and rewarding experience -- one that tailors the unique reading needs and interests of each individual with the books they select- rather than a frustrating one.
The Project: Lessons Learned While Working With Motivated Teen Readers
As a dedicated Young Adult Librarian, I have a unique perspective on teens and their reading, especially regarding the "classics." At the Mesa Public Library, we have a teen book review group called the Young Adult Advisory Council, or YAAC for short. YAAC meets alternating Saturday mornings at 10 a.m. until around noon to talk about books, and to help develop library programs for fellow teens. After seventeen years of advising this group, I still find the fact that teens are willing to get up early on a Saturday morning to come to the library and discuss books amazing. Through the years, I have enjoyed the chance to work with many special teen readers of varying backgrounds who have become part of our group. They create projects for their peers; one such project is a book review newsletter called Open Shelf. The reviews that they contribute to Open Shelf are a well-balanced mixture of contemporary books and classics. As you can imagine, a very high percentage of these teens are college-bound students. Most of them choose to read the classics because they want to, not because they have to. (They even demonstrate knowledge of the proper usage of Cliffs Notes.) One fourteen-year-old member had previously been home-schooled and now attends the local community college. Another is an expert on science fiction classics who discusses them eloquently and writes about them just as impressively. All of our other YAAC members bring unique views and experiences to the group, and all have a desire to share their reading perspectives with fellow teens. Because I depend on them for feedback on teen reading and greatly respect their opinions, I have made note of some of their comments and reactions regarding books of college-bound caliber. I have also noted comments made by other teens coming into the library for help in figuring out what classics to read.
The first important point that the teens have taught me is that when they are required to read a classic for school, often their pleasure in reading decreases tremendously. Sometimes, our YAAC members "warn" other teens in their reviews to "read this quick, before it gets assigned to you in English." As the warning indicates, it is not necessarily true that the students will not like the assigned books. It means they prefer choosing what they will read. Having some choice appears to enhance the pleasure of reading, even if the choice comes from a title included on a designated list. I can appreciate their feelings on this point. As a book reviewer, I often like the books I am assigned, but I usually enjoy the books I have selected much more. As a book reviewer must read critically, I acknowledge that teens must also learn to read some assigned books critically if they are to succeed in college. However, concentrating on books they select and enjoy personally can make them better and more productive readers. When the assigned books come along, they can better handle the challenge of tackling them.
Another important point that the students have taught me is that many teens do come to the library and choose to read classics on their own, without any adult leading the way. We have a classics spinner rack in our Young Adult Room at Mesa Public Library, and just as many teens use it for pleasure reading as assigned reading. They also use it to browse through titles given on lists from school. Sometimes, they will simply be eager to read a classic if they have recently seen a movie based upon it.
More Questions Emerge: Finding Books to Pair with Readers
For those teens who prefer to choose what to read on their own, this freedom of choice, paired with a wide selection of books, is wonderful. But what about the teen who wants to read some challenging and thought-provoking material, and who does not know where to start? Many questions emerge when we think about how to meet the needs of all high school readers. The following are a few examples:
What about the college-bound student who has found certain kinds of books particularly enjoyable, and who wants to read more? What if someone finds an author she likes and wants to discover similar writers? What if someone is responsible for selecting a book by an American author from the 1800s, and he wants one he will really like? Which are the contemporary classics high school students need to know? How do we, as teachers and librarians, get teens hooked up with the best selection of college-bound reading possible? What, exactly, is college-bound reading, anyway?
A School Library Journal article illustrates the answer to this last question, and in turn it can help in answering the others. Connie Epstein (1984), in "The Well-Read College Student," describes a poll of English professors that was intended as a means of giving high school librarians an updated list of books that all college-bound students should read. Epstein notes that the poll gave rise to another significant issue, a definition of appropriate reading for college-bound students:
...no short cut exists for providing the right books for a college-bound student- no single list holds all the answers. All respondents refer to certain titles and especially authors with assurance that the references will be thoroughly familiar to the literate reader. But as literature explodes and as the respect for originality increases, the greater need there is for the student to sample widely, to reject and accept, to find his or her own enthusiasm. Professors want students who care passionately about books rather than those who have learned the proper ones to have read; they want to encourage personal involvement" (1984).
My added italics, above, highlight the issue that emerged during the poll: there is no magical reading list every student should read. I have talked with students' the parents who come into the library asking for such a list, and they have a hard time understanding that it just does not exist. However, there are numerous resources that teachers, librarians, parents and others who are concerned about teens and their reading can employ to find relevant, satisfying and helpful choices for college-bound students. These resources can also be used by students themselves. Check to see if your school or public library keeps these in their Reference collections, and if not, ask if the books can be ordered for purchase or possibly requested through an inter-library loan.
Resources to Assist Readers Find the Right Books for Them
Beacham's Guide to Young Adult Literature is an eight-volume set that can help teens explore contemporary YA books as well as classics. Each entry provides the following: author information; an overview of a book's plot, setting, theme and characters; a discussion of literary qualities of the work; any socially sensitive issues surrounding the work; a list of topics for discussion and ideas for papers; references for related and further reading. A short glossary of literary terms at the end of volume eight can help boost student understanding.
Organized alphabetically, The Young Reader's Companion is designed for students from upper elementary through high school. It contains entries for book titles, authors, characters, and other relevant items. Its main purpose is promotion of reading (Carruth, 1993), and it can be a useful resource for teens who want to explore and select from various pieces of classic literature and who are interested in background information.
Doors to More Mature Reading is subtitled, "Detailed Notes on Adult Books for Use with Young People." College-bound teens can find a wealth of unique fiction and nonfiction reading suggestions here. There are some "standard" classic titles included, such as The Good Earth and Siddhartha, but there are less well known ones, too, such as Anne Morrow Lindbergh's autobiography, Bring Me a Unicorn, and Clifford Simak's City. Each title entry discusses the plot, gives suggestions for booktalks and offers descriptions of related reading.
Another excellent guide is Fiction for Youth: A Guide to Recommended Books, organized by author. It is a great resource for teens seeking interesting and challenging reads from YA classics, traditional classics, and other outstanding adult books. This fiction list is designed for "the capable reader, often college oriented, who would read more and better books if motivated or encouraged to do so" (Shapiro, Stein, 1992, xv). Some wonderful points are made about teens and reading in the preface and introduction, supporting the idea of choice instead of assigned titles .
Although Seniorplots is designed as a booktalk guide for older teens, it can serve as a reader advisory tool as well. Organized by subject, book entries are alphabetical by author within each subject section. Both fiction and nonfiction are included. There is a brief description of the literary importance of each author, a plot summary, and a description of themes. High-interest portions of the texts that are likely to be useful in booktalks are listed. Similar reading material is suggested and references for further reading are also given.
Gale Publishers have produced a useful four-part series of references about books: Drama for Students, Novels for Students, Epics for Students, and Short Stories for Students. According to the editors, the purpose of Drama for Students is to "provide readers with a guide to understanding, enjoying and studying dramas by giving them easy access to information about the work" (1997). Each volume includes "classic" dramas as well as hard-to-find information about contemporary plays. The entries give introductions to the playwrights and the plays themselves, plot summaries, descriptions of important characters and their relationships to other characters in the play, analysis of important themes and a discussion of literary techniques as employed in the play. Topics for further study, media adaptations, ideas to compare and contrast, critical overviews, related reading and further reading sources are also given. A wonderful glossary is also included.
Novels for Students is another two-volume set in the Gale series. The powerful literature chosen for this guide forces the reader to think- about life, literature and others. Each entry provides the same informational topics and food for thought as the entries in Drama for Students.
Epics for Students follows the same formula as Drama for Students and Novels for Students. This guide can be used as a tool to bridge the gap between timeless epics and contemporary understanding (1997). A fourth segment of the Gale reference series, which also follows the formats of its predecessors, is Short Stories for Students.
If parents, teachers and librarians could have one resource that would possibly answer the wish for a magical college-bound reading list, it would be Outstanding Books for the College-Bound. This annotated guide began as sets of genre-focused booklists first published by YASD (Young Adult Services Division) of the American Library Association (presently YALSA, Young Adult Library Services Association) in 1959. The booklists were produced at the request of the National Education Association. Thirty-eight editions have followed, leading to the publication of the lists in book format. Its editor claims that a college-bound student who reads the texts suggested in this reference will become "a more educated, concerned, involved person" (Lewis, 1996). Outstanding Books for the College-Bound is intended as a guidance tool to be used by librarians, when they advise readers, and by teachers, when they expand their curricula. Broken down into sections, this resource covers The Arts, Fiction, Biography, other Nonfiction and Contemporary Classics. Reprints of the 1959-1994 lists are appended.
An excellent guide for teens to use themselves, or for teachers and librarians to use for reader advisory, is What Do Young Adults Read Next? Most of the titles given are contemporary, though there are some classic connections mentioned. The books listed may not be college-bound choices per se, but they will help teens to increase access to their literature and explore a great variety of subject matter. Each entry gives author, title, age range, subject(s), major characters, time period, locale, places where the book is reviewed, other books by the author, and an annotated list of books with similar themes. The indexes are exemplary, organized by time period, geography, subject, characterization, age, author and title. A recent second edition of this resource includes books from 1993-1996.
The Young Adult Reader's Advisor is a large, two-volume set. It is a wonderful resource that assists teens as they investigate authors, works that have influenced the author, and the literary world at large. The editors claim that the books cover the best in literature and language arts, and I agree. There is a terrific selection of authors from British and American literature, broken down by time periods. There is also a comprehensive selection of world literature, and sections on authors and other creators of language arts such as Helen Keller, Walt Disney and Art Buchwald. Authors from subject areas like mathematics, social studies, history and philosophy are included as well. Entries are short- no more than a few paragraphs; this format invites students to browse. In addition to a brief biography, a list of the author's works, and brief notes about the author's major works, there is also a list of books about the author.
One of my favorite guides is From Hinton to Hamlet (1996), subtitled "Building Bridges between YA Literature and the Classics." (Joyce L. Graham gives an excellent review essay of it in the Spring 1997 issue of The ALAN Review.) The book carefully explains how to encourage teens to team up contemporary YA books and make connections to the classics. Herz and Gallo provide a wealth of information on comparing and contrasting YA books and classics, suggested titles to pair up by theme connectors, and schemes for promoting reading in schools and through the public library. The idea of these pairings of YA books and classics is exciting; it may encourage some teachers to slowly add young adult literature to their canon-based curricula. For example, a teacher could team Ruby in the Smoke (1985) by Philip Pullman with Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (Herz & Gallo, 1996); Home Before Dark (1976) by Sue Ellen Bridgers is a natural for pairing with The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck; Shabanu (1989) by Suzanne Fisher Staples, might be studied in conjunction with The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The pairings could be promoted through booklists that suggest to students, "If you liked this book, try _____" and give suggested related reading. Maybe bookmarks that highlight the paired titles would work. Use the pairings when providing reader advisory if you are a librarian. Do booktalks on the pairings. In the classroom, the pairings could be the basis of a variety of assignments from writing to drama to discussion groups.
In addition to reading the classics and other types of literature, teens need to know about books that can help them successfully approach the college experience. For example, it is important for them to be familiar with such titles as Writing a Winning College Application Essay or College Applications Made Easy. These books will help to guide them through all stages of preparing the ever-important admissions essay and to prepare a dynamic application. Other books, such as Acing College and Up Your Grades: Proven Strategies for Academic Success, give wise advice for becoming a high achiever in college. Encouraging teens to read such books from the library or career center, or by keeping them in the classroom, will provide reading material that will add other important facets to their college-bound reading.
Don't be afraid to recommend audio books and use them with your students. Audio books are a great way to encourage exposure to both classic and contemporary titles for college-bound young adults. Kids who claim to be too busy to read can pop in a tape while driving, or into their portable tape deck while walking. Audio books can be beneficial to auditory learners, and are particularly recommended for reluctant and unskilled readers, who benefit from following the printed text while listening to the audio version. Many recent selections feature authors reading their own young adult books on tape.
We teachers, librarians and parents want our students to be as well read as possible upon reaching college. At the same time, we want to nurture their love of reading and make it grow, to make it a natural part of their lives. We don't want to make tackling college-bound books a chore that will turn off students' interest. There's so much competition with other media these days, that it becomes difficult to help kids see both the joy in and necessity of reading.
A quote from a Mount Holyoke College brochure best sums it up the relationship of assigned and pleasure reading:
The important thing for every high school reader to remember is that reading is fun. A catholic taste in books may produce all sorts of benefits, including an excellent background for college, but the fundamental advantage is to broaden and deepen one of the enduring pleasures of civilized men and women. Observing that the attitude that 'reading is work' seems to be held by numbers of students in both high school and college, one Mount Holyoke junior says, 'If I were preparing for college today, I would form two regular habits. Every morning I would take time to scan a newspaper and every night before I went to bed I would relax for a while with a book that I was reading for pure enjoyment.' Whatever a student's destination after high school, the habit of reading good books can enhance experience and open new possibilities for enjoyment throughout his or her lifetime (Green).
As the adults who serve as advocates for teens and their literature, we can use the tools I have outlined to help college-bound students develop regular positive reading habits because they want to, not because they must. Such habits will take them beyond college- into the rest of their lives.
Graham, Joyce L. " From Hinton to Hamlet: a Review Essay," The ALAN Review, 24:3 (1997).
Dianne P. Tuccillo is the Senior Librarian, Young Adult Coordinator, of the Mesa Public Library, in Mesa, Arizona. She is an active member of ALAN, and gave a presentation during the 1997 ALAN Workshop in Detroit.
Reference Citation: Tuccillo, Diane P. (1998). "Books for the College-Bound: Choices and Challenges." The ALAN Review, Volume 26, Number 1.