Wonder if your students are reading the same titles that students are reading in other parts of the United States? Which books are the topics of their conversations? M. Jerry Weiss provides us with some answers.
M. Jerry Weiss, Editor, Publisher's Connection New Jersey City University
Students' Surprising Choices
In April, 1998, I had the opportunity to visit two middle schools in Louisville, KY, to talk with students about what they were reading, and to discuss authors of some of their favorite books. I went to the schools, thinking I would hear about Gary Paulsen, Jerry Spinelli, Alice Reynolds Naylor, Judy Blume, Paula Danziger, Joan Lowery Nixon, Lois Duncan, Richard Peck, Paul Zindel, Gordon Korman, to mention just a few. I seemed to have arrived on a different planet. These were not the authors mentioned in either school. Instead I became involved in discussions about Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Tom Clancy, Piers Anthony, Paul Anderson, Terry Brooks, among other adult authors.
What amused me was the way that the teachers and school media specialists were shaking their heads from left to right, indicating that these were not the authors on their library shelves. The students had discovered these authors and books on their own. I did not ask them how they came across these particular authors or their books. I should add that these were not students selected because they were "gifted or talented." The classes invited to meet with me were a heterogeneous group, reflecting a wide range of interests and abilities.
I felt lucky in that I had also read a number of these authors' works and did not bomb completely in these sessions. While I was flustered at first, I had to admit that I wasn't expecting questions and comments about such prominent and popular adult authors. I thought sixth, seventh and eighth grade students would be deeply involved with young adult writers. I was wrong.
I should remark that both the school media specialists and the students' teachers seemed surprised also. There were so many good books in the school media centers; how did these students select their reading matter?
Most of the students probably read books that were in their homes. It is a known fact that the two favorite genres of middle school and secondary students are mystery (including horror) and humor, although no humorous authors appeared in our discussions. Nor were there discussions about non-fiction, plays, poetry, short stories.
If students had to read a certain number of books for book reports, were these the books that were being used? Teachers and school media specialists indicated they were not. But given the freedom to read and discuss what they were really interested in, the students showed their teachers and me they were reading and had their own patterns for developing their reading habits.
I was not disappointed. I found the students to be involved in their reading and were expressing honest reactions to their reading experiences. These were the books that meant something to them at this point in time.
Later that week, I was invited to meet with a special group of outstanding media specialists who really knew young adult books and who were interested in knowing some of the latest books by young adult authors that I had enjoyed. I was interested in finding out what books they had read and enjoyed and were purchasing. This was intellectually stimulating for them and me. I discovered some books I had overlooked; however, I was impressed by one important statement: "We can't put on our shelves books that have sex, a lot of violence, filthy language (strong cursing)."
I have been teaching young adult literature for many years, and I choose books because I think they are well written and often reflect social issues of these times --- prejudice, child abuse, gay and heterosexual concerns, all sorts of criminal behavior, stories involving death and the dying, religious cults, and so on. Yes, I'm trying to say that controversy is helpful if we are to develop critical thinking and for helping students realize that there are many problems and lifestyles among youth and adults throughout the world. Maybe by confronting these issues in print, students will have some ideas as to how people can solve some of the world's most pressing problems. One can't close the door and pretend these problems don't exist. However, one should note there are lots of books out there which are not controversial and can be both entertaining as well as informative.
Which brings me to another matter. On August 2,1998, Sara Mosle, an editor of the "Book Review" of The New York Times, wrote an article for The New York Times Magazine Section, entitled 'The Outlook's Bleak: Judging from what teenagers are reading, they're growing old before their time." She spoke of the plethora of books that were filled with doom and gloom about the problems of growing up as reflected in young adult literature being published right now. Among the books she used to make her serious observations were: Tenderness by Robert Cormier, Making Up Megaboy by Virginia Walter, Whirligig by Paul Fleischman, The Facts Speak for Themselves by Brock Cole, Smack by Melvin Burgess, The Taking of Room 11 4, A Hostage Drama in Poems by Mel Glenn. Mosle states that she is concerned with the way that parents of these teenagers are portrayed in such books. They are depicted as materialistic, irresponsible, physically or verbally abusive adults who cannot communicate with their children. In some cases the adults do not hear what their children are telling them.
Marc Aronson, a young adult editor at Henry Holt, replied to this article by stating that young adults buy these books because to them these are realistic portrayals of their problems and their lives. He urges parents to deal with their children's concerns. He doesn't think reading is going to drive young people over the edge.
Young adults can easily argue that it is important to have such books available so they can see how others cope and to realize that one is not alone when confronted with such problems and feelings in the real world. It's a form of bibliotherapy. But I have heard numerous times from teachers that they don't feel comfortable in dealing with many of the problems listed above. Some say they don't mind if students read such books on their own; however, they would prefer not to have a class discussion on these issues.
But in how many school media centers are these books available? Sometimes parents don't want such materials available to their children. Censorship is a reality. With school budgets being greatly curtailed, some school personnel feel they might as well buy books that probably won't cause any commotion within the community. If students really want to read such books, they can check them out of the public library.
Adults' (Surprising?) Responses
I feel that reading should be viewed as an educational experience that should enlighten anyone's knowledge about people --- their problems, their concerns, their achievements., and even their failings. Up to now I have not felt uncomfortable leading discussions on most issues presented in literature. (Is that why I became an English teacher?) I have noticed that in my young adult classes there are sessions in which fewer students participate. It is not easy to draw adult students into discussions when they feel "uncomfortable." I have tried role playing, small group discussions, debates. But for some there seem to be some topics too hot to handle.
I am not going to belabor this topic any further. Instead, I want to respond to Sara Mosie's article in another way. Any critic can list a certain number of books that may present a distorted view of what publishers are making available for young adults to read. But to be fair to the publishers, one should acknowledge the fact that they are publishing many books in a variety of genres. There are many books that are worthy of study and discussion. They are not all doom and gloom.
Focusing on the Positive
I hope most young adult readers will find emotional and intellectual stimulation as they peruse libraries and bookstores. One of the most important aspects of growing into and through reading is the development of independence on the part of the reader to find books that are personally meaningful. Self-selection is most valuable if we are to have a nation of literate individuals who will continue to find purpose and enjoyment through reading.
A most exciting aspect of being a reader and a teacher is the discovery of new writers and watching well-established writers in the field of young adult literature come up with new books. I keep a journal in which I write my reactions to what I'm reading. This is for my personal records. Sometimes someone asks me, "Do you know a new historical fiction book that I might enjoy?" I look in my journal to see what I have written and can make suggestions. But I also ask people what have they read lately and have found worth recommending. These suggestions and some reviews from various journals keep me going to bookstores and the library. What bothers me is the fact that I'm not getting any younger and I'll never read everything that I intended to read. Then there's another publishing season, and more good books come rolling off the presses.
Recently, I have enjoyed these books:
- Heroes by Robert Cormier;
- Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front in World War II by Penny Colman,
- Go and Come Back by Joan Abelove;
- The Transall Saga by Gary Paulsen;
- No Easy Answers: Short Stories About Teenagers Making Tough Choices, Donald R. Gallo, ed.;
- So What Do You Do? by Douglas Evans;
- Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution by Ji Li Jiang;
- Count Karistein by Philip Pullman;
- My Louisiana Sky by Kimberly Willis Holt;
- Bat 6 by Virginia Euwer Woolf;
- Something Beautiful by Sharon Dennis Wyeth;
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J. K. Rowling;
- Twilight Boy by Timothy Green;
- That Summer by Sarah Dessen;
- P. S. Longer Letter Later by Paula Danziger and Ann M. Martin;
- The Thief by Megan Whelan Turner;
- Knots in My Yo-Yo String by Jerry Spinelli;
- The Door in the Lake by Nancy Butts;
- Brian's Winter by Gary Paulsen;
- The Eagle Kite by Paula Fox;
- Dean Duffy by Randy Powell;
- Strays Like Us by Richard Peck;
- Rules of the Road by Joan Bauer.
No, I did not list these to impress anyone. I just wanted to show that there are many books out there to meet anyone's moods and needs. I didn't worry about reading level, grade level, intellectual level. I did not seek anything based on my limited IQ. There were books that I started and pushed aside because I just wasn't in the mood for that book at a particular time. (I must admit I never did finish Doctor Zhivago.) Sometimes I start one or two books at the same time, and it a story hooks me, I keep on going. Sometimes I alternate from day to day. I hope more teachers will reflect on their readings. As they discover good books, regardless of where or when they were published, make some effort to share them with students. My list is not the most current.
In the past couple of months much ado has been written about listing the best books of the century. A group of distinguished persons, all associated with Modern Library editions, chose the one hundred best books of the century. (Was the list limited to those that were published in a Modern Library edition?) Anyway, Ulysses, by James Joyce, was their number one choice. I have no comment on this selection or any of the other books they chose. I think that compiling such a list causes one to dwell on the past too much. I don't have the time to worry about the criteria of why I liked or disliked a particular book.
I can't say that all of the books that have won various awards are "winners" for me. I do admit I liked Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse, Wringer by Jerry Spinelli, and The View from Saturday by E. L. Konigsburg. I am more than willing to look at other people's lists to see what they are recommending, and I'll even sample some of the titles. But in the long run, I'll continue to browse, talk to lots of people, read reviews, and then go to a bookstore or library and sample a few pages. I hope more teachers will do the same and discover there's a wonderful world of books out there.
Reference Citation: Weiss, M. Jerry. (1998). "Publisher's Connection Potpourri." The ALAN Review, Volume 26, Number 1.