The High School Connection
Interested in good advice and book suggestions from teachers who have used young adult literature in high school classes for over 20 years each? Read on!
Young Adult Literature in the High School
Ann Wilder and Alan B. Teasley Co-Editors, The High School Connection
In our experience, high school English teachers use YA books in three ways: as books for whole-class study, as read-alouds, and as "classroom library" books to recommend to students during reading workshop or other independent reading opportunities.
Young Adult Books for "Whole Class" Study
Prior to the late 1960s, there was children's literature and there was the rest of it. For serious study, high school English teachers selected the best from the rest of it--especially those books that would prepare students for college literature classes: The Scarlet Letter, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, and Silas Marner. Suddenly, it seemed, there appeared a new phenomenon-the teenage "problem novel," realistic fiction intended for adolescent readers. As we remember it, there was nothing, and then there were Robert Lipsyte's The Contender (1967), S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders (1967), and Paul Zindel's My Darling, My Hamburger (1969).
Since both of us started teaching in the early 1970s, YA literature has always been a part of the English curriculum, though admittedly in the early years we were pretty much limited to the novels of Lipsyte, Hinton (including That Was Then, This is Now and Rumble Fish), and Zindel (especially The Pigman). It wasn't a forgone conclusion that these books would be welcomed by high school English teachers. What distinguished these novels was that they were shorter, had uncomplicated plots, used simpler language (if you remember the phrase "high interest/easy reading" we know how old you are!), and employed teenage vernacular without actually being obscene. They referred to sex and violence without creating censorship problems. However, no one would mistake them for "literature." Quite frankly, the justification most of us used was that these "junior novels" would be good for "low level" (or "remedial" or whatever euphemism we were using at the time for those students who didn't embrace the great classics of the American and British canon). We could teach The Novel, cover all the required elements (plot, characterization, setting, theme, and symbolism), and--miraculously, it seemed--the kids actually read the books and talked about them with their peers. Alan remembers once that his honors tenth graders complained that they never got to read any of the good books like the other class did.
Well, if you're reading The ALAN Review, you know about the explosion of YA literature in the past thirty years. Even small local bookstores have a YA section, and the variety is astonishing: realistic novels, comedies, mysteries, fantasy, science fiction, romances, horror, biographies, short story anthologies, poetry, and drama. Protagonists include young women as well as young men (in those early days we believed that girls would read about boys, but boys wouldn't read about girls, so we mainly used books about boys). Furthermore, the heroes and heroines of the novels reflect the ethnic diversity of the world we live in, and they come from families that range from non-existent to nuclear to extended. They face problems of poverty, violence, abuse, sexual identity, and young parenthood, and their aspirations run the gamut from basic survival to being a world leader.
Never before have we had so many books to choose from. As you might expect, the books also vary in their quality and their "teachability." To be honest, we don't expend a lot of energy worrying about the quality of the books students choose to read on their own (see below). However, selecting books for "whole classroom" study is something we do take seriously. We reason that, if we're going to spend our valuable class time, our "captive audience's" attention, and our English department's diminishing budget on class sets of a particular book, we want to be sure it's one that warrants the time and money.
Over the years we've developed these informal criteria for selecting novels for classroom study:
1. Does the novel fill a gap in the curriculum? These gaps may be in national origin, historical period, or theme, depending upon the particular course. For example, in the early 1990s, North Carolina adopted a world literature curriculum for tenth grade. Needless to say, very little of the anthologized world literature could be considered "young adult." Over the years our colleagues have discovered such wonderful titles as Yukio Mishima's The Sound of Waves, Kamala Markandaya's Nectar in a Sieve, and Hazel Rochman's Somehow Tenderness Survives to supplement the state-adopted text. 2. Does the gender/ethnic identity of the protagonist contribute to the diversity of the works in the particular course? At various times in the past, we have recommended titles because their authors and/or protagonists are female (Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street), African-American (Walter Dean Myers' Scorpions), or Asian-American (Kyoko Mori's Shizuko's Daughter). 3. Is the novel useful in teaching the elements of the novel? Here we especially look for novels with more complex plots (Robert Cormier's I Am the Cheese), rich characters (Kaye Gibbons' Ellen Foster), interesting themes (Walter Dean Myers' Somewhere in the Darkness), powerful use of setting (Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust), or innovative uses of point-of-view (Sharon Draper's Tears of a Tiger). 4. Is the novel sufficiently interesting to a broad range of students? If we think the appeal of the novel might be too narrow, we may use it first as a read-aloud or an "individual choice" selection. Some novels that have demonstrated wide appeal are Elie Wiesel's Night and Bjarne Reuter's The Boys of St. Petri .
Additional YA novels to consider for whole class study include these:
M. E. Kerr, Gentlehands;
Lois Lowry, The Giver;
Walter Dean Myers, Slam!; Katherine Paterson, Jacob Have I Loved;
Richard Peck, Remembering the Good Times;
Dori Sanders, Clover;
Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony.
Young Adult Books to Read Aloud
Ann first read books aloud to students in the mid 1980s. At the time, she was teaching seventh and ninth graders in a junior high school. The seventh graders had a double-period block for language arts, and Ann used a variety of activities to keep everyone alert and engaged. A colleague in the school system had begun reading aloud to his seventh-grade students, also. Chip and Ann both spent lots of time reading YA books to teach as class novels and passed books they loved back and forth. Chip encouraged Ann to share some of the books he had read and loved with her seventh graders, and he introduced her to Jim Trealease's The Read Aloud Handbook (just to give her a rationale and ammo to back up the practice in case she needed it). At first Ann read aloud books with a guaranteed immediate appeal to seventh graders, like Roald Dahl's The Witches and The Twits and Betsy Byars' Cracker Jackson. Eventually, she came to realize that her students were more sophisticated listeners than she had given them credit for. Some of her students' favorites were Rosemary Wells' Through the Hidden Door and Michelle Magorian's Goodnight, Mr. Tom--books with extended plots and complex ideas.
The read-aloud became a part of Ann's daily routine. She began each class period by reading for 10 or 15 minutes and quickly noticed that the best way to calm squirrelly students--particularly after lunch--was to read a good book to them. What Ann discovered right away was that kids loved being read to, and in those first few years, she mistakenly thought that reading aloud was an activity that was appropriate for, or would only be accepted by younger students. But then, when students she had taught as seventh graders came to her as ninth graders, they asked that she read to them again. Since reading to seventh graders had been an effective way to calm them down, she figured it wouldn't hurt the ninth graders. Of course, they loved it too, so Ann continued the practice when she moved to the high school level. For ten years now she has read books to high school students--from freshmen to seniors.
We have found that the books teachers read aloud are often books they probably could not or would not teach as whole-class novels. Sometimes these books are out-of-print (such as Todd Strasser's A Very Touchy Subject ); sometimes they are new books and available only in hardback (as Sharon Draper's Forged by Fire is, as of this writing).
Occasionally teachers edit as they read, and books that would be inappropriate for whole class use-because of language or the content of particular scene-become accessible to more students.
The best books for reading aloud have a compelling plot and characters students can identify with. Since these are books for students to enjoy, not to study, sometimes the ones we choose to read aloud are those we wouldn't use for whole class study because they do not lend themselves to sophisticated literary analysis. The novels of Chris Crutcher, for example, have wonderful characters, themes, and plots, but they do not support the type of analysis required by our high school literature curriculum. Crutcher's books are though, powerful in their appeal. It's not unusual to have ninth and tenth graders yell, "Don't stop!!" at the end of a day's reading of Running Loose, The Crazy Horse Electric Game, or Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes. Or to have students who have missed a day of school come back to class wanting to know what happened to Louie Banks, Willie Weaver, or Eric Calhoune in their absence. It's rare to get the same level of interest in Hester Prynne or Piggy and Ralph. After years of reading YA novels, Ann can almost intuit which books her students will like. She first looks for books that she likes (after all, she may end up reading it twice a day for a month). Then she decides if the book would lend itself to being read aloud by asking herself:
Does it have a strong narrative voice?
Does the plot move quickly?
Because she has, on rare occasions, misjudged a book, she has a fifty-page rule: after fifty pages the students can vote to abandon the book and begin a new one. Her students have invoked the fifty-page rule only once, when Ann began Sue Townsend's The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13-3/4, a book she had loved. Her high school students in North Carolina, however, had difficulty connecting with this British teenager; after fifty pages, she chose another book.
Ann may have begun reading aloud as a classroom management technique, but she has continued it for fifteen years because she loves the anticipation with which her students respond to the reading and the shared experience of having everyone in the class hear the same words at the same time. She loves to hear their laughter or gasps at parts that delight or shock them.
In addition to the titles already mentioned, we've found these books to be great read-alouds for high school students:
Bruce Brooks, Midnight Hour Encores;
Alden Carter, Up Country;
Jennie Davis, Sex Education;
Lois Duncan, Killing Mr. Griffin;
Walter Dean Myers, Hoops;
Robert C. O'Brien, Z for Zachariah;
Christopher Pike, Remember Me;
Joyce Sweeney, The Tiger Orchard;
Rob Thomas, Doing Time: Notes from the Undergrad;
Will Weaver, Striking Out;
Virginia Ewer Wolff, Make Lemonade.
Young Adult Books for Individual Student Choice
The third way high school teachers use YA literature is as a part of a "reading workshop" classroom structure, most completely defined by Nancie Atwell in In the Middle: New Understandings About Writing, Reading, and Learning (2nd edition, Heinemann, 1998). We know high school teachers who have used reading workshop as a three-to-five week unit in Introduction to Literature or American, World, and British literature survey courses. Ann has used reading workshop as the organizing principle of an elective course called "Young Adult Literature."
Simply put, the reading workshop approach requires students to choose the books they read, write journal entries about their books, and periodically discuss their reactions to the books with the teacher or the whole class. Each day the teacher spends 10-15 minutes on a mini-lesson about some aspect of reading, but the rest of the time the students read, or write about their reading, or they discuss their reading and writing with the rest of the community of readers. The key to the success of this model is that students are free to choose the books they read. The role of the teacher is to know about a lot of books in order to "broker" specific books to students with particular interests ("Oh, you liked X? I bet you'd like Y."), to share his or her own reading interests (that is, to model being a reader), and constantly to scour the world for books of interest to adolescents.
We recommend the following books for individual use because for various reasons we wouldn't use them for whole-class study or read-alouds. Here are some books that high school students report that they have enjoyed:
Francesca Lia Block, Weetzie Bat (and any of its sequels) and Girl Goddess #9;
Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower;
Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game;
Chris Crutcher, Chinese Handcuffs;
Kaye Gibbons, Charms for the Easy Life;
Chris Lynch, Iceman;
Victor Martinez, Parrot in the Oven: Mi Vida;
Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye;
Walter Dean Myers, Fallen Angels;
Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried;
April Sinclair, Coffee Will Make You Black;
Shelley Stoehr, Weird on the Outside;
Joyce Sweeney, The Tiger Orchard;
Rob Thomas, Rats Saw God.
Alan B. Teasley and Ann Wilder are the authors of Reel Conversations: Reading Films with Young Adults (1997). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, Boynton/Cook. Both work in the public school system of Durham, North Carolina.
Reference Citation: Wilder, Ann and Alan B. Teasley. (1998). "The High School Connection Young Adult Literature in the High School ." The ALAN Review, Volume 26, Number 1.