Young Adult Literature as a Key to Literacy
J. Elaine White
I can't remember how I learned to read. I just know that somewhere around second grade, books made sense to me. From that point on, I have grown into a "readaholic." I want to read all the time. Without a paperback tucked into my purse, I feel nervous, exposed. What on earth will I do if I find myself with five or ten minutes of "wait-time" and no book to read?
Obviously, I grew into my role of avid reader. I didn't try to read scholarly journals while I was in elementary school. However, for middle and senior high school students who have not become fluent readers, insisting that they read adult literature is the same thing as insisting that an elementary student read research articles. In order to make reading literacy attainable for these students, we must find a way for them to connect their world with the written word-a key that unlocks the door to reading. Young adult literature is that key.
Why is it important to choose literature that mirrors the adolescent world? Paulo Freire's work (1973) with "illiterates" in Brazil explains why. He discovered that if he could begin by entering the world of those with whom he was to work, discovering the realities of their world, finding out what they needed to know in order to become literate, he was able to make acquiring literacy relevant to the Brazilians he was trying to help. In his book, Literacy: Reading the Word and the World, he says, "I have always insisted that words used in organizing a literacy program come from what I call the `word universe' of people who are learning, expressing their actual language, their anxieties, fears, demands, and dreams. Words should be laden with the meaning of people's existential experience, and not of the teacher's experiences" (35).
The same is true of literature. If we use works that reflect the "word universe"-the real world-of adolescents, we are making literature relevant to our students. Those who are not fluent readers will not have to struggle with the process of mentally entering a world with which they are unfamiliar. They will be able to make mental and emotional connections with the characters in the text. Since they already understand the culture of the adolescent world, one barrier to literacy is eliminated for them.
Accessing the student's own culture was brought into focus for me in an assignment I made for a college young adult literature course. Senior and graduate English education majors were instructed to choose and read young adult novels based on the criteria established in Herz and Gallo's From Hinton to Hamlet (1996) and to present their readings in book talks.
The criteria, which mirror the world of adolescents are these:
- The main character is a teenager who is the center of the plot;
- The protagonist's actions and decisions are major factors in the plot's outcome;
- The events and problems in the plot are related to teenagers, and the dialogue reflects their speech;
- The point of view is that of an adolescent and reflects an adolescent's interpretation of events and people (8-9).
As the presentations began, students shared their readings of novels by Crutcher, Zindel, Cormier, and Myers among others. When it was Jongi's turn to speak, he held up a paperback copy of Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage. Because of his background in South African education, he did not realize that the novel is considered part of the canon taught in American schools rather than a young adult novel. He enthusiastically shared with the class his delight in finding a story that so closely matched his own experiences. "As a young teenager," he explained, "I wanted so much to be a part of the Apartheid movement. I could envision myself leading my comrades, encouraging them to do more than they thought possible. I even imagined myself as an officer. However, as I matured and realized the horror and ugliness of war, my attitude changed. I no longer looked at the war through the eyes of a young romantic. I realized what Henry realized. War isn't noble, only horrible." The other students in the class were amazed. They remembered the novel as one of the books they had to trudge through in junior English. Jongi's initial reaction to The Red Badge of Courage was also quite different from the reaction my high school students had exhibited. Henry's world was not their world. War was not part of their reality. Jonji's reality, however, matched the reality he saw in the novel, and as a result of his own experiences, he had no trouble connecting with the character and entering the world of the novel. If the importance of understanding the world of the text is so obvious at the college level, how much more important is it for junior high and senior high school students? Young adult literature is a key to unlocking the words and worlds of literature because it empowers students. Struggling students may not understand literary terms well enough to feel comfortable talking about them in class. Just making sense of the text may be so overwhelming that it is impossible for them to attend to such things as characterization, theme, or symbolism. However, while students struggling with reading literacy may avoid discussing literary terms and techniques, they can readily engage in a discussion about teenagers. They can tell whether they think an adolescent character is realistic or not. Not only that, they can state explicitly why they feel the way they do about a character. I will never forget the statement made by one of my blossoming readers as she unconsciously discussed characterization with a friend. "You got to be kidding!" she exclaimed as her friend described the actions of a character in the book she was reading. "Don't nobody act like that. That is just dumb! D-U-M-B! That writer don't know nothin' about kids!"
The use of language is critical in developing literacy. The more students are able to discuss issues, to talk about what they are reading and thinking, the more they will develop critical literacy, the ability to interpret, analyze, and explain. As students gain fluency in expressing themselves orally, they will begin to see the need for reading the text to support or refute a position. They will need to be able to read in order to participate in discussions with their peers-to become part of that literate community. Belonging to a group that affirms their self-concept is a powerful motivation to become literate if literacy is a component of the group structure (Morris & Tchudi 60).
Another reason young adult literature is a key to literacy is that it has the potential to soften the resistance of students who have decided that they have no need of literature, or for that matter, no need of school. So many students have built walls of defiance around themselves. They feel that school doesn't meet their needs, and yet they are powerless to do anything about the situation. Our society has determined that they are to be in school-no options. Their attitude is summed up in the words of a former student, "You can make me come to school, but you can't make me learn." Freire says that such students are actually attempting to take control of their world. By refusing to participate in what "school" deems necessary, they are refusing to accept a curriculum that someone else has imposed upon them (Freire & Macedo 121-122). If we allow them to enter the world of words through young adult literature, we are validating their culture. We are saying to them that their issues, viewpoints, problems and fears are important. We are saying, "Let's read about your world. Let's write about your world. Let's discuss your world." And if we read with them, we are saying that their world is important to us as well. By vicariously becoming part of their culture, we are creating an arena where they are able to communicate with a member of the culture which they see as dominant. As they become more adept and comfortable in the student/teacher relationship in which both parties are learners, they will possibly develop the dynamic literacy (Morris & Tchudi 11-12) necessary to take more control of their world-to learn to use words to communicate their feelings and needs.
Finally, the genre of young adult literature is "user friendly," to borrow a term from technology. The vocabulary used in these books is not prohibitive. A student who certainly doesn't see the need for vocabulary lessons can refuse to look up words and definitions and still understand the plot and become engaged in the reading. The texts are straightforward and easy to follow. Therefore, students who have not become strong abstract thinkers will not be lost in the maze of images and literary forms. Dialogue is an important part of young adult literature, and the characters speak the way teenagers speak. Even if dialect is used, it is presented in a way that is not intimidating. Students who struggle with reading will have a better chance of negotiating the text. Students who struggle with the irrelevancy of school will have a better chance of gaining something valuable from the reading of the text. There is no other genre that is so welcoming and accessible to teenage readers.
When I think of students who have struggled with literacy, I think of a classic that is a staple in many English classes. The Scarlet Letter was one of my favorite books on the "Suggested Reading List" for junior English. However, each time I taught that great work, I found that my students were resentful of Hester's attempts to protect Dimmesdale. By the time this generation of students reached high school, the issue of unwed mothers didn't carry the shame it carried thirty years ago, and television evangelists had tarnished our view of the clergy. My students were so incensed by Hester's stoicism and Dimmesdale's debilitating shame that they completely failed to relate to the characters with any understanding or compassion. Not only did the realities of the characters in The Scarlet Letter seem unrelated to the realities of my students, the vocabulary seemed foreign as well. Since the story wasn't believable to many of them in the first place, they saw no need to struggle with a vocabulary that was so dense. Being able to read the text with understanding seemed useless to them because they rejected the world of the characters. They had made their own decision about my curriculum choice. The world of The Scarlet Letter was not part of their reality; ttherefore, they saw no need in working with the novel. I taught the novel, but I'm not sure how many of my students really learned anything that was meaningful to them. How different that unit might have been if we first had read The Pigman by Paul Zindel, The Crazy Horse Electric Game by Chris Crutcher, or The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton? We could have discussed adolescents dealing with the prejudices and hypocrisy of society, fear and guilt, and survival outside one's family and community-all themes in The Scarlet Letter. From there we could have moved to a study of The Scarlet Letter, relating the incidents and themes in that great novel to the young adult literature we had studied first. Rather than being "put off" by the situation in which Hester and Dimmesdale found themselves, the students would have been better able to look at the characters more sympathetically and use the young adult novels as scaffolds on which to develop their understandings of the classic.
But what if, after reading young adult literature, my students still had not been willing to read The Scarlet Letter? Well, perhaps that is a work better left for adult reading. If that were the case, so be it. At least I would have used literature that was more accessible to all of my students so that more of them could have taken something with them from the readings. And if I had done my job well, if I had developed an environment in which my struggling students could make sense of the text and interact with other students in ways that encouraged literacy, then maybe I would have laid the foundation for them to pick up The Scarlet Letter sometime later in their life. After their literacy had developed to a point where they could understand not only the words but the world of Hester and Arthur as well, then the possibility that they would come to love the novel as much as I do would have been greatly increased. Young adult literature might have unlocked the door to understanding, and therefore to literacy, for them in a way traditional literature never could.Elaine White is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English Education at the University of Oklahoma, where she teaches courses in young adult literature and teacher research. She is also Associate-Director of the Oklahoma Writing Project.
Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage. New York: TOR Books, 1997.
Freire, Paulo. Education for Critical Consciousness. Myrna Bergman Raines, trans and ed. Cambridge: Center for the Study of Developmental and Social Change, 1973.
Freire, Paulo & Donald Macedo. Literacy: Reading the Word and the World. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Co., 1987.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Koenemann, Inc.: 1998.
Herz, Sarah K. & Donald R. Gallo. From Hinton to Hamlet. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996.
Morris, Paul J. & Stephen Tchudi. The New Literacy: Moving Beyond the 3Rs. San Francisco: Josey-Bass Publishers, 1996.
Reference Citation: White, Elaine J. (2000). "Young Adult Literature as a Key to Literacy." The ALAN Review, Volume 27, Number 3, p. 52-54.