THIN Books, BIG Problems: Realism and the Reluctant Teen Reader
Reluctant teen readers when faced with a book report assignment will often ask the librarian at their school or public library for assistance in choosing a title. Most of the time their only concern seems to be that the book be thin. Librarians, who don't evaluate literature just on page count, may often be at a loss to recommend a title.
Annually the Young Adult Library Services Association's Recommended Books for the Reluctant YA Reader Committee prepares an annotated list of titles to help non-reading teens find books that are not only "skinny" but enjoyable to read. If the book is thin but poorly written, then that teen's reading experience has started and stopped with one title. If the book is also enjoyable to read, either because it is exciting or because it speaks to a teen's concerns and interests, then perhaps the book will be a starting point for future reading.
For many years the list produced by this committee was filled with classic "hi/lo" titles. The committee even used to be named High-Interest/Low-Literacy Level Material Evaluation Committee. In the late 1980's, the focus of the committee changed. The concern moved away from finding books for the remedial reader and toward the reluctant reader, from finding books to combat illiteracy to those that answered the needs of aliterate teens. The old lists were short and contained primarily thin titles that were grade six or below on the Fry Readability Scale. The real change came when the name of the annual list was changed to "Quick Picks" and targeted toward reluctant YA readers rather than librarians.
The old lists were heavy on nonfiction and suspense/mystery/action fiction. The lists of the 1990s have been more balanced and have contained more titles, especially more "realistic fiction." There are many reasons why some teens are reluctant readers, but one major reason is that they are unable to find books that interest them or speak to their concerns. The realistic fiction titles that have started appearing on the lists do this. They are titles that
* have a hook to get the reader immediately interested,
* move at a fast pace with only a few characters,
* have a single point of view and few flashbacks or subplots,
* deal with real-life situations/high interest topics,
* have emotional impact and are gripping and memorable,
* use short sentences and paragraphs with familiar words,
* have attractive covers, wide margins, easy type face,
* weigh in at less than 200 pages and are in paperback.
Although certain titles that have appeared on lists don't meet all these criteria (e.g., Walter Dean Myers' 300-pages-plus Fallen Angels appeared on the 1989 list), most do.
An example of a book that meets all the criteria and represents the change in philosophy is Crosses by Shelly Stoehr (Delacorte), which appeared on the 1992 list. Crosses begins with a bang: "We cut ourselves. Not by accident, we do it purposely...." then takes the reader slam dancing into a teenage wasteland world of self-inflicted abuse. The teen protagonist, Nancy, is also abused both verbally and physically by her parents and her boyfriend. This is not just a novel about kids with problems, but kids with big pain.
The novel moves at break-neck speed. Like the life of this tortured teen, there is no time or energy for introspection or reflection. Things happen; they deal with them, make the best, then move on. Nor is there a great deal of perspective, but one should not expect insight from a sixteen-year-old girl whose escape from others' abuse comes from abusing her own body with sharp objects and various substances.
It is not a pretty novel. The characters and their language are realistic: classroom reading this is not. The drug use and teen sex are also quite realistically portrayed: not glamorized or moralized over, just things that happen that have repercussions. Nancy's sad life is the outgrowth of a dysfunctional family where the only real communication left is shouting and kicking. Like its 1960s sister, Go Ask Alice, Crosses is very much the product of its time and its place dealing with both social and personal problems. Yesterday's hippie is today's punk.
For all these reasons, it is a great reluctant-reader book. The book has crossover appeal: although it has a female protagonist, boys will certainly be intrigued by Nancy's tale. Once teens pick it up, drawn perhaps by the strange title and intriguing blood-red cover, they will probably not put it down. Once they have finished it, they will not have just read a thin one (under 200 pages) but also a good one. It is YA literature like Crosses that reaches readers and perhaps even non-readers as well. Reluctant readers will find in Crosses a book that reads quickly and easily, speaks to their concerns, provides entertainment, packs an emotional wallop, and leaves them wanting a similar book and reading experience.
Helping them find a similar novel will be hard because Crosses is a one-of-a-kind book. There are, however, many other realistic novels that have been "Quick Picks." Most of these books don't need pushing and will sell themselves. Promoting these titles to reluctant readers will make them more aware of the range of literature available for them so that they will no longer see "skinny" as the sole criteria for choosing a book to read for a report or for pleasure. What follows is a selected annotated bibliography drawn from "Quick Picks" lists for years 1990-1993 of thin books that tackle big problems. The year in parentheses indicates the year the book appeared on the list.
* Block, Francesca Lia. Weetzie Bat. Harper (listed in 1990).
Weetzie, Duck, Dirk, and My Secret Agent Lover Man set up a house together in magical L.A. with some very interesting results.
* Cadnum, Michael. Breaking the Fall. Viking. (listed in 1992).
Breaking and entering started as a game for Stanley and Jarred but things quickly got out of control.
* Cadnum, Michael. Calling Home. Viking (listed in 1992).
"Impersonating the dead is easy." At least that's what Peter thought at first after he accidentally killed his best friend.
* Clements, Bruce. Tom Loves Anna Loves Tom. Farrar (listed in 1991).
The first time Tom sees Anna he falls in love with her, but will it last as he learns about dark secrets in her past?
* Cooney, Caroline. The Face on the Milk Carton. Bantam (listed in 1991).
Janie Johnson looked at the picture on the milk carton of a child kidnapped twelve years ago and saw herself.
* Cooney, Caroline. Family Reunion. Bantam (listed in 1990).
Divorce destroyed what Shelly thought was a perfect family. A family reunion forces her to see the truth in her family and herself.
* Crutcher, Chris. Athletic Shorts. Greenwillow (listed in 1992).
Short stories about sports which deal with winning and losing things other than the big game.
* Dale, Mitzi. Around the Bend. Delacorte (listed in 1992).
When thirteen-year-old Deirdee sets her bed on a fire, her problems are only beginning.
* Futcher, Jane. Promise Not To Tell. Avon (listed in 1992).
"Some secrets are too dangerous to tell -- and too dangerous to keep."
* Mazer, Norma Fox and Harry. Heartbeat. Bantam (listed in 1990).
Tod's good intention to play matchmaker lands him in the middle of a stressful romantic triangle.
* Miklowitz, Gloria. Anything to Win. Delacorte (listed in 1990).
Cam is told by his high school football coach that he needs to add strength and size in order to get a scholarship. Enter steroids.
* Myers, Walter Dean. Somewhere in the Darkness. Scholastic (listed in 1993).
Jimmy's father Crab returns from prison and takes Jimmy on a trip to prove his love and his innocence.
* Presvner, Stella. How Could You Do It, Diane? Clarion (listed in 1991).
Why did she do it? Why would a popular teenager with everything to live for kill herself? Diane's family -- especially her younger sister Bethany -- tries to answer the question "why?"
* Seymour, Tres. Life in the Desert. Orchard (listed in 1993).
Rebecca wants to learn about her strange classmate, O.Z., but he resists sharing with her his dark vision of life.
* Sutton, Jane. Definitely Not Sexy. Little Brown (listed in 1990).
Ninth grader Diana wants to fit in with the popular group even at the cost of losing herself in developing a new image.
* Wieler, Diana. Bad Boy. Delacorte (listed in 1993).
AJ thought he knew his hockey team-mate and best friend Tully well until he learned that Tully was gay.
* Willey, Margaret. Saving Lenny. Bantam (listed in 1991).
Jesse and Lenny find themselves in a whirlwind romance over the objection of their family and friends. But if they are so happy together, then why, Jesse wonders, is Lenny so sad?
* Wurmfield, Hope. Baby Blues. Viking. (listed in 1992).
Nothing else mattered to Annie except her boyfriend Jimmy. Nothing else mattered until she found out she was pregnant.
"Quick Picks" is available from
American Library Association
50 East Huron Street
Chicago, IL 60611
A member of YALSA's Recommended Books for the Reluctant Teen Reader Committee, Patrick Jones is the author of Connecting Young Adults and Libraries and Manager of the Tecumseh Branch of the Allen County (Indiana) Public Library.