YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE FOR YOUNG ADULT MALES
Sam D. Gill
In our experiences as teachers or media specialists, many of us have noticed the same phenomenon: adolescent males often tend to enjoy literature less than their female counterparts. Of course, as middle school and high school teachers and media specialists, we have no control over the early reading experiences or instruction a male child receives, and since the patterns of reading behavior have been established long before he reaches our classroom, it may seem impossible to help him become an avid reader. But it is not impossible. In fact, helping a male become an enthusiastic reader may be as simple as offering a kind of literature that will engage him with intriguing plots, fast-paced action, and characters who not only catch his interest, but who mirror the life that he is living.
Recent critical studies of the subject matter and themes of young adult literature have included focuses on the presentation of female gender roles (Hayn & Sherrill, 1996), readers' responses to the portrayal of racial minorities (Chevalier & Houser, 1997), and literary attention to teens' struggles with spirituality (Mendt, 1997). However, little direct, specific attention has been given to writers' portrayals of adolescent male characters in fiction or non-fiction.
Nevertheless, the growing canon of adolescent literature has produced a rich base of fiction that both portrays and appeals to all types of males. Researchers have shown that introducing YA literature to males improves their reading ability (Ballash 1994). These findings, however, have also pointed out the bias that many teachers hold against YA literature. Since its inception, generally considered to coincide with the 1967 publication of Hinton's The Outsiders and Zindel's The Pigman, young adult literature has fought an uphill battle to be given some of the classroom space normally reserved for the classical canon. According to Christenbury (1995), its use is limited mostly to higher elementary and middle school grades, where it is included in curricula as an incentive for poor readers. In this case, the strongest argument for using young adult literature- its readability and high interest level- is also the strongest argument that critics use for not including it in the highest grades. It is my argument that YA literature, because of its range of authors and story types, is an appropriate literature for every adolescent male, whether he be a prepubescent fourth grader, or a college-bound senior who needs compelling material that speaks to him.
Aidan Chambers, author of challenging YA fiction and a critic of children's literature, maintains that every group needs its own literature (Chambers 1996). According to Chambers, adolescents constitute a minority in our modern society, and like any minority, adolescents need a literature to call their own. Chambers even goes so far as to consider adolescents an oppressed group that needs to shed its shackles. To help with the process, Chambers began writing thought-provoking fiction and plays for his teen students in England, even before Hinton and Zindel emerged on the scene. While not as militant in their insistence that adolescents receive special attention as Chambers, others have noted a need for young adults to identify with the protagonists in the books they read (Small 1980).
In his study published in Literature In The Secondary School, Applebee (1993) notes that most of the books in the literary canon where not intended for, and do not feature, adolescents. However, the only two books of the 20th century books to crack the canonical top ten, Salinger's Catcher in the Rye and Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, both feature adolescent protagonists. Literary theory and criticism have labeled these books with their stamp of approval, and their appeal, for many readers, is far greater. Why? One answer lies in the fact that the adolescent male characters, Holden Caufield and Jem, mirror social, emotional, and spiritual conflicts that our male adolescents are facing. As Hipple, Comer, and Boren (1997), Monseau (1994), and Small (1980) suggest, reading adolescent literature can play a significant role in the emotional and mental health of an adolescent. As teachers, we need to find books that help our young males become more literate. The question for teachers and media specialists is this: Which books are good choices, ones that will draw in young adult male readers?
What follows is a short list of young adult novels with male protagonists, sorted by theme. It is likely that many of these books are already on the shelves of middle and high school classrooms, and in students' home collections. The list is intended as a beginning---a resource that might offer teachers and media specialists a glimpse at the variety of young adult books that they can recommend specifically to adolescent males. The result might be that the males become readers in today's middle and high school classrooms, and beyond.
Young Adult Literature for Reluctant Male Readers
Nature and Adventure Stories
- Paulsen, Gary. Hatchet (1987).
Brian is flying to Canada in a two-seater airplane. When the pilot dies mid-flight, Brian has to land the plane himself. He is then faced with surviving the wilderness using only his wits and a hatchet.
- Cross, Gillian. On The Edge (1985).
This novel tells the dramatic story of Tug, who is kidnapped by ruthless terrorists, and whose mother is a powerful newspaper publisher.
- Hobbs, Will. The Big Wander (1992).
Clay's uncle is missing. To find him Clay embarks on a "big wander" into the canyons of Arizona.
- Rylant, Cynthia. The Islander (1998).
Orphaned Daniel lives a dull life with his grandfather on an island in British Columbia- until the day a mermaid appears on the shore.
- Hinton, SE. The Outsiders (1966).
This is the classic story of Pony Boy trying to find his identity while staying loyal to his gang, the Greasers.
- Cormier, Robert. The Chocolate War (1974).
Jerry Renault refuses to participate in his private school's traditional chocolate sale, turning teachers and students alike against him.
- Philbrick, Rodman. Freak the Mighty (1993).
Max is too huge to be normal, and Kevin, though brilliant, is labeled a freak because of his physical deformity. These two outcasts form a team to go on adventures within their own hometown.
- Chambers, Aidan. Dance on My Grave (1982).
Hal, a shy but bright kid, is arrested for dancing on the grave of his friend, Barry. As the novel unfolds, Hal reveals his reasons for performing this bizarre ritual. A challenging novel, but one that repays the reader's effort.
- Crutcher, Chris. Ironman (1995).
Beau is a superb athlete who rejects popular sports and his father in order to become a tri-athletic "ironman."
- Lipsyte, Robert. The Contender (1967).
To escape the drugs and thugs of his Harlem neighborhood, Alfred takes up boxing, a sport that teaches him more than how to beat up someone.
- Weaver, Will. Striking Out (1995).
Five years after his brother's death, Billy leads his family out of mourning because of his newly discovered prowess at baseball.
- Myers, Walter Dean. Hoops (1981).
Lonnie Jackson's basketball skills are recognized by a former pro who teaches him about the game, and about the incredible pressures that go along with it.
- Lowry, Lois. The Giver (1993).
Twelve-year-old Jonas lives in a futuristic world where everyone is perfectly content. So is he, until his "visions" lead him to be chosen as Receiver, the one person who knows the truth.
- Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings (1965).
This is the epic tale of Frodo the hobbit's quest to save Middle Earth from evil.
- Avi. Wolfrider (1986).
Andy's life is turned upside down when an anonymous caller claims to have killed someone.
- Cormier, Robert. Tenderness (1997).
It is difficult to cause readers to sympathize with a serial murderer, but Cormier does just that when Eric Poole goes on a hunt for "tenderness."
- Weisel, Elie. Night (1982).
The Holocaust is seen through the eyes of young Weisel, who survived the ghettos and concentration camps as a teenager. This short book is certainly not for adolescent readers exclusively, but a powerful addition to secondary school classroom libraries.
- Denenberg, Barry. An American Hero : The True Story of Charles A. Lindberg (1996).
"Lucky Lindy" was many things--aviator, grieving parent, fighter pilot, and Nazi sympathizer. Here all aspects of this complex man's life are presented with a fair, even hand.
- Myers, Walter Dean. Fallen Angels (1988).
When Perry can't escape Harlem by going to college, he goes off to war in Vietnam.
Hayn, J. and Sherrill, D. "Female Protagonists in Multicultural Young Adult Literature: Sources and Strategies," The ALAN Review, Fall 1996.
Mendt, K. L. "Spiritual Themes in Young Adult Books," The ALAN Review, Spring, 1996.
Monseau, Virginia R. "Studying Cormier's Protagonists: Achieving Power through Young Adult Literature," The ALAN Review, Fall, 1994.
Young Adult Literature Cited
Sam D. Gill is an Assistant Professor of English at Ohio University, in Athens, Ohio. He was a 1998 recipient of the ALAN Foundation Award for Research in Young Adult Literature.
Reference Citation: Gill, Sam D. (1999). "Young Adult Literature for Young Adult Males." The ALAN Review, Volume 26, Number 2.