ALAN v27n1 - High School Connections- Making the Transition to Lifelong Readers: Books Older Teens Choose

Volume 27, Number 1
Fall 1999

High School Connections

by Ann Wilder and Alan B. Teasley

Making the Transition to Lifelong Reading: Books Older Teens Choose

Over the years, we've noticed that some of our favorite NCTE and ALAN Workshop sessions are those in which our teacher and librarian colleagues talk about the books they've been reading lately and which of these kids will probably like. Diana Mitchell's presentation of her latest list of 100+ YA novels is certain to draw a big crowd, eager to use her handout as a shopping list. At other sessions, we've found ourselves furiously jotting down titles and authors in the margins of our convention program. More recently we've discovered an online counterpart to this type of interaction when our virtual friends at tell us that "readers who purchased [that book you just bought] also bought [some other book]." (Incidentally, if that was a book for teens, chances are that teens have submitted their own unedited reviews, which are priceless in their unbridled enthusiasm or disdain.)

We are particularly keen to find books that will appeal to high school students, especially those between the ages of 16 and 18. What do they remember as their favorite books? What will they read when they can choose their books? What books might make good additions or alternatives to the class novels currently being taught? Our informal observation has been that some students are reluctant to read anything, some are eager for titles that are clearly in the YA category, and still others choose books clearly written for adults. Some thrive on the high school classics of Twain, Austen, and Steinbeck; some haunt the genre fiction shelves in the library; some wait eagerly for the next best seller from Stephen King or Terry McMillan; and some show no pattern at all in their tastes. In short, if you were to ask us, "What do older teens like to read?" we'd have to say, "Well, it depends on the teen."

One assumption we've made in our column for this issue is that there are others out there who share our craving for yet another list of titles and authors. Lest you think that we are merely passing on our favorites (for we do have infallible taste in books!), we assure you that we have not selected even one book or author based on our own reading. We have consulted the experts--the students themselves.

Each year for the last eight years, Ann has taught a semester elective course entitled, "Young Adult Literature." For an entire semester, a very diverse group of high school students, mostly upperclassmen, read books of their choosing, write about their reading, and meet in groups to discuss their reading. At the end of the semester, as a part of the final exam, Ann asks the students to respond to a survey about their reading. Although the questions have varied a bit over the years, the common core of questions include:

  1. What is your definition of young adult literature?
  2. Of all the books you have read this semester, what has been your favorite? Why?
  3. Of all the books you have ever read, what is your personal favorite? Why?
  4. Who are your favorite authors?
  5. What types of books do you prefer to read?
  6. What people-adults or peers-have influenced you as a reader? Explain.
  7. What advice would you give to teachers regarding their students' reading?

In preparation for this column, we reread all of their responses to the questions about books and authors (approximately 200 students over the eight years). To get a larger and more recent sampling, Ann administered the same survey to approximately 200 additional students at Durham, North Carolina's Southern High School in the spring of 1999.

Older Teens' Favorite Books

From the approximately 400 responses, we tallied 211 books that are somebody's personal favorite. Among the top twenty are several titles which are routinely taught as a part of the English curriculum. Of these classics, Of Mice and Men and Night received the most mentions, closely followed by Things Fall Apart, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Lord of the Flies. Because we assume that all who read this column are familiar with these books, we will not provide annotations or student comments for these. We were, however, pleased to discover that our colleagues are connecting students with books they would not choose on their own, and that some students consider these books their favorites.

As you will see, the fifteen popular books listed below are an eclectic bunch. From the preponderance of African-American titles, you will guess that Ann's school has a large African-American population; however, passionate reviews of two of these titles, Waiting to Exhale and PUSH, have come from both black and white young women.

We want to make it clear that the majority of these are not books that the students read as class assignments. Rather, they are ones the students found through recommendations of friends, parents, or teachers. We feel ambivalent about putting some of these titles on a list for other teachers, but we do want to be true to the students' experience. The teacher and literary critic in us are reluctant to "recommend" some of these books, so please view the following list as a report of students' opinions rather than as a list of "must read" (or even "could teach") books. (The list is alphabetical by author.)

Andrews, V.C. Flowers in the Attic.

When four children are locked in an attic by their mother and grandmother, they must depend on each other to survive. This book remains a favorite of students year after year. For some students, it provides a transition from traditional young adult literature to adult literature. One girl found that the book marked her first step into the world of adult literature: "Flowers in the Attic is my favorite book of all time. It was probably one of the first 'adult' books I ever read. It was a new type of story for me, and I really enjoyed it."

Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

In this first volume of her autobiography, Angelou tells the story of her early years in Arkansas, then later in St. Louis and California. She recounts her five years of silence following a brutal assault and the strong women who teach her the power of words.

Canfield, Jack, et al. (Ed.) Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul: 101 Stories of Life, Love and Learning.

This collection of stories and poems about the traumas of being a teenager is enormously popular with Ann's students, particularly her ninth graders. One student brought it to class, and eventually over half the class had read at least part of the book. All who read it found some piece in the volume that spoke directly to them.

Grant, Cynthia D. The White Horse.

Raina has left her dysfunctional family and moved onto the streets with her boyfriend and other members of the drug culture. She does, however, continue to attend school and maintains a relationship with her English teacher. Raina loves to write, and records her story and her startling family secret in a journal. Through alternating chapters which present Raina's point of view, the teacher's point of view, and entries from Raina's journals, the reader pieces together Raina's horrific story, but also the story of the teacher's lonely life. High school girls especially seem to connect with this book. One found incidents in Raina's life reminiscent of her own: "The reason I liked the book was because I have had experiences that were personal to me that added up to the things that happened to Raina."

Grisham, John. The Firm.

Mitch McDeere, fresh out of law school, joins a firm in Memphis and finds himself able to afford cars and a home that have always been out of his reach. He can't believe his luck. Everything sours for Mitch, however, when he learns of the "accidental" deaths of several of the firm's young associates and begins to investigate. Students' recommendations mention plot and characters: "It was very fast paced. . . . The plot races right up until the last page. . . . I liked the characters, and it was really exciting from the start."

Hinton, S.E. The Outsiders.

This story of Ponyboy and his attempt to find his place in a world which is populated with two types, greasers and socs, continues to speak to teenagers thirty-two years after its publication. Teens still find connections in Hinton's gang members to themselves and their friends: "It is based on my age group and some things that all teenagers go through . . . Ponyboy and his friends remind me of my friends and me."

Jackson, Sheneska. Caught Up in the Rapture.

Jazmine Deems is a twenty-six-year-old woman living at home with her preacher father and working on a master's degree at UCLA. She has no social life and dreams of a career as a singer. When she is offered a recording contract and subsequently falls in love with a rap artist, she comes to face to face with the reality of the music world. This book has been immensely popular with young African-American women. Ann's copy has been read by dozens of girls, many of whom love it so much, they go out and buy one for themselves. (Teacher and Parent Advisory: Strong sexual content.)

King, Stephen. The Shining

Jack Torrance takes a job as the winter caretaker at The Overlook Hotel, and he and his wife Wendy and son Danny move into the empty hotel for the off season. While Jack and Wendy feel comfortable in the old hotel, Danny has premonitions of demonic forces at work. Many students who begin horror with R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike move into the adult horror realm with Stephen King. While they have read many of his books, The Shining is always a favorite: "I liked it because it was suspenseful and scary . . . The story is great, and King does a good job of stringing you along and adding to the suspense so that you can really sense the depression and the emotional struggles that Jack goes through. The ending is just what I had wanted."

Lowry, Lois. The Giver.

Jonas lives in a utopian society, free of hunger, pain, disease, or choices. When he reaches the age of twelve, he receives his "assignment" in the community: he is to be a receiver of the memories of the community. As the Elder-the Giver-transfers these memories to him, Jonas learns the truth about his society.

McMillan, Terry. Disappearing Acts.

Zora Banks, a music teacher who has her heart set on a singing career, moves into a new apartment where she meets Franklin, who is working as a handyman in the building. The novel explores Zora and Franklin's relationship as they are both in danger of disappearing-Zora from the life she has dreamed about and Franklin from Zora's life. (Teacher and Parent Advisory: Strong sexual content.)

McMillan, Terry. Waiting to Exhale.

Four African-American women living in Phoenix, Arizona, cope with the demands of the 1990s: dealing with careers, aging parents, and raising children. Above all, however, the four friends search for lasting relationships with men who meet their high standards. Waiting to Exhale was the first in a wave of books about African-American women and their relationships with men, and it certainly found an audience with high school females: "The reason I like it is because it takes a stand for ALL women. It shows the woman's point of view in a man's world . . . The chapters are hilarious, and I would read it again . . . It's the only book that has kept me from talking on the phone." (Teacher and Parent Advisory: Strong sexual content.)

Myers, Walter Dean. Hoops.

Lonnie Jackson is growing up in the projects and finds in basketball a way to escape the poverty of his neighborhood. His coach recognizes and nurtures his talent, but he is willing to sacrifice Lonnie's future by throwing a tournament game. African-American students, particularly ninth and tenth grade males, love Hoops: "The main character is almost just like me . . . The thing that was so appealing to me was that he actually started to achieve his goal."

Patterson, James. Kiss the Girls.

Alex Cross, a detective in Washington, DC, finds his job coming close to home when his niece, a promising law student, is kidnapped. The search for the young woman leads Alex into a bizarre world of coast-to-coast killers. This book, and others in the Alex Cross series, Along Came a Spider and Jack and Jill, are popular with high school students who seem fascinated with the concept of serial criminals, and with the high level of suspense: "Patterson has a way of writing that that keeps your attention . . . Patterson put horror, suspense, reality, and love all in one book and they run together perfectly." (Teacher and Parent Advisory: Violence and sexual content.)

Sapphire. PUSH.

Precious' life is filled with tragedy: she has no friends, she is abused by her parents, and she is illiterate. She does, however, meet one caring teacher in an adult literacy program. PUSH is the story of Precious' life, as told by Precious through the journal entries she keeps as class assignments. This book has stuck an emotional chord in many of the students who read it: "I liked this book so much because I got extremely emotional reading it. I wanted to cry, and I'd get mad. I wished I could enter the book and make all of Precious's pain go away . . . It made me feel like I had to do something." (Teacher and Parent Advisory: Strong sexual content.)

Sinclair, April. Coffee Will Make You Black.

Jean "Stevie" Stevenson is an African-American girl growing up in Chicago in the 1960s. This novel follows her from elementary school through high school and chronicles her growing up and coping with family, peer, and societal pressures. Incidents from Jean's life reminded some students of their own experiences: "Growing up for her was not all that good. She had some hard times when she was little. It was the same way for me."

Older Teens' Favorite Authors

In addition to asking students about their favorite books, we also asked them to identify their favorite authors. As with the results of the book survey, the author survey revealed widely diverse favorites from the students' independent as well as required reading. The seventy-six authors the students mentioned ranged from Maya Angelou to Danielle Steel and from Shakespeare to R.L. Stine. Another curious result is that, on several occasions, an author was mentioned as a favorite, but no title emerged as a favorite book. Apparently, once some students identify an author they like, they go on a "binge," reading lots of books and then finding it hard to choose a favorite among them. The following eleven authors (listed alphabetically) were mentioned by at least four students.

Advice to Teachers

Some of the more opinionated statements were the students' responses to the question, "What advice would you give to teachers regarding their students' reading?" Their answers ranged from passionate statements of their beliefs about teaching and reading to specific tips for teachers. Five themes emerged.

  1. Give students choice in what they read. By far the most frequent advice these students offer teachers is to provide students with choice in what they read. "Let them have more choices on what they read during the year . . . Give them good material and a vast selection . . . Let students choose their own books because the more you let them choose freely, the more books they will read . . . Give them a choice; don't tell them what book to read . . . Provide a list of ideas and allow students to pick their own books . . . Let students pick their reading material because they know what they like and it'll interest them more . . . Read passages out of books, something that will catch their attention, and tell them where they could go get it . . . Allow them to do one work of their own choice; they will always remember it."

  2. Hook students up with interesting books. The number of comments students made regarding their desire for interesting books leads us to conclude that they don't find much of the traditional high school canon engaging. (We suspect that most of the readers of this column are not reaching for the smelling salts with this revelation!) Many students expressed their desire for having a teacher recommend interesting books, or at the very least to do something to make dull books interesting. "Ask them what kind of book they want to read . . . Let us explore on our own . . . Find books that you think would catch their attention . . . Give the students something exciting and suspenseful so we can stay interested, not just another boring novel . . . For a student to read a book and completely understand it, it has to be a book that they will enjoy . . . Pick books that appeal and relate to what's going on in our lives . . . Reading is fun, but when you make us read a lot, it gets kind of boring. We like to read, but the things we read have to be interesting and relevant . . . Make the books fun and interesting."

  3. Encourage reading, but don't force it. We were surprised at the number of times the students used the word "encourage"-usually as an antonym for "force" or "require." Clearly students appreciate teachers who support them as readers by nudging, cajoling, seducing, and enticing, but as soon as they sense "force" on their radar screens, they are likely to resist. "Don't push them to do it; just encourage! . . . Encourage them to read, but don't force them . . . You should only encourage a student to read because nobody will read a book they are forced to read . . . Always encourage them and compliment them. Say positive stuff instead of negative. Kids don't like negative . . . Keep encouraging."

  4. Provide opportunities for reading workshop. A number of the teachers at Southern High School have used the reading workshop model as developed by Nancie Atwell. Those students who have experienced this type of classroom see its value in helping them develop as readers. "Encourage [teachers] to do reading workshop . . . I would tell them to have reading workshops to show people how fun reading is . . . All students should be required to do a reading workshop . . . Have more reading workshops. I love 'em."

  5. When you teach a whole class novel, there are do's and don't's. Most of the students seem to realize that there will be times when teachers assign books to the whole class, whether or not the students would ever have chosen to read them. If it has to happen, however, they have definite advice for how teachers can ameliorate this unfortunate situation. Sometimes the advice is contradictory. "Assign one chapter a night, sometimes more," says one. "Give them a deadline to complete the book; don't go by one chapter a night," says another. However, some consensus emerges as to how teachers can spoil a book. "DON'T GIVE REPORTS! . . . Don't give them book reports, because then if they know it's for school, they won't enjoy it. I promise you! . . . Don't go too fast . . . Don't pressure kids to read outside of school because not everyone likes to. Also when reading is assigned in class, take notice of the students who read slower than others." To be fair, there was one student who said, "Make 'em read often. Then give 'em a quiz on it. It's cheap, but it worked for me." Other students recommended less coercive strategies: "Explain things, because sometimes kids don't understand a lot of the books. Relate it to them . . . Discussion of a book (as in a Paideia seminar) helps you to get so much more out of it." Still, students recognize the importance of reading ("Students need to read because it extends your vocabulary and makes you a better person.") and that sometimes you just have to "make them read more."

Upon reflection, we're glad we asked the students about their reading preferences. Although we weren't surprised to find such a wild mixture of YA and adult titles, classic and contemporary authors, independently chosen and school-required books, we think we understand a bit better how we can support our high school students as they make the transition to lifelong reading.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor, 1994. Andrews, V. C. Flowers in the Attic. New York: Pocket Books, 1995.
Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Bantam Books, 1971.

Atwell, Nancie. In the Middle: New Understandings About Writing, Reading, and Learning 2nd ed. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1998.

Canfield, Jack; Hansen, Mark Victor; and Kirberger, Kimberly (Eds.). Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, 1997.

Clark, Mary Higgins. Loves Music, Loves to Dance. New York: Pocket Books, 1992.

Clemens, Samuel L. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Bantam, 1981.

Crichton, Michael. Jurassic Park. New York: Knopf, 1990.
_____. The Andromeda Strain, New York: Ballantine, 1993.
_____. The Lost World. New York: Knopf, 1997.

Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 1959.

Grant, Cynthia D. The White Horse. New York: Atheneum, 1998.

Grisham, John. The Firm. New York: Doubleday, 1991.
_____. A Time to Kill. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Hinton, S. E.
The Outsiders. New York: Dell, 1967.

Jackson, Shaneska. Caught Up the Rapture. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
_____. Li'l Mama's Rules. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.
_____. Blessings. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.

King, Stephen. Cujo. New York: Viking, 1981.
_____. Christine. New York: Viking, 1984.
_____. The Shining. New York: Doubleday, 1993.
_____. It. New York: New American Library, 1997.

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Warner Books, 1988.

Lowry, Lois. The Giver. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.

McMillan, Terry. Disappearing Acts. New York: Viking, 1989.
_____. Waiting to Exhale. New York: Viking, 1992.
_____. Mama. New York: Pocket Books, 1995.
_____. How Stella Got Her Groove Back. New York: Viking, 1996.

Myers, Walter Dean. Hoops. New York: Dell, 1981.
_____. Motown and Didi: A Love Story. New York: Viking, 1984.
_____. Scorpions. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.
_____. Slam! New York: Scholastic Book Services, 1996.
_____. Monster. New York: HarperCollins, 1999.

Patterson, James. Along Came a Spider. New York: Warner Books, 1993.
_____. Kiss the Girls. New York: Warner Books, 1995.
_____. Jack and Jill. New York: Warner Books, 1997.

Sapphire. PUSH. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.

Sinclair, April. Coffee Will Make You Black. New York: Avon Books, 1994.

Steel, Danielle. Crossings. New York: Dell, 1987.

Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. New York: Penguin, 1993.

Stine, R. L. The Baby-Sitter. New York: Scholastic Book Services, 1989.
_____. The Cheater (Fear Street Super Chiller). New York: Archway, 1993.

Tyree, Omar. Flyy Girl. New York: Scribner, 1997.

Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1982.

Wiesel, Elie. Night. New York: Hill & Wang, 1960.

Copyright 1999. The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale in any form.

Reference Citation: Wilder, Ann and Alan B. Teasley. (1999). Making the transition to lifelong reading: Books older teens choose.The ALAN Review, Volume 27, Number 1, pp. 42-46.