ALAN v23n3 - THE PUBLISHER CONNECTION - An Under-utilized Resource: Values Education and the Older YA Novel

Volume 23, Number 3
Spring 1996


M. Jerry Weiss, Editor
Jersey City State College, Jersey City, New Jersey

An Under-utilized Resource:
Values Education and
the Older YA Novel

Julian F. Thompson

Because I've known so many of them as both friends and colleagues, I think I can guess what many English teachers feel when they hear "Values (or Character) Education" mentioned as "the new thing" coming to their schools. Not a frisson of terror, probably; there isn't much that scares them any more. But maybe "Here we go again" would be about what they'd be thinking.

In times past they've seen some other "Educations" tacked onto the curriculum, "diluting" it, in their opinion. First -- long, long ago -- it was Physical Education, which, for all its good intentions, has failed to do a whole lot for the fitness of the nation's youth. More recently, the new addition has been Driver's Ed, which at least has been a boon for English teachers who have children of their own and car insurance premiums to pay.

But no matter what English teachers think of Values Education, it's a Hot Issue in the country nowadays, and for a lot of different reasons.

First of all, it's one of those issues that virtually every adult feels that she or he knows lots about. People think they know what values should be taught -- or even beaten into -- kids, just as many men are sure they know the way to cook all kinds of meat on charcoal grills. And both those groups feel free to share their certainties with everybody else.

On top of that, many (perhaps most) adults feel other people's kids' value systems are in terrible shape -- much worse than everyone's when they were kids, of course. These folks apparently remember times when I was not alive or, anyway, not noticing. When I was a teenager in the early 1940s, there was a whole lot of lying, cheating, bullying and alcohol abuse going on -- although admittedly we weren't that much into handguns.

One reason people feel kids' value systems are in disrepair -- or non-existent -- is that they've been told that repeatedly, directly and indirectly, by news reports. Some kids have done some truly dreadful things to people of all ages, and we've read about their crimes, or heard about them on TV, in gross detail. There also have been movies (such as Kids ) which have planted images in many people's minds of what today's YAs are up to, as well as how they feel about the stuff they're doing. Finally, we have our politicians chiming in. Kids are fair game for them. Unlike other segments of the population, kids have few legal rights, and -- oh, yes -- they're still too young to vote. Standing up against depraved young people is a no-brainer for a politician (while calling geezers "greedy" is...well, risky business.)

The blame for all the rottenness that people see in kids today can be assigned to one or more root causes. Among the most popular are single-parent homes, liberal permissiveness (going all the way back to the Beats), Hollywood, and various less talked about possibilities such as the fact that kids (in the words of Francine duPlessix Gray) never seem to "participate in that primal rite of socialization, the family meal."

In any case, regardless of our feelings about young people's characters (or value systems) nowadays, there's no denying that they could be better. The same could be said, of course, about the characters of people their parents' age and, yes, even about people their grandparents' age. But kids are seen as the most malleable of these generations, the most easily educated, and so historically, in America, there have been three rather different institution which have made no bones about being in the business of teaching -- or exposing kids to -- values. And I'd argue that in many cases they've succeeded, in good part because of the presence in these institutions of intelligent and caring individuals, the sorts of people that any of us would have loved to have had as surrogate parents.

The first and most widely available of these institutions is religious, consisting of churches, temples and religious schools. All are in favor of a defined Good and against a defined Evil; they attempt to show people the ways they should, and shouldn't, be. Sometimes this kind of values education calls for a lot of memorizing. Many people will recognize this list of qualities to be avoided: pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth. These are, of course, not just the seven most common characteristics of today's teenagers (or, come to think of it, of today's writers ), they are also the Seven Deadly Sins of Christian orthodoxy. And, it could be said, the cornerstones of fiction through the ages.

A second set of institutions that attempt to improve kids' characters is our state reformatories. In them, manners, obedience, and diligence are taught to juvenile offenders on an "or else" basis. The first thing I was struck by at the State Home for Boys in Jamesburg, New Jersey, years ago was that every boy who passed between two conversing adults always said "Excuse me." They were "taught" to do that by their keepers in their first four weeks in residence. It was the kids themselves, however, who decided all of them were either "dukes" or "dips," depending on their combat skills.

Private Schools
The third set of values-educating institutions consists of the selective non-sectarian private schools. Although they may not state this quite so blatantly any more, all of them are trying to "build character." The qualities they cultivate are along the lines of sportsmanship and modesty, teamwork, honesty, and hard work -- while seeking to play down the elitism, materialism and over-competitiveness that are common to a portion of their clientele.

Public Schools
But now there are those who would like to see values education taking place in a fourth institution, our public schools, and everyone (including English teachers) is being put into a position of having to decide how they feel about that.

The most vocal supporters of such a plan seem to be people who actually believe there was a "Good Old Days" that we (society) can now replicate. Some of these people also embrace an agenda that, in addition to values education classes, included opinions favoring school prayer and creationism, and opposing abortion rights and quite a number of library books.

Almost equally vocal on the other side of the issue are those who are horrified by the prospect of any state-supported morality. They point to the Germany of the 1930s and 1940s and to present-day Iran as examples of what happens when a country takes that route.

Values: Learned or Taught?
It seems to me, however, that there's lots of middle ground between these two positions, and that many English teachers have been occupying it for a good long time.

Among the things that English teachers know (I think) is that while values certainly can be learned, they probably can't be taught -- that is to say, imposed from some "above." They also know (of course) that literature is concerned with human behavior, and that when kids begin discussing the various behaviors of the people in the stories, plays, and novels they're reading for English, they are at least noticing the values that these characters are embracing or rejecting.

The English teachers I've known have always been, as a group, the most accessible adults in their schools. They are, generally speaking, the faculty members that kids like the most, the faculty members who, kids believe, understand them best. English teachers, grounded in the humanities, invariably care about the human beings they are teaching and have the sensitivity -- and take the time -- to hear what they are saying.

So it shouldn't surprise anyone that English classrooms, more than any others, are the places where more kids are apt to tell the truth -- to share their opinions and their feelings about the things that interest them and matter to them.

Older YA Novels
All this now brings me to the "under-utilized resource" in my title: the older YA novel. And it's a particular kind of older YA novel I'm referring to, the kind that is about the imagined lives of present-day American kids of high-school age (who don't attend Sweet Valley High) -- somewhat sophisticated books about the kinds of kids who, I believe, should be reading them in school.

Books of this kinds are an endangered species. I know this because I write such books. Every agent, every publisher, every other writer of this kind of book knows the same thing. The books are being read by only a tiny percentage of the kids they're being written for. Most of those kids aren't even aware of their existence.

The real fact of the matter is that they may be better known by younger readers, in part because they're shelved in stores beside the books for ten-to-twelve-year olds. Some kids that age -- mostly better readers -- do find and enjoy them; they don't "get" everything that's in them, but they like the idea that they're reading "up." They know these new books aren't "kid stuff," and they like to tell their friends about them. The effect of this takeover on their older siblings is predictable, however. What ninth or tenth grader would admit to reading, let alone enjoying, a book her sixth-grade sister is carrying around?

The second thing that's endangering these books, as a group, is how they're viewed -- if viewed at all -- by many English teachers. As a rule, they haven't read them. Most know a few classics like A Separate Peace and The Catcher in the Rye and maybe even The Chocolate War , but that's about it. They feel they don't need to know any others. They may have a sense that some of these books may be "controversial," freighted with sex and vulgar language and maybe (worst of all) anti-establishment attitudes. They see no need to "look for trouble" by using books that some folks might object to.

Finally -- in the third place -- when library budgets are slashed (as so many have been lately), the YA shelf is often the first place to suffer. Children and adults must have "their" books; teens can read...oh, how about The Old Man and the Sea ?

I believe we shouldn't let these novels disappear: they're much too valuable. I believe they have a place in ninth- and tenth-grade English classes, not replacing the canon but supplementing it. I think a lot of adolescents need to have these books put in their hands -- for the kids' own sake and, yes, to serve the cause of values education, as it always has, and can, and should be done in public schools.

Putting values education to one side for just a moment though, I'd like to focus on the need for these books, which is due in part to a situation that's been developing for more than forty years. That's more or less how long we've been ensconced in the Age of Watching. Trite to say, but more and more during those years kids have been seduced by some easy pleasures. It seems that every decade there is something new to watch: more movies and cartoons and TV shows on more and more new channels, and videos and music videos, and now computer games.

Watching, kids discover, is a lot of easy fun. They tend to finish watching what they watch, but if they don't enjoy it, it's a cinch to switch to something else. They like the action they are viewing; a lot of what they choose is funny ; often there's some sex in it, and that's not hard to take. Frequently, they're watching people their own age in action, or people only slightly older.

Yes, kids do love to watch -- and talk about the things they're watching. They do their watching joyfully and confidently . Remember those two words; I'd like to soon come back to them.

Many of these same young people don't like reading books very much; they say that books are "boring." Quite a few of them have never really finished a whole book since Dr. Seuss days, just about. And of course they can't talk about what they haven't read.

You probably see where this is heading.

If we want reluctant readers to read and enjoy reading, the smartest thing we can do is to give them books about people like themselves -- people who are really like themselves.

I would argue that it's natural and proper for kids to want to read books about people like themselves, just as women, gays, and ethnics do. It's right for them to value and enjoy such books -- books whose characters are asking the same questions they're asking, are interested in many of the things they're interested in (like sex, for sure), and who even talk the same way they do, putting down the same things they put down. I believe a lot of ninth and tenth grade kids are starved for realism in their reading. They hear so many members of the adult world venting constantly against...well, almost every branch of the "establishment" (Congress, the President, all taxes, the media, major corporations and the unions -- hey, you name it, even baseball .) How pleasant it would be for them to read -- in school -- about some kids who share their gripes and aren't told to just shut up and mind their manners.

When kids in English class are assigned a book -- a realistic book -- about people their own age, they realize that they can go into that class and be the experts on that book and its characters. And, as experts, they will go into that room joyfully and confidently instead of gloomily and hopelessly. What they experience is the same feeling that a good student feels going into all the classes she or he is good at! I can't imagine a teacher who wouldn't love the idea of every kid coming into his or her classroom feeling ready and even anxious to participate.

Real kids do enjoy talking about the behaviors of fictional kids. They enjoy talking about the behavior, the motives and (yes!) the values of those kids. And inevitably they are soon talking about -- though sometimes in a carefully veiled way -- their own beliefs and behaviors.

In my mind this is values education at its best, when kids are discussing, even arguing about, the suitability of this behavior over that one. The teacher mediates, asks questions, free to toss in his or her opinions, but not in such a way that kids are made to feel they must agree. These, after all, are the kinds of discussions kids have been having with each other all along, talking not about characters in a book but characters in their families, or neighborhoods, or schools. And it is as a result of these discussions, I believe, that certain values are confirmed, or modified, or sometimes learned.

Please don't misunderstand. I'm not saying books like mine are "better" than other books. I know where they fall short of being "great" and even why. What I'm saying is I know they're (very) useful; some teachers and a lot of kids (some prompted by those teachers) have written me to say exactly that -- that these books really work in class (even "better" than some others.) Like all English teachers, I want kids to read and finish books and think about them, too -- and even love them. If there is "values education" in the process, we should make the most of it.

Julian Thompson, author of many insightful YA novels, delivered this talk at the 1995 ALAN Workshop.