ALAN v26n3 - The Research Connection- Current Studies in Young Adult Literature

The Research Connection

Current Studies in Young Adult Literature

by Jean E. Brown and Elaine C. Stephens

We decided that the focus of this column should be on the 1999-98 studies that received funding from the ALAN Foundation in order to inform ALAN members about current research and to encourage other research efforts. In our first column ( Vol. 26,#1, Fall, 1998 ), we included Ted Hipple's detailed description about the role and processes of the ALAN Foundation in funding research projects in the field of young adult literature. At November's 1998 NCTE Conference in Nashville, five new research projects were funded. The most recent awardees are as follows:

  • Jean E. Brown and Elaine C. Stephens, Saginaw Valley State University, "Exploring the Impact of Conflict and Violence in Today's Society through Young Adult Literature"
  • Marshall George, Fordham University, "Using Faculty Book Clubs to Foster Integration of Young Adult Literature in the Classroom"
  • S. David Gill, University of North Carolina at Wilmington (as of July 1st), "A National Survey of the Use of Multicultural Young Adult Literature in University Courses"
  • JaNae Jenkins Mundy, Texas Women's University, "What Makes a Book 'Best': Analyzing the Best Books for Young Adults and Best Books for Reluctant Readers"
  • Elizabeth Watts, University of South Florida, "Effects of Sustained Silent Reading of Young Adult Literature on the Reading Attitudes of At-Risk Adolescents"

We invited each of the recipients to share a progress report on their work. Two of the recipients (Mundy and Watts) were unable to respond at this time, but we hope to include their interim reports in a future issue.

Brown and Stephens' Project: Violence & YAL

As we were writing this column, we, like everyone else in this country, felt the terrible shock and grief as we watched the news from Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, where once again our schools became the scene of inexplicable carnage. Painfully, a Columbine student sobbed: "School is supposed to be safe," echoing not only the horror of the tragedy in Littleton, but also the events in Springfield, in Jonesboro, and every other place where students have killed and maimed one another. Ironically, the terror of school violence during the 1997-98 year had led us to raise questions about the potential of using young adult literature to heighten student awareness on this issue. Now four months into the study, the most vicious and destructive example of school violence has occurred in Littleton.

We designed our study, "Exploring the Impact of Conflict and Violence in Today's Society through Young Adult Literature," as a case study to examine the potential impact that young adult literature has on a group of high school students. Tragically, the events in Littleton reaffirmed the horror and magnitude of the problem of violence that at times like this seems overwhelming. Young people today experience violence as a part of daily life, either through the media or too often in real life. The statistics are staggering with the incidents of violent crimes doubling since the 1980s, the cases of abuse of children and young people steadily rising, and incidents of school violence at its highest level in history. If violence and conflict are daily realities, where are young people safe? The school shootings in Colorado, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Oregon resoundingly confirm the tragic reality that violence is not singularly an urban or a minority problem. It is everyone's problem.

As these events so painfully remind us, societal violence and conflict are realities that do not stop at the classroom door. The problems are complex and do not lend themselves to single, simplistic solutions. As schools seek to design multi-faceted programs to address the problems, we believe that it is important to study the role that young adult literature can play in these efforts. One of the inherent benefits of literature, according to those of us who promote reading, is that it provides students (or readers in general) with a safe haven for addressing difficult situations in which they can measure their perspectives and test their values. Young adult literature, in which characters encounter conflict and violence, face its consequences, and assume responsibility for their actions, can provide teachers and students with a positive forum in which to wrestle with complex problems. By using appropriate selections from the field of young adult literature, teachers can help their students to experience vicariously the painful realities of current social conditions.

The method we are using for this project is a case study of a classroom teacher. We are examining how that teacher uses young adult literature as part of a multi-faceted approach to help students face the problems of conflict and violence confronting today's young people. When it is completed, this case study will provide an in-depth examination of the role that young adult literature can play, its benefits and limitations, and the insights that a teacher gains from this experience. In this study, we emphasize the reflective nature of teaching and document the changes that the teacher undergoes in this process. In this way, we will examine the impact of young adult literature on both the students and the teacher. Some of the questions we are asking include: What would we learn from the students in this study about the role of violence in their own lives? Would using young adult literature with them have an impact as they faced this new tragedy? How does young adult literature provide students with a foundation to face new crises? How will the study have an impact on the teacher? Will it foster change in the way the teacher uses literature in her classroom?

Upon notification of funding last November, we identified a teacher who works in an alternative high school in our area. The students in these classes are considered to be "at-risk," and many have histories with violence. We obtained permission to work in that teacher's classroom. We met with her in several planning sessions, deciding on the direction and activities of the case study. We developed criteria for selecting appropriate young adult literature and also assisted in the selection of appropriate literature involvement strategies, the development of a writing component, and a plan for an author visits. The planning sessions took place during the fall semester, but the study actually began at the beginning of winter semester, 1999. We also determined that the study would be conducted in two classes of English, each of which had approximately 20 students.

The teacher began by reading Virginia Walter's novella, Making Up Megaboy aloud to both classes. Initially the students were convinced that it was a true story because it reflects so many news accounts. This was followed by a whole class study of Janet Bode's nonfiction account of incarcerated teenagers, Hard Time. Then the students read The Drowning of Stephan Jones , Bette Greene's novel about a hate crime against a gay man. The final book that students will read as a class is Michael Cadnum's Zero at the Bone , a chillingly powerful tale of implicit violence.

Preliminary Observations and Findings

The horrible irony in the timing of our study with the most recent occurrence of school violence in Littleton, Colorado provided a tragic immediacy and reality to our work. Reading the literature and discussing it has helped the students in these two classes to reflect upon the actions at Columbine High School rather than simply to react to them. They were able to view these events using their earlier discussions about Robby from Megaboy , the young people who told their stories to Janet Bode in Hard Time , and the social structure in Stephan Jones as a springboard for understanding the disaffected and the alienated. One student believed that the magnitude of the killings in Littleton should serve as a national wakeup call about guns and their potential danger in the hands of young people. The teacher indicated a positive change in her students' attitudes and their willingness to see other points of view. They are currently writing to Janet Bode about the young people in Hard Time and sharing their own experiences. Later this spring Janet Bode will be on our campus and the high school students will have the opportunity to meet with her then.

Additionally, we have met regularly with the teacher to discuss the evolution of the study, refine plans, and assess its impact on her. The teacher also reported that the study provided her with the impetus to keep a journal reflecting upon her teaching. She believes that these reflections are helping her to improve her teaching. These preliminary findings, while tentative, are encouraging and we look forward to a more in-depth examination.

The second progress report is from Marshall A. George on his study, "Using Faculty Book Clubs to Foster Integration of Recent Young Adult." He describes the work he is doing with teachers in two New York City Public Schools.

George's Project: Literature in the Classroom Background

Inspired by the research conducted by Applebee (1993) into the literature being read in high school English classes around the country, last year I conducted a small-scale research study to examine the use of young adult literature in middle school classes in New York City. I teach a young adult literature course to pre-service teachers of English and social studies the semester during which they do their student teaching in area public schools. Through my research, I hoped to get an idea of how the teachers in these schools incorporate young adult literature in their own curricula. In particular, I was interested in discovering which young adult novels (if any) were being read in these middle school classes, how teachers selected these texts, how students responded to the literature; and what resources teachers used to keep abreast of recent publications in the field of young adult literature. In order to gather data to address my questions, I conducted individual interviews with teachers in two of the schools where my students were doing their student teaching.

The results of my research were somewhat disturbing to me. For the most part, teachers in the schools where students in my young adult literature class would be student teaching (and attempting to incorporate YA lit) were not often using young adult novels in their language arts classes. The few YA novels that were being used were "classics" in the genre, such as Tuck Everlasting, The Pigman, The Outsiders, and Scorpions . Only one novel published in the 1990s, Walk Two Moons , was mentioned by one teacher, and she did not read it with her students. The lack of a presence, in general, of young adult literature in the curriculum alarmed me greatly, and the absence of recently published titles cause me further frustration. My interviews with these teachers revealed that few had taken a course in young adult literature in their teacher education programs, and most had to rely on "word of mouth" to discover possible young adult novels to read with their students. Because it appears that student reaction to the young adult literature they do read is overwhelmingly positive, most of the teachers I interviewed were eager to learn more about novels they might read with their students. Surprisingly, the administration in each of these schools encourages teachers to use YA literature. I feel that it is imperative that I conduct research to examine how I might foster more integration of young adult literature in the middle school classroom.

Description of this Research Project

The purpose of this research project is to explore methods for introducing middle school teachers to good young adult literature; in particular recently published novels, in hopes that they will incorporate more of it in their language arts and social studies classes. To do this, I have collaborated with administrators and staff developers to establish "Faculty Book Clubs" in two of the schools where students in the Initial Teacher Education Program at my university do their student teaching experience. In these Book Clubs, in which teachers participate on a voluntary basis, we have read and discussed a number of great books. In one of these schools, where the use of "classic" YA literature is common, as many as 15 teachers have participated, and have been most enthusiastic about the recently published books we have read (such as Out of the Dust, Chasing Redbird, Wringer, Belle Prater's Boy, The View from Saturday ), and have taken them immediately back to their classrooms, mostly through the use of the book club format. In the other school, where the use of YA lit has been very rare, and book clubs or literature circles nonexistent, the small group of teachers participating have been receptive to YA lit (such as Walk Two Moons, The Giver, and The Watson's Go to Birmingham, 1963 ) and some are taking the novels back to their classrooms as read-a-louds.

I feel that this research will contribute significantly to four groups of people. First, teachers in these urban schools in New York City will be introduced to young adult literature (and introduced to more recently published titles) and may begin integrating these novels into the curriculum. If this happens, students in the Graduate School of Education where I teach will be afforded the opportunity to put into practice the methods and content they have learned in their teacher education program. Perhaps most importantly, then, students in the classrooms in these middle schools will benefit by being introduced to good literature that they find interesting, and will begin a lifelong habit of reading. Finally, if the project is successful, my colleagues in the fields of English and Literacy Education around the country will have a model for implementing similar experiences in the schools with which they collaborate. Therefore, it is with great enthusiasm that I am engaging in this research study.

The next progress report is from Sam D. Gill on his study, "A National Survey of the Use of Multicultural Young Adult Literature in Courses."

Gill's Projects: Multicultural YAL

Description, Method, and Purpose

According to research done by Melissa Comer, professors teaching young adult literature (YAL) believe that multicultural literature is important. In her dissertation, A National Survey to Determine the Status of the Design and Teaching Techniques of Young Adult Literature Courses at the College or University Level (1997), Comer surveyed sixty professors about their YAL courses, and the majority agreed that one of the strengths of adolescent literature is its ability to appeal to all groups of readers ( Comer, 1997 ).

A review of Comer's findings, however, reveals that the majority of the most commonly used "core novels" in YAL courses are authored by white males. Only two of the most common novels are authored by non-whites: Mildred Taylor's Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and Walter Dean Myers' Fallen Angels . These findings raised the following questions for me: Are YAL professors determined to change the cultural diversity of secondary English literature, or are they complacently choosing the "classics" of YAL without considering newer, multicultural literature? Is it possible that multicultural literature could been written by white males? I hope to determine the extent to which multicultural literature is supported in YAL courses by surveying roughly the same group of professors regarding their attitudes about multicultural literature and their use of it in their courses. Data from the surveys would provide a comprehensive review of which novels are used and how they are used, and how much emphasis is placed on the importance of using multicultural literature in the secondary school.

The results will be compared to similar surveys conducted by Gallo and McCaffrey (1997) , Nilsen and DeSelms (1978), and Abrahamson (1981) , as well as Comer (1997) . The report will conclude with speculation about the possible growth of multicultural literature in YAL courses and the relationship between such a growth and greater student interest in reading literature.

To conduct this research, I am surveying, by mail, university professors who are currently teaching (either at the graduate or undergraduate level) a course on young adult literature. After the initial survey, I will ask for syllabi from those professors who have consciously incorporated multicultural literature in coursework, both by assigning such novels and by addressing it as a discussion topic in their course. By examining the syllabi, I hope to gain insight into their methods for teaching multicultural literature.

Preliminary Observations

It is difficult to make insights based on the number of responses I've received, but I am surprised my the number of respondents who make little or no overt effort to include multi-cultural works in their reading lists. This may be indicative of the elusive definition of "multi-cultural" instead of attitudes about using a variety of authors.

We hope that these preliminary reports stimulate all of us to seek more knowledge to help advance the field of young adult literature and to answer the difficult questions facing today's educators. We invite you to share with us any research projects you are engaged in. Collectively, we can make a difference for today's young people.

Works Cited by George:

Applebee, A.N. (1993). Literature in the secondary school: Studies of curriculum and instruction in the United States . NCTE Research Report No. 25. Urbana, IL: NCTE.

Works Cited by Gill:

Abrahamson, R. (1981). How adolescent literature is taught in American colleges and universities: A national survey . English Education , 13 (3), 224-229.

Comer, M. (1997). A National Survey to Determine the Status of the Design and Teaching Techniques of Young Adult Literature Courses at the College or University Level , University of Tennessee.

Gallo, D. & McGaffrey, M. (1977). How do you teach an adolescent literature course? English Education , 245-246.

Jean E. Brown and Elaine C. Stephens are both Professors of Teacher Education at Saginaw Valley State University, University Center, MI, 48710. Their e-mail addresses are: and and they welcome your responses.

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: Brown. Jean E. and Elaine C. Stephens . (1999) "The Research Connection: Current Studies in Young Adult Literature." The ALAN Review, Volume 26, Number 3, pp 45-48.