ALAN v28n1 - High School Connection YA: FAQ (We're Glad You Asked!)

Volume 28, Number 1
Fall 2000


by Ann Wilder and Alan B. Teasley

YA: FAQ (We're Glad You Asked!)

When we work with preservice and beginning English teachers, we have noticed that when we utter the phrase "young adult literature" (as in, "What young adult literature have you read lately?"), we get in reply, "What do you mean by that?" In preparing this column we have imagined one of the links we might put on our fantasy Web site: Things We Are Passionate About . Just imagine that you're scanning the Web page. Over on the right, just below Good Restaurants in NCTE Convention Cities and just above Gravesites of the Famous , you see YA: FAQ with an icon/photo of Chris Crutcher speaking at the ALAN breakfast. You click on Chris's face.

1. What is YA literature?

Actually, at various times we have used several definitions.

Definition #1: YA literature refers to books written specifically for a teenage audience. The books usually have a young protagonist and present that young person dealing with issues that other young people all face (belonging, falling in love, or deciding what to do in the future, for example) or issues that young people are afraid they may have to face (violence, drug dependency, alcoholism, being alone, death of a loved one, pregnancy, or divorce of parents).

Definition #2: YA literature is anything young adults are reading of their own free will. Teenagers vary widely in their reading interests. On a typical day in Ann's young adult literature elective course (conducted as a reading workshop), you might find students reading books by such favorite YA authors as Lurlene McDaniel, Christopher Pike, and R. L. Stine, while others are reading books by Omar Tyree, Michael Crichton, April Sinclair, Stephen King, or Terry McMillan -none of whom are considered YA authors. We've noticed that, while some readers become addicted to a particular genre or a favorite author or series, all teen readers like books with a strong plot and compelling characters, regardless of how the book is marketed. (For additional titles today's high school students like, see our column, "Making the Transition to Lifelong Reading: Books Older Teens Choose" in The ALAN Review , Fall 1999, 27: 42-46).

This brings us to Definition #3. Because we hang around the book displays at NCTE conferences, we often have a more jaded view that YA literature is any book marketed as YA by a publisher. Sometimes the classification of a book as YA seems arbitrary. For example, The Odd Sea has a teenage protagonist whose gifted older brother disappears. It perfectly fits our first definition, yet to our knowledge it has never been marketed to a teen audience. On the other hand, when Lois Lowry's The Giver was published in 1993, it was clearly marketed as a YA novel. However, we understand that as adult readers began to discover it (with the reaction, "This is not your ordinary kid's book"), the publishers considered changing the cover of the paperback edition to attract more adult readers. Bruce Stone, author of Half Nelson, Full Nelson and Been Clever Forever , has commented that he wrote his novels for an adult audience and had no idea they would be marketed as YA.

2. Teenagers have been reading for decades. Why is there no YA literature before The Outsiders ?

Until the mid twentieth century, adolescents didn't really exist. There were two groups: adults and children. Some date the invention of teen literature to the publication of Maureen Daly's Seventeenth Summer in 1942; others find the roots of the movement in the proliferation of series like Nancy Drew, Tom Swift, the Hardy Boys, and Cherry Ames, Student Nurse, some of which go back to the early 1900s. For others, S. E. Hinton defined the category with The Outsiders in 1967.

But there always were children's books. We remember vividly the old Durham Public Library. There were two levels: the real library upstairs and the Children's Room in the basement. That's where you could check out The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Black Beauty, or Treasure Island , but there was no To Kill a Mockingbird -its themes were too sophisticated for children. When we outgrew the Children's Room, we were allowed to go upstairs and choose from the adult books, an important rite of passage for a young reader.

In retrospect, some of the children's classics and adult books we discovered could fit any of our definitions of YA literature. In addition to the ones already mentioned, we would add Great Expectations, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Member of the Wedding, The Lord of the Flies , and A Separate Peace .

3. Why do you read YA literature?

Well, we have to read it to a certain extent-it's our professional obligation, after all. BUT WE REALLY LIKE YA BOOKS! We like the characters, the freshness of the narrative voice, the humor, and the various ways the authors find to intrigue and move us. These books don't have a lot of pretension; there's very little artsy Writing-with-a-capital-W (not that there's anything wrong with that!).

Also, YA literature has really matured over the last twenty years. Whereas once the focus was entirely on the realistic adolescent problem novel, we now have a dizzying array of genres (science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery, adventure, and romance), multiple points of view, multiple means of advancing the story (letters, faxes, poems, `zines), inventive plots, important contemporary issues, and truly individual characters we haven't met before.

4. I can see using YA literature in the middle school. After all, the curriculum requirements are not as specific in those grades. I agree that the important thing is to keep students reading. But how can I justify teaching YA literature in the high school grades?

There are a variety of good reasons for teaching YA literature in high school English classes. The most obvious rationale is that kids are more likely to read these books than they are some of the classics we have assigned. Have you ever tried to conduct a discussion of a book when 80% of your class hasn't read it?

Secondly, some of our most revered canonical works really don't speak to the issues that our young people are facing. (Here starteth a rant.) After all, when did we start teaching The Great Gatsby in high school? What test did that book have to pass? Dang! We both read Gatsby in high school, then again in college, and then again in graduate school. To tell the truth, it made much more sense in graduate school than it did in high school. Okay, in high school, we got the point about the Jazz Age, and our teacher explained to us the symbolism of the green light and the big eyeglasses. But we couldn't really relate to the angst of a millionaire gangster on Long Island. And don't get us started on The Scarlet Letter ! We now believe our time would have been better spent-at age 15--reading good books about issues we were facing--not about the problems of the decadent rich or the spiritual perils of adultery. What we want to know is: who voted on the high school canon? And was it a free election? (Thus endeth the rant.)

Finally, some YA books are viable alternatives-or supplements-to books in the high school canon. See our Fall 1998 column "Young Adult Literature in the High School" ( The ALAN Review , 26: 42-45) for a list of recommended books for whole class study. Click here: .

5. But what about the classics? If students spend all their time reading YA books, when will they learn how to analyze real literature?

Life is short and books are many. Students need to learn to respond to, analyze, and evaluate all kinds of books. Many teachers have ninth and tenth graders "cut their teeth" analyzing more readable books that they can relate to and then move on to the analysis of more complex works in the upper grades. We recommend you teach both YA literature and classic literature, either alternately or in combination. If you want to combine YA books and classics in a thematic unit, see Joan Kaywell's books for a plethora of suggestions ( Adolescent Literature as a Complement to the Classics , 1993, was the first one, and popular demand has elicited at least two additional volumes).

Another strategy is to provide a list of several novels students can choose from for a particular unit. Include on the list classics, YA books, and adult best sellers. You could also teach the classic selection to the whole class and have students find a parallel book on their own. (Again, our Fall 1998 column offers specific titles to consider.)

6. Okay, you've just about convinced me. How do I convince my department chair to buy class sets of YA novels?

The short answer is: convince your department chair that students will actually read YA books. How often have you heard a student say that he or she has not ever finished an assigned book in high school? They will read YA books.

If you're lucky, all the students you teach are reading at or way above grade level, and they can all read the books you assign them and love the challenge of reading a new novel. If you're like most of the rest of us, you have students who struggle with reading either because they are poor readers, or because they don't like to read. YA books are just the ticket for these students. In North Carolina, the English curriculum for tenth grade is world literature (and the works studied should be in translation). At first we wrestled with our kids over The Epic of Gilgamesh and All Quiet on the Western Front , among others. Then we found YA books in translation: The Boys from St. Petri, The Final Journey , and Zlata's Diary (all world lit books, all in translation); we now have happier students who are reading assigned books.

7. How do you build a classroom library of YA books?

We frequent yard sales, second-hand book stores, and the annual public library used book sale. Also, Ann's school has a book drive every fall. The children's books go to the local Ronald McDonald House, the clearly adult books go to homeless shelters and a nearby prison, and English teachers divide the young adult books for their classroom libraries. Once students see Ann's collection and borrow some of her books, they often bring in books from their homes. Sometimes they come in with grocery bags full of books and put them on her shelf. Finally, we have a local Public Education Network which provides small grants for teacher-initiated projects. Some teachers have applied for grants to beef up their classroom libraries.

8. What are some essential resources for teachers who want to use YA literature in their classrooms?

The most essential resource is The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of NCTE (ALAN), with its annual workshop, a quarterly journal (clearly you've found that!), a web site (, and, most important, a network of teachers and librarians committed to connecting young people with books.

We've also found very helpful in locating books and in recommending titles ("Customers who bought this book also bought …"). You can subscribe to a monthly Teen Literature newsletter that brings to your e-mail inbox links to newly published books, interviews with authors, and articles. We've found some of our favorite recent titles in this way.

In terms of print resources, the books by Joan Kaywell are essential for those seeking to link classic and YA books. Nancie Atwell's In the Middle is an excellent guide to setting up and managing a reading workshop approach. Virginia Monseau and Gary Salvner's Reading Their World: The Young Adult Novel in the Classroom contains essays by teachers and YA authors. We understand a second edition is due in 2000.

9. This has all been very helpful. So, have you read any good books lately?

Yes, as a matter of fact, we have. Thanks for asking. A number of books have excited us in the past year. The characters are well developed and interesting, the plots are engaging, and each one offers a unique experience for your student readers. Check them out! (Full citations are in the bibliography).

Ann has particularly liked Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak , Nancy Werlin's The Killer's Cousin , Ellen Wittlinger's Hard Love , Brock Cole's The Facts Speak for Themselves , Rob Thomas's Doing Time: Notes from the Undergrad , Louis Sachar's Holes , and Cynthia D. Grant's The White Horse .

Some of Alan's favorites have included Stephen Chbosky's T he Perks of Being a Wallflower , Kimberly Willis Holt's When Zachary Beaver Came to Town , William Taylor's Jerome and The Blue Lawn , Diane Matcheck's The Sacrifice , and Alden Chambers' The Toll Bridge .

Happy reading!

Works Cited

Anderson, Laurie Halse. Speak . New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1999.

Atwell, Nancie. In the Middle: New Understanding about Writing, Reading, and Learning Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1998.

Chambers, Alden. The Toll Bridge . New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Chbosky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower . New York: Pocket Books, 1999.

Cole, Brock. The Facts Speak for Themselves . New York: Puffin Books, 2000.

Daly, Maureen. Seventeenth Summer . New York: Archway, 1986.

Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations . New York: Penguin, 1998.

Filipovic, Zlata. Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Sarajevo . New York: Penguin Books, 1995.

Fitzgerald, E Scott. The Great Gatsby . New York: Scribners, 1995.

Golding, William. The Lord of the Flies . New York: Perigee, 1959.

Grant, Cynthia D. The White Horse . New York: New York: Aladdin Books, 2000.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter . New York: Bantam Classic and Loveswept, 1981.

Hinton, S. E. The Outsiders . New York: Dell, 1968.

Holt, Kimberly Willis. When Zachary Beaver Came to Town . New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1999.

Kaywell, Joan, Ed. Adolescent Literature as a Complement to the Classics . Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon Publishers, 1992.

Kaywell, Joan, Ed. Adolescent Literature as a Complement to the Classics, Vol. 2 . Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon Publishers, 1994.

Kaywell, Joan, Ed. Adolescent Literature as a Complement to the Classics, Vol. 3 . Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon Publishers, 1997.

Kaywell, Joan, Ed. Adolescent Literature as a Complement to the Classics, Vol. 4 . Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon Publishers, 2000.

Knowles, John. A Separate Peace . New York: Bantam Books, 1995.

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

Lowry, Lois. The Giver . New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.

Matcheck, Diane. The Sacrifice . New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1998.

McCullers, Carson. The Member of the Wedding . New York: Bantam Books, 1985.

Monseau, Virignia, and Gary Salvner. Reading Their World: The Young Adult Novel in the Classroom . Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1992.

Pausewang. Gudrun. The Final Journey . New York: Puffin Books, 1996.

Reiken, Frederick. The Odd Sea . New York: Delta Books, 1999.

Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front . New York: Fawcett Books, 1987.

Reuter, Bjarne. The Boys From St. Petri . New York: Puffin Books, 1996.

Sachar, Louis. Holes . New York Yearling Books, 2000.

Sewell, Anna. Black Beauty . New York: Yearling Books, 1990.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. Treasure Island . New York: Tor Books, 1990.

Stone, Bruce. Half Nelson, Full Nelson . New York: Harper Collins, 1985.

Stone, Bruce. Been Clever Forever . New York: Harper Collins, 1988.

Taylor, William. The Blue Lawn . New York: Alyson Publications, 1994.

Taylor, William. Jerome . New York: Alyson Publications, 1999.

Thomas, Rob. Doing Time: Notes from the Undergrad . New York: Aladdin Paperbacks, 1999.

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn . New York: Penguin, 1995.

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer . New York: Puffin Books, 1995.

Werlin, Nancy. The Killer's Cousin . New York: Laurel Leaf, 2000.

Wittlinger, Ellen. Hard Love . New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.

Reference Citation: Wilder, Ann and Alan B. Teasley. (2000) "High School Connections YA: FAQ (We're Glad You Asked!)." The ALAN Review , Volume 28, Number 1, p. 55-57.