ALAN v21n2 - Using Young Adult Problem Fiction and Nonfiction To Produce Critical Readers

Volume 21, Number 2
Winter 1994

Using Young Adult Problem Fiction and Non-Fiction To Produce Critical Readers

Joan Kaywell

We are English teachers, not guidance counselors." I have never forgotten these words said by my professor in a methods class. Nonetheless, it is difficult to ignore the many problems facing today's adolescents, especially when uncomfortable topics often arise as students engage in reader-response activities with literature. Students want to talk about their problems, but they often don't want everyone to know that they are the ones whose problems are being discussed. Students who are being sexually abused, for example, won't go to the library to check out books on the topic because they know that they will become suspect. Feeling that students would benefit from reading and discussing such books, I decided to devise a way that would enable students to discuss the issues concerning them in a way that was literary, not counselor-based.

Selecting the Problems

To begin the process, I asked students to identify all of the problems affecting adolescents, specifically those that put them "at-risk" in today's schools. Students might generate a list of topics that resembles the following: abused children, adopted teens, AIDS, alcohol and drugs, alienation and identity, anorexia nervosa, children of divorce (or being raised by a single parent), children of poverty, death and dying, delinquency, handicapped youth, homosexuality, multicultural concerns/prejudice, stress and suicide, teenage pregnancy, and teenage sexuality. Because there will probably be too many topics on the resulting list for a single class to explore in any kind of depth, I ask the class to select five topics if the class has about 25 students, and I have students group themselves so that five students are in each group and each group is responsible for studying one topic. For this particular article, I have chosen the following five topics to illustrate the process: abused children, eating disorders, homosexuality, teenage pregnancy, and stress and suicide.

Selecting the Books

I then give students a list of several annotated young adult novels and have them choose one to read with each member reading a different book that pertains to their particular topic. For additional annotations, there are many reputable sources such as The ALAN Review and NCTE's Books for You , High-Interest -- Easy Reading , and Your Reading . It is important to provide several choices for students and to select books that have different problem situations. As the following list of annotations reveals, various problems are associated with each broad category. Abuse, for example, takes many forms and is not limited to sexual abuse.

Annotated List of Young Adult Novels

Abused Children

* Everything Is Not Enough by Sandy Asher; Dell, 1987 (155 pp.).
Michael's new job introduces him to Tricia who is being abused by her boyfriend. (physical abuse by boyfriend)

* A Different Kind of Love by Michael Borich; Signet, 1987 (157 pp.).
Weeble's uncle comes to live with her and her mother and makes sexual advances towards Weeble. (sexual abuse by uncle)

* Chinese Handcuffs by Chris Crutcher; Dell, 1991 (220 pp.).
Jennifer, an all-star basketball player, seems to have everything going for her, but no one knows she is being sexually abused by her stepfather. (sexual abuse by stepfather)

* Abby, My Love by Hadley Irwin; Atheneum, 1985 (146 pp.)
Abby's father, a prominent dentist, has been sexually abusing her, which prevents her from allowing herself to be intimate with Chip. (sexual abuse by father)

* Putting Heather Together Again by Marilyn Levy; Ballantine, 1989 (136 pp.).
Seventeen-year-old Heather suffers from a date rape and has difficulty telling anyone about it. (sexual abuse by boyfriend)

* The Big Way Out by Peter Silsbee; Dell, 1987 (180 pp.).
Paul's father is a manic depressive whose abusive threats and violence have the family on guard all of the time. (physical abuse by father)

Eating Disorders

* Second Star to the Right by Deborah Hautzig; Greenwillow Books, 1981 (151 pp.).
Leslie finds herself in a hospital for people with eating disorders and she tries to reconstruct how she got there.

* Heads You Win, Tails I Lose by Isabelle Holland; Dell, 1973 (158 pp.).
Melissa is overweight and takes diet pills because she thinks being thin is the way to be popular and loved.

* Early Disorder by Rebecca Josephs; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1980 (185 pp.).
The only thing Willa can control is her diet, but even that gets out of control.

* The Best Little Girl in the World by Steven Levenkron; Warner Books, 1991 (253 pp.).
Kessa thinks she's grossly overweight even though she is only five-foot-four and 98 pounds.

* I Was a 15-Year-Old Blimp by Patti Stren; Harper and Row, 1985 (185 pp.).
Gabby starts taking laxatives and purging her meals in order to lose weight so she can capture the attention of a boy she likes.


* Happily Ever After by Hila Colman; Scholastic, 1986 (156 pp.).
Now that they've graduated from high school, Melanie is ready for marriage but Paul has other issues to address. (coming out -- male)

* Annie On My Mind by Nancy Garden; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1982 (233 pp.).
Liza and Annie are drawn to each other at an art museum, and Liza forces herself to stay away until she can no longer deny her feelings. (coming out -- female)

* The Drowning of Stephan Jones by Bette Greene; Bantam, 1991 (217 pp.).
Andy is incensed when two gay men move into town and his homophobia leads to tragedy. (homophobia)

* Jack by A.M. Homes; Macmillan, 1989 (220 pp.).
In the midst of dealing with his parents' divorce, Jack learns that his father is a homosexual. (dealing with a homosexual father)

* Night Kites by M.E. Kerr; Harper and Row, 1987 (216 pp.).
During his senior year, Erick falls for his best friend's girlfriend and finds out that his brother is gay and has AIDS. (dealing with a homosexual brother who has AIDS)

* Breaking Up: A Novel by Norma Klein; Avon Books, 1982 (224 pp.).
Not only are Alison's parents getting a divorce, but the cause is that her mother is involved with another woman. (dealing with a homosexual mother)

* Rumors and Whispers by Marilyn Levy; Fawcett Juniper, 1990 (153 pp.).
Sarah offers her gay brother the loving support he needs after their parents throw him out of the house. (dealing with a homosexual brother)

* Bad Boys by Diana Wieler; Delacorte Press, 1992 (184 pp.).
Although A.J.'s alias is "bad boy" for being so tough on his hockey team, his emotions are taxed when he learns that his best friend is gay. (dealing with a homosexual best friend)

* I Never Got to Say Goodbye by Alida E. Young; Willowisp Press, 1988 (175 pp.).
Traci's uncle has AIDS; and, when his roommate dies of AIDS, she and her uncle attend help groups and decide to make Danny a panel for the AIDS Memorial Quilt. (dealing with a homosexual uncle with AIDS)

Teenage Pregnancy

* Stranger, You and I by Patricia Calvert; Charles Scribner's Sons, 1987 (152 pp.).
Zee, a junior, gets pregnant after "one time" and her friend, Hugh, helps her decide what to do.

* No More Saturday Nights by Norma Klein; Fawcett Juniper, 1988 (264 pp.).
When Tim's pregnant girlfriend tries to "sell" her baby, Tim decides to raise the baby himself during his freshman year at college.

* That Night by Alice McDermott; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1987 (184 pp.).
Because Sheryl is only 15 when she gets pregnant, her mother decides that she will give the baby up for adoption but never consults the father about his feelings.

* Don't Look and It Won't Hurt by Richard Peck; Avon Books, 1979 (173 pp.).
Ellen becomes pregnant at 17 and struggles with the decision of whether or not to keep the baby.

* Bird at the Window by Jan Truss; Harper and Row, 1980 (215 pp.).
Angela refuses to talk about her pregnancy and struggles with the decision to keep the baby or have an abortion.

* If Not For You by Margaret Willey; Harper and Row, 1988 (160 pp.).
Bonnie's best friend's sister, Linda, drops out of school in order to marry Ray and have his baby, and Bonnie thinks that is so romantic until she does some babysitting for the couple.

Stress and Suicide

* I Can Hear the Mourning Dove by James Bennett; Houghton Mifflin, 1990 (224 pp.).
After Grace's father's sudden death, Gail attempts suicide and spends most of her junior year in a mental institution.

* Chinese Handcuffs by Chris Crutcher; Dell, 1991 (220 pp.).
Dillon struggles with his own life after witnessing his brother's suicide.

* So Long at the Fair by Hadley Irwin; McElderry, 1988 (202 pp.).
Joel's best friend, Ashley, commits suicide, and Joel is left to accept his life without her in it.

* Just for the Summer by Karin N. Mango; HarperCollins, 1990 (204 pp.).
Jenny befriends Rollo, who suffers from guilt because of his inability to prevent his father's suicide.

* Blindfold by Sandra McCuaig; Holiday House, 1990 (167 pp.).
Fifteen-year-old Sally has to deal with the suicides of two brothers who were her best friends.

* Because of Lissa by Carolyn Meyer; Bantam Books, 1990 (192 pp.).
After Lissa's suicide, four teenagers establish a hotline at their school for troubled students.

* How Could You Do It, Diane? by Stella Pevsner; Clarion Books, 1989 (183 pp.).
Fourteen-year-old Bethany finds her well-loved, older stepsister's body after she commits suicide.

* Right Behind the Rain by Joyce Sweeney; Delacorte Press, 1990 (160 pp.).
Carla's brother's suicide is prevented thanks to her.

Using Reader-Response Journals

I give students two weeks or so to read their individual novels, keeping a reading response journal while they read. Students should note their thoughts while they read and can be prompted by the following questions: What advice would you give the protagonist if he or she were your best friend? Comment each time any character reminds you of someone or something you have read or heard about. What were the events leading up to the protagonist's main problem? What were the telling signs that a character had a problem? Because of the intensity of the topics, it is important to warn students not to discuss in a careless manner the names or identities of people they know.

Researching Nonfiction Materials

After students have finished reading their novels, I take them to the library and have them conduct research on their topic. Each student finds at least one reference and cites a minimum of ten facts pertaining to the subject. Additionally, students locate information on where a person with such a problem can go for help. I stress that sources and facts must be cited accurately. In this way, I present a mini-lesson on the MLA style or APA style of reporting research in a meaningful context.

After students individually find their facts, they reconvene in their groups so that each group has a minimum of 50 facts pertaining to the topic. I ask them to select the best 25 statements to be included in a class-generated fact sheet with corresponding information for finding help. By having students reject half of their information, I ensure that discussions about credibility of source, recency of information, relevancy of information, and the need to properly cite information will ensue. For example, consider these facts about teenage suicide:

1. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for 15- to 19-year-olds, and the rate for children under the age of 15 has increased almost 800% since 1950 ( Stupple, 1987, p. 64 ).

2. Suicide is now the second leading cause of teenage deaths, topped only by vehicle fatalities ( Edwards, 1988, p. 297 ).

3. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, about 5,000 young people commit suicide each year, and other research indicates that another 500,000 others attempt to do so (Spoonhour, 1985, p. 76).

4. A federal survey of high school students by the national Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that 27% "thought seriously" about killing themselves in the preceding year and 8% made actual attempts ( St. Pete Times , 1991, p. 1A ).

5. Over 1000 American teenagers attempt suicide each day, which translates into 57 attempts per hour; one teenager succeeds every hour and a half ( Patros & Shamoo, 1989 ).

6. The suicide rate is highest in the spring, especially in the month of May ( Leight, 1986, p. 143 ).

7. There are three irrefutable statements that can be made about teen suicide: 1) an attempt usually follows something shattering from a week to a month beforehand, 2) 80% of young people who try to or do commit suicide give some explicit warning of their unhappiness, and 3) 70% of attempts or actual suicides are made while under the influence of drugs or alcohol ( Hallowell, 1987, p. 70 ).

8. Hopelessness is a better indicator than depression in assessing whether a person is likely to commit suicide ( American Association of Suicidology, 1975 ).

There is an obvious contradiction, for example, between points one and two. Students might want to look at each article and decide who is the more credible source, might locate another source which corroborates one or the other, or might opt for point two since it is the more recent of the two. Points three, four, and five all deal with the number of suicides that occur in a specific time period. Students might discuss which statement is the most meaningful to them. If students must eliminate half of their facts, which would they omit from points six, seven, and eight? In any case, students have to use their critical thinking skills in order to determine which facts should be included.

Using Nonfiction Information in Literary Study

After students become knowledgeable about the facts of their particular problem of study, I ask them to examine their respective young adult novels to see if the author did his or her homework regarding the portrayal of the character with the problem. In other words, is the problem presented accurately? Do the characters behave consistently with what is known to be true? Was the character stereotypical or was the information presented accurately in the context of the character's life? These questions should be discussed in their groups.

At this point, there are at least three group options that can be presented to students: 1) Students may write a literary analysis of one of the young adult novels using the information they gathered in their research as their guide; 2) students may write a short story depicting the characters as accurately and as three-dimensionally as possible; or 3) students may want to write a different scene or an alternative ending for one of the novels that is consistent with what they've learned to be true. Option three also allows students to incorporate the knowledge they acquired regarding where students can go for help if it is needed. People who are suicidal, for example, should contact a local Suicide Prevention Service, Stress Management Consultants, School Counseling Services, Suicide Crisis Centers, or the Suicide Hotline: these numbers are usually available in a phonebook. Students (and sometimes teachers) often don't know about the help that is available.


There are several reasons why teachers should incorporate such a unit into their teaching. The topics are relevant and meaningful and provide students with opportunities to discuss such things in a fact-based rather than in an opinionated and emotional manner. Students conduct research that requires credible sources and accuracy of citations which allows teachers to conduct meaningful discussions about these research concerns. Students are able to apply information from nonfiction in their literary analyses of fictional material. Students are exposed to a myriad of young adult novels that they may want to read on their own after the unit's completion. And, perhaps most importantly, students become knowledgeable about how to find such information if it ever does become needed.


American Association of Suicidology. Suicide , Summer, 1975.

Associated Press. "CDC: 1 in 12 Teens Try Suicide," St. Pete Times , September 20, 1991, p.1A ff.

Edwards, T. K. "Providing Reasons for Wanting to Live," Phi Delta Kappan , December, 1988, p. 297 ff.

Gallo, D. R., (Chair) and the Committee on the Senior High Booklist. Books for You: A Booklist for Senior High Students . National Council of Teachers of English, 1985.

Hallowell, C. "Suicide: How to Save a Friend's Life," YM , October, 1987, p. 70 ff.

Leight, L. "Suicide: The Last Taboo," New Woman , May, 1986, p. 140 ff.

Matthews, D., (Chair) and the Committee to Revise High Interest -- Easy Reading . High Interest -- Easy Reading for Junior and Senior High School Students . 5th ed. National Council of Teachers of English, 1988.

Nilsen, A. P. (Ed.), and the Committee on the Junior High and Middle School Booklist. Your Reading: A Booklist for Junior High and Middle School Students . 8th ed. National Council of Teachers of English, 1991.

Patros, P. and T. Shamoo. Depression and Suicide in Children and Adolescents . Allyn and Bacon, 1989.

Stupple, D. M. "Rx for the Suicide Epidemic," English Journal , January, 1987, p. 64 ff.

Joan Kaywell, a member of the ALAN Board of Directors, is the editor of Adolescent Literature as a Complement to the Classics.