I had an opportunity to share my thoughts about young adult fiction on CBC radio’s show, Information Morning. I hope it will be a regular gig because it was SO MUCH FUN. I had a whole big thing prepared – but eight minutes goes so fast and I didn’t have a chance to say everything that I wanted to say. You can listen to the segment here.
For the hell of it, I’ll include my prepared notes below:
Want to make an English teacher cringe? Talk about the declining number of teens who read for pleasure.
Sadly the number of young people who read for pleasure has been on the decline and as far as I can tell it’s because they’re reading Tumblr and Facebook and texts – or not reading anything at all. I also think that in school we often expect them to read things they just aren’t interested in. I’m not an expert on the subject, but I do have anecdotal evidence about the lack of interest in books. I sometimes feel like I am on a mission to connect students to books they’ll love. I’m not alone – lots of Language Arts teachers are trying to turn kids on to the love of reading.
The National Reading campaign identifies several benefits of reading including the fact that it is essential to the well-being of society and to our functioning as a democracy; it empowers critical thinking skills, lays the foundation of future learning; it increases individuals’ health and well-being. And those are all awesome reasons to read – but I tell my students that I read to know that I am not alone, to understand what it means to be human, to learn how to be more empathetic. Most importantly I read for pleasure (which is also on the list, by the way).
I’ve been a life-long reader. I’m going to date myself here, but I’m old enough to talk about The Bobbsey Twins…I value reading, partly because my parents valued it. My kids are readers because I am. They’ve been surrounded by books their entire lives. My home is filled with books and so is my classroom and I think one of the most important things I can do as a teacher is to connect students to books because I really believe that all it takes is one good reading experience to reignite that fire that has gone out in so many kids. That sounds totally evangelical, I know.
Okay – so I am going to get off my soapbox.
One of the best parts of my job is talking about books with my students. I LOVE it. I love pulling a book off the shelf and physically putting it in someone’s hand and saying “Read this.” I’ve got about 1000 books in my classroom, so it’s a very immediate thing. I read A LOT of (though not exclusively) YA/teen fic and there’s some great stuff out there…but there’s also some junk…it’s like comparing Stephanie Meyer to Joss Whedon (pop culture reference my students will get!) A quick survey always shows that most kids read when they were younger…and then it starts to drop off as they get older. I just have to remind them of why they used to love it. And I have to find them the right book.
What makes a great teen book? The same thing that makes a good adult novel. (And, by the way, I don’t subscribe to the notion that adults shouldn’t read YA fiction. There are some amazing YA writers that adults should check out and I’m going to talk about just three.)
Character – that’s true for any book, of course, but I think young readers want to see themselves reflected back to them; they want characters to care about and root for
Plot – not overly convoluted – although subplots are great, keep turning those pages; worlds they recognize and worlds they do not
Writing – obviously, although this is subjective…which is why some people love Twilight and others do not. To each his or her own.
A conversation with the student is always the way I start – what’s the last book you read? (Often times they haven’t read anything, but I have built in reading time in my class and so I insist they get back on the reading saddle.) What are you interested in? Are you a confident reader?
So today I thought I’d just talk about three books that invariably come back to me with a student stamp of approval. These aren’t necessarily new releases, but over the past few years they’ve been books that have been borrowed a lot so they’re definitely keepers.
The Book Thief – Marcus Zusak, 2005
He’s an Australian writer and this book was originally intended – I believe – for adult audiences. It’s mostly touted as YA here – and I think teens would enjoy it, although they may find it a little slow to start. So it’s the story of Liesel Meminger. Liesel is almost ten when she ends up in Molching with Hans and Rosa Hubermann, her new foster parents. It is 1939. In Nazi Germany. Death is personified and he’s the book’s narrator. Sometimes events are reported without comment – you forget Death’s there – other times Death weighs in on events. It might take some readers a bit to get used to. John Green – and voracious teen readers will know exactly who this guy is, called The Book Thief “brilliant and hugely ambitious.” Liesel is just a beautiful character; it is impossible not to fall in love with her. She literally steals books, the first one: The Grave Digger’s Handbook is stolen at her brother’s funeral. She doesn’t even know how to read. The Book Thief is about hope and sacrifice and love and family – all big ticket items. It’s also about the power of words and so of course I love it.
The Knife of Never Letting Go – Patrick Ness, 2009 (part of the Chaos Walking trilogy, which also includes The Ask and the Answer and Monsters of Men); American writer who lives in Britain; also author of A Monster Calls and More Than This, both of which I highly recommend
It’s about a kid named Todd who is just about to turn 13 and when he does he’ll be a man. He lives in this place called Prentisstown, which strangely sounds like some town ripped out of a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western…but it’s remarkable for a couple other reasons: there are no women and everyone can hear everyone else’s thoughts. It’s dystopian. Then one day, Todd’s out with his dog Manchee (he can hear the dog’s thoughts, too – which is often pretty comical) and he suddenly hears…nothing. When he reveals that to the men who have been looking after him they tell him to run…and keep on running and, literally, all hell breaks loose. The second and third books are every bit as fantastic as the first and, in fact, I had a grade ten student burn through all three in about a week…and the fact that he loved them and talked about them encouraged a couple more kids to start and one girl to actually go out and purchase the first book. Yay!
The Fault in Our Stars – John Green- sold 6,000,000 worldwide – movie came out a few months ago
There’s probably not a teen out there who hasn’t read this book, but I am going to talk about it because I think all the moms and dads should read it, too. Kelley Armstrong was recently at Harbour View to talk to students. In case you don’t know who she is, she’s a Canadian writer of both adult and teen fiction – a best-selling writer. She was talking about trying to sell her first book, Bitten, which is about werewolves…and it was just sort of by way of explaining how publishing changes. She said that what publishers are looking for now is the next John Green. I love the guy. He’s super smart and super nerdy and The Fault in Our Stars is just one of those books that – yes, it’s a “disease of the month” book, but it not. Hazel Grace is seventeen and she has lung cancer which is being controlled by some drug (not real). She’s addicted to America’s Next Top Model – which tells you the state of her life. Her parents insist that she attend a cancer support group and so she does, reluctantly, and that’s where she meets Augustus. This book is driven by the magic that is Hazel and Augustus and it will make you laugh and cry and curl up in a ball sobbing hysterically at 3 a.m. Possibly all at once. My favourite book in 2012. Not just my favourite teen book…my favourite book.