Why No YA Books on High School Summer Reading Lists?

Alison Morris -- July 8th, 2008

Last week I blogged about my appreciation for the summer reading list assembled by the English department of local Weston High School. Several readers of that post correctly observed (with dismay) that the Weston list is lacking in young adult literature. Sadly, this is not unusual and I agree that it’s a disappointment. Unfortunately that’s the norm with MOST of the school lists that I see, especially the lists created by a school’s English department. (Often those created with the input of a school librarian have a more YA-inclusive mix.)

As much as those of us in the book business might like to think otherwise, a LOT of high school English teachers are still tied to the mind-set that YA books are not true "literature." (I recently had a school turn down an offer for a free school visit with a VERY prominent, beloved, talented young adult author for pretty much this very reason.) The teachers who have this mind-set rarely use YA literature in their classroom teaching except in cases where they are working with students who are "reluctant" readers or students reading below grade level.

Of course there are plenty of teachers who know, love, and are current with their knowledge of young adult books. But many of them are stuck in departments with the aforementioned way of thinking and/or unable to find many ways to work anything into their curriculum that isn’t going to appear on the standardized tests they’re so often expected to "teach to" nowadays.

But it’s summer! Summer reading is supposed to be fun, right? Shouldn’t that negate the whole "are these books literature?" debate? That depends on whom you ask. Many teachers and librarians have been moving toward the notion that summer reading should, above all else, be designed to keep kids reading (Period.) and that it should therefore be less about educational value than about sheer pleasure. But others believe the intent of summer reading is to keep kids in "learning mode" or keep them "working" throughout the summer, so that the transition back to the work of the school year comes as less of a shock.

I’m forever surprised to note that parents often appear split along the same line. Many of those who consider their teenagers especially "gifted" (which as any bookseller will tell you, is MOST customers) often turn up their noses at high school reading lists that include a large number of young adult novels, on the assumption that those books are not "challenging" enough for their oh-so-smart progeny.

Also, whether they think their kids are brilliant or not, I’ve heard many a parent express frustration with school lists on which they recognize few or none of the titles being assigned. There is apparently comfort for these folks in seeing the same titles they once slogged through (or in some cases genuinely enjoyed) appear on the lists that their kids are now being asked to read. A lack of familiar or "classic" titles often prompts remarks about the "dumbing down" of education these days, or the lack of commitment to "serious literature." As for how teenagers generally respond to this? I have seen many a teen roll their eyes when Mom or Dad tells them the story of how The Red Badge of Courage, say, was a life-changing book for them when THEY had to read it in high school. Sometimes the kid can be persuaded, but more often than not, a parent has just marked that book for the "miss list."

The best summer reading lists, I believe, should include a solid mix of books published for young adult readers and books published for adults, with an emphasis on ENJOYING reading. I think lists should include books that will appeal to reluctant readers AND books that will catch the eye of those kids who genuinely seek a challenge (or who just want to impress college admissions counselors). A list NEEDS to include newer books and (really, truly) the lists need to include a brief summary and/or review. (With the exception of the bit about including young adult novels, the Weston High School list hit all of these marks, which is why I thought it a good list to highlight last week.) 

Why the need for NEW books: No teen wants to be assigned the exact same list of books that his older brother was assigned five years earlier, no matter how good all the books on that old list may have been. Static lists send the message that reading is static — that books get old, that time never marches forward (which is how many kids feel when they sit through a less-than-engaging class and watch that minute hand move at a snail’s pace). Static lists also have another pitfall: they often contain multiple books that are now out of print. Parents hate this. Kids hate this. Booksellers hate this. I haven’t polled librarians on this matter, but my guess is they aren’t overjoyed, either. After all, what are the odds of their having enough copies of the one out-of-print book on that recommended (or worse — required!) list to actually satisfy the hundreds of students at X high school?

Why the need for a summary and/or review: Try looking over a list of 50+ titles many of the lists of recommendations I see are at least that long), on which maybe 10 titles are ones you’ve actually heard of and just 2 of those have ever sounded appealing, then figure out which books YOU want to read. You can’t do it, can you? SO, your next options as follows:

1. Go online with that school reading list and look up EVERY SINGLE TITLE to read what they’re about and THEN choose a couple that appeal to you.

2. Go to your local library or bookstore and ask a librarian or bookseller to show you the books on that list. WORST case scenario here: The librarian or bookseller you’re speaking to isn’t familiar with or fond of any of the books on your list, meaning you are in for a LONG afternoon of browsing and choosing from the books that are on hand (which may not be many if you’ve got an outdated list of suggestions or if the rest of your school has beaten you to the punch). BEST case scenario here: You are blessed with the assistance of a librarian or bookseller who glances at your long list and says, "OOH! I love this one! And this one!" then steers you in the direction of a handful of appealing-sounding choices, providing you with synopses and reviews along the way.

In EITHER of these scenarios the process of choosing books feels like WORK, which certainly doesn’t send a very positive message. Even in the best case scenario above, a teenager often feels frustrated (at least before they’ve been given assistance) because they feel helpless. They’re adrift in a sea of embarrassing cluelessness and (horror of horrors!) they have to ASK FOR HELP.

If, however, a teenager is given a list with an enticing mix of new titles and familiar classics on which each title is accompanied by some enticing synopsis or plug, they have then been armed with information that makes it possible for them to choose for themselves. They can still, of course, ask a bookseller or librarian, "Which of these would you recommend?" but that feels a lot less scary than asking, "Can you help me find these 50 books and do you know anything about them?"

But back to the topic that began this post — the lack of YA books appearing on high school reading lists. I’d love to hear how others think we can reverse this trend.

The best ways I know of, personally, to accomplish this are 1) to educate teachers and school librarians about the best quality YA books out there and then trust that they’ll want to use those books with
their students or at least recommend that their students read them, and 2) introduce high school students to great YA books, encourage them to tell their teachers about them, and hope for a sort of "trickle up" approach. Working on such an individual level, though, is obviously going to bring about change in a very slow fashion. Anyone have any ideas that would accomplish things at a faster pace or at least reach a broader audience? If so, please comment.

21 thoughts on “Why No YA Books on High School Summer Reading Lists?

  1. Julianne Daggett

    I don’t know what books you’ve been reading Lauren, but most children’s books I’ve read (admitably most are science fiction and fantasy) are serious. The Warriors Saga by Erin Hunter deals with trusting the powers that be, here the cat’s warrior ancestors, but can be taken as God, Allah, Buddha, and doing your best to fulfill Those Above’s will and doing what you think is best for you and those you love and not knowing how to reconcile the two or even having to know how to fulfill Those Above’s will. I am a religious person and its something I struggle with, and so do many young religious people. One of my best friend’s wedding is coming up soon and she and her fiancée are deeply religious and I’m planning to give them the Warriors books for them to read and their future children to read. Also Harry Potter, which many people and critics deride as fluff isn’t. Book 5 particularly isn’t. Book 5 talks about the government crushing freedoms for a vague sense of protection, but because the government has crushed most freedoms it is much harder for those trying to save the world to actually save it. A good lesson for anyone trying to live in a world of terrorism and a good lesson to our leaders that crushing our freedoms is no way to ‘save’ us. I wonder if you or anyone else who calls children’s fiction popcorn, bubble gum fluff, has actually read the stories and explored their deeper meanings.

  2. Melissa Thomson

    A few weeks ago at the beach, one of my younger cousins was reading a Sisterhood book by Ann Brashares. I told her, “I LOVE that book!” and she said ruefully, “I shouldn’t be reading it because it’s not on the list.” I think some required reading lists are so daunting that students don’t think they have time to read books they choose for fun! I remember feeling that way as a high schooler. I’ve read many more YA books now that I’m just a plain old Adult than I ever read as an actual Young Adult. But because teens are expected to be familiar with so much of the “canon” in order to be prepared for AP tests and college courses, it’s tough for the teachers to pare down the required book lists.

  3. Just not sure

    How many books should be read for summer reading? My daughter in AP English has been assigned 4, one is 600 pages. Two journals are due mid summer. Isn’t this too much? Opinions please. Oh yeah, no YA books. Only 5 to choose from.

  4. Shannon McCabe

    You should go to Follett Educational Services website. They have fantastic collections for 5-8 and YA. Everyone of the titles is a winner. I wish I knew who compiled that list. Check that site often because things have been changing lately.

  5. Lauren

    I agree that teens should read more- but summer reading isn’t the place to put YA books, at least in my school. So many YA books are trash, or even just fluff. Fluff is okay- if it’s on your own. Do we really want teens to be reading Meg Cabot for school? (I love Meg Cabot. Just doesn’t belong near the word school) The problem is the lack of love of reading, NOT summer reading lists. As a student preparing for AP lit, am I supposed to not read the classics for my english class because so many kids don’t spend their time reading?

  6. Alison

    One thing that struck me was that, although it was interesting to see all the recommendations from teachers, none of the books they were reading were YA books. One might argue that they are adults – on the other hand, one might argue that they are teaching teens, and some familiarity with YA literature would be useful. I agree with Kat Kan to start with the Printz Awards and Honors books, but don’t stop there – there are so many great books!

  7. Donalyn

    The bottom line: kids hate reading because we do not validate their culture or interests by promoting YA books in the classroom. Are we teaching books or teaching readers?

  8. writeroffthelake

    I was an avid reader as teen, but I don’t remember reading any of the books I was expected to read. I agree with the “leave the kids alone” philosophy. Those who want to read will – as long as they’re able to get to the books they find interesting to them. As for the teens who don’t want to read, most of the ones I knew when I was a teen grew up to be adults who seldom read, and I don’t think there’s any way to change that. We all have our own interests, and aside from giving me free gasoline for life, you couldn’t force me to watch or attend a football game or anything involving math. I just say no, and it’s the same way for those who don’t want to read. Hard for us who love reading to understand or sympathize, but everybody’s different and not everybody is going to “get” reading the way we do.

  9. librarypirate

    As a public teen services librarian I have asked myself this often. I can not keep great books on my shelf in the summer. I hand sell, and book talk so many different titles, for fun, beach reads, serious, well written, historical fiction, romance, fantasy etc. many of these books are challenging social norms (gender and otherwise), outdated ideas of romance or beauty, society, materialist culture, and even questioning the mess ups of the previous generations. There are also lots of teen books on my shelves are also purely for fun, and not that challenging at all. You know what all these books have in common? They have their readers just like any other books. Many teens want to read pap and smart stuff both, while others only want one or the other. Like adults, teens have wide reading tastes. Again, I can not keep books on the shelves in the summer when teens have a moment of unstructured time. However, I have never once, not once had a teen excited about a book off a summer reading list. I think they may dread them almost as much as I do. Frankly, I think there is nothing that turns a teen off to reading faster then the dread list. If we want to encourage readers, then let’s put a wide range of good books, yes even some that are just fun, with good annotations on these lists. Seriously, not 1 of the adults writing these lists would want to read anything off an outdated, non-annotated, dry required list if it was presented to them in the same way. If you want kids to read some classics great, our well written classics booklist is popular too. All I ask is that you put some new stuff on there, look into the wide world of teen literature and sell the idea of reading. I do it ever day for my bread and butter and get kids walking out with stacks, even the ones who came in just to use our computers. In fact I have never once been unable to find a good book for a teen, one that they seemed like they wanted to read even if they were not gushing. One last point. Our summer reading program used to have Starbucks cards as well as book prizes. This year we were only able to get the books, but we got more then before. When the teens see all the prize books, all teen literature, they are so excited to win a free book. When was the last time you ever heard of teens fighting over books on a required reading list? I see this all the time. I know teens are reading, they just don’t want to be told what to read in a boring fashion. Maybe we should trust them and let them choose for themselves more. Find out what is popular and why, I guarantee you will be surprised it is not only Gossip Girls you know.

  10. Sara

    Just today, I actually had a teen come in with a school reading list that included Uglies and Does My Head Look Big in This? Of course, this was a list for seventh graders, but I was still really excited to see them!

  11. Kevin A. Lewis

    There are several noteworthy exceptions to the sentiment you questioned-Sarah Dessen does thoughtful books which manage to be entertaining as well- but all too many “serious” YA books, however well-written technically, tend to be agenda-driven drivel by writers who simply don’t like teenagers very much… Having said that, I will also compliment Lurleen McDaniel, whose stuff I usually don’t think much of, on “Prey”; a surprisingly good, realistic, and non-exploitive(!!) look at a predatory female teacher. These are exceptions which prove the general rule, however…

  12. Carly

    Kevin, it bothers me that you think YA lit is meant to be “silly, escapist fun.” Certainly many YA titles are like that, but what your statement suggests to me is that you haven’t read widely enough in the YA field to realize that making such a blanket statement about it is akin to making a statement like, “books for adults are meant to be plodding.” Also, I am aghast that any high school anywhere would turn down a free visit from John Green. John Green can come and visit me anytime. Heck, I’ll even pay him and bake him his favorite cookies.

  13. Becky

    Well, my school district did away with recommended summer reading lists for kids above elementary school level, but they instituted a year-round alternative for middle and high school students. In front of each classroom door, visible from the hallway, is a washable sign. They are personalized for each teacher, and say something along the lines of “Mr. Such and Such is currently reading…” or “Mrs. So and So’s Bookshelf:” and it has a blank line, so the teacher can change the title in the line as time goes by. This method is effective, for me at least, in that the teacher’s can share their personal preferences and show a bit of personality without coercing their students into reading what they are reading. In addition, this program extends to all faculty, not just English and History. Even the librarian, secretaries, and school nurse have this sign. It may not be a solution for all schools or situations, but it seems to have worked for mine.

  14. Julianne Daggett

    I was a high school student not too long ago, (I just graduated from college) and I remember summer reading, which was associated with the words ‘evil’, ‘dreaded’, and ‘pain.’ I remember having to read ‘Rob Roy,’ which I put off reading till two weeks before school started. I then kicked myself for not starting it sooner because I didn’t understand a word. Then not long into the book I wished time and again that I could burn it without getting in trouble with my parents and school. I love reading and I always have and I actually want to become an editor, but summer reading always tested my love of books and I knew plenty of students who actually hated, if not loathed books because of English class and summer reading. And I have to know what’s wrong with assigning ENJOYABLE books for class and summer reading? Why does reading have to be painful experience for students? Is there something wrong with modern language, relatable characters, and plots that speak to teens’ lives, problems, aspirations, and fantastic dreams? Because there seems to be if you look at your average high school summer reading list.

  15. tilney

    To add another perspective here–that of an English teacher and former children’s book editor–I don’t think there’s one simple solution. Summer reading lists are often chosen because they compliment some part of the English, history, or even science curriculum for a given grade at a given school. I agree that teachers and school librarians need to work more closely together to find books (YA or otherwise) that work for summer reading given the above restraints. However, I’d argue against strictly going down the road of fun with summer reading–personally, I’m looking more for ENGAGING than fun. One way our school has very successfully integrated YA books into the school year, however, is through a voluntary reading program that gives “extra credit” (though I loathe that term) to kids who read YA books recommended by our wonderful librarian. I’ve seen many a student catch the reading bug simply because of this librarian and her ability to suggest books that will capture their interests (this includes everything from Harry Potter to graphic novels and everything in between). Though on the flip side of that, I’ve seen kids get turned on to reading by Homer, too!

  16. Kevin A. Lewis

    Hmmm… I’m still of the “leave bad enough alone” mind on this issue-YA books are supposed to be silly escapist fun for the most part, and if teachers get involved, they’ll invariably select gloomy, doom-laden screeds like David Klass’s You Don’t Know Me or leftover 60’s scare literature like Go Ask Alice (another forgery, from what I’ve heard) which only turns kids off reading. By the way how did On The Devil’s Court make it onto school reading lists?! It’s a relic from the teen horror wave of the 90’s and it’s not one of the better ones. Teachers, leave those kids alone!

  17. JEANETTE RIVARD

    I have been reading these blogs about the lack of YA books on High School summer reading lists with great interest. First, I realize this will sound self promoting since I work for Junior Library Guild. However, I was only vaguely aware of YA books prior to working here and it’s been a revelation to me how great many of these books are. I’ve also noticed the lack of them on reading lists. They seem to be overlooked entirely. Junior Library Guild can help you take all the work out of choosing the best in YA. If you are familiar with JLG, you know that over 95% of the books selected win awards or receive starred and favorable reviews. The books are affordable and you get new releases each month. I also work at Borders part time and can tell you that JLG has made it easy for me to recommend YA titles to customers as well. Check out the Y, Y+ and YM titles at http://www.juniorlibraryguild.com.

  18. Kat Kan

    When I was the de facto head of Young Adult Services in Hawaii, I was invited several times to speak to library school students (most of whom were aiming to become school librarians) about YA literature. I think we also need to get into some of those classes for people studying to be English teachers. I have also worked with individual teachers in private schools. There is no one easy solution. However, a good sign in my community is that the local bookstore has a section up front that includes books from several high school reading lists, and I have seen a number of contemporary YA and adult fiction titles along with the hoary old classics. Even with our public schools all “teaching to the test” because of No Child Left Behind, some English departments are slowly changing and adding newer books to the mix. As far as awards, the Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in YA literature has been around for about 10 years, and since its focus is on literary quality, librarians should be able to talk up the award winners and the honor books. Of course, I’m kind of prejudiced, since I served on that committee back in 2001.

  19. Pam Spencer Holley

    And let’s not forget those students for whom any reading is a challenge but who might benefit from listing to audiobooks. Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is available in audiobook format as are many of the older and more contemporary ‘classics,’ such as To Kill a Mockingbird narrated by Sissy Spacek.

  20. Sam

    I’m a librarian, and one of the few people on the faculty at my school who reads a lot of YA lit. I’m blessed with English teachers who recognize the value of adding recent books to reading lists, so the next step is to get them to see the value of recent YA books. I don’t know how to do this en masse, but I have found that it’s helpful to talk up award winners (especially when they won “real” adult awards rather than the Newbery) and YA books by familiar, well-regarded adult authors (thank you, Sherman Alexie!).

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