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.