Out of my entire high school career, I was only assigned to read of all of ONE modern YA book for my English class (Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson). That’s ONE out of the 30-ish books my high school English teachers assigned me across four years.
Why aren’t we assigned readings from Young Adult books when we’re young adults? Wouldn’t that make sense? The definition of a Young Adult book is having a target audience of 12 to 18 year old’s, so why aren’t we taking advantage of these books specifically written for teens?
When one pictures their stereotypical English classroom, the image of a white room with plastic wood desks in rigid rows comes to mind. The majority of students in this classroom are rolling their eyes or staring out the window as their teacher drones on about some Shakespeare play, who perhaps has an arm raised in a poor attempt to enliven their bored classroom.
I knew so many peers who personified this image of uninterested students. Friends who would never complete the assigned readings and highly depended on SparkNotes or Wikipedia pages to fake their way out of classroom discussions and papers. Even I, who found reading to be some of the best homework, didn’t bother to keep up with my English readings from time to time.
And while there are numerous reasons why students don’t do assigned readings–they don’t have time, they are too lazy, they can’t get through the text–one of the biggest reasons teenagers struggle with school texts is because they can’t relate. When I was 14 years old, I couldn’t relate to Juliet wanting to throw away her future for a boy she just met, or Odysseus and his ridiculously long (and unfaithful) journey home. Every reader wants to see themselves in the protagonist and sometimes the easiest way this is achieved is by reading about characters in the same stage of life, facing the same problems and questions. So again, why aren’t high schools giving young adult books to students?
This inability to relate is an even a greater problem for minorities. The vast majority of classics valued in America are written by old white men, and originally intended for old white men. And the few classics that don’t host an all-white cast typically depict their minority characters as racist stereotypes (We’re looking at you, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Heart of Darkness). How can teenagers from ethnically diverse backgrounds relate to that?
But thankfully the YA community is fighting against these problems. Readers are demanding, and publishers are now listening to, the desire for #ownvoices literature. With this movement, we’re seeing more representation of minorities, the LGBT+ community, and those with mental & physical disabilities. While the numbers of these books are nowhere near where they should be, they’re getting there, so why don’t we encourage this growth by instituting more of these books into classrooms?
Recently, I was fortunate enough to hear Jason Reynolds, a YA author, speak at my local library. He relayed how he never read a book cover to cover until he was 17 years old because he never saw himself in the literature his school assigned. These are the types of students that YA literature can reach, especially if they read one of Jason Reynolds’ numerous books, because that’s the type of audience that he targets.
Nowadays, YA authors like Jason Reynolds and Angie Thomas (author of The Hate U Give) are taking contemporaries to a whole new level by releasing books in their ‘natural tongues’ (something that can also be seen in The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros), so why aren’t we reading them?
Sure, classics have meaningful things to say and significant influences on today’s society, but that does not make contemporary fiction any less valuable. Why can’t schools redraft reading lists to have an equal number of classics and contemporary books?
I’m not arguing against the classics, but instead asking the question: does English curriculum today need to be the exact same as our parents, especially when we have the benefit of a strong YA community today?
This semester, I took a class on Ethnic American Young Adult Literature. When I first came upon this class in my college’s course catalog, my first thought was “Wait, my tiny college values YA lit?” But why shouldn’t they? Just because a protagonist is a teenager, how does that degrade a book in any way, shape, or form?
Even among my peers for this course, who I originally expected to be a majority of ‘YA lovers’ like myself, I still heard judgemental comments during our book discussions such as “this story was very much a cookie-cutter Young Adult book.”
THIS. This is why we need more exposure to YA literature in high school classrooms, so society sees past the stereotypes that surround YA books. Not only so teens can see themselves reflected in protagonists, but so students can see the value in the literature. I grew up reading YA books (it’s what I still love), and I remember being so terrified to enter college and begin taking English classes. I was always so embarrassed to list the titles of YA fantasies when a professor would ask me what book I recently completed. There’s this unspoken atmosphere that Young Adult books are frowned upon in academic institutions and it needs to change, which is why we need to nip this prejudice in the bud; we need to show teens the benefit of YA literature in high school, before they get to higher institutions. Teenagers need to make their own opinions on the literature, and they can only do so if they’re given the opportunity to read and discuss these types of books. YA books need a chance to defend themselves against their bad reputation.
Typically, Young Adult books are defined as novels featuring teenage protagonists exploring ‘coming-of-age’ and ‘who-am-I?’ questions. But aren’t all readers, no matter their age, still figuring out who they are? These questions are applicable to readers of all ages, and yet for some reason YA books aren’t commended for this feature.
Young Adult literature is no more a genre than ‘Adult’ literature is a genre. I’m definitely not the first blogger to say this, but Young Adult is a readership, not a genre. It is more than a genre; there are no expectations and bounds for where these books can go. Young Adult books can be fantasy, historical fiction, mystery, science fiction, realistic fiction, literary fiction, and more. YA can go anywhere that adult fiction can, so why doesn’t it have the same respect? I’ve seen multiple stats floating around that the internet that just as many adults are buying and reading YA books as teenagers. Society is coming to appreciate and love Young Adult books, and it’s time we see that reflected in schools too.
Young Adult books need to have a greater presence in high schools. They’re relatable to all, are inclusive, and have their own important messages to relay. Do they need to replace the classics? No, but the classics need to learn to share the limelight. The age of Young Adult is here and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
I’m proud to call myself a reader of YA and I hope that someday others, especially students and teachers, will be too.
What was your high school reading curriculum like? What are your thoughts on YA literature? Do you agree or disagree with my opinions?
Let me know down in the comments!