As an 8th grade teacher, I often hear parents say: I want my kid to read more classics! Isn’t all young adult fiction plot driven junk? Can’t you please give them what I read when I was younger?
I make a pretty ardent plea to parents each September asking them to let their kids spend their 8th grade year choosing their own books because in high school, most of their reading life will be dictated to them, as opposed to the reading workshop style we run in middle school, where in an effort to cultivate passionate, engaged, lifelong readers in the time where most kids disengage with reading, students choose the books they want to read. I assure them that most students will be ready (and encouraged) to step into adult-level reading by the years’ end, but it will feel more organic. For instance, just this week some of my students had a lightbulb moment where they realized they have outgrown young adult dystopian and found themselves sucked in by George Orwell’s 1984.
Over the years I’ve written about this quite a bit, and I think young adult literature can be an emotional guide for my students–they can explore the wide range of teenage issues within the safe confines of a book. They can escape. They can feel less alone. So much of young adult fiction can feel like a kind of story therapy as readers watch the characters grow and change throughout the story–because most good young adult authors have their audience’s best interest in mind. I was reminded of this as I picked up one of the titles from our most recent classroom library book order: I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson. It is the story of a set of artistic twins who live in California and suffer a tragedy that seemingly tears their family apart. As in most young adult literature, there are plot lines that appeal to the teenage reader (and thank God they exist) and it explores romance, sibling rivalry, family trouble, love, finding and feeling comfortable in one’s identity, and making all kinds of mistakes.
What I appreciated most about this book (aside from the ways the characters used art to process and make meaning in their lives) is that a teenage reader can learn so much from the ways the characters handle the conflicts around them–not that the characters are perfect, far from it, but they are honest and feel realistic. And Jandy Nelson gives us a span of two years with them so readers can get a sense of what moving forward looks like. All this to say: I absolutely loved reading this book. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from near the end of the story:
“‘Or maybe a person is just made up of a lot of people,’ I say. ‘Maybe we’re accumulating these new selves all the time.’ Hauling them in as we make choices, good and bad, as we screw up, step up, lose our minds, find our minds, fall apart, fall in love, as we grieve, grow, retreat from the world, dive into the world, as we make things, as we break things,'” (page 354).
This is young adult literature. The reminders teenagers need that sometimes they can only get from story–that don’t make sense in isolated platitudes. From stories that are written for them–people who are still learning how to figure out all these new emotions, people who don’t have life experience to draw from. So I guess, once again, I am pleading to give kids the books. They’ll get to “classics” and they’ll eventually outgrow young adult. But just let them be in young adult while they are young adults. That is all.