For us, this inquiry was sparked by discussions Susan had with a few parents of students new to her school about the sexual content in a couple of the summer reading choices (Looking for Alaska by John Green and Tyrell by Coe Booth). And the challenges involved in incorporating such valuable but complex texts into our curriculum were particularly underscored for us while we were collaborating this summer on an informational text set on Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. One anonymous response made us feel like we were not alone in our concerns: “Thank you for addressing this! I wrestle with the same issue, and have been working with my colleagues to figure out how to create space for students to process what they have read over the summer in a meaningful and collaborative way once they are back in school.”
According to the responses we received to our survey, 60 percent of the teachers who responded said they teach two or more YA books per year. Most respondents (80%) said they assign YA fiction as choice reading, but whole-class reading was a close second (70%), followed by summer reading (60%). In terms of which YA novels respondents teach, responses ranged from a list of 10 titles to “waiting on approval to incorporate Long Way Downby Jason Reynolds next year.” The full list of titles was surprisingly wide-ranging, with only All American Boys, Speak, Looking for Alaska, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian appearing more than once.
Among the benefits of incorporating YA novels into the ELA curriculum cited by survey respondents were that YA novels are “engaging,” “more relatable,” have “easier language,” and are “written to appeal to students’ age group.” One teacher said that the connections students make with YA plots and characters “open the door not only to excitement about reading (and writing about literature), but also to innovative thinking about the texts,” while another argued that students can become engaged with writing that addresses topics that interest and challenge them, and that they themselves and their issues reflected in the novels.
The difficulties respondents cited included the perception that YA novels “lack literary merit,” and the desire to “balance entertainment with providing works that challenge students’ thinking.” Teachers also noted concerns about profanity and the desire of many school administrators and parents to “shield their children from the explicit nature of many of the [YA] books.”
One respondent wrote: “while I don't have a ‘fear’ of discussing difficult/sensitive topics in the classroom, the difficulty can be facilitating an appropriate and respectful conversation among students when addressing the topics in a YA novel.” Another said, “They are a springboard for discussions of deeper themes and issues. They allow students to experience risky situations vicariously, critically analyzing choices and effects. Students get to see themselves in literature which is validating.”
Overall, teachers encouraged others to take the YA leap and “do it.” A couple suggested pairing the YA novel with a classic text, short stories, or informational text. Others stressed preparation: reading the entire book first and being ready to answer questions from both students and concerned adults. One urged teachers to “let students dictate the direction of the conversation. Teachers anticipate the issues students want to discuss, and even get anxious over things the novel might bring up for students. Every class is different and will focus on different things.”
In terms of the specific issue of assigning YA novels that focus or touch on sensitive topics (i.e., sex, suicide, violence, etc.) as summer reading, teachers emphasized the importance of knowing your audience, including both parents and students. A couple suggested introducing the topics before the end of the school year, if possible, or providing a packet of readings and resources to support both students and parents in discussing the books together. Several cautioned teachers to assign such books only as a choice. Some advocated providing descriptive blurbs about the books to parents without “redflagging” potentially sensitive content. Others said providing an explicit warning about particular content was a good idea.
Several stressed the importance, however, of creating space and time in the classroom for discussing any sensitive topics that appear in summer reading books to help students contextualize them in terms of their own lives, their communities, and society as a whole. As @MissNikkiIn5th wrote: “I teach fifth graders but feel that we need to give kids enough support to fully digest a text with a sensitive topic. They need to be able to ask questions, discuss, etc.”
Sixty percent of the respondents to our survey said they had been challenged about assigning YA novels, by parents, administrators, etc. Topics cited as the basis for those challenges ranged from sex and violence to cigarette smoking.
We were impressed, though not surprised, by teachers’ principled and courageous responses to such challenges. For example, one teacher wrote: “We have a district policy modeled after NCTE's guidelines. All challenges were handled between me and the parent - the kids all read the books. Why? 1. I pre-teach many important issues. 2. I explain my rationale for teaching the book and the merits of exposing students to the topics/ideas in spite of the objectionable scenes/content.”
Another respondent cited the ALA policy on book challenges: “The whole text needs to be looked at instead of objecting based on something taken out of context, and parents can weigh in on what is appropriate for their individual child, but not necessarily for a whole class. The only time this didn't work was with Thirteen Reasons Why. When the Netflix series came out, it was pulled from our school library even though students had been reading it for a decade. The show is problematic, but I thought we would have done a better job of helping students process [the issues surrounding the show] if we had kept the lines of dialogue about the book and show open.”
One teacher offered some interesting reflections on being personally challenged by parents: “I have personally been challenged by 2 parents. My administration has also been challenged. One setting was a back to school night and the parents actually broke out into discussion as to why the books (Tyrelland Kendra) were good for discussion with their kids. Another time a parent said her daughter was a very young 13 and was mortified by the content. She suggested a note be added to the summer reading packet indicating explicit sexual situations. I thought that was a great idea and I complied.” (Note: Teachers considering such a red-flag might want to review NCTE guidelines.)
According to the majority of responses, conversations between teachers and parents, sometime proactively initiated by the teacher, usually resolved any concerns, and sometimes even led to students and parents reading a book together. Sometimes principals supported their teachers, while others changed the book; and sometimes teachers themselves opted to provide an alternate text.
So, for now, here are our takeaways:
1. Many of our colleagues agree that YA literature is compelling and engaging. Teachers worried about the literary merit concern (one we don’t particularly share) can pair YA literature with more canonical texts.
2. Using YA literature effectively requires context and opportunities for conversation. Again, pairings, including short fiction, poetry, or informational texts, can be useful in providing that context and helping to shape those conversations. (Please share your ideas for doing so in the comments below.) Set your students up for success with summer reading by bookending that independent reading with classroom conversations.
3. Work with parents, colleagues, and administrators to develop and utilize a thoughtful and consistent strategy to justify and explain your choices of YA literature. And employ the resources of NCTE and ALA as critical backup!
Our biggest takeaway is this: Our gratitude to be part of a thoughtful and brave community of ELA teachers determined to use YA literature to help their students become better readers, writers, and thinkers in a complex and challenging world!
All American Boys
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
How It Went Down
In Sight of Stars
Inside Out and Back Again
Looking for Alaska
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
My Brother Sam Is Dead
Piecing Me Together
Still Life With Tornado
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
The Afterlife of Holly Chase
The Afterlife of Holly Chase
The Book Thief
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
The Chocolate War
The Hate U Give
The Usual Rules
They Both Die at the End