Defending the Merits of YA Literature

Last year, the teachers of our Freshman Honors English classes gave out a winter break reading assignment. Each student was asked to choose a book and read it over break, just for fun. In my ten years at the school, this was only the second assignment I knew of that gave our high school students the opportunity to choose any book they wanted to read, so I was excited. 

 

Chart describing the literary merit of YA books.

Then we had the first student come back to the library to return the book she had checked out. 

You see, she had chosen a young adult novel, and apparently that was not allowed. She needed an adult book. My heart sank and my blood pressure rose. I was upset, confused, and really sad for our kids. At that point, it was too late in the game to talk to the teachers about their reasoning behind the ban on YA, as winter break was about to start. 

This year, I decided to make it my mission to get our teachers to let students read YA for their winter break assignment.  Being a librarian, this obviously meant I needed to do my research, gather evidence, and have it ready for them. Below, I’ve shared some of the best resources I found. I know that I am not the only one who interacts with people, whether they are parents, teachers, or even other librarians, who feel that YA is somehow unworthy reading for teens. Hopefully these resources can be useful for some of you as well. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Value of Young Adult Literature by Michael Cart (2008)

Though once dismissed as a genre consisting of little more than problem novels and romances, young adult literature has, since the mid-1990’s, come of age as literature – literature that welcomes artistic innovation, experimentation, and risk-taking.

…much of [YA literature’s] value cannot be quantified but is to be found in how it addresses the needs of its readers. Often described as “developmental,” these needs recognize that young adults are beings in evolution, in search of self and identity; beings who are constantly growing and changing, morphing from the condition of childhood to that of adulthood.

Disrupting Genre by Julia E Torres

In our ELA classrooms, white supremacy shows up in one important way: the worship of the written word. If something isn’t written down, it doesn’t exist. If a book is not in a written format and hailed as “rigorous” or labeled as “classic,” then it’s unimportant and doesn’t make it onto our book lists. If something isn’t written in a western format, then it isn’t worthy of classroom study. 

This literature is written for young people and discussing topics they are concerned with. Often, YA surfaces issues of race, ethnicity, culture, gender, and sexuality, that “classical” texts don’t address. Our own Tricia E. explained, “YA is not a genre; among other things, it’s an indicator of the intended audience. So when you disparage YA, you’re disparaging the audience.”

Quick Take: Dark or Difficult Themes for Young Adult Readers by Sean Kennedy (2019)

But decency requires empathy, and empathy requires imagination. That’s what diverse stories do. They feed our complex imaginations and allow us to develop empathy for people who are different from us, and this ultimately leads to communities built on foundations of decency.

Beyond Relevance to Literary Merit: Young Adult Literature as “Literature” by Dr. Anna Soter and Sean Connors (2009)

Much like literature written for adults, we believe that young adult literature is capable of providing thoughtful social and political commentary that raises questions about complex issues…

We willingly concede that young adult literature reflects the interests and concerns of teenagers, and we suspect that most secondary teachers would agree. However, we also believe that young adult literature has the kind of literary merit that canonical literature demonstrates.

Pedagogic, Not Didactic: Michael Cart on Young Adult Fiction by Jonathan Alexander interviewing Michael Cart (2018)

The mirror lets readers see themselves, which is a godsend because young adults, being inherently solipsistic, often think they are the only one of their kind; this is especially true of those who are treated as outsiders by their peers. 

I would argue that this is a golden age of literary fiction for young adults. I believe this is due, in part, to the empowering influence of the Michael L. Printz Award, which honors the best YA book of the year — “best” being defined solely in terms of literary merit. It is also due to the growing sophistication of the readership, which, it seems, is almost exponentially more worldly than it was in the genre’s early years…

 

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