In my recent post, Summer Reading Suggestions for Boys, several people responded with questions about finding adult literature for their teenage boys to read. I came up with some suggestions myself, as did others. And I stand by my position that teens can and should be introduced to adult literature! However, let’s not disregard adolescent lit altogether just yet.
Adolescent Literature: A Too Often Ignored Category
Adolescent literature is one category of lit that is often neglected. We all know about Caldecott Award-winning books for young readers, Newbury Award-winning books for elementary school-aged kids, and of course the Pulitzer or National Book Awards for adult literature. As I sat and thought, I could not think of one major award handed out to authors who have written dynamic and interesting young adult fiction.
Why, exactly, is that?
The Specific Role of Young Adult Literature
Young adult literature plays an important, specific role. The teenage years are unique. Suddenly, young men are inundated with hormones, responsibilities, and knowledge that they never had before. They are in a precarious holding pattern: not quite adult, but not really a kid anymore.
High school can be a tough place to be. Some thrive, some flounder, some just stick it out until they are able to graduate and be done with it all. (I’m so very glad I’m through with all of that.)
Adult fiction writers are writing to adults. Therefore, often the themes and the storylines are ones that teens can certainly comprehend, but may not relate to because they’re just not there yet.
Adolescent lit writers, on the other hand, write to adolescents. I love this list of teen’s developmental tasks and needs taken from a book Robert J. Havinghurst, entitled Developmental Tasks and Education.
He published the book in 1972; the eight tasks he addresses are relevant 37 years later. Teen issues remain the same, no matter what the decade. These “tasks” are often the major themes that drive the plots in most young adolescent lit:
- Acquiring more mature social skills.
- Achieving a masculine or feminine sex role.
- Accepting the changes in one’s body, using the body effectively, and accepting one’s physique.
- Achieving emotional independence from parents and other adults.
- Preparing for sex, marriage, and parenthood.
- Selecting and preparing for an occupation.
- Developing a personal ideology and ethical standards.
- Assuming membership in the larger community.
I just finished the extremely popular book The Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins. Adolescent lit, like adult lit, comes in all sorts of genres. The Hunger Games
is a post-apocalyptic tale that would probably fall into the science fiction/ fantasy category. Even though it is a part of this specific genre, it dealt with at least seven of the eight tasks listed above.
Young adult authors are writing about what teens are interested in. The topics in YA novels are ones that teens can relate to because they may be living it on a day to day basis.
As a female, my experiences with YA lit I’m sure differ than a male’s experiences. I learned A LOT from Judy Blume. Judy helped me through my parent’s divorce (It’s Not the End of the World.) I commiserated with the girl who was last to get her period in the classic Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret? One of my favorite books of all time is another YA classic by Katherine Paterson. I empathized with its characters’ intense sibling rivalry in Jacob Have I loved.
Of course, girls are easily enticed by a good YA read. However, the FIRST important book to be classified as YA lit was S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders
, about a group of… boys.
Bridging the Gap Between Youth and Adulthood
In the seventies, eighties, and nineties, a bulk of YA lit tended to be “coming of age stories” geared toward a female teen audience. Boys’ interests were left in the dust. Things have definitely turned around. Publishers are recognizing that boys, too, need books that they can relate to. There are now more and more titles with teen male protagonists who are struggling and facing issues that are directed at the adolescent male teen audience.
Now, more than ever before, educators are advocating the use of adolescent literature as reading curriculum in the classroom. One book that promotes the distribution of YA lit in schools is entitled From Hinton to Hamlet
by Sarah H. Kerz and Donald R. Gallo. In Chapter 2, they write that “YAL has proven to be an effective means to motivate adolescents to read all kinds of literature, including classics. YAL is not a stepchild of the classics or of contemporary literature. Furthermore, if our students want to read, discuss, and write about YAL, don’t their opinions warrant consideration? If we hope to help students become lifetime readers and to help them realize the importance of literature in relation to the complexities of their world, don’t we need to use all the resources available to us?”
YAL can indeed be used as a bridge between teen fiction and classic literature. For instance, the themes from The Hunger Games were most surely inspired by classic stories like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” or “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell. Connecting themes and discussing other literary devices would come easily when comparing these works.
Boys already have a higher rate of losing interest in reading when they hit their teen years than girls do. Jumping suddenly from elementary school novels to classic literature can often deter them from reading further. As parents and teachers and librarians, we should definitely educate ourselves about the excellent YA lit options there are out there for the boys in our lives.
I really enjoyed The Hunger Games. It was one of my most enjoyable reads of the year, and I read a lot. Take the time to delve into some quality adolescent lit. It may open up doors of communication you didn’t even know existed.
Question for Discussion:
Do you have a favorite YA book directed at male teens? Why is it your favorite? Do you think YA lit has a place in the classroom?