I sometimes turn to young adult fiction for a break from a lot of the dense education-related texts I read as head of Marin Academy. Some of my favorite books have been in series—Harry Potter or The Golden Compass or The Chronicles of Narnia. Others have been singularly groundbreaking: Annie on My Mind, a 1982 novel about the romantic relationship between two teenage girls, was lauded by the School Library Journal and the American Library Association, yet it is also one of the most frequently challenged books of the last twenty years. (Copies were even burned in Kansas in 1993.)
Most independent high schools probably don’t assign many of the blockbuster YA fiction books (like Harry Potter or Twilight) in high schools and instead take the opportunity to discuss more challenging books. (I’m thinking of our “20th Century Novel” course with William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.) But this doesn’t mean that teachers aren’t reading YA books; indeed, the Stanford School of Education offers “The Young Adult Novel: A Literature For and About Adolescents” in which undergraduate students “work together to define the genre of young adult novels, what they reveal about adolescence in America, and how to read and teach young adult literature.”
According to Bowker Books In Print (via The New York Times), the number of YA books published in 2011 was up more than 30% since 2008—almost 10,000 titles. The Hunger Games trilogy has sold more than 23 million copies.
Writers have many theories as to why YA books have surged in popularity. Patricia McCormick says, “Authors who write for young adults are taking creative risks—with narrative structure, voice and social commentary—that you just don’t see as often in the more rarefied world of adult fiction.” Canadian teen blogger Emma Allison thinks that social media has fed the fever. Lev Grossman writes, “Bottom line, there’s one thing that young adult novels rarely are, and that’s boring. They’re built to grab your attention and hold it. And I’m not as young as I once was. At my age, I don’t have time to be bored.” Not everyone is enthused: Joel Stein says “I’ll read The Hunger Games when I finish the previous 3,000 years of fiction written for adults.” Sharon G. Flake asserts that there need to be more protagonists of color. I certainly feel strongly about this point, and agree with Matt de la Peña—young readers need to see their own experiences reflected. (Read the whole NYT Room for Debate.)
One of the great benefits of working in education is that reading YA books is related to the work that we do. How many people get to say that they are reading The Hunger Games for their job? I had the pleasure of hosting a Hunger Games book discussion a few weeks ago, and was thrilled with the depth of conversation. Both freshmen and seniors were interested in the nuances of power dynamics and post-apocalyptic America. They liked the movie version but liked the book better—I love that. It was wonderful to have a group of really smart students bringing their energy to an extracurricular discussion.
After 30 years of teaching, I’m not surprised by the level of enthusiasm. Great YA books—ranging from fantasy to dystopia to realistic situations—share a common denominator of trying to capture complex world for younger readers in an interesting and exciting way. Although sometimes overdramatic or scandalous, these books can often bring students into another world in a way that makes them open to learning about new things—including history, literature, or poetry. YA fiction can quickly engage kids’ thought process and sense of curiosity. They can read fast and get to the big issues quickly.
Most importantly, YA books keep students engaged in the act of reading. In some ways, it doesn’t matter what you read, as long as you are reading.