In Defense of Reading Young Adult Literature

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

I've always considered myself an equal opportunity reader.  I love a good literary novel, and I'll occasionally read some non-fiction, but I also enjoy lots of genre fiction.  Not that genre fiction can't be literary...see, this is where I start to have problems with the "experts" of the literary world.  I want my reading selections to have some substance-for mindless distraction I go to reality television (though usually of the "talented people doing things I can't do" variety a la Top Chef or Project Runway).  But who's to say that high fantasy or a procedural thriller can't have substance?

Nowhere is this bias more obvious when reading the more "serious" book bloggers I know than when it comes to young adult literature.  I've seen adults who read young adult literature described as everything from immature to unintelligent (a much nicer word than is occasionally used).  As a teacher and literacy coach, it is actually part of my job to keep up with what's new and good in children's and young adult literature, but that is not the only reason that I enjoy-yes, actually enjoy as a reader-books written for middle grade and adolescent readers. These types of stories bring me back to my own childhood, or help me make sense of what the children and youth in my life may be going through, but they can also have something profound to say about the human experience and our relationships to each other that is just as eye-opening and thought-provoking as the best of "adult" literature.

Obviously, not all children's and young adult literature is created equal-just as not all adult literature is equally meritorious.  Good writing is good writing, and bad writing is bad...sometimes very bad.  While I got sucked into the Twilight phenomenon when my daughter read them in middle school, now that I have recovered from my vampire/werewolf fog I can recognize how badly those books are actually written.  But at the same time, the Harry Potter series or the Hunger Games trilogy point out how good writing and powerful storytelling can transcend the labels and often arbitrary decisions we make about what book goes where in the literary pecking order.

If you'll forgive me for a moment, I'm going to take you into the world of leveling books.  If you are not a teacher or a parent, you may not even realize that books are leveled according to readability and subject matter for the purpose of matching readers in schools with appropriate books.  There are various leveling systems that publishers and teachers use to determine what "level" a book is, but the one that is getting the most press at the moment is Lexile levels.  The common core standards that most states in the US have adopted to drive instruction for elementary and high school students use Lexile ranges to place books in a continuum for guiding instruction. The reason I bring this up is that what a Lexile really measures is readability-in other words, at what point in their development as readers should a child be able to actually read and have a basic understanding of the words in a book.  There are some literary types who would have you believe that in order for a book to be substantive and achieve that coveted title "literary fiction", it needs to be difficult to read.  Being an "easy read" is somehow seen as a negative.

But let's look at the Lexile level of some classics, books that are considered examples of the best of English language literature.  A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens, is admittedly one of his shorter, more accessible titles.  But even so, it has a Lexile level of 460L.  Roughly, that equates to a 3rd-grade reading level.  Yes, you read that right, third grade.  Does that mean that the issues raised in the book are accessible to a third-grade student?  Of course not.  But it does raise the question of whether "literary" and "difficult" necessarily go together.  Huckleberry Finn, at 850L, is roughly fifth-grade level, The Iliad is fourth-grade level, as is The Handmaid's Tale and The Grapes of Wrath.  Given that the readability of these classics is so low, it is obviously more than the relative ease or difficulty of reading them that makes them remarkable.  So why is it so hard to imagine that literature written specifically for young adults, literature that might be "easy" for a skilled, mature reader to read, might have value?

I don't really care whether other people judge my reading habits because I happen to read a lot of children's and young adult titles.  I choose the books I read mostly for my own selfish reasons, as I assume most avid readers of any kind do.  But I think that this strict admonishment against reading young adult literature as an adult is silly, and cuts us off from some really excellent works of fiction.  Maybe you like all of your books to be a mental workout-if Ulysses and Gravity's Rainbow are your favorite books, then maybe young adult books or most genre fiction are not for you.  I myself read almost no romance or chick lit-those stories just aren't my cup of tea.  But I don't judge people who do, and that it is the point.  There are so many wonderful stories out there to discover-why make people feel as though they have to limit themselves based on the sometimes somewhat arbitrary classifications that the hoi polloi of literature and publishing have created?

Cross-Blog Pollination: Graceling, by Kristin Cashore

Monday, April 15, 2013

Regular readers of this blog will know that I also write a blog devoted entirely to children's and young adult literature.  As a literacy coach, it is part of my job to keep up with the best in literature for young people, so that I can guide students and teachers in the right direction when it comes to what to read.

Occasionally one of the young adult books I read seems like it would also be enjoyable for adults, and when that happens, we get cross-blog pollination!  I think that adult readers who deny the enjoyability and relative value of books written for children and youth are denying themselves some very pleasant reading experiences-experiences that just might help them understand the world of children and youth, and the way that children and youth see the world.

This particular cross-pollination comes in the form of a fantasy novel called Graceling, written by Kristin Cashore.  Graceling tells the story of Katsa, a young woman born with a remarkable gift.  She has a Grace-a special ability that is innate, and that sets her apart from other people.  And Katsa's Grace requires her to keep people even more at a distance than usual, for her Grace is killing.  Her uncle, the King of Middluns, uses her to bully and threaten people who oppose him, and to get his way with the other kingdoms.  Katsa hates being his slave, but she considers herself to dangerous and flawed to do anything else.  That is, until she meets Prince Po of Leinid, another Graceling who is gifted with fighting ability.  His grandfather has been kidnapped, and Katsa is part of a team that rescued him from his captors. But even after he is safe, the question remains-why would someone kidnap an old man, even if he is related to the King of Leinid.  Katsa and Po will travel across the seven kingdoms to discover what nefarious plot is afoot, and along the way Katsa learns new things about herself, her Grace, and her ability to choose her own path.

Despite the fact that the "seven kingdoms" of Katsa's world immediately make me think of A Song of Ice and Fire, Cashore has created a fantasy world that is all her own.  The story moves at a good pace, and the emotions of the characters and the events as they unfold feel authentic within the mythology of the fictional seven kingdoms.  And there are some big questions addressed by the story-the nature of violence and freedom, the use of torture, naked power wielded cruelly, exclusion, the responsibility to use our "power" ethically, and the right to self-determination.  But what makes this a book I couldn't put down was Katsa's strength, determination, and unwillingness to be used as anyone's pawn.  Katsa is a hero, not in spite of being female, or because of being female...she is entirely her own person, operating almost completely outside of any gender roles.  There is a love story hidden within the action, but it is not what drives  the story; rather, the love story enhances the emotional impact of the true task of the characters-to save a princess, and in doing so their entire society, from an evil king bent on world domination.  This is a book that I will give to my daughter, and to the young teens I work with as a youth advisor, because Katsa is an example of a heroine that we can look up to, even when we may not agree with her every decision.  Because despite the violence of Katsa's Grace, what we see in her is the struggle all of us engage in every day to act in as moral a way as possible, even when people and events seem to conspire against us.

The Least Depressing Book about Death I've Ever Read

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Occasionally my book club forces me to go outside of my regular reading comfort zone and try something that I would never have picked up on my own.  I remember thinking that I wasn't really interested in reading The End of Your Life Book Club, by Will Schwalbe.  It's non-fiction, for a start, though it is memoir, which I find much more enjoyable than other forms of that genre.  But I will admit to having some prejudices.  I imagined a book full of discussions about "how to deal with death/dying" books, and I was prepared for something akin to The Five People You Meet in Heaven (not that there's anything wrong with that-just not my cup of tea).

What I got instead was a smart, thoughtful, thought-provoking look at the end of a remarkable life.  Will Schwalbe's mother, Mary, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2007.  She was a strong, confident, socially conscious woman who had worked for years supporting refugees in war-torn parts of the world.  She had traveled to some of the most dangerous places in earth, and when she came back from a trip to Afghanistan feeling ill, at first no one thought too much of it.  But what her doctors thought was a form of hepatitis was soon revealed to be tumors in her pancreas, which had already spread to her liver.  And while treatment could extend her life, the illness was terminal.  This left Mary with the task of living while dying, and her family the task of figuring out how to relate to their spouse and mother knowing her time was limited.

Will would often accompany his mother to her chemo treatments, and it was in the waiting and treatment rooms at Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York that they started what was to become a two-person, mother-son book club.  Both Mary and Will had always been avid readers, and the books they chose to read were either old favorites or new stories they discovered with and for each other.  The chapter titles are the titles of the books they read together, and each book frames a different part of their experience.  Some of the books had new meaning reading them while in the process of dying.  Some of them reminded Mary or Will about the things that were important in life, and all of them were high-quality literature.  My fears of a book full of trite, sentimental soundbites and self-help advice were unfounded.  In fact, as I read I found myself drawn more into the books they were reading than the story of their relationship.  I got a new reading list out of it, in fact.

That's not to say that the story was moving and emotional on a personal level.  Will and his mother had the enormous privilege of having the means and opportunity to spend this time together.  At several points in the book, Will or Mary points out how lucky they are to be in a position for her to get the best possible care, or for Will to quit his job and take on a new venture without worrying about losing his house or feeding himself. But ultimately, all of the money and education and connections in the world could not stop the inevitable progression of her disease.  Rather than railing against his mother's fate, Will is grateful for the time they were able to have, memories that will now forever be associated with the many wonderful books they read and loved together.