Reading Young Adult Fiction

youngadult1A few weeks ago, I was teaching a lesson in the school library when one of my students asked me to help her choose a book. As I never need an excuse to foist my reading taste onto others, I was delighted and began pulling my own childhood favourites off the shelf. In glee I presented my choices; Goodnight Mister Tom (such a tearjerker!), When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (an emotional rollercoaster!) and Anne of Green Gables (how could you not love her?!). The response was a wrinkled nose of disdain. ‘Miss, I wanted something a bit…you know…exciting?’ At the word exciting, my heart sank. At their age, these books were exciting to me. Harry Potter hadn’t been invented yet. The vast array of young adult books on mature themes that they take for granted now simply didn’t exist beyond the realms of Jacqueline Wilson, who was pretty revolutionary when I was 11. Increasingly I have come to realise that despite only being ten or so years older than most of the children I teach, so much of the culture that I grew up with does not overlap theirs at all. The other day I had to explain to a student what an encyclopaedia was; when I told her that I used it to complete school work before I got the internet at home, she nearly fell off her chair. ‘You had to look it up? In a book? How old are you?’ she cried. It’s a good thing I can still pass for a sixth former, otherwise I’d start to get a complex.

So, as I handed my student over to the school librarian, I resolved that I would bridge the gap between my childhood and my students’ and read more current young adult fiction. I don’t want to be one of those teachers who only recommends the canon and turns my nose up at popular fiction. Kids these days have so many avenues for entertainment that reading will undoubtedly fall to the bottom of the list unless teachers and parents have an awareness of what is exciting, fresh and appealing in the world of young adult literature today. As much as I dream of having my class sitting in a circle on the floor, enthralled by my dramatic reading of The Secret Garden, it just isn’t going to happen. So, in order to help my students find books that are going to show them that reading can actually be a pleasurable experience, I need to read the kind of books they want to read, rather than the books I want them to read. The more I know about these books, the more I’ll be able to incorporate them into lessons, and the more my students will associate English with pleasure rather than dread.

So, with trepidation, I have begun dipping my toe into the water. In the last few weeks, I have read very little that hasn’t been young adult fiction. My first was Between Shades of Gray, which has probably suffered a little from its title since publication! It was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, and despite lacking in narrative complexity, it’s a remarkably good book. It tells the story of Lina, a young Lithuanian girl who is deported to Siberia with her family due to her father being an outspoken opponent of the Stalinist regime. They suffer horrifically alongside their fellow prisoners as they are forced to endure weeks confined to a freight train carriage, with barely anything to eat and no opportunity to wash or exercise, and when they finally arrive at their frozen destination, they find nothing but a wasteland waiting for them. It soon dawns on them that this is just a way for the Russians to kill them off, but their spirits are stronger than their captors bargain for, and together Lina and her fellow prisoners fight against the regime purely by refusing to give up. It’s an emotional and gripping story, made even the more so by knowing this actually happened to hundreds of thousands of Baltic people who Stalin wanted to wipe out, and I genuinely couldn’t put it down.

After Between Shades of Gray, I picked up Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, which tells the story of Isabel, a slave girl living in 18th century New York at the time of the War of Independence. As America struggles for its freedom, so must she seek hers, and this is a fascinating, emotive and gripping story of bravery in the most impossible of circumstances. Again, I couldn’t put it down, and I found myself wanting to learn more about slavery and the Independence movement in America. Only two young adult books in, and I was already wiser about so many things I had no idea about before. Could my third provide me with the same experience? As it turned out, yes it could! A Gathering Light won the Carnegie Medal a few years ago (and was published as A Northern Light in the US). It is set in the Adirondacks in 1906, and tells the story of Mattie Gokey, a farmer’s daughter struggling to cope with the burden of supporting her father and younger siblings after her mother’s death. To help pay the bills, she gets a summer job in one of the big lakeside hotels, where she finds herself entrusted with the secret letters of Grace Brown, a young woman staying at the hotel who is found drowned in the lake the following day.

Unlike Mattie, Grace Brown was real (you can read the story of her murder here), but Mattie feels far more real than the excerpts of Grace Brown’s actual letters. Desperate to get out of her poverty stricken small town, but torn between the call of going to college, helped by her inspirational teacher, and of love, after she begins dating a handsome neighbour, Mattie is a vital and sympathetic young narrator whose dilemmas raise a number of important questions for teenage girls. Juxtaposing her story with that of another girl who never had a chance to live her own life makes Mattie’s decisions even more compelling, and I felt very affectionate towards her by the end. It’s a lovely, thoughtful novel that treads a fine line between young adult and adult fiction, and is well worth a read.

My adventures in Young Adult fiction so far have taught me there are many well written and involving books out there that offer much more emotional depth and narrative complexity than most adult novels currently decorating the shelves of Tescos. Teenagers can read these novels and be swept into different worlds with characters who are just like them as their guides. They can be educated about historical events, or even just what it is like to live in completely different circumstances, drawing on their own lives and experiences to help them empathise with the protagonists. There is nothing inferior about modern Young Adult fiction; it is, in fact, a thriving, inventive and innovative genre that is continually pushing the boundaries of what is deemed appropriate for young readers. These books speak to teenagers far more than ‘classics’ do, and offer just the same amount of exposure to beautiful writing and a range of narrative techniques. Rather than dreading teaching modern novels to my classes, I am now relishing the prospect. I am going to spend my summer reading a lovely big pile of options for my new Year 7 class before deciding which will be the best to teach. I suspect I’ll have a very hard decision to make!

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50 comments

  1. I totally know how you feel on this one, I really struggle to get into YA fiction, too…though I do try (When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit was one of my favorites when I was young!). I just recently bought a copy of Between Shades of Gray, since I’ve heard nothing but great things…you make me want to pick it up right now! I adored Chains and now I’m looking forward to getting to some of the others you’ve mentioned. The other historical fiction I’m definitely meaning to read is Code Name Verity, I’ve heard people raving about it.

    1. I hope you’ll enjoy Between Shades of Gray! Chains has sequels if you’re interested…Forge is the one after Chains and the author is currently writing a third volume. I need to read those! I really want to read Code Name Verity – I’ve heard good things too. I think I’ll try to get that one from the library.

  2. Oooh I was just reading about ‘A Gathering Light’ yesterday and thinking ti sounded interesting, now will definitely have to add it to my list! I do enjoy the occasional piece of YA fiction, though I tend to read more YA fantasy I think.

    Can I drop in a recommendation for anything by Melina Marchetta? She’s a well known writer of young adult fiction in Australia, and ‘Looking for Alibrandi’ and ‘Saving Francesca’ are two really good books about high school and figuring out who you are. Of course, ‘Looking for Alibrandi’ might fall into the ‘too old’ category, since I was reading it at school (e.g. it references Madonna) but still worth checking out. Either way, I’m sure you have some great summer reading ahead!

  3. I really enjoyed this posting and can’t wait to hit the request button to reserve them at the local library. Turning to Australian YA books, what about the John Marsden series “Tomorrow When The War Began?’ I think the series goes on too long but remarkable.
    For choices in my own NZ books, I love “The 10 PM Question” by Kate Goldi, Wm Taylor’s “Spider” about a gifted young pianist and Margaret Mahy’s “Memories” and my all time favourite by her – “The Catalogue of the Universe.”

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Moira! I haven’t heard of John Marsden – that’s another one to go on my list, thank you! In fact, I am ignorant about all of your suggestions – I am going to write all of these down!

      1. John Marsden has written some remarkable young adult fiction, besides the Tomorrow series (which I agree went on too long. I enjoyed the first three though – read when my children were young). His YA books are now reaching back into the 1980s and 90s, but So much to tell you and Letters from the inside are excellent books.

        Enjoyed your post … though I know I’m way late commenting. I reckon you can ease your students into some older books as well as current ones!

  4. There are a lot of really exciting YA book out there right now, especially coming out of Australia, it seems. The John Marsden series Moira mentions above was a favourite of mine during my preteen years and I adore the two Melina Marchetta books that Catie has recommended. Also out of Australia and more in the historical fiction line that you seem to be favouring are “The Montmaray Journals”, a WWII-era trilogy by Michelle Cooper with shades of I Capture the Castle, gothic suspense novels, and swashbuckling adventure stories. Really highly recommended.

    I was trying to remember what I read at eleven. I think I too would have ignored your choices, thinking them too young (sorry!). I remember reading Rebecca (though I think anything by du Maurier is perfect at that age), lots of Judy Blume and Madeleine L’Engle, Mary Stewart’s Arthurian books, Terry Pratchett, and every Agatha Christie mystery I could get my hands on.

    Can’t wait to hear what books you pick for your students to read next year!

    1. Thanks Claire, I love the sound of the Montmaray Journals! I’ll have to see if I can find them here. Wow, you were an advanced reader! Growing up in a house with no books, I was pretty restricted by what my teachers recommended before I discovered the adult section of the library. Unfortunately a lot of typical 11 year olds have very limited vocabularies which makes recommending books a challenge. I have tried giving some of my brighter ones more adult authors such as Sarah Waters or Daphne Du Maurier but they struggle to understand the language and so they don’t enjoy them. I think this generation reads much less than ours did – I blame computers!

  5. I have had a similar problem as I do not read as much YA fiction as I should; although following the Carnegie Medal Award has helped and I am planning to teach Chains in the Autumn Term to my Year 8 class. I found a good way to overcome this and to get a few book recommendations for yourself is to have a book recommendation wall. Each of my classes has a laminated poster and every 2/3 weeks we spend half a lesson discussing books we think others should read, giving the title, author (if they can remember it) and a short description. I then do a name picker and write the chosen book on the poster for that class, so if any of the students are stuck for what to read they can look on the wall.

    1. I am going to follow the Carnegie this year – it’s so great to be abreast of the latest books. I am currently deciding whether to do Chains or A Gathering Light with my Year 8s – I’ll see what they think before making my final choice. If I have time I’ll do them both. I love that idea of the poster! I’ll do that when I get back to school!

  6. Hi, I would like to throw an author into your YA mix. I came across him when I was studying Children’s literature because he had won the Carnegie medal for his final instalment of a trilogy. Suffice to say I was blown away by his simplicity of very complex themes. I am a huge fan of his because I have never been so emotionally affected by words on a page! He won the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway a year later for a completely different but no less brilliant YA novel. Patrick Ness’s Choas walking trilogy and his ‘A Monster Calls’ are my big recommendations. The trilogy is a definite one as there are so many current themes and questions of humanity, colonialism, feminism, racism- I could go on. I urge you to give I’m a go!

  7. Like others, I have great sympathy here! I have difficulty in reading this area of fiction and identifying what would make a teen “tick”. I too have chosen my favourites from my teens but they have often fallen on stony ground! One that girls have particularly enjoyed are the Sophie Mackenzie books, particularly “Girl Missing,” which has captured many reluctant readers. Also Sally Gardner’s “Maggot Moon” has gone down well as has Meg Rossoff. Boys are especially hard and any that you find, do pass on! I do hope you are going to have a proper break…!

    1. Yes, I have noticed a lot of my girls reading Sophie Mackenzie – and Maggot Moon won the Carnegie didn’t it? I have a Meg Rossoff on my pile to read – will get to that asap! I will pass on any good titles that I find – I feel we need all the help we can get with finding good YA books! Thank you – you too!

  8. I wrote a blog post on a similar theme back in April (here) expounding on the fact that there is some great contemporary fiction for YA readers out there that adults can enjoy too. Marcus Sedgwick is my favourite. Most of the books on the Carnegie shortlist are worth reading, and the boys at my school enjoy the shadowing process a lot.

    1. Thanks Annabel – love your post. Marcus Sedgwick has gone down well in my school too. I am trying to read my way through the current Carnegie list – there are some good books on there!

  9. I’m curious about the age group that is considered to qualify as the target for YA fiction (allowing of course for different kids to mature at different rates). I would have thought 11 too young (are Year 7 kids 11-12?) for those, while 14-15 year olds I presume would be beyond When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit but not necessarily for Anne of GG – whom Canadian kids still seem to love, or else it’s their parents who love it out of nostalgia and keep buying the books?). Does YA not cover a rather large age range?

    I am impressed that the current books you mention cover historically and politically and emotionally complex subjects, so if your students DO find these sufficiently “exciting” then that suggests an openness to challenging reading, not just the “action film” equivalents between pages.

    1. I think YA is a very general term for books covering the 9-16 or so age range. At 16 I would expect most children to be moving beyond YA and reading books written more explicitly for adults, largely so that they are exposed to more challenging vocabulary. I’d also hope they’d want to read something a bit more adult in theme rather than sticking to a steady diet of teen romance and broken families. You’d be surprised at what 11 year olds read – I have had many come in to school with Stephen King and Maeve Binchy books that parents have given them to read. Some can read and understand Jane Austen and Dickens at that age – others will still be reading Harry Potter. It really depends on the child.

      Most kids I have come across enjoy reading something challenging – they find simpler books a bit dull. Most of my class love books I would think were far too depressing – they like the drama of it all. There’s no accounting for taste!

  10. Those young people are very lucky to have you, it makes me sad too that When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is not deemed exciting enough.

  11. I’m glad it’s going well! Despite some trepidation to dip into YA these days, it was actually my specialty in graduate school. There’s not always the most complexity, but there is a lot of good writing and SOME complex plots, and always a lot of fertile ground for discussion. Some YA recommendations: Feed by MT Anderson and American Born Chinese, a graphic novel, by Gene Luen Yang. :)

    1. Thanks Andi! I will look up those recommendations. How interesting that YA was your specialty – I’d be interested to know more about how the genre is studied at higher education level.

  12. You’re then an amazing teacher! In Spain there is not such a tradition of children’s classics, on the contrary, there is a publisher especialized in modern fiction for children, so that different ages have different colours on the covers and deal with different themes.

    Best of luck with your reading and keep that inspiring desire to be such a great teacher. I wish more were like you!

  13. another vote for Meg Rosoff. Some old favorites: Witch of Blackbird Pond, much of Robin McKinley for those who like fantasy. Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is an obvious choice (too obvious?).

  14. Last year I was involved in a CLPE (centre for literacy in primary education) course called The Power of Reading. As part of it we had our own book club reading KS3 texts, most of them Carnegie prize winners. I quite enjoyed reading the books but needed to intersperse my books inbetween. Happy summer holidays.

    1. What a lovely thing to do! Yes, I couldn’t read a solid diet of YA, but I definitely need to read them on a fairly regular basis if I’m going to gain any knowledge beyond my own childhood favourites!

  15. I had a bit of experience with YA fiction before I moved here, because I was a librarian. But those were mostly American books, so I did a LOT of YA reading last year, partly for uni and partly because my students loved recommending books, and would check up to see if I had read them. My placement school had an amazing literacy program and great ideas, a lot of which, like reading logs and classroom book trunks and student book presentations, I will be taking with me to my new school. I hope you have a wonderful time reading those books!

    1. I have instigated a lot of those things in my school, too – I have just been bad at doing any of the reading myself! Hope your new students love all of the wonderful activities you’re going to introduce them to!

  16. I’m supposing you know of my love of children’s classic literature, Rachel, but current YA fiction is right on top of the pile. I am fortunate to have several dear friends, one an elementary school librarian, all teachers (former or current) who are always recommending YA books to me, knowing how I love them, steering me in directions I might not otherwise go. I did pick up one the other day at one of my favorite libraries. Up the stairs, to the adult section, one must first past shelves of suggestions for young adult readers. The YA section is in a room of its own, which I frequent, IF I can get past the shelves first. “Being Henry David” caught my eye, upon those shelves, and now sits on my nightstand. It is about a boy who wakes up not knowing who he is with only a battered copy of Walden. He taks on the name Henry David and hides out at Walden Pond.
    I applaud your efforts to read more current works and, in so doing, meet your young charges’ where they are at bookwise right now.

    1. That sounds like an amazing book, Penny! I’ll have to check that out. I’m so pleased you’r still interested in what is being written for young people and are still actively seeking new authors to explore. Thank you for your encouragement – let’s hope I can come up with some good new authors for my kids to enjoy!

  17. There’s a ton of current YA right now! I sometimes forget that’s the case because there are, in addition to tons of good YA, tons and tons of copycat paranormal romances and copycat dystopias that aren’t very good at all. But lots of good YA as well.

    Laurie Halse Andersen is so great! I loved about Chains how it played up the contrast between the stated ideals of the American Revolution and their behavior in practice to such a large population group in the country. There’s a sequel as well but I haven’t read it.

    1. Yes – it’s difficult to find the good stuff amidst the dross, I have to say!

      I know, me too. I want to read the sequel but my school library doesn’t have a copy yet!

  18. Since you will be in the States, you can look at the New York Time’s specialist best seller list for YA books. YA is very big genre in the States.

    1. I agree, Jenni! I know a lot of adults here in the States who prefer YA fiction. I like some of it, myself. Katherine Paterson’s books are older but examples of great YA Fiction. John Green is the current favorite for YA right now in America.

  19. John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars is…well, stellar. Markus Zusak’s books are nearly all wonderful, but The Book Thief stands out for unusual narrative techniques. Patrick Ness’s Chaos trilogy is hella exciting, and he always raises questions that seasoned adults find nearly impossible to answer – so, very engaging to teenagers. And it’s new, and maybe not specifically YA? But Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane would be great for this age group. I absolutely adore YA fiction – I think writing for this age group forces writers to produce their cleanest, most elegant prose.

  20. I agree about reading some books by Melina Marchetta. She certainly knows how to craft beautiful stories, I read her first in highschool and am still a huge fan of her writing. I’ve actually just finished On the Jellicoe Road and it’s easily my favorite.

  21. For modern YA literature I like, Gail Carriger’s Finishing School Series. It begins with “Etiquette and Espionage.” It’s action-packed, hilarious steampunk fun. There is definitely something about the classics that newer YA books don’t have. A rather lyrical recent-ish option is “Out of the Dust” by Karen Hesse- a verse novel about the collapse of a girl’s family as she knows it in 1930s Dust Bowl Oklahoma. It has lots of white space to attract reluctant readers who want to read a little less. Hmmm.. There’s one that’s a little older called “Calico Captive” by Elizabeth George Speare, author of “The Witch of Blackbird Pond” (which should be required reading). Based on actual people and events, it tells about how a teenager and some of her family are kidnapped during the Seven Years’ War and taken to Quebec.

    I too love “The Secret Garden.” I just completed my master’s thesis on appearance of classic books being a factor in their low circulation… were the books that you recommended older editions? Did they look at all beat up? Previous research found that the books we carry are accessories, and kids generally don’t want to see or to be seen with ugly books. My study found that students were 3x as likely to pick up a front-facing new edition of a classic (pre-1960) novel than an older edition shelved with only the spine showing. Basically a book has to be attractive and in the line of sight to get attention.

    If you can get a copy of a classic that looks brand new and try to sell it to a group of students in a booktalk without saying “classic,” sometimes that works better than the one-on-one recommendation. Sometimes they don’t even realize it’s old.

    1. Thanks so much for that information! Your thesis findings sound absolutely fascinating – I never thought about that being a factor in kids’ choices before. You’ve given me much to consider!

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