Why we teach YA lit

Keep an eye on this page, as our theoretical statement about the role of YA lit in the ELA classroom evolves.

VM- As a former angst-ridden teenager in search of comfort and escapism, books served (and still serve) a variety of purposes in my life. Growing up in poverty where there was little parental involvement (as both my mother and stepfather worked two jobs each) and even less guidance or structure, books became the foundation for the building blocks of what I had hoped to become as an adult: they were my teachers, they were my vacations, they were my fantasies, they were my moral advisors, they were my connections to the world, and they were my inspiration for writing (a craft that I still indulge in today). Characters knew my pain, made me laugh, and taught me something that I never knew about life (or that I knew and I could never really articulate). There are books that I read as far back as elementary school that I could probably still pick up and recite line for line, word for word. Their impressions were eternal and each one was a representation for different moments in my development, as well as various occurrences in my adulthood. I see my own challenging adolescent experience in many of my students, and many of them who have it even harder than I ever did. However, I also see hope through learning. Although we are now surrounded by technology in all forms, I have experienced the same joy that students display when digging into a book or any sort of written text that they are drawn to. I teach YA lit because these moments are precious, and are the key to closing the socio-economic gap in NYC schools, and hopefully, universally. By offering students a chance to not only read, but to LOVE what they read, (or learn to love something that they read and hated by engaging them in a way that is meaningful) we become that much closer to paving the way for a promising future.

An update: I want to teach YA lit because as you say, BR, modern adolescents face many of the same challenges the protagonists of these texts face. Although the connections between some protagonists, like Huck Finn, and modern American adolescents may seem tenuous, as teachers, we can help students come to see the universality of the human experience. By reading these stories, we can help students learn about themselves and others, but we can also (always) just enjoy them.


PO= I teach to inspire, to create, to remodel and to liberate!

SD: I wish that I’d gotten into reading at a younger age. It wasn’t until my first year of college that I really got into it. Now I think to myself: imagine if I hadn’t gone to college! This is why I want to teach YA lit. I want to show young people that reading isn’t just something your teachers and your parents command you to do when you’re in middle school or high school. It can be wholly independent; it can be empowering; and it can be fun.

BR: You’re right, SD, about the power of reading, especially YA Lit, where tweens and adolescents can find people going through similar challenges as they navigate the treacherous waters of school, love, family, and life-in-general. I hope for my students that YA Lit gets them hooked on reading a wide range of books.

YMK = I believe the point of YA lit, like any form of literature is to connect with the audience; in this case, the students. YA lit is a mirror; a means for the students to see themselves in the stories and understand that what they are feeling and going through is universal. Finally, teaching YA lit is a way to ignite curiosity and a passion for learning through reading.

LD: I teach to learn. As I watch myself and others learning, I find more ways to teach, and expand my understanding of what human interaction is about. Ying and yang, give to receive, we never get away from the paradox of life: the inner is outer, light always holds dark, darkness holds the light.

My excuse for sounding so mystical and philosophical is that YA seems the perfect place to stretch those wings…and FLY!

JB: I teach YA Lit in the hopes of inspiring kids to discover what they most enjoy reading and then to read it!  The passion and practice  can open doors that we as teachers will never be able to assess.

PDC: I would teach YA Lit in my class because it gives the students a character they can connect with and hopefully they can find a little bit of themselves in the character. With YA it helps students realize that their story matters, their emotions and teenage discomfort is something universal and should be express. I was lucky to be expose to YA when I was a teen and it helped me to understand what I was feeling and that my peers, although might not vocalize it, were going through the same thing. It’s difficult for middle/high school students to connect to their parents, teachers and sometimes their peers. It helps to be able to get lost in a book and end up at end, finding and understanding a character and yourself.

CK:  I would use YA Lit in future classes in the hopes of creating more lifelong readers.  In my experience, YA literature is something that many young people can identify with in a stronger way than with some of the classics of literature that they’re beaten over the head with (metaphorically speaking, of course…).  If students can find something to relate to in their reading, I find that they’re better able to engage overall.  Hopefully success with YA literature will either lead them to read more YA literature or to venture beyond and into a wide variety of readings.

KB: I agree wholeheartedly with CK and would also use YA lit in future classes in order to cultivate more lifelong readers. I believe when we assign too much reading that is frustrating and difficult to relate to and construct meaning from, we are also negatively shaping students’ attitudes about reading as an activity–attitudes that could easily fossilize and stay with them for many years. While there is certainly academic and personal value in tackling a difficult text, it is much better to undertake such a challenge with a foundation of familiar and personally meaningful texts, and the concurrent positive and confident attitudes toward reading. YA lit can be that foundation for our students.

NC: I’d teach YA Lit because it is extremely effective in getting kids engaged in literature. Give them something they can relate to, and watch them expand their reading interests over time. YA Lit is how I got my own independent reading started as a kid. If you show students that a reading experience can be fun and enjoyable, and they’ll be much more likely to pick up books on their own.

JMV Updated- I teach YA lit because I believe it is what kids are reading anyway. I think it’s important to be able to talk about books with my students. I can’t tell you how many times my students have been surprised that I read the same books as them. They are always excited to talk to an adult about what they enjoy. All too often children write reading off as boring, because their interests are ignored. If a student finds reading enjoyable they will eventually find their way to the “traditional” classics. If educators try to force reading on students without taking their interests into account, they may never learn to enjoy reading. In addition, I believe YA authors are more willing to take risks because there are less “rules” about what is “right.”

MM – Stolen line: “Sometimes fiction is a way of coping with the poison of the world in a way that lets us survive it.” -Neil Gaiman. To add to this, a great YA story can be the best kind of teacher. On most days I would prefer a GREAT YA story to lectures and small group discussions (this is coming from someone who himself lectures and facilitates small group discussions). When we suspend our disbelief through fiction we are afforded the space and freedom to process the great puzzles of our own lives.

RS: I crave reading literature and reading has become a way of life for me.  It offers endless visions of the world.  How I would love to instill this value in my students so that they could imagine that the world has endless possibilities.

JC: Young adult literature is a significant genre of reading as it relates to adolescents at a time in their lives where growth and evolution are extremely important. The lessons, morals, advice and information that can be learned through literature at this age is very imperative, insofar as it can teach teens how to develop into mature adults. Moreover, the experiences that are conveyed in YA novels and books makes adolescents feel like they are not alone in the plights that they encounter as they become “grown-ups”. It is for this particular reason and for my affinity in reading about human narratives why I would like to teach YA Lit. – JC

MS: I forgot how much I enjoyed YA Lit until I took this course.  YA Lit. was a staple during my formative years. It filled my imagination with dreams of castles and moats, dragons and demons, heroes and heroines of every ilk. And I never stopped reading. This is why I would teach it. Our children’s lives need to be enriched and informed by positive ideas and models of excellence. Reading good literature that they can relate to will keep them alive mentally and I dare say, spiritually. Books are the key, the pathway to this.-MS

JA: What better way to engage young adults into reading then to provide them with an assorted collection of young adult literature. Teachers are constantly faced with the dilemma of motivating students to read in their classrooms so I believe that the best books for adolescents are the ones that are made for them. Young adult literature addresses real life issues that adolescents face daily. When students are able to relate to the characters then they can see they their own problems aren’t isolated. As readers, we are always comforted when we see characters could be like us, and when they overcome their problems we cheer for their victory, which inspires us to also be just as courageous as them. Young adult novels are filled with positive role models who deal with the same identity crisis that young adults deal with. I’m definitely inspired to introduce my future students to a wide range of young adult literature that will assist them with their identity development.

JA: UPDATE: I still believe that teaching YA literature is essential in assisting young adults grow positively. There are many adolescents who face difficult challenges at home, so when they read books with characters they can relate to, they may find a sense of comfort knowing that their problems are not isolated. I find it a privilege in helping adolescents face their daily trials by providing encouraging books to read.

DL: During my four in high school years, I always found myself running to read many of the books that my English teachers would assign because they would always address something that was going on in my life (yes even Shakespeare!). I fell in love with these books because they “spoke” to me in so many ways and they just really gave me a better outlook on life as a teenager. As an English teacher, I am teaching young adult lit to give my students that same feeling. I am trying to have them seek the answers to their problems in this stage in their lives through literature. Now, not all books are specific to each child’s problems but many of them contain young protagonists or characters that my children will be able to relate to. Most importantly, many YA lit books address the feelings that adolescents endure. This is what makes these text so relatable to our kids in middle and high school. It is amazing to see students really engage in the text and literature genres like Young adult lit allows for these students to not only find solutions, but to progress in various ways.

MAS (2015)- I teach YA for a lot of different reasons. Some students don’t ever leave New York, let alone the city. This gives so many students a way to travel. Not just to another continent, but to a different land, time, and setting that they know nothing about. I want students to find and identify with characters that resinate with them. I want students to defend the actions of the characters and to stand up or denounce their actions with another student. I want to spark debate. I want students to start to think about actions and how those actions effect the people around them. I want students to start to predict what is going to happen and be surprised when the book takes an unexpected clever turn, I want them to be sad when a character dies and happy when they get married.  Hopefully, all of these ‘wants’ will spark something within my students to read not only YA, but everything they can get their eyeballs on.

I want them to read for pleasure, to be informed, and to be educated.

JES -When I was an adolescent, young adult literature was enlightening, inspiring, titillating, terrifying, confusing and alluring–feelings which of course took form based on the book I was reading. Looking back on those times when my eyes were opened to central themes of love, independence, courage, and life, and to various symbolism in texts such as The Scarlet Letter, Catcher in the Rye, Hamlet, Of Mice and Men and Diary of Anne Frank, I realize that these texts were great ways for me to learn how to draw relationships between myself and the characters, the plots and history.  I believe that young adult literature in the classroom is simply the best way to help adolescents in their development–these texts can promote creativity, constructive use of the imagination, maturity, and the formation of better relationships and sociability. Therefore, as a developing teacher, I would not want to rob students of this essential part of their development. Further, the cool thing about many of these young adult texts is that many of them are accompanied with some sort of audio or visual interpretation. Since we learn auditorily, visually and kinesthetically, it’s challenging and rewarding to incorporate dramatizations, films, audios and other such devices to help students make connections and derive a sense of how to assess, identify similarities and differences and apply what they learn in confidence.

MM: I believe that literature enriches our understanding and appreciation of life. And being a teacher to emerging adults is such an inspirational purpose that shows its fruits even after many years. I am glad I have found my niche with you all amid the world of teaching.

MD:  I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love books. Even as a young child, before I could recognize the simplest words on a page, I would curl up next to my mother as she read one of of her thick tomes and trace the patterns of the spaces between the words with my eyes. In those spaces, those thin rivers that trickled down each page by so many different paths, I discovered new worlds, worlds where typed letters served as trees, mountains and wild beasts roaming the landscape of the page. I was two years old when I learned to read and immediately fell in love with stories, the pictures that the stories told, the books themselves, the way the paper felt between my finger tips as I turned each page.

     Because my parents were immigrants and my mother hadn’t learned English until she was an adult, most of the books in our home were in languages other than English. Instead of a guest bedroom in our house, we had a library and the shelves were arranged by language instead of by subject. I grew up reading books in French, Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese and German. I couldn’t speak most of these languages, but I could read them. For me, that library was more educational than any library or school I ever encountered as a child and my love of reading and learning stemmed from there.

     I teach books, reading and writing because I am passionate about stories, because I believe stories can reach children in a way nothing else can. I can’t force the student in the back corner of the classroom, head on her arm, eyes closed, to look at me or pay attention to what I think is the most exciting lesson I have ever taught, but I can hand her a book that I think might reach her and in that way begin a relationship that builds communication and trust without either of us ever having to open our mouths.

5 thoughts on “Why we teach YA lit

  1. OM= I teach to inspire, to educate students “especially” our inner city urban students to emancipate themselves from mental slavery. Read more, reading is fundamental, without it you are lost on a one road path that suddenly branches off into a million different dark, unknown path.

  2. A.K.B: I teach YA Literature to inspire all children to read. To me, nonfiction is not the only source of important reading. YA Literature makes it possible to motivate students to read, therefore it is important too.

  3. JMF: I taught/would continue to teach YA Lit because it is an amazing way of communicating with students many of the very best reasons to read as often and as voraciously as possible. It is unique in that it doesn’t exclusively intrigue only young adults–I often have found adults and children every bit as interested in it as the targeted age group! This creates excellent habits, educates people as to what they do and don’t like in books and encourages them to keep reading. Many people–adults as well as adolescents–find the standard classic fare overwhelming, even if it’s commonly taught in schools. However, if the point of having students read is a) to convince them to continue doing so, b) to teach them greater, timeless themes and ideas, and c) to expand their knowledge of people, the world, other literature, etc, then why not use books that are going to engage them, rather than bore or intimidate them?

    YA Lit is a fantastic goldmine for teachers. . . . and for anyone who just enjoys reading!

  4. Why We Teach YA:-Paul Bland
    As teaching professionals, I think we often teach YA because we have our own important memories of being young adolescents in the classroom. Some important experience has led us to the decision to teach. A passion for learning and literature certainly helps in this challenging job. We realize the real possibility of making an academic contribution to these young students and the importance of this influence, both personal and professional on students once they become adults. For me it was the memorable experience of literature and poetry that I discovered and loved but it also stems from feeling excluded in the learning process and being misunderstood by the teaching professional. Personal experience like this is something that we can build on in deciding how to approach the role as teacher and student friend.

  5. CPezza: My first year of teaching I had a student, I’ll call her E, who got passed to my class from another teacher because she struggled working in his class. This teacher has every student read Grendel, and rarely strays from that text. He came to discuss E with me before passing her on and said she hated reading, did not try at all in the class, and didn’t have the ability to identify or analyze themes, characters, etc. Well, long story short, I helped E find Sarah Dessen, the YA novelist who writes stories about tween who go through the growing pains of early adulthood and self discovery. I simply introduced Eileen to the YA genre, which she had no idea existed, and she was able to pick out a book with a plot summary she thought she might be interested in and would be able to relate to. We read “Along for the Ride,” and she was able not only to finish the book, comprehend it, analyze it, and write an essay on it, but she also wanted to keep reading more books. Because the material was relatable and interesting to her, we were able to talk about complex and deep themes like the role and impact of parents on their children. She read, understood and connected Philip Larkin’s poem, “This be the Word,” and I then was able to introduce her and get her interested in poets like Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. YA lit was E’s ticket into the literary world, as well as her own mind’s ability to think and analyze complex ideas. The genre opens so many doors, and truly creates passionate readers.

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