As a teacher and a parent, it is difficult to hear a young reader bemoan some of literature’s most loved authors and texts like Dickens, the Brontes, or Hawthorne. However, these students (in many cases) have been thrown into the raging seas of theses authors’ texts without more than a short biographical history of the author.
Adults as learners know that interest is the single most predictive factor in determining how much one absorbs about a topic. If a young reader is tentative about a topic because it seems of no application to her life, the reader will merely go through the motions of reading and absorbing the text IF she even reads it at all. We teachers know how often our students choose not to even read the assigned text because they feel it has no bearing on their present lives, times, or situations.
Young Adult literature has progressed so in recent decades as to provide teachers and students alike with a myriad of opportunities to pique the fearful, bored or recalcitrant readers’ interests in subject matter that is the cornerstone of the literary canon. Using YA books to introduce themes, character types (herein referred to as archetypes), and recurring literary structures is one way to bridge the gap the adolescent reader sees between himself and classic literature’s contemporary application. The process is a delicate one and does take time but the advantages to the readers far outweigh the time and effort one will expend to build these book bridges.
1st – Pick one element on which to focus (subject, genre, archetype, etc.).
2nd – Search available resources such as ALAN, YALSA, Junior Library Guild, numerous book award sites, for YA titles that fit that element
3rd – KNOW THE READER’S INTERESTS AND ABILITY LEVELS. This is key. Any number of YA books may fit the lesson or reader’s needs but in order for this strategy to work effectively, one must know what will catch the reader’s attention and whether or not the reader will be capable of reading the book independently. If the book misses the mark on interest, the reader won’t read it. If the book is too difficult for the reader, the reader won’t finish it.
4th – Provide the book or access to the book. Too many readers will use unavailability as an excuse to avoid reading. If you give the reader the book or provide access to the book by having it stocked in a school library or taking the reader to a local library, they have no excuse not to read it.
5th – In cases of classroom use, provide the readers with choice. Nothing can defeat a potential reading success like a “Gotta”. If a stubborn adolescent reader feels forced into reading something he deems uninteresting or unimportant, he will refuse. By providing choices between several similar titles, one can allow the reader ownership of the decision to read.
6th – Discuss the book with the reader. This is paramount. One must have read the book and be familiar with it. One of the joys of reading and teaching is watching the student or child connect with a book. If you cannot converse with the reader about the text, the reader will feel like she’s been manipulated. For adamant nonreaders, offer to read the book together.
7th – Let it happen. Don’t force the discussion or impose an interpretation on the reader. Adolescents are discovering who they are and what they think. It is part of the reading process to make meaning of what one reads. Allow the reader to form his own opinions and analyses of the book. Even if he is off the mark, further discussion will prove more fruitful than an immediate dismissal of his ideas about the book.
8th – Guide the reader through the reading of the paired text. It is a text that is more difficult either in language or content so she needs a guide. Take some time to point out some of the more prominent similarities between the two texts to let the reader see how they are alike. Then sit back and watch him do the rest of the work.
This process is not perfect. As with all learning, many times it works but sometimes it doesn’t. Don’t give up. I have seen, in my own students, the value of the connections YA literature can provide to classic texts and authors. In the long run, though the reader may take more time to work through both the YA book and the more difficult text, the connections she makes, the higher level thinking involved, and the information retained about both texts will far exceed both parties’ expectations.