Just a little preamble/explanation: something I find interesting about this class is how much we talk about education and, from a teaching point of view, about choosing books that young adults can actually engage with. I think it’s a really cool angle to take, and different from most other English classes. Up until I took this class I had no interest in being a teacher, but now I’m planning on taking Ed 2500 this summer to see if I’d like it.
Young Adult lit is really important to me, not only because of all the books I’ve enjoyed over the years, but also because I’ve been volunteering with a junior high youth group for about four years now, and this year I’ve been working with both junior and senior high. These kids mean a lot to me and talking about what they like is the best way to connect with them. Hearing them talk about what books they’re reading is always really interesting to me.
There is one kid in particular (Joel), who has been coming to youth group ever since I started and over the years I’ve watched him grow into a pretty voracious reader. He really enjoys reading a lot of what I think I can call the super popular YA texts: The Hunger Games, Divergent, John Green etc. I figured we’ve heard a lot on our adult opinions of this genre, so I thought I’d ask him for his teenage opinion.
Me: Joel, what are your top five favourite books right now?
J: 1) The Book Thief, 2) Looking for Alaska, 3) The Hobbit, 4) Paper Towns, 5) The Hunger Games
Me: What did you like about The Book Thief? Like, what made it a good book?
J: The plot was a big part, but I liked how he got me so attached to the characters and he took time to develop the characters. He is really good at making the characters realistic, like you can put yourself in the book!
Me: Would the same thing apply to the other books? I mean, do you like them for the same reasons?
J: Mostly, being able to get attached to the character is a big part of why I pick a book I like.
Me: So do you feel like you identify with the characters in some way? Or do you just get attached to them because you care about them as people?
J: Mostly I just get really attached.
J: *thumbs up emoticon*
Me: Yeah me too tbh.
Me: Okay I have like two more questions and then I will leave you alone.
Me: So Looking for Alaska has gotten a lot of complaints because it talks about death and sex and drinking, etc. and The Hunger Games is about kids killing other kids. Do you feel like that content is necessary to the stories? Like, do you think its good for kids to be reading about that, regardless of whether it’s relevant to their life?
J: Well in looking for Alaska sex was not an important part, but the alcohol was because of the loss of [Alaska’s] mom, it shows how that negatively affected her life and was one cause for her death. And the slaughter of children is a big part of the plot and adds something unique and brings readers in, plus that is what builds up the story. I think it is important for kids to read because it opens their eyes and shows them that there are other things out there and problems in the world.
J: Poverty is a big problem in The Hunger Games. And unfair governments.
J: (Slightly drastic though)
Me: That’s interesting; that’s very similar to what we say in class.
Me: Okay, last one: say you were studying one of your favourite books in class. Would it make the class more enjoyable? Or do you think having to pick the book apart and analyze everything would make you like the book less?
J: I would not like to analyze my book and ‘wreck’ it. I would not enjoy the task of doing that but I would not like the book any less than I did before.
Some interesting things I gathered from this:
- Relating to or identifying with characters is not as important as ‘falling in love with them’ (for lack of a better way of wording that). I think sometimes we, when trying to be critical thinkers, maybe focus too much on relatability, when at the end of the day, we like what we like and there isn’t always a good explanation for it.
- Even for a fairly conservative Christian kid, the sex in Looking for Alaska was a non-issue to him, while parents were up in arms about it. It was banned from being studied in Grade 11 classes somewhere in the States, but he considered it an unimportant part of the plot, so the book didn’t inform his opinions on the subject.
- The fact that he recognized that excessive drinking was portrayed negatively in Looking for Alaska. I think parents often go ‘no you cant read that theres drinking’, but they don’t take time to consider how that content is portrayed. Including a behaviour is not the same as an endorsement of that behaviour, and kids are smart enough to get that.
- His identification of all the issues in The Hunger Games even though he doesn’t want to ‘analyze’ it, even picking out the portrayal of poverty, which I hadn’t even really thought about, since my reading was generally overshadowed by the violence and political themes.
- He doesn’t want to read books he likes in school. Is this surprising? Maybe. But he doesn’t like school. He doesn’t expect to like school. Heck, I don’t like school. Reading my favourite book in class is not going to change that. Yes, it’s important to make school as engaging as possible, and it’s great when having fun and learning coincide, but I think it’s unrealistic to expect that to be the case 100% of the time. And I think it’s silly for me to expect kids to enjoy school when I didn’t. (And yes, I do realize that making school engaging is not the same as making it enjoyable, but I think sometimes we blur the two together a little too much).
- This is him as a fifteen year old in grade 10, and I met him when he was in seventh grade. For me it’s really interesting to see his list of favourite books, because when I met him, he was all about The Hunger Games; that would have been his #1 for sure. In class, we’ve talked a lot about different kids needing different books depending on what they’re going through, but I also think it’s important to remember that we grow at different paces and that our tastes change over time. The Hunger Games may appeal to one seventeen year old but not another, or one thirteen year old but not another, but it may also lose its appeal or relevance to that same kid as they grow. From a teaching point of view, it’s a good reminder to me that we may not be able find a book that the whole class enjoys or can appreciate, but even so, they can still learn something from it.
I hope this was as interesting to you guys as it was to me! (And shoutout to Joel for being my guinea pig. You’re a peach, bruh. 😉 )