In Defense of Not Reading Young Adult Literature

You caught me. I’m a junior high language arts (Well, ESL, but… sort of the same thing, right? Kind of? In some ways?) and I generally do not read young adult literature. I don’t, and I’m not at all ashamed, or I’m working on not being ashamed, anyway.

But Mrs. MacShibby, you implore, you must read young adult literature, because how else can you ask your students to read it?

Thank you for asking, gentle soul. In response, what if I said that I don’t care what my students read?

I’m not one of those “I don’t care what they’re reading, as long as they’re reading” people. Or maybe I am, sometimes, and then I’m not, sometimes. I want my students to read a lot of different things: fiction, nonfiction, utter crap, high literature, graphic novels, picture books to baby sister at bedtime… whatever. How else do you figure out what you like?

Required reading in my classroom is pretty diverse. A little of this, a little of that, and a bunch of “whatever Mrs. MacShibby found this morning that set her teacher sense a-tingling.” And, rest assured, if they’re reading it for my class, I’ve read it.

This means I’ve read some utter crap, because there’s a lot of utter crap out there, and occasionally I have to make my students read it. For the most part, though, I try to avoid the “utter crap” genre.

But am I that teacher who reads the latest YA novel to stay current with the students? No, no I am not. I’ve read a some and loved some (ask the husband about my enduring love for the Harry Potter series), but for the most part, I left YA behind when I ceased to be a young adult.

This is not to say I look down on the YA genre. Heck, I occasionally (and fairly unsuccessfully) dabble in writing YA stories. It’s just not generally what I’m drawn to as a reader. I could force it, sure, and I do from time to time, if it’s something we’re going to be reading as a class.

But in my spare time, of my own volition? I go in other directions: lots of non-fiction, some fantasy, some science fiction, and a tiny bit of “literature,” both modern and classic.

I occasionally look at the Goodreads book lists of my colleagues and wonder if I’m doing something wrong. Should I be more up on the latest and the greatest in YA fiction? Am I doing my students a disservice by not being able to personally recommend books?

No, and no, I think. I stay as up-to-date as I need to, and I’m lucky to have an incredible school librarian to whom I can refer questions or recommendation requests.

More importantly, I encourage communication within my classroom. We’re currently using Biblionasium, an online book-sharing and review website for kids. Honestly, it’s a little immature for my 8th and 9th graders, so we’re going to transition to using Goodreads in the next few months. If one 8th grade boy enjoys a book and makes a recommendation, I’m willing to bet my teaching license that that recommendation holds as much weight, if not more, as a recommendation from a thirty-something teacher, however awesome and fabulous I she may be.

What I do do is make a point of reading in front of my students. SSR time is SSR time, for everyone, myself included. If anyone walks into our classroom during SSR time, I ask them to grab a book off of the shelf and settle in to read. I’ve never had to, but I’d ask the principal or superintendent to have a seat and read something if they arrived during that time.

I read the books I want to read, just like I as my students to do. I read intimidating-looking nonfiction books. I read graphic novels. I read high fantasy books by Patrick Rothfuss. I read things I wouldn’t dream of recommending to junior high students (I’m looking at you, Mr. Martin). I read things I thought I would love but ultimately cast aside. I neither invite nor discourage questions or commentary from my students. I just read, and I let them see me reading. I ask that they just read, and let me see them reading.

What our “reluctant” (ugh, that term) readers need to see, says me, is random people in their lives, reading. Reading spontaneously. Reading for fun, reading for edification. Reading to read. Reading because there are things out there that we just haven’t yet read. Reading because we’re bored in the bathroom. Reading just because.

So go ahead, teachers. Read what you want, with pride.

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