Monday, March 17, 2014

Changing the Complexion of YA

One of the biggest highs a school librarian can get is the charge that comes after pairing a student with the right book. Connecting young people – especially reluctant readers – with literature is a remarkable thing, potentially life-changing on many levels. In my library, kids who have spent their lives avoiding reading have come back for more after finishing novels like Tyrell, Snitch, Perfect Chemistry, and Tears of a Tiger. Even more exciting than the fact that they’ve actually read cover-to- cover is the obvious thrill they get when they see characters who talk like their friends struggling with familiar (if heightened) problems. Their enthusiasm -- and surprise -- is a wonderful thing.
Sadly, though, so many great YA books feature jacket covers that only represent a tiny fraction of the kids at my urban public school. If we want kids to read, we need books that reflect them. Again and again, I’ve found four or five books in my relatively current and well-stocked library that matched a newly-reading student's interests, only to come up short on the fifth visit. Four books? Is that the best we can do?
If we are going to boost literacy, we need to address this problem, as young adult writer Walter Dean Myers so eloquently states in a recent opinion piece in the New York Times. Tracking his own youthful reading, he describes how it felt to be in love with reading only to realize that reading was a window into a world, it just wasn't his world.  

"...there was something missing," remembers Myers. "I needed more than the characters in the Bible to identify with, or even the characters in Arthur Miller’s plays or my beloved Balzac. As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine."

He implies that, had things been different, he might not have dropped out of school.
How can we lament the reading abilities of the kids in our public schools and not address this incredibly important issue? How many times can students read The House on Mango Street and Myers’ own Monster? The market, profit-driven and self-interested as it is, will not address this issue; publishing houses are focused on kids who are already reading (hence the disproportionate number of characters who are white and female). 
 As Myers states, children need to see themselves in books, but the books need to encompass a wide range of tastes – dystopian thriller, action-packed non-fiction, confessional memoirs, supernatural romance, and the more typical realistic dramas that the students at my school devour. We need tons of books for boys. We need 50 Coe Booths, 100 Matt de la Penas. We need foundations, grants, an infrastructure for Latino and African American young adult writers that will help them develop their craft and to survive doing it.
If we don’t find a way to put books that speak to our students in front of them, then we can only blame ourselves if our children can’t read -- or just don't want to.


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