As an English professor, I spend every day in the classroom surrounded by students grappling with some of literature’s most challenging and confounding texts – the kind of works written to test, and sometimes defy, even the most capable readers. In a typical semester, the students in my department analyze lines from Hamlet, they study stanzas from Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and they puzzle through paragraphs from Montaigne. Fortunate undergraduate students that they are, they found themselves awash in literary greats – up to their ears, if the truth be told.
Why is it, then, that when I asked them about the favorite books they read throughout this past semester, they (more than occasionally) answered with titles like Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel American Born Chinese, M.T. Anderson’s post-apocalyptic Feed, and Jacqueline Kelley’s turn-of-the-20th-century historical fiction The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate? Just why is it that they most often point to Young Adult Literature as their fondest reading experience of the semester? To be precise, of the 92 novels my students designated as being among their “favorites” of the semester, 76 would be properly classified as Young Adult – a supermajority of just over 82%. Is it because the stories are exciting and fast-paced? Perhaps. Is it because they relate to the situations and conundrums common to young readers? Maybe? Is it because the vocabulary in these YA texts strikes them as more familiar than archaic? Well, probably a little.
But it might also be because the YAL that they read in my Studies in Young Adult Literature course reconnects them with the readers they were when they first fell into love with reading – with their long-forgotten Original Reader. YAL allows them to return to a time when books concerned themselves with electrifying plots meant to carry readers along with compelling characters about whom they genuinely care. YAL focuses upon, as all great literature does, that fundamental identity question with which we must all grapple: Who am I? And YAL reminds them that, sometimes, the best stories end not on a pessimistic note of despair, but rather with a sense of optimism and hope.
As a university professor fortunate enough to teach a Young Adult Literature course, I have the unique privilege of being the teacher who occasionally gets the chance to remind students of why they fell in love with reading in the first place. It’s my good fortune to be the professor who works with them as they return, if only for a semester, to that place where they first connected with serious writers who took them seriously as readers – prior to a time when concerns about examinations, analysis essays, and class discussions occasionally nudge out some of the fun of being a reader. These students, sophisticated readers of serious writers, appreciate coming to the realization that quality YAL settles upon the same touchstones as all great literature. It’s not simply a case that the students see their own reflections staring back at them in these YA novels; rather, in the best Young Adult Literature, they also see the wider world through the telescopic lens of literary text – an expansive world realized in words. And wherever my students may be reading along the spectrum running from canonical literature to YAL – from Angelou to Zuzak – it’s clear that young adult literature anchors us to the place where we all first came to love books, an important reminder for readers of all ages.
– Kevin Kienholz, Emporia State University