Another Reason to Love YA
Michelle Bulla, September 2019
A few weeks ago I got into a conversation about YA books with a dear friend who’s a mom to two young YA readers. I was thrilled; I love to talk about readers and reading, and I’m a convert to YA’s style, form, function, and to the simple pleasure of reading a book that is less taxing than others. That doesn’t mean that they’re shallow or superficial or without depth, by any stretch. Some are challenging, for sure! But many do read quickly, which is one of the things I find personally satisfying. It’s a break without a time out.
The conversation centered on the fact that many books published lately are written in multiple points of view, with the author giving the reader the opportunity to be in the plot from multiple perspectives. I was talking about how it was / is so much easier for kids to get into these stories sometimes, as there tends to be a greater chance of having a narrator they can relate to. They’re also immersed in voices representing different life experiences as a means of seeing and understanding a character they wouldn’t ordinarily relate to or identify with. Readers are thrust into those characters, and thus morph themselves in a sense into a persona that they can try on, feel out, walk in, see from. A great example appears in All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely (pssst…Kiely will be at NYSEC in October! Get there!), which walks readers through an intense racial conflict and its aftermath through the eyes of two very different narrators, one black, one white.
When reading, adults might more easily suspend their disbelief and imagine another lifestyle, if they are so inclined – not that children don’t do this, of course; they are imaginative and creative and playful creatures at heart. When reading, adults might be more curious to “go there,” choosing a window book on their own. Children have a harder time understanding a strange scenario, and while they’re eager to watch fantasy or sci-fi, they don’t always turn to printed texts to glean that same escape or enjoyment, especially when the reading is being requested / expected / monitored by a teacher.
Multiple points of view means readers don’t have to know a place or plot or conflict type in order to get into a book; they can let the narrative device teach them. This might sound like I believe our young readers are lazy – I don’t. We all gravitate toward what we like and avoid what we don’t. We all struggle with newness, with alternate points of view, and with change, even when newness and points of view and change can be exciting.
These books also allow our readers to play with perspective, seeing something from different angles at the same time. Some readers actively do this, perhaps examining the bias embedded in one news publication when juxtaposed against another that reveals a different take on an event. Sometimes this device makes reading more challenging, and as teachers we need to be ready with charting and mapping and writing-to-learn strategies to help our readers keep things straight as they read.
Although some young readers want to use reading as a vehicle for learning, we’ve all worked with readers who don’t. You’ve heard these lines, I’m sure:
• “I don’t want to read that; I can’t relate to it.”
• ” I don’t know anything about X, so I’m not interested in it.”
• “I like it because I can relate to it.”
• “She / he / they are just like me.”
Statements like these tell us that readers need immediacy of relevance and connection. Thankfully, we’ve got a way in for them, with more and more authors utilizing multiple points of view in their works.
With this device, our readers are provided opportunities to see multiple perspectives, to inhabit them, before they might project a biased or narrow reality onto alternate points of view. These stories thus provide teachers with a chance to expand perspectives, helping our readers be more empathetic, understanding, compassionate, aware, and willing to learn.
Thus, these books can serve as a gateway to new worlds and topics and conflicts and issues, thus building bridges to understanding, human connection, and relatability. Harper Lee’s wise advice to “walk a mile in someone’s shoes” (To Kill A Mockingbird) might be easier for our readers if they experience stories through the eyes and minds of those multiple characters.
And they can then be a gateway to a reading life.
Here are some YA titles your NYSEC board recommends:
• Far From the Tree by Robin Benway
• Small Great Things by Jodi Piccoult
• The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
• All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
• The Winners Trilogy by Marie Rutkoski
• Wonder by R. J. Palacio
• Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
• One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus
• All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
• When Michael Met Mina by Randa Abdel-Fattah
• Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
• Legend by Marie Lu
• Renegades by Marisa Meyer
• Watch Us Rise by Ellen Hagan & Renee Watson
• Unwind by Neal Shusterman
• The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed
And remember that “gateway to being a reader” idea? This authorial device is not new, of course – note some familiar classics listed below along with some recent titles titles:
• Dracula by Bram Stoker
• The Help by Kathryn Stockett
• Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
• The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
• The Color Purple by Alice Walker
• This Is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp
• Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
• Sadie by Courtney Summers
Older / stronger readers can be challenged with examining the concept of reliable / unreliable narrators, and asked to analyze and evaluate texts in more complex ways as they juxtapose one narrator’s perspective against another’s. Teachers can ask questions like:
• Is one narrator more / less reliable than another?
• How so? Why?
• Based on what criteria?
We’d love to hear your about your young readers’ experiences with YA and multiple POVs. Comment below with thoughts, title recommendations, and testimonials that help add insight, purpose, and pedagogical moves to our work of creating, building, and supporting our readers.
Best of luck building readers this school year!