YA All the Way

Michelle Bulla, February 2018

YA All the Way! Do you YA? I’m reminded of the old Yahoo commercials that projected searching through this engine was an adventurous phenomenon one ought to experience. As though you’d be missing something if you didn’t.

I’m starting to feel the same way about YA lit.

You’re likely rolling your eyes right now, thinking, “well, of course…duh…you’re a little late to the party!” And I wouldn’t blame you. I am a little late to the party. But as a high school teacher who has spent the last 20+ years trying to get students to read and love complicated and sophisticated texts with profoundly intriguing sentence structure and timeless themes, I haven’t devoted much of my spare reading time to YA. To be truthful, I didn’t really take it seriously because I associated it with casual reading, and while I didn’t make that nearly the priority I do today in building our readers, I was working on building amazing lessons on the books we were reading already.

So many high school teachers believe that YA has no place in an English classroom. They liken it to Sweet Valley High much in the same way those opposed to graphic novels believe those are just longer comic books (hmmm, maybe more on that in another blog post…). They believe their canon is above anything deemed as “trade” or “mass marketed.” What they don’t consider is that most students aren’t reading their required literature and their tired study guides and multiple-choice tests are just exercises in futility with students copying answers from someone / somewhere.

This all changed for me around five years ago.

I was at a session at NCTE with Donalyn Miller and a few other pedagogues, and they were throwing out titles left and right in true Oprah fashion – “You get a car, and you get a car, and YOU, TOO get a car!” I felt as though the titles were flying through the air like so many sparks from a hand-held Fourth of July sparkler, and each audience member was enjoying the show. Then there was me, simultaneously enjoying it, furiously writing down titles, but most of all, desperately wanting to know enough to be part of the performance itself.

Those sparks did ignite a fire in me. I realized that I was missing something by not knowing what 4th – 8th graders could be reading. (Full disclosure: a few nieces / nephews are this age, as are the children of many of my friends. Guess who they ask for title recommendations to get their kids reading?) The Fourteenth Goldfish, Smile, Wonder, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and a few others were my NCTE purchases at the bookstore in the vendor hall that year. It took me a few weeks to get going on them, but once I did, I began to see the appeal of books that were both accessible and current, and I started to be able to make recommendations to friends for what their children might enjoy.

These books started me on an adventure in YA reading (everyone says great books are the “gateway drug” of reading…), and while I’m still fascinated by that younger age range – Roller Girl is another fantastic one! – in the last couple years I’ve gravitated toward the higher end of YA, choosing and reading books that present more complex issues and themes for my 16-18 year old students.

Thus far this winter I’ve read several YA titles I wholeheartedly recommend; each is matched with a compelling question to help you think about their appeal.

Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon – How much would you sacrifice to attain what you most want?
The Sun is Also a Star also by Nicola Yoon – Do you believe in fate?
Far From The Tree by Robin Benway – How do you define / build family? (love that this deals with adopted children…not much I’ve encountered addresses these children / families, though here are great lists I just found by YALSA and Goodreads)
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein – What can you learn by stepping outside your point of view?
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie – How can you integrate your varied identities?
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas – What can we do to realize the power of voice and silence in the context of justice for all?
All American Boys by Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds – What does it mean to be a young man in America? (question from the back cover – too good not to use!)

These books are not all brand new, but they’re new to me. I appreciate the fact that the narrators in each – dog excluded, though that alone makes him appealing – are in the same age bracket as my high school teenage readers.

Goodreads, always a great resource for title lists, defines the YA genre in this way:

Young-adult fiction (often abbreviated as YA) is fiction written for, published for, or marketed to adolescents and young adults, roughly ages 13 to 18.

Young-adult fiction, whether in the form of novels or short stories, has distinct attributes that distinguish it from the other age categories of fiction. The vast majority of YA stories portray an adolescent as the protagonist, rather than an adult or a child. The subject matter and story lines are typically consistent with the age and experience of the main character, but beyond that YA stories span the entire spectrum of fiction genres.

These books, written about the plights, fears, struggles, and triumphs of teenagers from about age 15 through 19, have far greater mass appeal for getting reluctant readers going than the timeless tales from the canon. Do I want them to read from the canon? Yes. And we do, for class. But my students are also now given time to read books of their own choosing, and while some pick canonical classics, most are choosing YA in droves. I’m looking at them as gateway books.

Who doesn’t want to read books with characters like themselves? This is precisely the advocacy for bringing diverse books into our classrooms, and I believe it fits for age relatability, too. (An aside – I swore to my students I’d never use that word…I suppose it’s fitting for the message here…never say never!)

Appealing to my student readers then means I need to be on top of the YA genre, continually adding alluring books to my classroom library. Here are some new acquisitions eliciting rave reviews, though some of these I have not yet read:

The Red Queen Series by Victoria Aveyard
The Unwind Series by Neal Shusterman
The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin
Winger by Andrew Smith
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy
Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur
Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith
Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan

Interestingly, this shift is coinciding with (causing?) a shift toward more student-chosen texts vs. whole-class texts. More on that another time!

For now, I’d love to hear from you what books are flying off your shelves, or even just quietly being passed from one student reader to another. Email me at mbulla@mw.k12.ny.us or post in the comment portion below with your recommendations!

Happy Reading!


Please add Brendan Kiely as an author to All American Boys.

Thank you, correction made.

Here is a YA novel that is both a good read and a platform for further discussion – Death And Love At The Old Summer Camp by Dolores Maggiore From her singular perspective, the main character, Pina, leads us to explore with her topics of interest to young adults today: sexual identity and awakening, bullying, independence, and friendship. Death And Love At The Old Summer Camp is the first in a planned trilogy that follows the adventures and maturing of the duo Pina and Katie. ~BM

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