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Inspiring a New Generation of Readers

By Julie Scullen
 | Nov 03, 2017

ThinkstockPhotos-166669107_x300In an effort to find out firsthand what kinds of books today’s teens and tweens are reading, I went to the experts. I asked teachers to give me some quality time with their most voracious readers.

It was quite an education. I was reminded that today’s middle grade and young adult readers are savvier, more worldly, and more informed than those of my own generation. These remarkable readers let me know with certainty we need to catch up with their reading needs and interests, or at least get out of their way.

Keep in mind, I’m a child of the 1970s and 1980s. I came of age in a conservative school district in the era of Blubber, Ramona the Pest, A Summer to Die, and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.  In my high school, “diversity” was about what kind of fertilizer your dad spread on his fields last season. Girl protagonists in our libraries were worried about whether they would get their period before their friends did, and if they would ever be kissed. Relationships with schoolmates created the most significant conflicts, siblings and parents were a close second. Adults were always there to save the day.

Reading, even at its most controversial, was pretty tame. In today’s world, lame.

I sat down with ten groups of seventh- and eighth-grade students to talk about trends in middle grade and young adult literature, and their thoughts were insightful, honest, and telling. I asked them what kinds of books we need more of in our libraries.

I learned that today, book characters are still worried their siblings or parents might embarrass them, and that stories are still set at school or home. But we no longer live in the world of passive girls waiting for things to happen to them, or brave boys surviving in the woods, and our book recommendations need to reflect this new reality.

What I heard loud and clear is that our teens are irritated by books that imply that this is all there is.

Our students shared with me that while these topics, characters and settings are still prevalent, they are interlaced with issues of race, LGBTQ, violence, and mental illness: all deeper, controversial issues schools are often afraid to put on the shelves.

“We need more mature books. Those that are up to date, that are popular. Not just books that were popular ‘back then,’” Greg, a seventh grader, said with a smile. He referred, of course, to the books we often recommend to students that were our favorites when we were in middle school.

“Back then?” I asked.

Eighth grader Sarah explained, “You know, back then. Most of the books [in our library] are from the 1900s.”

In fact, kids are savvier than we think. Brandon, an eighth grader who admitted he only reads in school, said this about books being written for middle graders: “It’s some 60-year-old person, you know? It’s a middle-aged man trying to write as a high schooler.” Nods all around. His classmate Ariella added, “Yeah, like they write about these high school stereotypes, and everything, and it’s not even true.”

As a group, they said they are tired of the stereotypical characters they see portrayed in middle grade novels: the ditzy girl, the brain who fails embarrassingly at romantic relationships, the bully, the jock.

Sam, a self-proclaimed voracious reader, said, “So, I usually read fantasy books, and inevitably [the main characters] are boys, and they are either really weird and different and want to be normal, or really really ordinary and dull and want to be special, and…. then they get magical powers.” The room erupted in laughter and knowing smiles.

Seventh grader Natalie admitted she reads more than an hour each day. Her response was that we need “more books that don’t try to baby us.” She added, “schools put books on the shelves that aren’t going to offend people. None of these books have any bad words or any REAL things that are actually happening.”

Elena, another student from her class added, “yes, we need mature books. Right now [authors] put a lot more modern issues in their new books. Issues like race, gender, sexuality, those kinds of things. More than just the basics. We need more of those in our library.”

This response prompted me to ask if they felt represented in the books they were reading now. Do you see characters that look like you? Think like you? Act like you?

Brandon is a seventh-grade student of color. “Am I represented? Not the [books] I’ve been reading. I read books my teachers recommended…and the one character closest to me is a cat from the Warriors series.” His peers laughed and nodded.

Another avid reader and student of color, Fatima, was thoughtful in her response. “Yes and no, because I read a lot of books with male leads and female leads, and they won’t look like me, not particularly…they are a different race. Books aren’t that diverse, and [characters] won’t look like me.”

Alexa pointed out that diversity is needed. “Sometimes it’s nice when they [characters] are different from you so that you get to see a new perspective.” She added, “there are sometimes books with characters that have kind of the same personality [as you], but like if it’s not, it’s still good to read them, because it helps to grow YOUR personality.”

My favorite response about characters came from Harry, an eighth grader with very strong opinions about young adult literature. He said, “Whenever there is a character that is really weird, but also a genius, that’s me.”

These students have provided me with amazing insights into what I as a literacy leader will recommend to students, teachers, and media specialists.

If we’re going to inspire a new generation of readers, we need to listen to these insightful and remarkable teens. If we want to convince them to get off their devices and into books, we need to find characters and plots they can relate to.

Julie ScullenJulie Scullen is a former member of the ILA Board of Directors and also served as president of the Minnesota Reading Association and Minnesota Secondary Reading Interest Council. She taught most of her career in secondary reading intervention classrooms and now serves as Teaching and Learning Specialist for Secondary Reading in Anoka-Hennepin schools in Minnesota, working with teachers of all content areas to foster literacy achievement. She teaches graduate courses at Hamline University in St. Paul in literacy leadership and coaching, disciplinary literacy, critical literacy, and reading assessment and evaluation.

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  1. Diane Dettmann | Nov 07, 2017

    Hi Julie, 

    As an author and former literacy trainer in the St. Paul Public Schools, I found your "Inspiring a New Generation of Readers" article very interesting. While writing my young adult WWII historical fiction series that focuses on the incarceration of thousands of Japanese Americans in the United States during the war, I often struggled with the maturity level of the content. The topics of discrimination, prejudice and racism during and after the war are relevant in our country today. Yasu, the main character in the series, is portrayed as a strong, determined young woman. Even when she's attacked racially, she stands up for what she believes in--a strong role model for young women today.

    Diane Donovan, Senior Editor of Midwest Reviews wrote: "On Liberty's Wings, the third book in Dettmann's blossoming series is recommended for mature teens to adult readers seeking far more psychological depth and social inspection into this part of America's history."

    I would be happy to send you review copies of the three books. You can find more information on my website at http://www.outskirtspress.com/liberty. Thanks so much for the insightful article on young adult literature and I look forward to hearing from you. 

    Diane Dettmann

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