By Tina Yang
As an educator who has been tutoring students in English since September 2006, I’ve seen firsthand how YA books are able to engender a genuine love of reading in students. YA books, so named because of their young, relatable protagonists, are able to pique students’ interest in reading and thus better equip them for taking on the more daunting and academically rigorous classics in school. With some creative scaffolding, YA books can help students get into the spirit of critical writing and close-reading, and also sharpen literary analysis skills. I believe that YA books can be used as training wheels for introducing and teaching the classics to students.
When I first began tutoring, my approach was simple: hasten to the place where the literary sun would inevitably arise. I would follow the curricula and familiarize my students with the topics ahead of time. If Anna’s class will be starting on James Hilton’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips in May, we’d start reading it together in April. The book would be cut up into sections, and Anna would be assigned reflection papers, in which Anna would write down her thoughts on what she had just read. We would use this journal as a way to say an extended “hello” to Mr. Chips.
I started to notice that everyone’s “reflections” mirrored the standard critical analyses found in Cliff Notes and Spark Notes. My students are high-achieving children who generally believe in the importance of academic success; nonetheless I couldn’t help but wonder, did the stories sink in? Did these works of literature move them the way they moved me? I started to recognize that while my students understood each word they read, oftentimes they did not forge a genuine emotional experience to the events and characters in these classics. The students may as well have been reading Llewellyn’s On Contracts. Literature moves the reader; without an emotional connection, there is no love of reading.
Concurrently there was the trickier challenge of how to bridge a particular kind of emotional gap in my students, all of whom are first-generation children of upper-middle-class immigrants. Their families prioritize and emphasize academics even when their children have always done well in school. From an early age, my students have been encouraged by their parents to absorb information, memorize information, and spit back information.
Moreover, English is not spoken in their homes. My students thus straddle two different worlds with two different sets of cultural norms, and work hard to bridge the two cultures. To reward them for their effort and hard work, I started to give them surprises in the form of YA books. I began with books like Suzanne Collins’s Gregor the Overlander (Collins, of course, would later go on to write the blockbuster Hunger Games trilogy), Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson & the Olympians, Kenneth Oppel’s Silverwing trilogy, and Christopher Paolini’s The Inheritance Cycle. Fun reads to be read at your leisure, I said. No reflection papers required.
The response was phenomenal. My students readily identified with the characters and read themselves into the stories. They were eager to tell me what they thought about the characters, not just the protagonists but also the protagonists’ buddies, love interests, mentors, and, of course, the baddies. Even though I did not require that they write reflection papers for these books, my students nevertheless started to include them as part of their tutoring homework. Through these YA books they were able to process their emotions and try to make sense of the chaos and awkwardness that defines every teenager’s world.
This was groundbreaking because most of my students had the tendency of pushing their emotions down and in when they were reading. With classics, their approach was technical and emotionless; literature was a problem to be solved to receive an A. In a sense, the classics forced my students to stay in the current world, one in which academic achievement mattered above all else. But when they read YA books, the stories transported them into another world. After finishing The Hunger Games in two days, sixteen-year-old Wilson reflected in his paper: “When it comes to family fights, my parents are actually pretty weak at playing psychological warfare games with me and my sister. They’re nothing compared to President Snow and his cruel Capitol cronies.”
Although the YA books were meant to be ancillary readings given to them as recognition for their hard work, these books quickly took over our literary discussions. My students sat up straighter, their eyes lit up, and their opinions and thoughts flowed copiously and without prompting when the topic slid from the school-assigned classic to, for example, Brandon Sanderson’s The Rithmatist or V.E. Schwab’s Vicious. Because of the transformation in my students’ demeanor and the high level of engagement I saw, I allowed extra time for these lively tangents.
Using YA books, my students were able to better understand characterization, tease out motifs, and talk about major and minor themes. YA books proved to be excellent for honing close-reading skills.
The phenomenal success of YA books in my tutoring practice may be attributed to several factors:
First, the protagonists are always young adults (or in regular language, children). This helps my students relate. YA books show young readers that they are not alone in their adolescent turmoil. The most effective YA books all share the uncanny ability to create an immediate bond with their young readers. When a young reader is transported for a few days into a post-apocalyptic landscape or a dystopia characterized by brutality and extreme inequities, a botched test at school may not seem so much like the end of the world.
Second, the label “YA” only means that the protagonist is a young adult. But within that limitation, the genres run the gamut from paranormal fantasy to biopunk to realistic fiction. To put it bluntly, there’s something YA for everyone. Thirteen-year-old Bradley, for example, is into post-apocalyptic novels, the “more wacked, the better, although zombies are getting kinda old.” Sixteen-year-old Kristine prefers paranormal fantasies and thrillers. Seventeen-year-old Yvonne hearts realistic fiction. The wide range of genres means that there will always be YA books out there that a student can relate to. As a tutor, I try to read as many different YA books as I can so that there is always a lineup of books specially tailored for each student’s biases. I can even find books that deal with whatever non-academic dilemma du jour that a student is facing.
Third, YA books are accessible, and thus are excellent jumping points for discussion. Even when students don’t like the books, my line is always the same: Don’t simply tell me “It blew chunks” or “It was stupid” or “I hated it.” I have them carefully write down their points of argument and be ready for a discussion. So, even if they didn’t like the book, it’s still an effective vehicle for practicing their writing and analytical skills.
Finally, YA books act as an ethical and moral conduit between young adults and society-at-large by instilling in young adults both obvious and subtle core values. When such values are proffered by adults, these values run the risk of sounding overly preachy or patronizing. But young people will accept these messages when the messenger is Clary Fray, Katniss Everdeen, Percy Jackson, or Nailer Lopez. These books enforce the core values that children pretend they don’t believe. “I like Katniss a lot. She has integrity,” writes thirteen-year-old Vanessa. “Her integrity is what makes her amazing. Prim is so lucky.” When embodied by YA heroes and heroines, the key values of keeping our promises, staying true to ourselves, and protecting those weaker than us, ring loud and, more importantly, ring true, without a shred of adult sanctimony.
By no means am I suggesting that YA books should ever usurp the classics. Rather, YA books can be used as tools for building up to and understanding the classics. With younger students, YA books work as effective gateways for reinforcing the fundamental and incremental skills required for lucid writing, thoughtful interpretation and critical analysis as a whole. Older students can read YA books in tandem with classics that share similar themes.
Since tutoring happens just once a week, students can’t wait to tell me about their thoughts as they read their latest YA book; most mornings my cell phone is abuzz with their texts. Nurtured by YA books, students who used to be reticent are now, to my incredulous delight, loquacious and proactive when it comes to expressing their feelings, opinions, and ideas.
It is a glorious thing to witness.
Tina Yang has been a private English tutor for nearly a decade. She graduated from Columbia University’s Teachers College and received her BA in English from Cornell University.