Thoughts after reading Insurgent

A small storm of thoughts have converged on me today as the result of three occurrences: 1) Yesterday I finished reading Insurgent, 2) I am disheartened by some of the response to the choosing of Miss America, 3) I am ever mindful of the place YA literature has/should have in the high school classroom.

Whenever I read a book, I think about what students could gain from reading it. In this frame of mind, I noted the following passages from Veronica Roths Insurgent:

People, I have discovered, are layers and layers of secrets. You believe you know them, that you understand them, but their motives are always hidden from you, buried in their own hearts. You will never know them, but sometimes you decide to trust them (510).

Color fills her cheeks, and I think it again: that Johanna Reyes might still be beautiful. Except now I think that she isnt just beautiful in spite of the scar, shes somehow beautiful with it, like Lynn with her buzzed hair, like Tobias with the memories of his fathers cruelty that he wears like armor, like my mother in her plain gray clothing (517).

If this book were read in my classroom, I would ask students to explain what they thought each passage meant in the context of the book. Then I would ask how they could apply this meaning to what they know of life.

How valuable it would be for young people to reflect upon their knowledge of othersfriends, family, acquaintances, strangersand on what they can or cannot truly know about them. How valuable to reflect upon what they choose to share with others and what others can never really know of them. Or upon how they can trust people whose motives may or may not be transparent to them. Or upon beauty and whether it might possibly stem from what people become because they have suffered.

Despite the usefulness I see of including such a book and such a discussion in a high school classroom, I have personally witnessed some educators dismissal of contemporary YA works as worthless, simple, or too focused on kissing, popularity, and vampires. Can such an attitude be espoused by a person who has read a book like Insurgent and discussed with students the passages quoted above? I have a hard time believing so.

The truth is that high school students possess many resources that will make meaning of canonical textsfor them. The teacher will do it in the classroom. The internet will do it outside the classroom. With so many answers out there, the sad truth is that many students choose not to read the challenging, original text at all. If they dont read the text, they cant make their own meaning.

One of the primary values of YA literature, to me, besides its presentation as less daunting than a canonical tome, is the use of a young adult protagonists perspective to make it easier for the young reader to make their own meaning.

When I read comments about in Indian-American becoming Miss America that call her a Muslim terrorist, or bemoan the fact that she was chosen just after the anniversary of 9/11, or that another, whiter candidate is somehow more American because she can shoot a gun and loves her country, I think of the chance that might have been missed when these commenters were in high school, what truths they might have discovered if they hadnt been forced to accept a teachers interpretation of a canonical text, but instead had been asked to read and discuss YA literature that delivered messages about being human in a way that could help them make meaning for themselves.

I believe that texts read in schools should be challenging, but I dont necessarily believe that for a young audience they should be challenging for their obscure language, sophisticated art, or esoteric philosophy. Many, many young people, to be sure, have the skills and aptitude to handle the canon independently or with minimal guidance, and I strongly believe all students should experience the canon. However, I feel there is a challenge even greater than the one to stretch a vocabulary or appreciate brilliant figures of speech. It is the challenge to ones ideas and beliefs about the world. For many, many students, YA literature is the very best vehicle to help them rise to that challenge.

I realize that this post probably seems self-serving because I’m now going to be a published writer of YA literature. However, my belief in the power of contemporary YA books predates my decision to write them. I write because I hope something I have to say will challenge young people to examine, then confirm or revise, their ideas and beliefs.

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Reading John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars

The Fault in Our Stars cover

In the past 24 hours I have been a-flurry with thoughts about YA literature, mostly because I had two significant reading experiences. The first is the YA novel by John Green, The Fault in Our Stars, which I finished last night. The second is an article in NCTE’s Council Chronicle (Volume 22, No. 2) titled “YA LiteratureWhere Teens Find Themselves” by Lorna Collier, which I read this morning.

Originally I wanted to write this post about Green’s novel, about how wonderful it is and what ideas I have for reading it together with a classroom of high school students. But while I considered my topic over breakfast, I read the NCTE article and found these quotes particularly relevant:

From Don Gallo, ALAN (Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of NCTE) co-founder:

“There are some schools where no teacher even knows about YA lit . . . You ask, ‘What do you think about young adult literature?’ and they say, ‘Oh, we don’t teach that crap here.’ That’s been an attitude of some English teachers since forever. There are school districts where YA is used in middle school but not high school because ‘in high school we do the REAL literature.'”

From Robert C. Small, past ALAN president, quoted from a 1986 article published in NCTE’s English Journal:

“These are works of literature [from a list including Judy Blume, Robert Cormier, etc.] even in the narrowest and most conservative sense. They have serious intent, careful craftsmanship, effective expression, and other qualities that make literature literature.”

Essentially, the point I took away from this article is that many teachers don’t teach YA literature because they think it isn’t valuable in a classroom.

Do teachers really think this? The article didn’t cite any specific research, and I didn’t do a search for such research before writing this. What I do know for certain is that I didn’t include young adult literature in my classroom for many years.

Why didn’t I? First and foremost, I was completely unfamiliar with it. By the time I started teaching, my last encounter with young adult literature had been junior high school, when I was primarily concerned with questions of love and popularity. As I moved into high school I became a strictly adult book reader.

I went to high school in the late 80s, in a time when YA literature was not the same as it is now. That’s not to say YA lit of the 80s wasn’t valuable or important, there just wasn’t the huge volume and variety there is now. I wonder if I were an adolescent today if I would have a greater or lesser interest in YA books, and I wonder if young teachers today who were raised in a world of such books are more likely to teach them.

When I started teaching, I did not look down my nose at YA literature. As I said, I just didn’t know a thing about it. My teacher preparation program hadn’t exposed me to the latest and greatest works of YA lit, and no one in my new English department was teaching it. Although I don’t know this for sure, I don’t think a single English teacher in my department in the mid-90s had a classroom library with numerous new releases. I don’t say this to be critical. I don’t think they had any better idea what was new in the YA publishing world than I did, and I was fresh out of college.

The truth is that I didn’t really get interested in YA literature until I attended a BER workshop titled “What’s New in Young Adult Literature.” I was looking for professional development points in order to renew my teaching license, and it seemed about time for me to really learn about what my students were reading when I wasn’t assigning Frankenstein or Romeo and Juliet. This coupled with my growing interest in a writing career put me on the path to developing a classroom library that sought to keep up with YA lit as it was being published.

It might seem obvious to you, if you are not an English teacher, that it’s important to keep up with the real world of books, but it’s not always so obvious to an English teacher. We are trained to teach the canon. We are trained to teach literary analysis, the five-paragraph essay, and (sometimes) grammar.

My own experience was that the more familiar I became with the actual real world of book publishing, and the more I understood and read the books my students were reading, and the more I could share about the professional world of writing (in other words the more I stopped being insulated from my field by classroom walls), the more I felt I could offer my students a glimmer of understanding as to how what-you-do-in-school is relevant-to-life.

There’s something about literature that always feels abstract when you’re a student. Something that makes the big ideas float around in a great mist you can wade through and even glimpse through, but never hold in your hand. The ideas encountered in English classes are universal, but contextual. I feel YA literature is a valid way to provide context for the audience it’s meant to address.

The story of a cancer patient and her romance with another cancer patient, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars is one book I would use with students at any high school level. It is the kind of literature I wish all high school teachers were using in their classrooms. Although many more teachers are using contemporary YA works today than back in the 90s when I started teaching, I like to think even more would use it if they just read a book like The Fault in Our Stars.

And since this post has become longer than I intended, I’ll leave off with two blurbs from the back of my hardcover edition. I think they pretty succinctly state why I would love to read Green’s book with a group of high schoolers:

“[Green] shows us true lovetwo teenagers helping and accepting each other through the most humiliating and emotional ordealsand it is far more romantic than any sunset on the beach.” -New York Times Book Review

The Fault in Our Stars takes a spin on universal themesWill I be loved? Will I be remembered? Will I leave a mark on this world?by dramatically raising the stakes for the characters who are asking.” -Jodi Picoult


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Crank it out

The reason most people fail instead of succeed is that they trade what they want most for what they want at the moment.

I’ve tried to find this quotation’s author so I can give proper attribution, but my attempts on the internet keep coming up “unknown.” I first heard these words when the boys track team where I used to coach had it put on the backs of their long-sleeve T-shirts. Shortly thereafter, the girls team had their own shirts made with the same quote. So many years later, I still have these shirts the teams gave me.

It’s obvious how this quote relates to track and field. When you’re competing, or when you’re working out, or when you’re supposed to be working out, there are so many temptations to slack off, give up, or simply doubt yourself. Athletes who work through these temptations tend to find greater success. I would think it’s obvious this quote also relates to pretty much anything else in life. If you want something badly enough, you have to work at it no matter how you’re tempted to slack off in the now. You must always remind yourself of why you’re working.

In my case, my goal is to be a professional writer. Over the course of my writing my first manuscript, I wasn’t sure of this goal. I didn’t need the motivation of a potential writing career because I was writing to get a masters degree, and I had a built-in structure of deadlines through my graduate program. I began my second manuscript after graduation, and I was doing pretty well until I hit a major life-hurdle and stopped writing altogether. Returning to grad school for another degree helped me get that manuscript done.

But somehow things are different for my third. It’s partly simple maturity, but I’ve also finally come to the conclusion I want to be a writer.

It used to be that the stars would have to align, the earth had to fall silent, and several muses needed to be singing in order for me to write. I required huge chunks of hours at a time because it took forever for me to warm up to write and then struggle through plotting. It wasn’t worth my effort to start a writing session that didn’t result in one or more complete chapters.

Now, with a little one in my care, this is impossible. It was close to impossible before, which is why I took a very long time to finish my first two manuscripts. Somewhere along the way someone told me if I wrote a page a day for year, I’d have a manuscript. This made sense, but I just couldn’t do it.

In the last month or so, I’ve been getting up extra early every weekday to write. Some days I only do crank out one pagebut this is the goal. Some days I write a page of notes, either of ideas or research. Many days I get more than one page done. This is working for me, but the trick is that I don’t give in to the million other easier things I could be doing at the computer (or to sleeping in). I save those for the reward when my page is done.

I know that I’m capable of getting more words done in a day, but for now it’s still a little hard with the toddler pulling me away to “go play marbles” every three seconds. I’ve always done my best work under pressure, and I hope someday soon to sign with an agent and begin the deadline process with a publisher.

Do you have any special ways you’ve tackled the temptation to give up what you want most for what you want at the moment?

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What I like in a good author isn’t what he says, but what he whispers.

— Logan P. Smith