This morning, I’m lucky enough to be in a vast, impersonal conference center stuffed from corner to corner with English teachers, librarians, publishers, and authors. We are here to talk all day today and tomorrow about YA literature. It’s the ALAN 2017 workshop, which probably doesn’t mean much to any of you.
But what does mean something to you, a lot to you, the world to you, is reading. And maybe writing, too. It’s probably a safe bet that, if you’re reading this, books have had an immeasurable impact on your life in one way or another, in several ways, in every way. To be a reader is to be someone whose consciousness has been shaped by books, mostly fictional books about fake people where nothing between the covers physically exists.
When I was a kid, I used scary books like Fear Street, Goosebumps, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and various ghost stories like Wait Till Helen Comes and Stonewords to taste the things I was afraid of and process them in a realm of safety. These books, and their inheritors (namely Stephen King) are so special to me for their formative affect on my development. I’m sure all of you can think of a book, a series, a genre that has had a similar impact on you. I find some of my truest passion for writing comes from my supernatural work because of my interest in the dark as far back as second grade, perhaps earlier.
I’ll share a memory with you now — being 10, 11, 12, and laying in bed, reading, reading, reading until my fingers hurt from holding the heavy book up — Sundays devouring Redwall books while simultaneously devouring Halloween candy. I feel like I’m too old to read like that anymore in the same way that I’m too old to trick-or-treat. It’s one of those joys that bleeds away as time drags us into adulthood. But what an experience.
I wound never trade those away, those beautiful hours. I wish I could recapture it again.
I think about all the characters, their pain and their victories — pages, pages, faces, names, worlds…
As an educator, this is what I want for my students. As a mother, this is what I want for my daughter. The revelry of reading. Journeying with the characters, seeking connections with other readers — we worry, int his digital age, if our young people will be readers of our same caliber and passion.
Sitting here at ALAN, I think it’s possible that our students and children will be even better for reading young adult literature than we were. Yes, we lined up for the next Harry Potter books and lived and consumed the lives of our most beloved characters. But never before in YA lit has there been such a drive, an imperative, to put books in the hands of kids that don’t just entertain, to give some kind of morality lesson, but to truly and sincerely depict characters from innumerable facets of our world.
The truth now is that we can go so much further. Not only do we want our children to “get lost in a book,” we want them to get found in a book. Finding either a character just like them (non-binary, Black, etc.) cast in the hero’s role, or, even more importantly perhaps, reading outside themselves and finding empathy for people with vastly different identities and experiences, things the reader could have never imagined within the realm of true experience.
Yes, we can hand our Black students The Hate U Give or All American Boys, but we need to hand it to our white students. We can give girls stories with strong female characters, but why not hand those books to boys as well so they get used to seeing women the way we wish they would see them? Yes, hand a Sherman Alexie or a Joseph Bucharac book to a student with Native American heritage, but why not give it to literally anyone else, too?
If I was a kid now, who preferred fantasy/horror but would read really anything (especially if it had a medal stamped on the cover) I would have had so many more diverse, authentic, multicultural reading experiences. Rabid readers now are free to taste from a buffet that is infused with so many different flavors/voices. Yes, we have growth yet to be made, but the shift from the ’90s to now is so encouraging, and so important.
I worry that we aren’t doing enough to produce ravenous readers to continue to dine on this phenomenal smorgasbord of text. There are so many things to compete with reading these days. But in the ’90s, we had Super Nintendo and cable TV, which was plenty distracting. In fact, I think kids have a better chance now in becoming robust readers than they did when I was a kid, because there is such a rich tapestry of representation appearing in YA lit.
GO. Read. Try and find that thing, that Halloween-candy-indulgent type of reading that I’m afraid I’ve lost forever. And if you work with young people, fill their hands with diverse books by diverse authors. Oh, and Superfudge. My first story I ever wrote was a Superfudge fan fiction. I love reading because of Superfudge. Just… if you have time :).