“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” opines Joan Didion in the overquoted and often misinterpreted opening to her essay “The White Album.” But that adage has struck a chord with countless readers in part because it artfully expresses why stories matter—they help us understand ourselves and each other. Susan L. Groenke and Lisa Scherff describe this in Teaching YA Lit through Differentiated Instruction as “Reader Response Theory,” more specifically, "interaction, or transaction--a 'two-way process', between the reader and the text through which meaning occurs."
Richard Beach elaborates in "A Teacher's Introduction to Reader Response Themes" that Reader Response Theory encompasses a variety of theories. The text can be read as a Rorshach Test for readers, given to the “New Critics” thought that gives finality to the text itself, or even studied through its relationship with the reader, outside of social and cultural context. But with each instance, the text and the reader have a vibrant relationship, conducted through some combination of the educator, the reader and the text itself, which
Often I find myself defending humanities studies, literature in particular, as something of value in the classroom. Isn’t fiction a luxury? Isn’t literature some escapist way to ignore reality? Why waste our time reading something someone made up when there is so much to be addressed in the “real world?” Stigmatized even more so are books classified as “Young Adult” or “YA” literature. Why would anyone teach adolescents, on the path to adulthood, with books targeted at children? Adults who read YA often justify their passion as “a guilty pleasure,” lest we judge them for reading at an intellectually inferior level to those of us who read Infinite Jest with two bookmarks. There may be no more damning dismissal of an acclaimed work of literature than to brush it off as a “children’s book,” the term Flannery O’Connor famously used to shoot down To Kill a Mockingbird. Surely great writers like O’Connor would not approve of teaching anything classified as “YA” in a high school classroom, would they?
If not, it would be their students’ loss. Latching on to the idea that only dense and academic language can heed profundity is the stodgy view that has impeded the progress of great writing, whether the simplicity of Hemingway’s sentences, Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness or the acceptance of the graphic novel as literature. English teachers who turn their noses up at the entire YA genre may have forgotten that several of today’s canon books—Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby among them—were written off as lowbrow writing upon their first printings. When Groenke and Scherff argue that YA as a genre deserves thorough critical analysis, they are not offering a radical position but grasping the shifting state of the canon.
Groenke and Scherff go on to note that teaching literature, realistic fiction in particular, is a therapeutic source for students. Works as varied as Walter Dean Myers’ Monster, which focuses on the murder trial of a black teenager in New York City to Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, in which an alienated teen confronts sexual abuse instances from his childhood, provide teens with various means of therapy, via relating to the characters’ turmoil and therefore understanding and confronting corresponding turmoil in their own lives. Often the characters’ choices can empower students with a sense of optimism they could not have learned from their own reality. In "Reading, Writing and Thinking About Multicultural Literacy in Culturally Diverse Classrooms," found in Claire Booth Olson’s The Reading/Writing Connection: Strategies for Teaching and Learning in the Secondary Classroom, the author articulates the importance that multicultural texts can have in empowering multicultural students. And if we are to empower these students into being not just multiculturalists but antiracists, modern YA may be best suited for the curriculum. Groenke and Scherff explain that teaching classic multicultural texts, such as Things Fall Apart and Invisible Man, can often inadvertently mislead the students into to believing that racism is a thing of the past, having been solved since those books’ publication. There can be no such mistake with texts like Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian or the aforementioned Monster.
Elsewhere, by “normalizing” a character’s situation, YA can assure teens that something they might consider abnormal is nothing to stigmatize. In David Levithan’s charming Boy Meets Boy, two characters enjoy the most conventional elements of a high school relationship—yearning, anxiety and deliriousness among them—with the separating factor being that the lovers are gay. Less sensitive writers would have made the characters’ gayness a defining factor in the plot, but by normalizing it Levithan gives gay readers a sense of acceptance they might be missing elsewhere.
“When I teach David Levithan's debut novel Boy Meets Boy, students find it humorous and interesting (in that voyeuristic 'that's kinda weird' way),” writes Willam P. Banks in "Literacy, Sexuality, and the Value(s) of Queer Young Adult Literatures." “Yet they are also quick to say, 'But this book is too unrealistic! That would never happen!' In presenting a "modern fairytale,' Levithan disrupts mythical constructions that continue to pervade American culture, particularly myths about gender, sexuality, and religion, and creates a space in a critical pedagogy for reenvisioning the options before us."
Theodore Roosevelt, who was known to read a book a day and enjoy the YA-equivalent texts of his time (Grahame, Kipling, Stevenson, Twain and Pyle among them), “Now and then I am asked as to ‘what books a statesman should read,’ and my answer is, poetry and novels – including short stories under the head of novels. I don’t mean that he should read only novels and modern poetry. If he cannot also enjoy the Hebrew prophets and the Greek dramatists, he should be sorry. He ought to read interesting books on history and government, and books of science and philosophy; and really good books on these subjects are as enthralling as any fiction ever written.”
The comparison here—that books on government and science can live up to the thrills provided by novels and poetry—perhaps best sums up why YA should be taught in classrooms. When we read fiction, with the open-mindedness of a YA reader, we learn to understand ourselves and our surroundings, and therefore empower ourselves to mold those surroundings with vigor and optimism, sometimes to the effect of a being as consequential as Roosevelt himself.
Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. New York: Little, Brown, 2007. Print.
Banks, William P. "Literacy, Sexuality, and the Value(s) of Queer Young Adult Literatures." English Journal (2009): 33-36.
Beach, Richard. “A Teacher's Introduction to Reader-Response Theories. NCTE Teacher's Introduction Series. “National Council of Teachers of English, 1111 W. Kenyon Road, Urbana, IL 61801-1096 (Stock No. 50187-0015, $9.95 members; $12.95 non-members)., 1993.
Chbosky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012. Print
Didion, Joan. The White Album. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1979. Print.
Eby, Margaret. South Toward Home: Travels in Southern Literature. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015. Print.
Groenke, Susan L., and Lisa Scherff. Teaching YA Lit through Differentiated Instruction. Urbana, IL: NCTE, National Council of Teachers of English, 2010. Print.
Levithan, David. Boy Meets Boy. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. Print.
Morris, Edmund. Theodore Rex. New York: Random House, 2010. Print.
Myers, Walter Dean. Monster. New York: Ernst Klett Sprachen, 2003. Print.
Olson, Carol Booth. The Reading/Writing Connection: Strategies for Teaching and Learning in the Secondary Classroom. Allyn & Bacon, 2007. Print.
 The full quote, "It's interesting that all the folks that are buying it don't know they are reading a children's book," uncovers more insecurity than superiority in O’Connor’s insult—note her choice of the word buying. Even in O’Connor’s case, the interpretation should never be left up to the writer.