Adolescent Literature: Reading “Wish List”

It’s time–well, past time really–to submit book orders for next semester, which means it’s time for me to commit to the latest iteration of my Adolescent Literature course. I love tinkering with the reading lists for this course: there are so many wonderful books and blogs I want to share with my students. But it’s always difficult to finalize my choices and commit.

I am never fully content with a syllabus. A reading list designed to fit neatly into 16 weeks of study can never adequately represent the richness and complexity of a course topic. And the more I teach a course, the deeper my knowledge of the field. My own understanding of that literature’s richness and complexity is radically different after I’ve spent years reading and educating myself in the field.

As Philip Nel wisely points out in a thoughtful post on a recent iteration of his Graphic Novels course,

Every syllabus is an impossible puzzle that begets a series of necessary but regrettable compromises. That’s never more true than in Big Broad Course Topics: Children’s Literature, The Novel, the Graphic Novel. These topics are immeasurably huge, and a single semester cannot even approach doing them justice.

But… that’s OK. Each such course provides an introduction to the material, and gives students the skills to seek out more knowledge on their own. And this is the point of college: to prepare students for a lifelong journey of learning. Students should graduate from a university proud of what they’ve learned, but also humbled and inspired by all they’ve yet to learn. College is only the first step.

I want my students to experience both of these ways of learning within the same semester: the intensive study of a single field and the journey of lifelong, self-driven learning that an interest in the field hopefully initiates. I want us to learn together and then I want students to have time and space to learn independently and share what they’ve learned with the rest of us. In my experience, there is no better way to get teens reading than to build a classroom library of current YA literature, read widely in YA lit yourself, and make matches between students and books. I want my pre-service teachers to experience what such an invitation to reading feels like. So I am trying to balance the needs for assigned and unassigned reading in this course.

When I put together a reading list for Adolescent Lit, I have a number of categories that I’m trying to “cover”:

  • A classic YA novel
  • Several prizewinners (Printz, Coretta Scott King, Pura Belpre, Schneider Family Award, National Book Award, Newbery, etc.)
  • Graphic novel
  • Verse novel
  • The sure-fire-hit reluctant boy reader book
  • LGBQT novel
  • Professional development book
  • Dystopian fiction
  • Poetry
  • Nonfiction
  • Middle-grade

Two additional goals for this iteration of the syllabus:

  • Include more diverse voices. I would like diversity to be so woven into the reading list that there’s no such thing as “the LGBQT book” or “the Native American book.” I want multiple books featuring LGBQT characters, African-American characters, Native American characters, Asian-American characters.
  • Incorporate more nonfiction. I love reading nonfiction and discovered last semester that a grand total of 0 students said they regularly read nonfiction. I think they’re worried that nonfiction is like reading a textbook. So they don’t know what they’re missing!

I have two sacred books that will always-but-always be on the syllabus for this course: Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. I have also included The Hunger Games in every iteration of the course but one. I am always wanting to drop that book in favor of something else, but students consistently name Hunger Games as their favorite book in the course and most of them go on to read the rest of the trilogy–as well as many other dystopian fiction titles. This is exactly the kind of compulsive reading experience I want them to have, so it would probably be silly to discard a book that I know serves as a gateway to other books.

This year, I’m trying a new approach to reading list creation: the wish list. I’m making a giant list of everything I wish I could include on the syllabus, and I’m going to whittle it down from there. Depending on how many weeks I devote to students’ self-selected reading, the final course reading list will include 10-15 titles. Here’s my wish list:

  1. Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games
  2. Sherman Alexie, Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian
  3. Laurie Halse Anderson, Speak
  4. Marilyn Nelson. A Wreath for Emmett Till
  5. Angela Johnson. The First Part Last
  6. John Green, The Fault In Our Stars
  7. G. Neri. Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty
  8. Laura Lee Gulledge. Page by Paige
  9. Penny Kittle. Book Love
  10. Benjamin Alire Saenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
  11. Deborah Ellis, Kids of Kabul
  12. Steve Sheinkin, Bomb
  13. Guadalupe Garcia McCall, Under the Mesquite
  14. David Levithan, Two Boys Kissing
  15. Holly Black, White Cat
  16. Cynthia Lord, Rules
  17. Karen Hesse, Out of the Dust
  18. Elizabeth Wein, Code Name Verity
  19. Marie Lu, Legend
  20. Neesha Meminger, Shine Coconut Moon
  21. Jacqueline Woodson, I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This
  22. Malinda Lo, Ash
  23. John Green and David Levithan, Will Grayson Will Grayson
  24.  Matthew Quick, Boy 21
  25. Nikki Grimes, Bronx Masquerade
  26. Walter Dean Myers, Slam or Monster
  27. Meg Medina, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass
  28. Gaby Rodriguez, The Pregnancy Project

What else should I consider adding?

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