Young Adult Fiction and Reader Motivation in the College Classroom
2/21/13 8:52 AM
Contributed by Mary Firestone
Last year, when my students filed into my Contemporary Literature class with their Norton Anthologies, they complained about how heavy the textbooks were.
Soon though, the real story came out. “Is this the only textbook for the class?” one student wailed. “I thought this was a contemporary literature course! Some of these stories are over a hundred years old!” One by one, they chimed in. They weren’t just concerned. They were pleading for mercy.
Granted, these students were not English majors, and the course was the last humanities course available to them, since they’d put it off until the end of their program. Not the most enthusiastic students of literature.
Keeping them interested in the class was a high priority, of course, but I also didn’t want to sacrifice the depth I was sure they’d appreciate if they gave the Norton a chance. I recalled my son’s high school English teacher who faced a similar problem of low interest, especially among boys. His solution? He created a course called “Guys’ Lit.” The students, all boys, read what boys usually like, including graphic novels, such as Maus and American Born Chinese. All the material had challenging cultural themes of oppression, politics, and racial stereotypes. A course blog was set up and the boys posted opinions and ideas, based on teacher prompts. My son wouldn’t come right out and admit that he enjoyed the class, but it was the first time he didn’t complain about the boring books they had to read for English!
“Okay,” I said to my college students. Thinking of my son’s experience with “Guys’ Lit” I went out on a limb. “What would you like to read?” Blank stares. A few hands went up offering suggestions, such as the Twilight series and Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Groans were followed by more ideas.
Finally, I said, “How about The Hunger Games?” This was one that most could agree on.
We began with the first novel in the three-book series. Lively discussions each week were followed by essays focusing on how The Hunger Games relates/compares to today’s problems and culture. The unit was followed by stories from the Norton with similar themes of cultural and economic oppression.
Union College Nebraska professors Jill Morstad and Tanya Cochran also used the novel in their English 100 composition courses. In an interview with reporter Micah Mertes for the Lincoln Journal Star, they said, “We wanted to choose something that the students would read, but something that would provide a springboard for critical thinking, for college-level conversation. We knew this book would be compelling to read, whether they loved it or hated it.”
They also noted that before reading The Hunger Games, some students had only read a whole novel once or twice in their lives. This was true for a few of my students, as well.
There’s no mystery about the attraction of YA texts like The Hunger Games; it’s just good storytelling. In the college classroom, YA novels like these can pave the way to higher levels of thinking, and hopefully higher forms of literary art.
Mertes, Micah. “Union College heads to the 'Hunger Games’ for English 100 course.” Journal Star. 2 Nov. 2011