Volunteering as a tutor at the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, I’ve seen firsthand how kids absorb and analyze texts they find interesting. They consume words like oxygen, and outgrow their reading levels at lightning pace. Fairly quickly after discovering a love of reading, they start to read “up”, or above their age level.
One fourth grade girl, who we’ll call Sarah, loved comic books and history. I brought her a copy of March, the comic version of Congressman John Lewis’s place in the Civil Rights Movement. She immediately connected to the ideas around his work, finishing the comic book in only a week. Before Sarah, I would have said that fourth graders don’t think about social discourse; I was wrong. The issues of our world are staring them down every day.
What Sarah taught me is that YA authors have power. Because kids are reading above their grade level, you never know who’s picking up the latest YA book addressing police violence, rape, or LGBT+ rights. This isn’t to say that we should avoid these topics, as kids are already absorbing the news and voices the adults around them on TV screens and in real life. Rather, we need to pay attention to how we frame real-life issues in YA literature to honestly and fairly portray people, places, and events.
The first book I remember changing my life was Jodi Lynn Anderson’s Maybird. The story follows a little girl after she falls into the underworld, telling the tales of her adventures living postmortem. In third grade, I attached strongly to the idea of a secular afterlife just sitting in the woods, waiting for souls. This YA novel plucked casually off the shelf by a librarian deeply altered the way I currently approach ideas about the afterlife and religious texts, broadening my acceptance of other belief systems.
When we recommend YA and fill our libraries with books, remember that these pages are transcribed directly onto the hearts of kids, sometimes younger than we expect. When we write YA, we must keep in mind that a young reader will take our characters’ struggles and interactions as fact, because that’s what we did as kids.
YA authors have the unique ability to reshape our world for the ground up; we can only hope that they choose to use this often-overlooked power for good.