This guest post comes from Wendy Gassaway, a middle school English teacher with a love of YA. She blog (mostly on YA) at Falconer’s Library. In this post, Wendy reflects on my recent report on the Identities in YA conference through a consideration of a YA canon. We were thrilled to receive this musing, and I hope it sparks some interesting debate: Is there a YA canon? Does YA need a canon? If it does, what would you include?
— Yours, Leah
Canon in YA
After stumbling across Dr. Leah Phillip’s report on the Identities in YA Conference, I had a lot to wonder about. Twenty years after wrapping up a practice-oriented MAT in ESL, phrases such as “ the linearity of hegemonic development and thresholds, the liminal, and the in-between as a means of contesting linearity “required me to slow down, re-read, and even look up a few words before I could begin to understand what was being said. Once I decided that the author was referring to themes in YA of power
and of change, I had more to ask. I was glad to see the authors of the website reaching out to non-academics with a passion for YA literature. This encouraged me to dig a little deeper into her comment about “the lack of a canon (or, at least, of an agreed-upon one)”
The literary canon, as I understand it, comes about through a mix of scholarly analysis and automatic acceptance of the past. If I had to memorize the prologue of Canterbury Tales in Old English, then by golly, so do my students. But the existence of a canon less important than how it’s used. Are these works all people should have read? Are they works all educated people should be aware of and somewhat familiar with? Are they works that specialists in the field should analyze? Does the popularity of a work detract or add to the case for it being canonical? For every article scoffing at The Hunger Games and Harry Potter being considered literature, there’s a counter-article pointing out that Shakespeare wrote popular fiction that relied on tropes and appealed to the masses.
My own perspective is that of a life-long reader and a twenty-year middle school (ages 11-14) teacher. I am the student who was enthusiastic about reading The Scarlet Letter, A Tale of Two Cities, Death of a Salesman, Tess of the Durbervilles, and Macbeth. In high school in the mid-1980s, I was lucky to have teachers that assigned more recent and even diverse works such as Chaim Potok’s The Promise, Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. I read plenty of lighter fiction, but being introduced to canonical literature gave me the confidence to read it on my own as well, and to read less weighty but still literary works of fiction, from Anne Tyler to Margaret Atwood to David James Duncan.
With that background, it would make sense that as a teacher I’d be a proponent of assigning canonical works in my own classrooms. However, I work with middle schoolers, specifically with students who are learning English as a Second Language and with students who read far below grade level. I read Oliver Twist in fifth grade and Julius Caesar in seventh. If I tried to teach either of those works in my classes, all I would do is reinforce my students’ misconception that they are dumb and so is reading.
Instead, I work passionately to offer my students choice, and to honor those choices, whatever my opinion is of their literary merits. I have built a classroom collection of well over a thousand books. I have pop fiction, graphic novels, scandalous series, and comic books. I have biographies, novels in verse, and books with movie tie-in covers. Still there are specific books I read to my students and books I publicize to my students, books I think are worthy of reading and discussing, especially as they transition from childhood to adolescence. It’s time to think bigger, to question conventional wisdom, to develop empathy, to figure out what kind of person you want to be–and how to become that person. Believing as I do that fiction has a better chance at changing your life as an adolescent than at any other time, I don’t teach a YA canon, but I offer one.
I appreciated Dr. Phillip’s description of YA fiction as being concerned with change and thresholds, both in becoming something new and un-becoming what you were. Most works that I would put on a list of required YA definitely address some aspects of that liminality. These works also contain less theoretical characteristics–engaging characters interesting plot, strong writing. I am not a scholar; I am not really even a teacher of literature. I am a book lover, and I try every day to share that love with young adult readers.
Works I Consider Already YA Canon (published before 2000)
Romeo and Juliet — William Shakespeare
Hamlet — William Shakespeare
The Catcher in the Rye — J. D. Salinger
The Crucible — Arthur Miller
A Wrinkle in Time — Madeline L’Engle
The Long Secret — Louise Fitzhugh
The Outsiders — S. E. Hinton
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings — Maya Angelou
The Hero and the Crown — Robin McKinley
Hatchet — Gary Paulsen
The Giver — Lois Lowry
In the Time of the Butterflies — Julia Alvarez
Harry Potter (series) — J. K. Rowling
Holes — Louis Sachar
Speak — Laurie Halse Anderson
The Perks of Being a Wallflower — Stephen Chbosky
Some of these may be considered either adult or children’s fiction, but I would argue that they all feature protagonists going through the kinds of changes described above. They are also “canonical” in the sense that many of these books are part of the curriculum at schools throughout the United States. The Long Secret and The Hero and the Crown are exceptions, being books I personally consider brilliant looks at adolescence.
Works I’d Nominate for an Imaginary Committee Voting on a 21st century YA Canon:
All American Boys – Jason Reynolds & Brendan Kiely
Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe – Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Ask the Passengers – A. S. King
The Book Thief – Marcus Zusak
Boy 21 – Matthew Quick
Burn Baby Burn – Meg Medina
Chaos Walking (series) – Patrick Ness
Code Name Verity – Elizabeth Wein
The Crossover – Kwame Alexander
Deadline – Chris Crutcher
Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell
Gabi, A Girl in Pieces – Isabel Quintero
Graceling – Kristin Cashore
The Hate U Give — Angie Thomas
How It Went Down — Kekla Magoon
The Hunger Games — Suzanne Collins
I Will Save You — Matt de la Peña
If I Were Your Girl — Meredith Russo
It’s Kind of a Funny Story — Ned Vizinni
Lily and Dunkin — Donna Gephart
Lockdown — Walter Dean Myers
More Happy than Not – -Adam Silvera
Orbiting Jupiter — Gary D. Schmidt
Paper Towns — John Green
Ramona Blue — Julie Murphy
Salt to the Sea — Ruta Sepetys
The Serpent King — Jeff Zentner
Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda — Becky Albertalli
Witness — Karen Hesse
There are many other possible contenders, of course. For the sake of this list, I only mentioned books I have read and personally enjoyed, and forced myself to stick to one book per author. I’d love to hear other suggestions or arguments for and against any of the above. It’s a strongly American-centric list that would definitely benefit from other points of view.