YA as Children’s Literature

YA can be grouped under the umbrella term of “children’s literature.”  This is not an insult.

YA is children’s literature.  There.  I’ve said it.  It is a surprisingly controversial statement, but “children’s literature” has long been an umbrella term used to encompass anything from picture books to YA.  Go to the children’s department in the library and it will likely also house YA.  Specialize in children’s literature in college and  you can study not only books for young readers, but also YA.  At its basic level, “children’s literature” means simply “books marketed towards readers under the age of 18.”

When I refer to “children’s literature,” however, I often am corrected as readers want to differentiate between children’s literature and YA.  On some level, I understand.  Teens do not generally wish to be called children or lumped in with children.  They see themselves as  more mature than that and will often shy away from anything that seems too “babyish.”  As a result of this attitude, libraries with the space and the staff often will separate YA from the rest of the children’s books, may even have a specially dedicated “teen librarian” who works mainly with that demographic.  They attempt to make teens welcome by giving them their own, more mature space.

However, the instinct to differentiate YA from children’s books sometimes also seems motivated by a desire to remove YA from the stigma of being associated with “juvenile,” “less sophisticated,” “simple,” or just plain “not good” books.  In other words, readers of YA sometimes seems to be adopting the age-old attitude that children’s media is not good–simply because it’s for children.  This is an elitist attitude that denies that anything children enjoy could be complex or well-written or of interest for older audiences.

This is the same attitude that caused a stir back in 2000 when The New York Times chose to create a separate bestseller list for children’s titles in response to Harry Potter’s continued dominance of the list.  Reactions varied, with some supporting the move because they felt Harry Potter was preventing adult titles from getting the recognition they deserved.  Others were upset because they felt Harry Potter’s removal was a result of its being seen as “not as good” as the adult titles it was outselling.  Either way, the creation of a separate space for children’s books seemed to mark them as “other,” as less deserving, as not welcome or able to compete in the big leagues.  Even when the general public–including adults– seemed to enjoy those children’s books more than the adult titles.

Still, children’s literature has typically been disparaged by readers of adult fiction.  It thus is a little surprising to see children’s literature depicted as inferior by readers of YA.  Sometimes, this seems to be a reaction to the insults YA readers have sustained–they are juvenile, unable to let go of childhood, incapable of reading more complex books written for adults.  YA readers may attempt to defend themselves by suggesting that children’s literature is the true unsophisticated literature–YA is much more complex and intellectual in comparison.

However, saying that children’s literature is not any good just because it’s for children makes little sense.  Such an argument means that books like Little Women, Alice in Wonderland, Anne of Green Gables, Charlotte’s Web, and The Hobbit are not objectively good, are not complex, are not interesting–only children with no literary taste or limited intellectual capacity would think so.  But most people know this is not true.  A good story is a good story, no matter who enjoys it.

Recognizing YA under the umbrella of “children’s literature” is no insult.  Children’s literature really just means literature not marketed to adults.  It’s a suggested age range, not a statement of quality.  Children’s literature runs the gamut, being awful, or boring, or inspiring, or heartbreaking by turns–just like adult literature.  So let’s give children’s literature it’s due, not act like stories for children will always be slightly embarrassing..  Let’s read children’s books proudly.

Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide by Linda Babcock and Sarah Laschever

Women Don't Ask

Information

Goodreads: Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2003

Official Summary

When Linda Babcock asked why so many male graduate students were teaching their own courses and most female students were assigned as assistants, her dean said: “More men ask. The women just don’t ask.” It turns out that whether they want higher salaries or more help at home, women often find it hard to ask. Sometimes they don’t know that change is possible–they don’t know that they can ask. Sometimes they fear that asking may damage a relationship. And sometimes they don’t ask because they’ve learned that society can react badly to women asserting their own needs and desires.

By looking at the barriers holding women back and the social forces constraining them, Women Don’t Ask shows women how to reframe their interactions and more accurately evaluate their opportunities. It teaches them how to ask for what they want in ways that feel comfortable and possible, taking into account the impact of asking on their relationships. And it teaches all of us how to recognize the ways in which our institutions, child-rearing practices, and unspoken assumptions perpetuate inequalities–inequalities that are not only fundamentally unfair but also inefficient and economically unsound.

With women’s progress toward full economic and social equality stalled, women’s lives becoming increasingly complex, and the structures of businesses changing, the ability to negotiate is no longer a luxury but a necessity. Drawing on research in psychology, sociology, economics, and organizational behavior as well as dozens of interviews with men and women from all walks of life, Women Don’t Ask is the first book to identify the dramatic difference between men and women in their propensity to negotiate for what they want. It tells women how to ask, and why they should.

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Review

I picked up Women Don’t Ask after seeing a commenter recommend the book on the career advice blog Ask a Manager.  I read Ask a Manager frequently, and the idea that employers often expect employees to directly ask for a higher salary, a promotion, different accommodations they need, etc. comes up frequently–along with the note that women and POC tend not to ask for these things because they assume their hard work will be noticed, or that they will damage relationships asking for more, or that if different benefits or accommodations are available they will be advertised, not doled out to only the squeaky wheels who ask for them.  So, basically, after seeing this topic discussed informally frequently on the blog, I thought reading the academic study of the issue in Women Don’t Ask would be informative and possibly useful in helping me to think about what times I might need to speak up to get what I want or need.  I was right on both counts.

The book begins by exploring some of the ways women might be socialized not to ask for things or not to negotiate things.  I have seen some reviewers on Goodreads express disappointment at this because they wanted the book to have more “practical advice,” but I think understanding some of the reasons women don’t ask for what they want/need is really the first step to understanding why you personally do not ask for things and how you can overcome this tendency.  I found the book incredibly interesting, as well as practical if you need some nudging to start asking or negotiating for things.

Also, even if you are not a woman, this book is a valuable read.  First, the authors are very careful to note that this issues do not apply only to women; it’s just that they generally apply to many women and only a few men.  But if you’re not a woman and you struggle with negotiation, the studies and information are still relevant for you.  Also, this book is an important read if you are a manager, supervisor, etc. of teams because it can help you think about whether women or POC are not getting the same benefits or opportunities as other people you manage–because those other people asked for them.

For instance, the book was inspired by an event where one of the authors was approached by female PhD students in her department who demanded to know why male PhD students were largely teaching their own classes while the women were being assigned as teaching assistants (TAs) to support tenured faculty.  The author brought the question to the man in charge of assigning teaching work who said “More men ask to teach their own classes.”  However, this issue could largely be fixed if the department advertised that designing your own course was a possibility and (for example), PhD students who wanted to do this could fill out a form and submit it after having two years of TA experience.  This helps level the playing field, instead of expecting that people who want to teach their own course (when they don’t even know it’s an option) will basically cold call the department chair and ask to do so.

Definitely a recommended read.

4 stars Briana

The Daredevil’s Guide to Dangerous Places by Anna Brett (Lonely Planet Kids)

Information

Goodreads: The Daredevil’s Guide to Dangerous Places
Series: None
Source: City Book Review
Published: September 18, 2018

Official Summary

Hazard hunters Eddie and Junko are exploring some of the most extreme environments on Earth! But don’t worry, they have their dangermobile packed with gadgets to tackle everything they come across. Join them and discover the fires of erupting Stromboli, the world’s fastest winds on Mt. Washington, Brazil’s venomous snake island, and much more.

In this fascinating round-the-world adventure, you’ll travel to 35 of the planet’s most dangerous natural places. With a mix of photos and illustrations, amazing facts and danger stats, it’s a fun and absorbing introduction to our wild and wonderful world.

Review

The Daredevil’s Guide to Dangerous Places is a fascinating guide to…well, the world’s most dangerous places. (The title pretty much covers it here.)  Readers follow narrators Eddie and Junko (named for famous adventurers) as they travel continent by continent to beautiful but deadly sites in their protective Dangermobile.  The result is a whirlwind overview of fun facts and intriguing destinations that will likely tantalize readers into additional research.

The goal here is basically quantity over quality. Each destination has a two page spread with a stunning photograph, a brief overview of what makes the site so dangerous, another fun fact or two, and then a list of “danger stats” like where the site is, what temperatures it reaches, etc.  I found the information just enough to think, “Wow, cool!” and the approach will work great for piquing readers’ interest and introducing them to what’s out there, but anyone who wants to know about a particular site in-depth will need to hop off the library/Internet.  (Not a bad thing!)

I should also note that, though the book has a very loose narrative structure as the narrators journey from one place to another, it’s strongest at the very beginning of the book, and you don’t have to read the book in order.  Just open up to a location that interests you and see how you could die there! (I sounded too excited about that, didn’t I?)  However, I was still bothered by the fact that book kind of just ends, and Eddie and Junko don’t nicely wrap things up by saying good-bye or anything.

The Daredevil’s Guide to Dangerous Places is a great nonfiction read, perfect for curious kids or even people who just have a short-ish attention span and want a quick overview of some cool places on Earth.

4 stars Briana

 

The Sunday Exchange (11/4/18): Share a Post about a Text You Understood Differently upon Returning to It

Sunday ExchangeIntroduction

The Sunday Exchange is a new weekly feature we are introducing at Pages Unbound where we ask you, our readers, to share a post from your own blog that matches the week’s theme.  The goal is to allow you to share posts you are proud of or think other people will find interesting and to help other people find fun posts to read.

This Week’s Theme

Share a Post about a Text (Book, Film, Show, etc.) You Understood Differently When You Returned to It

The “Rules”

  1. Share your post title, the URL of the post, AND a brief explanation of what the post is/why you think people might like to read it in a comment on this blog post.
  2. Try to make the post fit the week’s theme.
  3. Please share only one post each week.
  4. The post does not have to be recent. It can be from any time in your blog’s archives.
  5. Consider visiting some other bloggers’ posts.
  6. We won’t be closing the comments after a week has passed, so *technically* you can still add your post later, but it may not get that much traffic if you share your post a month later.

That’s it! We hope you participate, and check back next Sunday for a new theme and another chance to share!

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A Post We Recommend at Pages Unbound

Movie Review: Kiki’s Delivery Service

My memories of Kiki were always of a bright, fun film.  I loved that Kiki could fly around on her broom, have adventures, and talk to her cat!  When I rewatched the film one day, however, I saw it was a little more serious than I remembered!

The Oregon Trail: The Race to Chimney Rock by Jesse Wiley

Race to Chimney Rock

Information

Goodreads: The Race to Chimney Rock
Series: Oregon Trail #1
Source: Borrowed
Published: September 2018

Summary

It’s 1850 and you and your family are setting off to start a new life in Oregon.  Do you head out in May or April?  Do you bring more food or more wagon parts?  Should you ford the river?  Your choices determine your fate in this choose-your-own-adventure book.  The first in a four-book series.

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Review

This upbeat choose-your-own-adventure book manages to make education fun as it takes readers partway down the Oregon Trail.  From the very first pages, readers decide their destiny as they select when to set out, what to pack, and what routes to take.  The choices are abundant throughout, giving readers plenty of different pathways to explore.  Best of all, even though there’s only one path to Oregon, not all of the other endings are gruesome deaths.

The book does a nice job of balancing narrative with choices, so readers are never waiting too long to take another pathway, but are also not rushed through the story.  A guide at the back helps readers make the “correct” choices as it explains how to treat snake bites, avoid water-borne illnesses, and ford rivers.  Other decisions, however, are left to the discretion of the readers.  It can often be interesting to see how one small choice can completely change the character’s fate.

This book has much to recommend it, and not just to history teachers.  Fans of historical fiction, interactive books, and the classic Oregon Trail computer game will have find a lot to love here.  And the best part of all?  There are three more books to explore.  Onto Oregon!

4 stars

“Gaining Critical Thinking Skills” Is No Defense for the English Degree

N.B. This post focuses on the value of English, or literary studies, not composition studies.  For more information on why I do not believe we should defend English by saying “it teaches writing,” see the end note.

The humanities have faced increasing scrutiny over the years as the original purpose of a liberal arts education–seeking knowledge for its own sake–has been rejected and replaced by a need to demonstrate a utilitarian value for each degree awarded.  This change was arguably initiated by the opening of universities to the masses; no longer were students primarily wealthy individuals taking time out of life to think deeply, but individuals hoping their degree would lead to a job.  Today, the skyrocketing prices of universities and the enormous debt taken on by students just to attend also means that parents and students want to be assured that the university experience is “worth it” (in other words, that it will lead to a high-paying job that can pay off the debt.)  In such a climate, English departments and their students tend to justify their existence by saying that English “teaches critical thinking” and that English students can “end up in a wide variety of jobs from business to law.”  This defense, however, ultimately weakens the case for earning an English degree.

English Is Not Unique in Teaching Critical Thinking

To demonstrate that English is a field that deserves university money and resources, proponents ought to focus on what makes literary studies unique.*  Arguing that English teaches critical thinking does not do so because every major at university ought to be learning critical thinking.  Critical thinking is, in fact, necessary for history, for religious studies, for biology, for chemistry, for computer science, and more.  If the goal is merely to teach critical thinking, a student could major in potentially any field.  English departments are, in fact, not indispensable if they are merely  doing what everyone else should be doing, too.

English Is Not Simply about Gaining Skills to Transfer to “More Useful” Contexts

The “critical thinking” argument also tends to assume that English is primarily valuable because it teaches transferable skills.  There are two problems with this.  One is that skills are not always easily transferable.  Faced with a new context and unfamiliar content, people often fail to transfer skills.  They may need more training and more practice until they can succeed in a new field.  If companies will have to retrain English majors to apply critical thinking skills to new subject areas, they may be less willing to hire an English major over someone who is already trained to think critically in that context, and who already possesses relevant content knowledge.

The second problem is that this argument assumes that English simply isn’t valuable as a field in and of itself.  It has value only insofar as it it can potentially train students to succeed in non-English fields.  While there is certainly value in not being locked into a rigid career path by an overly-focused major, it does not make much sense to defend English as a field of study by saying English students go on to work in non-related fields.  They could just as easily major in business or history or economics from the start and then go on to work in related fields.  This argument makes English look like an unnecessary middle step, a potential waste of time.

English Has Its Own Content and Its Own Inherent Value

Finally, English is not simply a vehicle to learning skills; it has its own content.  For a long time, that content has been the Western canon, the body of works generally understood to be significant in shaping Western culture and influencing later works.  In the past decades, English degrees have expanded to include more authors, more genres, and more age ranges.  But the point remains.  Students of English are supposed to be familiar with specific works.  Undergrads often take survey courses, so they have a general background in various time periods, authors, and genres.  Graduate students focus their studies, usually to a time period (and maybe genre or even author) or to a field like children’s studies.  Both undergrads and graduates will be expected by instructors not simply to be able to think critically about any old thing, but to recognize the author of an unfamiliar work; to be able to place a work in the appropriate time period or movement; to discuss the social and historical context of a work; to recognize influences; to recognize genre or form; and more.

It seems strange that English is so often denied to have real content when we consider other majors.  History students need to know what the Civil War is, when it happened, why it happened, and how it influenced later events.  Art students need to be familiar with artists like Monet or Picasso, their major works, their historical moment, their influences, and their influence.  Chemistry majors need to memorize specific reaction mechanisms, familiarize themselves with specific instruments, and even learn about important chemists in history.  No one denies that other fields have content.  Because, in reality, critical thinking is essentially impossible if a person possesses no content knowledge to think about.  And yet, few people advocate for English on the basis of its content.

But I will.  English has inherent value.  Its content has inherent value.  There is value in reading Beowulf and Austen and Shakespeare and Toni Morrison.  There is value in reading Alcott and Hurston and Whitman and Hughes.  There is value in stories and poetry and words.  Perhaps it is the type of value you either understand intuitively, or you don’t.  But it’s there.  And English departments should lay claim to it.


*This post uses “English” to refer to literary studies.  That is, readers should understand that English does not mean “composition studies” or “how to write” in the following discussion.  Combining composition studies with literary studies has been one method used by English departments to justify their existence by claiming utilitarian value, i. e. they can argue, “We don’t just sit around reading made-up stories.  We teach people to write.  They can use this skill in their future jobs!”

The argument I want to make is for the inherent value of literary studies, without the need to justify it by absorbing different fields.  Also, I don’t believe that “teaching people how to write” is a good justification for English departments, anyway, because every field writes a little bit differently and every department ought to be teaching their majors how to write effectively in their specific fields.

Why I’ll Always Support Required Reading in Schools

Note: This post discusses English as literary studies, not composition studies.  It is not considering how English “teaches people how to write” because composition studies is a distinct field that has been absorbed by some English departments primarily so that they can claim they pass on skills for future jobs.  My argument is for the value of English as literary studies, without any need to justify it as a utilitarian subject.

When people suggest that teachers remove required reading from schools and instead let students read whatever they want, they are typically thinking of English, not as a field, but as a means to gain literacy or perhaps a love of reading.  In other words, they see English as a way to gain skills or content knowledge not necessarily related to literary studies: increased vocabulary, an ability to use context to deduce the meaning of a word, the ability to read long or difficult texts for extended periods of time, etc.  In this understanding, English class is simply a class being used to support other, “more important” classes.  Students who read more for pleasure are, after all, statistically more likely to succeed in school in all subjects.  So parents and teachers push for students to gain a love of reading, perhaps by replacing To Kill a Mockingbird with Dog Man or Wimpy Kid.  They assume that English classes do not actually have their own content and so children can read whatever they want and it makes no difference, as long as they are reading something.

In lower grades when children are indeed still learning basic literacy, this argument may hold some merit.  However, the reality is that English, or literary studies, is its own field and has its own content.  Students who have achieved basic literacy are not being asked to read books in class just so they can expand their vocabulary or learn grammar.  When instructors choose books for their classes to read, they have (or should have, if they are knowledgeable about their field) real goals in mind, goals related to the specific field of literary studies.  This may mean giving students a general background in American literature from colonial days through the Civil War.  It may mean introducing them to major figures or movements such as Hawthorne or transcendentalism.  It may mean introducing them to and teaching them to recognize various genres or various forms of poetry.  It may mean focusing on a very specific theme, such as the depiction of love in a series of texts or the cultural impact of Shakespeare.  Whatever it means, required reading books are always chosen for a reason.  They are not (or should not be) arbitrary books chosen merely because a teacher personally likes them, because they have always been taught, or because a teacher has a vague idea that the youth these days “like this sort of thing.”

This may sound snobbish to some, but English is, in fact, a real field and it is a field that requires hard work and study for anyone to gain expertise in it.  And this precisely why it is so important for schools to continue to assign required reading.  Required reading gives students the general background they need both to start thinking about whether they would like to go on to work towards expertise in English and it gives them the general background to succeed if they do go on to study English in college or after.  The reality is that schools are still very much invested in the Western canon and a student who has no familiarity with major authors or classic works is at a major disadvantage while pursuing any type of English degree.  Embarking on an English degree never having read Emerson, Shakespeare, or Whitman would be a little like starting a chemistry degree never having seen the periodic table and having only a fuzzy idea that people think it’s important.

A background in literary studies becomes even more important for those who will go on to pursue a post-graduate degree.  To apply to grad school, most students will have to take the English GRE, a test requiring individuals to read a passage, identify the work it is from along with the author and the time period, and then answer a series of questions analyzing said passage.  These are the types of skills literary studies values.  The ability to recognize texts, recognize styles, recognize time periods, recognize influences, recognize literary movements–and then the ability to use that content knowledge to analyze a work.  And the test ostensibly covers the entire Western canon–hundreds of books a person is supposed to have read already.  But an individual can’t identify a passage from Milton or Dickens or Austen, much less analyze it effectively, if their school careers have not introduced them to classics.

Because students with a background in the canon and in other major works have a distinct advantage over students who do not, required reading can perhaps be seen as an issue of equity.  Students who are not introduced to classic works are not given even the opportunity to consider whether they want to enter the field of literary studies.  How could they?  They don’t know what literary studies looks like.  Students who somehow end up studying English anyway will find themselves lost and scrambling to read all the books everyone else in their major has already read.  They are starting the race miles behind.

But students “don’t like” the classics, you say?  Arguments that English classes should drop required reading because students may not like the books are as silly as arguing that students who do not like algebra should be able to skip it or students who do not relate to the American Revolution should not have to learn about it.  But no one argues that students should get to pick and choose which math or science concepts they should learn.  No one argues that students should get to choose their own social studies curriculum and only learn about the periods of history that they like best.  Partially this is because people tend to recognize STEM teachers as experts while everyone assumes that, since they can read, they are equally as knowledgeable about literary studies as anyone holding an English degree.  Partially this is because other subjects are seen as useful and English is not–unless we can make it seem useful by conflating it with vocabulary or spelling or writing.  (I’m sure every person with an English degree has met that person who asks if they are “learning grammar” in college.)

But the bizarre aspect of these arguments is that they are primarily made by people who love reading–and who do somehow see it as valuable.  Yet the average adult is certainly not reading at night to learn to spell! They are not reading so that they can perform their jobs more effectively. They recognize some other intrinsic value to stories and to words.  Perhaps it’s that subtle magic that they want to pass on to children by letting children ignore the curriculum and read whatever they want.  But, again, we must consider how we treat English in relation to other classes.  Other classes are assumed to have content that is good for students to be familiar with, even if they do not always enjoy it.  English is the same.  Not everyone will fall in love with Shakespeare (and not everyone will hate him!).  But it’s profitable for people to know who he is.

Acknowledging that English has real content is a sign of respect.  It is an acknowledgment that English does not exist simply to teach basics skills to be used in other, more “useful” subjects.  English is an actual subject and students should be introduced to that subject in school, just as they are introduced to any other subject.

Edit:

I have been asked to clarify that this post is focused on why grade schools and high schools should require reading, rather than simply ask students to read a certain number of books each month or to read for a certain amount of time each day.  Although I do maintain that a number of colleges still prioritize classic works and the Western canon and expect students to have a basic background knowledge in it, the post was not written as a defense of the Western canon, but rather to argue that English classes do have content and should be taught that way.  So what does that mean?

This means that schools can have classes that teach graphic novels.  They can teach YA books. They can do book and film comparisons.  It doesn’t matter, as long as there is some sort of pedagogical goal.  To prepare students for college courses, however, teachers can integrate classic works into the curriculum.  Simple solutions might be doing something like reading To Kill a Mockingbird with a modern day YA and comparing how race is addressed. Or reading a Shakespeare play and looking at a YA adaption in conjunction. Instructors get some classics in there along with other works and students can even interrogate those classics in light of how the story might be written today. Strategies like these give direction to students’ reading and help them to experience works they might not choose on their own.

Tomorrow I discuss why “English teaches critical thinking” is not a good defense for the English degree.