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A Defense of “Weak” YA Fiction

“Tackling rich literature is the best way to prepare students for careers and college, said [Sandra] Stotsky, who blames mediocre national reading scores on weak young adult literature popular since the 1960s.” (From The Independent)

Are you spluttering in outraged confusion yet? This quote appeared in several recent articles about the Common Core State Standards in English and promptly caused a library listserv flamewar. Sadly, I couldn’t find out much more about the context for Stotsky’s quote and why she thinks of YA literature as “weak” when it truly has never been more creative or thought-provoking. Unable to comprehend the sheer magnitude of out-of-touch-ness displayed by this quote, I turned to the Pueblo City-County Library’s Teen Advisory Board (thanks Anthony and Cory!) to tell me what real young adults thought about it.

Has “weak” YA literature made students mediocre readers?

“No, it’s that students are not motivated to read.” –Savanah

“No. I believe it’s a change in our culture that doesn’t promote reading, and it is because of the digital age and culture.” — Gary

“No, the two have no correlation, except perhaps a circumstantial one. There is not enough care for reading in the schools.” — Nikkol

“I don’t think the quote is accurate because, while poor young adult literature exists, it does not cause mediocre national test scores. Those are more likely caused by lack of reading.” — Cory

“I don’t think so; it should be blamed more on the educational system. Books we read are old works of literature and often don’t prepare students for standardized tests. Young adult literature is a stepping stone for teenagers and young adults to improve their reading level.” — Chelsey

Oh, the quality fiction of the pre-1960’s!

Unsurprisingly, the responses of these teens mirror research on the importance of reading for pleasure. If you can’t read the 35 page PDF now, here are the takeaways:

  • Reading for pleasure is linked to a host of literacy-related benefits, including increased grammar comprehension, greater breadth of vocabulary, and increased self-confidence as a reader.
  • Young people who read for pleasure do better on standardized tests of reading comprehension.
  • Young people are more motivated to read and enjoy reading more when they read books they choose themselves.

Thinking about reading for pleasure,  I realized an important point. Literature that is “weak” — not intellectual, not “literary” — is often very enjoyable. It doesn’t require a dissertation; it just takes you along for the ride. And this is exactly the kind of literature that has the most power to motivate a struggling reader who thinks reading is boring. So maybe instead of bringing up a hundred examples of strong and thought-provoking young adult literature, we should celebrate books that are just fun. God bless weak YA fiction! Forever may its kingdom stand! Because then the teens who need to read the most will always have something to enjoy.

What do you think about Stotsky’s quote? Is YA fiction not challenging enough? Should we be pushing teens to read more intellectual material?

— Maria Kramer, currently reading a variety of Doctor Who and Star Trek novels, just for fun. So there.

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Maria Kramer

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9 Comments

  1. It’s interesting to me that this debate has been going on for literally over a century. Since the 1800s people have been ringing their hands about the quality of children’s literature and the dangers of low-brow or weak lit. Yet as you point out, the data shows the complete opposite. I suppose, though, that blaming books is easier than digging into more deeply-seated societal problems. Thanks for bringing this up.

  2. Jess Pryde Jess Pryde

    Has “weak” adult literature made adults mediocre readers?

    Maybe it has; I’ve been reading Anna Karenina for nearly a month and only read 300 pages. I’ve also read four or five shorter, more compelling YA and Adult novels. I’ve always been more of an escapist reader, finding love stories (with a sure thing happy ending) and adventure novels (and score! love stories that ARE adventure novels) far more interesting and readable than some of the great soul-searching literary fiction that comes out every year. I haven’t read a Pulitzer winning book since college, but I find that my vocabulary and grammar are perfectly acceptable, and were in high school when I was reading Anne Rice and Jennifer Roberson.

    • Maria Kramer Maria Kramer

      Great question, Jess! I remember reading a while ago about how adults want teens to read challenging material…and then run off and read romance novels and spy thrillers in their spare time. Double standard, much?

      In my own life, I was much more likely to read classics when I was a teen than I am now — I had more spare brainpower I guess. :-)

    • I’d put some blame on Anna Karenina as well. I forced myself through that one and it wasn’t worth it.

  3. I agree that “weak” books are not to blame, and everyone (teens, adults, kids) should have access to a wide variety of reading that appeals to them. There’s a lot to be said for stretching ourselves emotionally, artistically, empathetically–and sometimes “weak” teen fiction allows us to do just that. Still, I think it is important not to short-sell teens (or anyone else) by not ever giving them rigorous, challenging stuff to read. Intellectual stretching is good, too! Balance is important.

  4. Mary Mary

    When something is enjoyable it becomes easier to read and retain what was taught. I learn more from the books written for light reading then I do from text books. I always thought because it was better writing. Many of the works I was required to read needed some serious editing and reworking to make them more understandable. Just because its an old book a lot of people claim to have read, does not make it worth the read. I have been duped by many recent books that were supposed to be the best read ever, and yet I found them boring and didn’t even finish it. So I ask, Who gets to decide what is good literature and who gets to choose what is difficult? Some literature is just poorly written and poorly edited and yet pushed as required reading by scholars and publishers who stood to make quite a pretty penny from these requirements. Many of “The Great Classics” lack context needed to comprehend the quips of that time period and the slighted references made to events and people of that time. So they are not pleasure reading they will have to be guided by a qualified instructor. I did find Megan Frazer Blakemore’s point interesting about children’s literature being in question all along. Given my choice, stay current and read for enjoyment and the old moldy professors can rot with their books. Join this century and change the test to reflect current trends. In other words..get with the program! I dare Dickens to walk up to a computer and start a blog…

  5. Leslie Leslie

    Can you fix the link to the PDF? I’d like to read the 35 page PDF.

    Thanks

    • Maria Kramer Maria Kramer

      Thanks, LiberryTom. I’ll get that link into the post as well.

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