Teaching YA Lit in the Classroom by Renae Salisbury

To say I am honored to chat with readers of “Throwing Up Words” is the proverbial understatement. In the literary world, I am definitely more of a reader than I am a writer. Let me clarify that by adding the wished-for adjective “published” writer. Nevertheless, Carol asked me to talk about the place young adult literature holds in our schools’ classrooms because I am a professional educator who LOVES Young Adult literature and because I especially admire Utah Y.A. authors.

A recent assignment to create an online 10th grade course for Utah Connections Academy also prompted me to re-examine this important topic, but first I must share my early experience with Y.A. lit. –


Why? Because there was a dearth of novels written for teens! You see, I lived in an era where there was very little between Nancy Drew and Mickey Spillane; between The Bobbsey Twins and Peyton Place; between Little Women and Lolita. (You get the picture.)

I remember one summer between eighth and ninth grade where I left behind Miss Drew and picked Exodus, and I don’t mean the second book of the Old Testament, but rather the novel by Leon Uris. In the opening paragraphs I first learned about the Holocaust – seriously! And it was traumatic. Where was Anne Frank when you needed her? Somehow I missed the 1959 movie version, and I know her published diary was NOT in our school library or talked about in junior high social studies or history classes!

Some years later, a young author wrote a book called The Outsiders, and I read about S.E. Hinton’s success in getting teens to read. By the time I read that newspaper article, I was a young mom whose reading habits had changed to board books – Brown Bear, Brown Bear – or Little Golden Books: Pokey Puppy. But when I started teaching seventh grade even MORE years later, the first novel I used with my students was – you guessed it – The Outsiders.

Hinton has been credited with opening the golden era of adolescent and young adult literature, and if that’s true, I herald her. While The Outsiders may not be the best written Y.A. novel of all time (let’s remember the author was only 16 when it was published), it did address mature themes on an appropriate teen level.

By appropriate, I mean Hinton wrote about real-world problems many students face without including gratuitous violence, explicit sex scenes, and extreme language (I think there is one “damn;” maybe two.) While some educators and parents think there should be NO violence, sexual references, or “language,” I disagree because I believe such topics need to be discussed in homes and classrooms. I do not think, however, that many – if not most – teens need to delve into some of the adult audience best sellers, even those that are critically acclaimed.

And that’s where I – along with many of my colleagues – welcome quality Young Adult literature that addresses universal and/or mature themes on a level commensurate with teens’ knowledge, experiences, and maturity. Just as important, is the engagement factor.

While many students resist Dickens’ “coming of age” novels, they relate to Cormier’s stories of challenges related to growing up. They may dislike The Grapes of Wrath’s details of the Great Depression but totally empathize with Billie Jo’s plight during that era in Out of the Dust. And while our kids may be frustrated with the world’s direction, they don’t all appreciate Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World, but they totally “get” the issues explored in popular dystopian novels like The Giver, Hunger Games, and Matched by Utah’s own Allie Condie.

I’m not saying all these titles can compete with the “classics,” but I maintain they can accompany them, and thus reach struggling, reluctant, or just typically bored teen readers. Furthermore, the contemporary literature often addresses topics that are often associated with unique situations of interest to teens that are not often written about.
For example, Carol’s The Chosen One examines the regional issue of polygamy in a beautiful poignant way that touches young readers because the point of view is that of a peer. And the premise is NOT sensationalized but approached with dignity and honesty.

Ann Dee Ellis’ This Is What I Did deals with problems very close to teens: bullying, peer pressure, friendship, and abuse. Her “Hemingway-minimalist” writing style keeps kids turning the pages to discover the source of Logan’s anguish. And so many relate to that suffering.

At the other end of the spectrum, Emily Wing Smith introduces readers to the popular Joel Epson in The Way He Lived. Through several of the character’s peers, we learn about Joel – how amazing and how human he really was. Not only do readers like this kid, they like his friends and family who are all so very different from one another. Because of these characters’ distinct personalities, a teen reader can find one that totally resonates with him or her.

We mustn’t leave out romantic relationships! And I’m not talking about the paranormal variety that draws in every twitter-pating (I know that word totally reveals my ancient years) female heart even though Bree DeSpain’s Grace in The Dark Divine series can fill that bill. Instead I direct you to Ann Edwards Cannon’s The Loser’s Guide to Life and Love where we meet darling, adorable, AND quirky Ed who dons a new persona – think Shakespeare here – in order to impress his dream girl. Fun all around for all those teenagers who ride the emotional roller coaster of young love.

I haven’t even mentioned fantasy, but let me tell you, Utah has authors aplenty that rival the best and the brightest writers of this genre. And while fantasy is not a big part of classroom curriculum, it should be. There is not a theme unaddressed in these works that boast of having the most loyal reading fans on the planet. Am I right?

Well, my friends and acquaintances of TUW, I better sign off. Carol will probably edit this down to a more readable size OR split it up into a mini-series so you can zip right through it. I hope I’ve shed a little light as to the importance of Y.A. literature so that all you writers out there (and I’m speaking to myself as well) will keep writing good stuff for this audience. You are valued by kids AND teachers alike.


Renae is an educator and writer of YA fiction. She’s nice, too.


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6 responses to “Teaching YA Lit in the Classroom by Renae Salisbury

  1. So glad that Renae is nice. Also, I agree with her. While the classics have their place…the important thing is to GET KIDS READING. And if that means Suzanne Collins, so be it. I also agree that touching on teen subjects in novels: sex, drugs, suicide, bullying, etc. is really important. I think that it’s healthy for kids to read about these subjects and relate them to their own lives. It’s a ‘safe’ way to experience some of the darker themes in life.

    Also to understand a world view. That is, a view of the world that may be different than their little bubble. Thanks for this.

  2. Yay, Renae! Awesome article. 🙂

  3. rbs

    Oh, you posted it! Thanks, Ms. Carol. I hope it fit the bill! And I’m tickled to see a couple of comments, too! Thank you, Emily and Andria. And I am touched that you said I am nice AND a WRITER! Bless you! And as always, HUGS!

  4. rbs

    I’m not really commenting on this post a dozen times just to compete with the others. I just want to say that I found some typos in this lengthy text, and I apologize. NOT Caroly’s fault nor mine. I’m blaming WordPress who has a hard time copying and pasting perfect writing, right??? And the shorter a post the fewer opportunities for messing up. Just sayin’. R.


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