Session 4 Highlights: The Importance of Knowing Quality

20 09 2011

I think before seeing the Project Specs for this blog post, I had never really thought about my definition of literary quality. After finishing my Bachelors and Masters in English, I guess I assumed that I would know a “good” book when I saw one. I mean, I talked about books in literature seminar classes for six years, that should qualify me, right?

However, when I sat down to write this post, I typed “What is Literary Quality,” turned the font green, and then stared at those four words for about a half hour. Then I gave up, saved the post, and shut my laptop. Sigh. — Meg on YA Literary Quality

Meg’s not the only one a bit perplexed by the assignment to define literary quality.  Ashley and Ryan, also English majors, expressed surprise at how disconcerting this task was.  No one had an easy time of it.

Which is why YA literary quality is a good place to begin.  Not everyone we’ll teach with, or parents whose students we’ll serve, nor even students we’ll teach will believe that YA literature deserves a place in the ELA classroom.  Michele quickly agreed that there are “many” literary snobs out there who believe only in the canonical texts.  So we need to have a good grasp of YA literary quality and know where we can find other knowledgeable reviewers who have vetted books.

We’ll begin by looking to the Printz Awards, realizing that the Printz Award Committee’s charge is to recognize literary excellence with an eye toward advancing the writing for young adults.  Committee members have that responsibility because they have years of experience evaluating young adult literature.  They explain in their crtieria that “as every reader knows, a great book can redefine what we mean by quality.  Criteria change with time. Therefore, flexibility and an avoidance of the too-rigid are essential components of these criteria” (Printz Award Committee).  But our class was also impressed by insights and yes, the passion that the Eva Perry Mock Printz Book Club shared in their discussion of the books they felt reflect literary excellence.  And we see value here, too.  No, they don’t have the experience nor the benefit of history in knowing what book may push the envelope of literary excellence and change its definition forever.  But they have their finger on the pulse of young adult literature and their perspective is one that we teachers and librarians need to hear if we want to encourage reading.

Meg described the “three camps of young adult literature” — the official Printz Committee, the Mock Printz Book Clubs that are charged to read for literary quality, and ALA’s “Teens Top Ten” award which usually has around 8,000 teens voting across the country on a list of books chosen by popularity by teens in the associations’ galley projects.  She, as most of us, expressed concern that we also need to hear from those teens who are learning to evaluate literary quality.  Ian shared a very relevant quote from Marc Aronson, who helped developed the Printz Award:

Advocates of the importance of popularity see this measure as the voice of the people, a check against the imposition of adult values on teenage readers.  But in practice, concern with popularity is the opposite of respect for teenagers.  Instead, it judges art on the basis of stringent but unexpressed and untested adult assumptions” (p. 113).

What we want to do is respect teen readers even more by recognizing that when they are made aware of the elements of literary quality and have the opportunity to learn to discuss books and evaluate books with their peers that their opinions can be valuable to the English teacher and to librarians. We’re fortunate to have the Eva Perry Mock Printz Book Club to consult with and guide us, but other teachers and librarians need to hear from them and others like them.  So we’re beginning an inquiry to see how we might make the results of the Mock Printz Book Clubs each year more accessible to teachers and librarians.  Stay tuned . . .

Island Lighthouse

Discussion group at the Island Lighthouse

Speaking of YA literary quality, here’s a list of tips for writers of YA lit conceived of and begun by Michele (1- 5) to which our class added 3b and 6:

1.  The “Can We Please Be Original” Plea

2.  Keep It Simple (No More Than Three Crises)

3.  Teens Should Sound Like Teens (and 3b.  Act Like Teens)

4.  Avoid the Sweet Valley Syndrome (Physical Beauty at All Costs)

5.  Make Your Words Beautiful

6.  Remember that the literature should give something back to teens

group photo of Eva Perry Mock Printz Club

2011 Melinda Awards starring Eva Perry Mock Printz Book Club & NC State ECI 521 Students (Maberry's Rot and Ruin won which explains zom looks)

Though we value teens’ opinions on the literary quality of YA lit and see the process as an excellent way for teens to become critical, engaged readers, we understand that it is not the quality of the book but of the reading experience that is most beneficial (Howard, 2011).  That’s why we will follow resources such as ALA’s numerous and diverse awards and booklists to find books that we can share to encourage all of our students to be active, critical, engaged readers.

Our discussion continued  with a look at the recent research on the value of pleasure reading.  Vivian Howard (March, 2011) in her research explores the academic, social, and personal benefits of pleasure reading by teens.  She reports the findings of others, notably Krashen (2004) and that what he calls “free voluntary reading” can improve student scores on standardized tests in the areas of reading comprehension, vocabulary, grammar, and writing and results in stronger reading comprehension, vocabulary, verbal fluency, and general knowledge; Bussiere et al. (2001) and that teens’ “enjoyment of reading and time spent reading” has a higher correlation with academic achievement than high socioeconomic status; and the National Endowment of the Arts (2007) findings that those who read for pleasure enrich our cultural and civic life by “participating and contributing to civic and social improvements.” Howard’s own research focused on the relationship of pleasure reading to personal internal development and found as Ross (1999) did in her research on adults that teens often choose a book for pleasure but find the experience enriching through a “circular relationship” that brings insights that are valuable in their personal lives and development.  Howard concludes:

The present study strongly supports the concept that teens, like adults, unconsciously use pleasure reading as a means of everyday life information seeking and the reasons for personal salience identified in the foregoing discussion have a strong developmental theme: in their pleasure reading, teens gain significant insights into self-identification, self-construction, and self-awareness, all of which aid them in the transition from childhood to adulthood (p. 53).

All of this very encouraging for those of us who would probably find our ability to define the value of reading about as difficult as defining literary quality.  Because it is something that we intuit and know from personal experience.  As advocates for young adults, our personal insights will guide us and our professional knowledge will support the work that we do.

References

Aronson, M. (2001). “Calling All Ye Printz and Printzesses,” Exploding the myths. pp. 109-122. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield.

Howard, V. (Mar, 2011). “The importance of pleasure reading in the lives of young teens: Self-identification, self-construction and self-awareness,” Journal of Librarianship and Information, 43: 46-55. [Available online through NC State Library]

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