This is the time of year when “Book Club” begins at most schools. I have my students read a young adult novel and we gather in a circle to discuss it. They “make connections” between their lives and the lives of their characters. We “draw inferences” and try to read between the lines about what our favorite characters are thinking and why they take the action they do. Book Club used to be fun, easy, and productive as a time-tested way of engaging students’ understanding. But it isn’t easy anymore, not since YA became so dark. We used to talk about easy, predictable, morally-sound books where the people who did bad were caught and punished. The system used to work in YA literature, at least that’s what we wanted to believe.
But now YA has gotten dark. Our subjects are suicide, date-rape, bullying, school shootings, and abusive parents (and teachers). I admit I don’t shy away from these topics. I search for contemporary stories with troubled characters for a reason. Parents read some of these books I’ve suggested for Book Club and I get emails. They shake their heads and wring their hands and exclaim how bad things have gotten, as if the state of our kids are out of their hands. I stop them as respectfully as I can when they do this. I say don’t you think we are partly responsible how tough things have become? They nod their heads and we agree or respectfully disagree while doing nothing about the real problem: Young people are forced to deal with really adult problems and we aren’t giving them the right resources to handle them. When I say this to parents or administrators at schools I get the usually recitation of the resources that are in place; the suicide counselors on staff, volunteers who monitor railroad crossings, clinicians, law enforcement. Weapons. Laws. Institutions. The system works, they insist. But none of those things really help to get inside the minds of young people the way story does. That’s what I’ve found as we raise the stakes and dare to talk about the issues most kids and adults are hoping will just go away.
Book Club used to be a tool to check comprehension. Now, it’s a forum where you hear students making connections like this: “A friend of mine is just like this character because she was thinking about suicide and reading Wintergirls helped her see that she wasn’t really crazy at all.”
“A friend of mine”…I’ve begun to hear that expression more and more as my students share. Have you ever been so ashamed of something that when you go and seek help you can’t admit you have the problem? I have and used the same expression when I talked to a doctor.
This is the second year I’ve invited parents to Book Club and listening to them share about their fears really helps my students see that they are not alone.
Come join the dialogue.
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