Heart of Darkness or The Hunger Games?
USF student Courtney Pollard argues some contemporary young adult fiction has the same literary value as the Classics.
TAMPA, Fla. (May 23, 2011) – For a generation of young readers, it’s werewolves over The Sea Wolf and Team Edward over Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
The thought of wading through one of the dusty, old classics of middle and high school reading lists might as well be a punishment devised by He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.
But University of South Florida philosophy and English literature major Courtney Pollard will argue that not all Great Expectations are squandered on a new generation of readers and their preference for fantasy-laden tales of magic, witches and wizards.
It turns out new works of young adult fiction have some of the same literary values that made the old works great, and teachers need not always have to choose between some of the most popular new fiction and the tried-and-true tales of yore.
Pollard’s analysis of classic books and hot-selling young adult fiction - recently featured in USF’s Undergraduate Research Symposium – found that the themes, tone, style and structure of what librarians and teachers consider the best fiction for the formative years are echoed in fantasy and contemporary realistic fiction novels that teens favor.
“People think young adult fiction is just cheesy, but there are actually some that are valuable literature,” said Pollard, an avid reader who undertook the study as she considers a potential career as teacher.
Her analysis shows that young adult novels have the depth and literary potential to be critically read in the classroom, she said.
In her study, Pollard focused on a select group of about 70 contemporary works of young adult fiction, conceding that some popular series like Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars – tales laden with the sexual and shopping exploits of spoiled brats – don’t exactly rate as good literature no matter how they’re sliced.
Instead, she focused on the “Best Novels” list compiled by two influential groups in the teen market: the best 10 young adult novels compiled by authors, librarians, professors, and teachers and a teen-choice list compiled by the Young Adult Library Services Association.
Almost half of the books chosen by teens are science fiction or fantasy novels, such as I am Number Four and The Lost Gate. The blockbuster Harry Potter or Twilight series books only rated on the teen-choice lists, just not the list compiled by the adult professionals, thus it was not included in Pollard’s analysis.
Pollard’s study compared the novels ranked by the authors, librarians and professionals on genre and point-of-view – the very factors which make a good book good - to the novels the teens chose. She found that while the adults with literary expertise preferred contemporary realistic fiction, the teenagers preferred fantasy/science fiction genre. Sixty percent of the novels teens favored were part of a series.
Most importantly, though, the two groups found common ground in preferring novels written from a first person perspective for their intimate and personal voice, she said. Furthermore, the fantasy novels preferred by teens might be set in made-up worlds with imagined creatures and beings, but the conflicts and challenges faced by their characters reflect real-world issues: the classic struggle with authority, the frustrations of growing up and family problems.
Pollard said she believes the novels written in first-person are most appealing to teens because it provides them a character whose emotions and a point-of-view with whom they can identify. She pointed to The Hunger Games, a series set in a post-Apocalyptic world.
“Everything is completely different, even the animals are different,” she said. “But the issues around family and violence are relevant. Maybe that world doesn’t exist, but the problems do.”
Pollard conducted her study with her adviser USF Education Professor Joan Kaywell, an expert on young adult fiction who has edited six textbooks on adolescent literature and using literature to help troubled teenagers cope with family issues. Kaywell, a faculty member in the Department of Secondary Education and English Education, also is the author of “Adolescents at Risk: A Guide to Fiction and Nonfiction for Young Adults, Parents, and Professionals”.
Kaywell advises teachers who are often locked into their assignment selections through state-approved reading lists to use the new fiction to encourage their students to read outside the classroom. But, she added, Pollard’s analysis makes a good argument for incorporating new fiction into the classroom routine to illuminate the common themes found in both old and new works.
“I’m definitely in support of teaching the classics of literature, it’s our cultural heritage and it gives us a common talking-point,” Kaywell said. “But you need to make it accessible to kids.
“If whatever you are doing is making them hate reading, who has to change?”
Pollard agrees her study shows there are grounds for teachers to begin incorporating new fiction into their classroom repertoire.
“You can’t get rid of the classics all together – they have so much value,” she said. “The idea is to incorporate YA novels to get them excited about reading.”