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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

What Teens Want in YA (Guest Post)

Guest Post by Kathleen, Cynthia's 15 yo daughter

As a rising sophomore in high school, I can tell you that the bane of every student’s summer is the outside reading assignment. In these last few days before the school year begins, Facebook has been hit with a flurry of statuses begging for spare copies of the books, or with questions about how many journal entries are needed and how much can you fudge the margins to make four pages of analysis go a lot faster. Procrastination is the word of the week.

Rewind about a month ago, to the excitement building for the release of the second half of the seventh Harry Potter movie. Being an avid HP fan myself, I went to the midnight premier and saw many of the 2,000 costumed fans around me toting one or two of the books, reading them aloud, and hosting trivia wars in their theaters. The pictures posted here are all of my extended family.

What makes Harry Potter so much more exciting than some of the many classics that most schools require students to read? For our 10th grade English class, the list includes such greats as Don Quixote, A Tale of Two Cities, and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. I’m sorry but no kid my age, no matter how much of a book nerd they are, looks at filling their vacation with 980 pages of four hundred year old literature without swooning just a little bit. But yet, the World Library’s 100 Best Books of All Time cites Don Quixote to be the “best literary work ever written”. This particular book doesn’t necessarily appeal to me because as a reader, I’m very lazy. I need the writer to come to me. In my spare time I sacrifice the cultural significance of Miguel de Cervantes’ writing in favor of the whimsy, adventure, and magic that J. K. Rowling offers. As my mom, whose usual post I’m taking, can tell you, beneath my bed (amidst much other unmentionable refuse) are piles and piles of unfinished books, tossed on the floor and forgotten.

Like my fellow teenage readers of YA literature, I need to be drawn in and caught, hook line and sinker. If I had to pick one thing, I would absolutely say that this is the biggest challenge for YA authors. Gone are the days when the reader works to find out if your novel is a work of art; now are the times when it’s necessary to prove that it’s worth reading past page ten. For example, I chose to read Gulliver’s Travels and re-read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince this summer, both for very different reasons. I love both novels, but their beginnings couldn’t be more different. Gulliver’s Travels begins with a letter from Gulliver to his cousin describing his intensions to publish a book about his travels. This continues for five pages, and then becomes a letter from the fictitious publisher to the reader describing how this book came to be in print. It was…kind of slow. Part of this stemmed from the style of writing, which obviously is a bit different than what kids my age are used to as it was written in 1726, but in this and many older novels the first several pages are description description description. I also found this to be true in A Tale of Two Cities and Journey to the Center of the Earth, and had I not been required to read them I probably would never have gotten far enough to realize what wonderful books all of them are.

In contrast, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince sets the reader up with a nice bit of plot to munch on by the end of page one. Strange happenings that are clearly the mark of wizardry, followed by the appearance of the Minister of Magic here to announce the mysterious attacks come from the dark lord himself. I strongly believe that the entire tone of the novel is set within the first chapter or so, and a fantastic beginning is the key to bringing more teens to YA novels instead of getting their weekly dose of literature from Sports Illustrated. Maybe that’s why we have summer reading, because unfortunately high school students won’t always put in the effort to look past “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”.

You have to bait the end of the line, whether it be with some wand waving, massive explosions, or a well-laid-out and believable character. We’re a curious bunch, so I bet we’ll bite.


  1. Terrific post, Kathleen and so true. Thanks for giving us the teen perspective and for filling in for your mom. Love the pics!

  2. Great to get your insights, Kathleen. Thanks so much for taking the time!

  3. You're a good writer and I loved this post (I'm assuming that's you as Madame Trelawny?) :)

    I'm glad you've found a few classics you like - don't give up on them! Some are definitely slower starting, but many are richly rewarding. Have you tried Frankenstein or Jane Eyre? They were, and continue to be, two of my (and my kids - now in their 20's) favorite high school reads.

    We feel the same way about the Harry Potter books (which are classics in their own right), but my kids honestly never got that much into contemporary YA fiction. Although I can see what you're saying about it being entertaining, easy-to-get-into-summer-reading. Hope you enjoyed your summer - have a great junior year!

  4. Thanks for your comments Marcy, inluvwithwords, and Wendy! Actually, that's my mom as Madame Trelawney, I dressed up as Ginny Weasley, and that's my little sister as Hedwig :) I have read Frankenstein and liked it very much, and Jane Eyre is on my reading list. Having finally finished A Tale of Two Cities last night, I can definitely tell you I'm getting better at working through a slow beginning, because the rest of the book was totally worth it!

    Kathleen (signed in as my mom)

  5. Haha! You make a great trio. :)
    Slow beginnings can be worth the effort/wait/perserverance. I hope you like Jane Eyre.