Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Why We Need More Authors of Color Writing YA Fiction, Pt. 1

A lot of my students read the Bluford High and Denim Diaries series, both of which focus on the lives and struggles of urban teens, and while I love the fact that there are entire series out there devoted to appealing to racial minorities, I wish the books were more scholastically-inclined and grade appropriate.

Take the Bluford High series, for example. The series is comprised of twenty books, the majority of which were written by authors Anne Schraff and Paul Langan, and each book in the series has content that minority (especially poverty/minority) students find relative to their lives. Great! Any time a student reads a book, it is a good thing. Right?

Well . . .

The website for Bluford High markets books that are "short (less than 200 pages) and written in a highly readable style." So, while it is awesome that students are finding books to which they can relate, it isn't so great that entire hordes of students are conditioning themselves to read short texts written in a "highly readable" style.

Such students often devour books like Bluford High and then refuse to read longer texts, stating reasons like "I can't read big books" or "The words in those books are too hard."

The writing in the Bluford High series is often ranked no higher than a 4.9 ATOS level, meaning that the vocabulary and sentence structures in the book are ideal for students who have the reading capabilities of 4th/5th graders. Is it really a great thing that 8th-12th graders are willing only to read these "highly readable" books?

Now, I am not saying that teachers should encourage their students to avoid the Bluford High series. Not at all! The books serve as gateways for students, especially minority/poverty students, to become readers, and getting students on the path to reading is often 3/4 of the battle.

The real problem here is relevancy.

When students cannot find the connection between themselves and the books they are reading, they are less likely to finish the books. As a teacher pointed out in her testimony for the Bluford High books:
"No relevance, no enthusiasm. 
                 No enthusiasm, no reading."
This is why we need more authors of color writing young adult fiction.

It is a shame that the "Authors of Color" featured books section has been up in my classroom for three months, and only two of my ninety students have checked out these great books. When I tried to get my students more interested in the featured books by explaining the plot to Morrison's Beloved, students were practically clawing at one another to get their hands on the copy. Until, that is, they actually thumbed through the book and saw the words.

Now, I understand not every 14- to 18-year-old is going to be enthralled with Toni Morrison or Amy Tan or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. When it comes right down to it, I find it painful as both a teacher and as someone who believes in the power of books to hear students say there are no books out there for them. That needs to change.

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