Young adult literature as a genre has always centered the authentic experiences, complexities, and worldviews of teens and young adolescents. Recurring themes and motifs, such as coming of age, identity formation, and developing social relationships have been written about through infinite story arcs and characters that shape the genre. In the second decade of the 21st century, readers of contemporary young adult literature not only engage with the complexities of real world expositions, but readers also encounter dimensional characters who represent a range of diverse social perspectives, backgrounds, and identities.
Given the nature of teen years, which Bishop and Harrison (2021) described as “...an exciting time, (when) young adolescents are in the midst of personal change and identity development, growing physically, intellectually, morally, psychologically, and socio-emotionally (and) thinking more deeply about who they are in relation to their race, ethnicity, social class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and other identities” (p. 3), even the most nuanced social scenarios that writers of young adult literature craft within popular storylines seem to have elements of truth and convincing reality.
In recent years, there has been significant growth in the body of young adult literature written by a range of authors representing diverse social identities; there has also been an expanding production of young adult literature featuring major or minor storylines that center some of the social injustices of historic and/or present-day contexts. Thus, in the realm of classroom teaching through young adult literature and teacher education with YA lit, it has been important to consider, not only the reading of diverse texts and topics as “windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors'' (Sims Bishop, 1990), but also the skills that readers of diverse literature might need in the active and thoughtful reading of these texts.
Some of the competencies for reading young adult literature in the contemporary context can be found within the skills of critical literacy. In “Critical Literacy as a Way of Being and Doing,” a 2019 National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) research and policy column written by Vasquez et al. summarized several key ideas about critical literacy, among which were the following:
- Critical literacy should be viewed as a lens, frame, or perspective for teaching throughout the day, across the curriculum, and perhaps beyond, rather than as a topic to be covered or unit to be studied. (Vasquez et al., 2019)
- Texts are socially constructed from particular perspectives; they are never neutral.
- The ways we read text are never neutral. (Vasquez et al., 2019)
- From a critical literacy perspective, the world is seen as a socially constructed text that can be read. (Vasquez et al., 2019)
- Critical literacy involves making sense of the sociopolitical systems through which we live our lives and questioning these systems. (Vasquez et al., 2019)
These ideas underscore the necessary skills for reading contemporary YA lit, “including print texts and con-texts to understand power, authority, and anti-oppression (criticality)” (Muhmmad, 2020, p. 12). Reading critically can be especially important when reading about topics that challenge social norms and that center marginalized voices, identities, and experiences. There is an opportunity to practice these skills while reading within the YA genre.
There are many examples of young adult literature texts that lend themselves to reading through critical lenses, challenging readers to connect, empathize, and think with analytical depth in a variety of ways. One text that I want to highlight for this post is Brandy Colbert’s The Only Black Girls in Town. It is a first person narrative told through the eyes and experiences of Alberta, a rising seventh grader who lives in the tourist town of Ewing Beach, California. Alberta, like other young adolescents, is preoccupied with moving into the next grade, with the lives, likes, and attention of her friends, and with convincing her dads, Kadeem and Elliott, that she is ready for the thirteen and up surfing group.
In chapters three and four of The Only Black Girls in Town, “Skinfolk” and “Pure Black,” a new black family moves to Ewing Beach, which has been historically undiverse. The new family, which consists of a mom and daughter, takes over a local tourist-attracting bed and breakfast. Alberta meets Edie Harris, who is also twelve years old, going into seventh grade, identity seeking, and looking for a friend, which she finds in Alberta. While the story of The Only Black Girls in Town is about the usual social rites of passage in adolescence—up and down friendships, changing family dynamics, fitting in, and shades of a loss of innocence—there are also lines of story about history and about the nuance and dynamics of intra- and intercultural identities and relationships. One of the bonding stories in Alberta and Edie’s friendship is around the discovery of a set of historic journals stored in the attic of the bed and breakfast that the Harris family owns. As Alberta and Edie set out to read the journals, they begin a journey through the history of the bed and breakfast and through a somber chapter of American history of the not-so-long-ago past.
Colbert is masterful in the way that she layers the complexities of history, harmful social constructs, and complicated multiple identities within the real and regular lives of Ewing Beach residents. There is a prominent story that the reader encounters on the surface of the text about adolescent angst and the universal push and pull between childhood and the developing teenage identity, but beneath the surface and between the main storylines, there are many stories embedded in character-to-character relationships, in unpacking social histories, and in the histories of place that act as characters in the plot.
The application of the tools and lenses of critical literacy might take shape in the classroom in a variety of ways. In my classroom for pre-service teacher candidates, when teaching my Young Adult Literature course, I often design reading and response-to-reading experiences using a simple sequence that draws loosely upon aspects of basic literary analysis, Reader Response Theory, and tenets of reader’s workshop that are easily replicable in the K-12 classroom. I find the pedagogical reliance upon a recurring learning cycle allows my students to become familiar with our classroom learning routines, freeing them to focus on their critical reading of texts, co-synthesis through readers’ dialogue, and upon the design of their own instructional ideas. It is also important to me as a teacher educator to model practices that can be adapted and applied for my students’ middle grades/secondary classrooms.
Additionally, over time, students are able to apply a familiar reading and response-to-reading cycle across genres, across complex text sets, and within different social reading configurations. Across this work, guiding questions or prompts can be useful. For example, the bullet points to follow put forth possible guiding questions/prompts and sample notes for the reading of The Only Black Girls in Town with attention to skills of critical literacy.
- Tracking the Depiction of Social Constructs and Sociopolitical Systems
- As you read, track your thinking about some of the social constructs or details of existing sociopolitical systems that create the exposition and characterize the settings of this text.
- Consider which constructs have the most impact on character lives, motivations, perspectives, and interactions.
- Track how these constructs or systems may help some characters and possibly harm others.
- Track your thinking about the writer’s craft in realistically depicting these systems and constructs.
Within The Only Black Girls in Town, readers might consider the construct of race and track how it shapes the lives of Alberta and Edie across their adolescent experiences in the Ewing Beach community. Alongside this, readers might track the sociopolitical influences that caused Constance to move to Ewing Beach and to “pass” in racial identity as a white woman in the 1950’s -1960’s era.
- Mapping Power and Privilege
- Map power and privilege dynamics as they are written within the text.
- Notice which characters seem to hold power and to exercise privilege.
- Notice the circumstances that surround power and privilege scenarios, paying attention to characters’ intersectional identities and how power and privilege may be fluid. Jot notes about how these depictions of power and privilege shape character interactions and drive the plot.
- Where applicable, make connections to the depiction of social constructs that you notice.
- Track your thinking about the writer’s craft in realistically depicting the dynamics of power and privilege.
Within The Only Black Girls in Town, readers might map the power and privilege dynamics between Alberta and Nicollette, paying attention to the fluidity of power and privilege across these characters’ intersectional identities.
- Interrogating Reader’s and Writer’s Biases and Perspectives
- As a reader, what perspectives and biases do you bring to your reading and understanding of this text?
- What perspectives and biases do you perceive to be written into this text?
- Track your “windows,” “mirrors,” and “sliding glass doors.”
Within The Only Black Girls in Town, readers might track how plot details around Alberta or journal entry details from Constance’s life present “windows,” “mirrors,” or “sliding glass doors,” when considered alongside their own identities, experiences, and perspectives.
All of these prompts create foundational pieces for a nonlinear sequence of annotated reading, written or visual representation of readers’ thinking, reader-to-reader dialogue, and synthesis and reflection done independently or collaboratively.
Other middle grades and YA lit text selections to consider for similar cycles of annotated reading, representation, and reader-to-reader dialogue while centering analysis in skills of critical literacy might include some of the following that my students have engaged with:
As we continue to read and teach into the 21st century, the skills of critical literacy will continue to evolve and to create important reading lenses for engaging with YA literature.
Bishop, P., Harrison, L. M., & Association For Middle Level Education. (2021). The successful
middle school: this we believe. Association For Middle Level Education.
Muhammad, G. (2020). Cultivating genius: An equity framework for culturally and historically
responsive literacy. Scholastic Inc.
Sims-Bishop, R. (1990). Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors. Perspectives: Choosing
and Using Books for the Classroom, 6(3).
Vasquez, V., Janks, H., & Comber, B. (2019). Critical literacy as a way of being and doing.
Language Arts, 96(5), 300–311. https://library.ncte.org/journals/LA/issues/v96-5/30093
Callendar, K. (2020). King and the dragonflies. Scholastic Press.
Colbert, B. (2020). The only black girls in town. Little, Brown And Company.
Craft, J. (2019). New Kid. Harper, An Imprint of Harpercollins Publishers.
Ogle, R. (2021). Free Lunch. Norton Young Readers.
Mullaly, L. (2017). Fish in a tree. Puffin Books.
Rhodes, J.P. (2020). Black brother, black brother. Little, Brown And Company.