SCED 419: Young Adult Literature is the first content-specific course our middle and high school preservice teachers take as they work toward their degrees. This is the first time many of my students are asked to consider the books they read from a teacher's lens. As we read our whole-class novels, one of the questions I ask my students to consider is, "How does YAL help us understand the adolescents in our classrooms?". When revisiting this question at the end of the semester, one of their biggest takeaways was that adolescence is a time of learning about who you are and who you want to be. From the novels we read and our class activities and discussions, they recognized that young adult literature could be a way for students to explore lives and experiences different from their own and imagine who they could be. They now understand that because their future students will grapple with their identity, they will benefit from reading texts where the characters are. For this blog post, my preservice teachers chose to use the theme of self-discovery to offer suggestions for teaching a few of their favorite texts.
Macey's suggestions for New Kid by Jerry Craft
Summary of the text: In New Kid, a graphic novel, readers follow Jordan Banks' thoughts and experiences as he records them in his journal. After his parents enrolled him in the prestigious academic Riverdale Academy Day School (RAD), Jordan, a young seventh-grade student, must navigate being the new kid and one of the only students of color. The student body differs significantly from Jordan's Washington Heights neighborhood in New York City. Though he finds new friends, he also must deal with a bully, a horrible teacher, and stereotypical comments made by other individuals in school. Jordan learns more about himself and his peers as he navigates through being a new kid.
How self-discovery is present in the text: New Kid shares the theme of self-discovery as we watch Jordan's experience as a new kid in a school of primarily white students. As readers, we experience Jordan's life through his drawings within the graphic novel. When we learn that Jordan anticipated going to an art school for the remainder of his middle school years, but his parents enrolled him in the prestigious Riverdale Academy Day School instead. Readers can feel the apparent disappointment and preconceived notions that Jordan put forth to begin with. He went into the experience with a negative mindset. He immediately judges Liam when he comes to pick him up, simply because he is white and the car his father drives. He later becomes best friends with him, regardless of his skin color and the amount of money he has. He connects more with his peers, specifically the ones of color who share similar experiences. Not only did Jordan begin his time at RAD with a specific mindset that he did not belong to, but he was more of a shy individual who expressed himself through his journal. Throughout the novel, Jordan gets over his overall judgment and preconceived notation to get to know and truly understand his peers. He learns to love and feel comfortable with his peers and in his new school. He also changes the aspect of his identity as he begins to feel more confident in a new environment, ultimately beginning to feel more confident in himself. He shares this through his confrontations with both Ms. Rawle and Andy. Overall, Jordan started the experience at RAD skeptical about future experiences. He learned more about himself and people that differ from him.
Activities: This novel can allow a gateway for a few activities. Specifically, with 6th graders, use the book to help students create their own graphic short story (a page or two) to share their feelings about being the new middle school kids and how they feel about the transition between 5th and 6th grade. You could use the same idea in other grade levels (7th-8th) to share instead a story where they had to overcome a challenge and share their feelings through graphics similar to how Jerry Craft shared Jordan's.
Discussion Questions: The discussion questions could involve many essential concepts and ideas from the novel. For example…
- What experiences did Drew and Jordan have with being called the wrong name? How did that affect them?
- What was the significance of other students' mispronounced names or "name calling" to Jordan and his experience at Riverdale?
- Jordan's perception of Riverdale changes by the end of the novel. Even after his experiences with Ms. Rawle and other students, why do you think his perception of the school became positive?
- If you were in Jordan's position at the beginning of the book, how would you judge Riverdale? Would you share the same preconceived notions?
- After Jordan's interactions with Ms. Rawle, did he cope with the experience well, or should he have handled the situation better?
- After reading the novel, do you believe Jordan's preconceived notions of the school were valid, or do you think he judged the people and the school too harshly?
Hannah and Brandon's suggestions for Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh
Summary of the text: Harper is a twelve-year-old girl who moved to Washington, D.C., with her family into an old, creepy house. Certain rooms feel cold and make her feel somewhat uneasy, but Harper chalks it up to living in a new place. She learns vengeful spirits haunt the house, and she has the power to interact with them. When Harper's little brother starts to behave abnormally, she realizes she has to act to save him with her spiritual powers before the ghost takes him over completely. Her pursuit to understand and discover her power uncovers her harrowing past, as well as uncovering family secrets that have been hidden away.
How self-discovery is present in the text: Harper discovers she has the strength to find her hidden power and do things she never thought she could do, like banish ghosts and save her brother. Harper also discovers her history, finding her inner strength from surviving her traumatic past experiences. Her family's quarrel is revealed, centering on her mom's rejection of Harper's grandmother's connection with her culture. Harper finds the strength to go against her mother's wishes and seek out her grandmother as a mentor to help her learn about her powers and save her brother. Her love for her little brother fuels every decision she makes throughout the book and gives her the strength to carry on even when things seem impossible. Harper's strength mentally gives her the physical power to save her brother. Her growth in both kinds of strength throughout the book is exponential, as she starts as a girl with amnesia and the ability to know something is wrong to a spirit warrior armed with the knowledge of her past feats and the ability to summon and banish spirits.
- Discuss the importance of discovering your family's culture and history to enrich your self-discovery. The teacher can ask students to share aspects of their cultural or family history from which they draw power or inspiration.
- Discuss the importance of having something that is a powerful motivator for self-discovery. In Spirit Hunters, Harper's love for her brother motivates her to unlock her spirit powers and uncover her past, leading to maturation and growth. Ask students, "Who or what in your life encourages and inspires you to go above and beyond?"
- Discuss the journaling within the book; how does it help Harper and the reader process her feelings and situations? These entries give insight into how Harper feels and processes things and help her cope with her reality—talking with students about journaling as a processing tool. Journaling or keeping a diary can be used to process information and feelings, cope with situations, or learn how to understand them better. It is a highly customizable practice to document and process various events, feelings, and experiences.
- You can ask your students how they see themselves using journaling to help them process pieces of their lives. Would they see it as more of a diary? They may use it as a coping mechanism. However they want to use it, have them practice. Have students write a short journal entry detailing some recent (or not-so-recent) event or feeling. No limit exists on how long or short it should be; it should be whatever feels suitable to the student. Let them experiment with how customizable and individualized this tool can be.
Sam, Brianna, and Jayna's suggestions for Firekeeper's Daughter by Angeline Boulley
Summary of the text: The novel Firekeeper's Daughter (2021) by Angeline Boulley follows eighteen-year-old Daunis Fontaine, who has never felt entirely accepted by her White and Ojibwe families. When her uncle passes away due to an overdose and her grandmother grows ill, Daunis has to support her mother while grieving and processing the death of someone she cares about deeply. Then, she meets Jamie, a charismatic boy new to her brother's hockey team, and they begin to develop a bond practicing together. But, after witnessing a shocking murder, Daunis is thrust into a dangerous criminal investigation. Throughout the book, Daunis faces questions about her identity and future while fighting to protect her community.
How self-discovery is present in the text: Daunis initially struggles with feeling outside of her Ojibwe tribe because she is unenrolled and her mother is white. She is deeply connected with the Ojibwe language, spirituality, and traditions but is sensitive to how other members define her. She participates in the FBI's criminal investigation to protect her community and confronts the heartbreaking reality it reveals head-on. By the story's end, she takes ownership of her own identity as an Ojibwe woman independent of her Firekeeper father and fully Ojibwe brother. No longer needing to prove how Ojibwe she was, she decides to leave to study medicine, planning to return as a healer who combines modern and traditional medicine.
- Making connections: To connect students and the text, have students create an identity pie chart. First, have students think about the different pieces of their identity (e.g., religion, ethnicity, relationships, sexuality, jobs, traits, race, etc). Next, have students draw a circle on a piece of paper. Students will divide the circle into sections for each piece of their identity, making the pieces they find most important the largest. Afterwards, use the following questions to reflect:
- What parts of your identity do you find the most important?
- How do the different aspects of your identity impact your life and decisions?
- Questions for discussion: The following questions could be used as reflection questions or a whole-class discussion:
- What are the identities that Daunis inhabits throughout the story?
- How do you think Daunis' identities impact the story? How does her identity impact her relationships
- How does Daunis act depending on who she is interacting with?
- What role do Daunis' identities play in solving the central mystery of the novel?
- Did Daunis change throughout the story? If so, in what ways? Did you see the ending coming?
- What does Danuis discover about herself by the end of the novel?
- How has this novel impacted you, and what will you take away from reading it?
Tia, Angelica, and David's suggestions for Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz.
Summary of the text: Set in the 1980s in southern Texas, Benjamin Alire Sáenz's Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe follows the parallel lives of Aristotle (Ari) Mendoza and Dante Quintana. Ari struggles to define himself against the backdrop of his family–especially as he navigates his relationship with his father, who works with mental health and PTSD. When Ari meets Dante, an instant emotional connection evolves throughout the novel. Dante expresses himself boldly, whereas Ari struggles to move his thoughts away from the confines of his journal pages. Through tragedy, remembrance, and shared experience, Ari and Dante's relationship is a beautiful testimony to the power of a healing relationship and deep, unconditional love.
How self-discovery is present in the text: Benjamin Alire Sáenz's Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe connects to the theme of self-discovery as Aristotle and Dante navigate their journey through adolescence and acceptance.
Teaching ideas: Teachers can use the following questions for discussion:
- What were the defining moments when Aristotle and Dante found acceptance with themselves?
- How did Aristotle and Dante's feelings about one another change throughout the novel?
- What are some similarities and differences between Ari and Dante?
- How can journaling serve as a bridge between inward reflection and outward expression?
- How does the setting of the 1980s (e.g., homophobia, AIDs epidemic, "Lavender Scare," etc.) affect Ari and Dante's emerging queer identities?
Laura Jacobs is an assistant professor of English Education at Towson University in Towson, MD. Dr. Jacobs teaches Secondary English Methods and Young Adult Literature and works with student teachers in the field. Her (current) favorite young adult book is This Book Won’t Burn by Samira Ahmed.
Brianna Hughes, a Middle School Education major at Towson University, hopes to teach English or social studies. Her favorite young adult book is All My Rage by Sabaa Tahir.
David Kuriny, a Secondary English Education major at Towson University, hopes to teach high school English and theater one day. His favorite young adult book is Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder.
Jayna Liebau, a Secondary English Education major at Towson University, hopes to teach high school English day. Her favorite young adult book is The Demon King by Cinda Williams Chima.
Macey McCready, a Secondary English Education major at Towson University, hopes to teach high school English day. Her favorite young adult book is Drama by Raina Telgemeier
Hannah Murphy, a Secondary English Education major at Towson University, hopes to teach high school English or Earth Space Science one day. Her favorite young adult book is Pegasus and the Flame of Olympus by Kate O’Hearn.
Brandon Norris, a Secondary English Education major at Towson University, hopes to teach high school English one day. His favorite young adult book is Not So Pure and Simple by Lamar Giles.
Samantha Santoro, a Secondary English Education major at Towson University, hopes to teach middle or high school English one day. Her favorite young adult book is The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen.
Tia Simpler, a Secondary English Education major at Towson University, hopes to teach high school English one day. Her favorite young adult book is Aristotle and Dante Discover The Secrets of The Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz.
Angelica Worth, a Secondary English Education major at Towson University, hopes to teach high school English one day. Her favorite young adult book is Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From by Jennifer De Leon