YA Literature, Literary Lens, and Preservice Teachers by Fawn Canady, Trevor Wofford, Michael Weldon, and Alliah Watts.
The preservice teachers (PST) in my English methods course have just finished their English degrees. As English majors, they are familiar with contemporary literary lenses. However, as student teachers, they are still determining how literary criticism at the college level translates for the culturally and linguistically diverse students they have in their classrooms. Essentially, as accomplished readers and novice teachers, they begin to read with a “teacher-reader lens” or from the intersection of teacher “knowledges” in the context of their own lived and aesthetic experiences. Literary lenses help make this sweet spot visible.
Each year, PSTs create or use critical lenses with a YA novel they will either teach during student teaching or include on a reading list for students. In this post, three PSTs share a text they teach and a valuable lens for reading it. Trevor explores The Hunger Games with a lens he created in an undergraduate literary theory course; Michael uses a Queer Theory lens to reimagine a reading of The Perks of Being a Wallflower; and Alliah uses Appleman’s Social Power/Marxist Lens with Monster, a whole class novel she will teach in an 8th-grade class.
Fawn Canady, Ph.D., is an associate professor of adolescent and digital literacy at Sonoma State University in the North Bay Area, California. She is a former high school English teacher. Her research explores young adult literature, the intersections of formal and informal literacies, multimodality, and climate futurism. Climate futurism examines the role of storytelling in imagining alternative futures for life on our planet.
In addition to the three examples, consider other possibilities. Maria Rios-Zendejas, a high school teacher in Santa Rosa, California, uses Tara Yosso’s community cultural wealth model as a literary lens with The Poet X. I have been exploring lenses related to climate change at the suggestion of a colleague, Kim Hester Williams. For example, ecofeminism paired with Latinx Environmentalisms would draw out new dimensions of novels like The Last Cuentista or The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind.
Three Ways of Reading YA Texts Taught in Secondary Schools
The Hunger Games is arguably one of the most well-known series of YA novels in the modern era, even spawning a prequel novel and five movies. The novel follows the perspective of Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year-old girl struggling to keep her family from starving in the coal-mining District 12. When Katniss’s sister is selected for the reaping, she volunteers to take her place. The reaping is the selection of one boy and one girl, between the ages of 12 and 18, from each of the twelve districts to compete in a death match for the amusement of the Capitol. Through many trials in the arena, Katniss emerges victorious alongside her fellow tribute from District 12. The book ends with Katniss unintentionally embarrassing the Capitol.
One way to apply this lens is to look at “background” characters as if they were the main characters of their own story. These background characters often lack the agency that protagonists do. Even though a protagonist may view themselves as not having other options, this same idea often applies to characters the protagonist impacts. This lens applies very well to the Hunger Games. While Katniss views herself at a major disadvantage in the games, she comes out on top with the help of others and her hunting skills. Many of the tributes aren’t even deemed important enough to receive names, often being referred to as “the girl from District ____” or “the boy from District____.” Focusing on the other tributes in the games allows the user of the lens to see the power differentials that emerge in the novel.
While the lens could focus on many characters, one that stands out is known simply by the nickname Katniss gives her, “Foxface.” While not receiving a lot of focus in the novel, Foxface is characterized for her high intelligence, only being defeated by accidentally ingesting poisonous berries. Power is visible when Katniss uses her influence with citizens of the Capitol to receive sponsored gifts of medicine and food, while Foxface is forced to scavenge to survive. When Foxface is killed, her body is described as emaciated, clearly starving. This lens allows for a different approach to viewing characters, pushing the reader to imagine the lives of characters only glimpsed from the words on the page. Later novels in the series focus on the rebellion between the Districts and the Capitol, which becomes all the more inevitable from the perspective of characters in the periphery.
Queering the High School Experience: Examining The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Michael Weldon
Stephen Chbosky's 1999 epistolary novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower focuses on Charlie, a freshman in high school who deals with many timeless problems that usually plague students of that age--trying to find one's social circle, trying recreational drugs for the first time, falling in love for the first time. What makes Chbosky's novel unique, however, is the focus of secondary queer characters and queer culture. For example, one of Charlie's best friends is an openly gay student, Patrick, who finds himself in a secret whirlwind romance with closeted jock, Brad. Additionally, Charlie and his friends will often perform in drag during midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a historically queer activity. With so much queerness adjacent to the protagonist Charlie, one cannot help but ponder how the story would unfold if Charlie himself was queer.
For instance, through the lens of Queer Theory, the very structure of The Perks of Being a Wallflower takes on a new meaning. This book is written in an epistolary style--Charlie writes letters to an anonymous "friend" and details his daily interactions. Through a queer lens, these private and hidden letters could symbolize Charlie's hidden sexuality. Instead of openly discussing his feelings with a real-life friend or family member, Charlie writes to someone anonymous because he fears judgment from the people he knows in his life--not unlike how queer people remain in the closet because they also fear judgment. Additionally, Charlie will often end his letter with the following farewell: "Love, Charlie." Again, through a Queer Lens, Charlie's use of the farewell "love" could represent his true feelings for his queer self. Charlie may love his queer self but has to keep that love hidden for fear of social repercussions. Truly, Charlie's suppression of his true feelings, through a queer lens, could represent the negative effects of a heteronormative society, and the only way to express these queer feelings is through letters to an anonymous friend who will not judge him.
Ultimately then, through the lens of Queer Theory, new meaning can be made out of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and queer students could positively project themselves onto the protagonist, Charlie. The exploration and destigmatization of queerness could prove to be beneficial for students who are experiencing similar feelings. What's more, the practice of using Queer Theory can also help students learn that many forms of art can take on unique interpretations.
Monster from a Marxist Lens by Alliah Watts
Monster by Walter Dean Myers is a young adult novel that follows the story of Steve Harmon, a 16-year-old African-American teenager who is on trial for murder. Steve finds himself accused of being an accomplice to a robbery that resulted in a murder, and the story revolves around his experiences as he navigates the legal system.
A Marxist lens is a perfect lens to introduce this novel. A Marxist lens is unique because it highlights portrayals of social class and power structures throughout the novel. Through a Marxist lens, readers can ask questions such as “Which characters from the novel are from a higher or lower social class?” “How can you tell?” “What are some characteristics of social class?” “How does one's social class affect them?” Questions like these can apply to the characters in Monster, namely the main character, Steve Harmon, and how social class status affected his life.
A Marxist lens brings out important aspects of the novel regarding one's social status. It also provides an introduction to race and gender lenses by asking questions about the advantages and disadvantages one may see in life based on the intersections of race and gender. The Marxist lens also sheds light on an important aspect of the novel–the trial. The main character's social class may play a role in a fair trial. The lens also provides information about the characters’ circumstances and can provide clarity in regard to their development throughout the novel.