Young Adult Literature as a Catalyst for Social Action
YAL tackles topics such as racism, heternormativity, poverty, and indigenous rights, not only thereby reflecting the lived experiences of students who are marginalized by systems of oppression, but also assisting readers who may have less knowledge of particular areas. Through reading, students can grow in their understanding and empathy, and potentially be inspired to take action.
In 2009, Steven Wolk connected YAL’s reflection of social issues to its potential to enhance readers’ democratic sensibilities. He avowed “teaching for social responsibility with good books does far more than encourage civic participation; it redefines the purpose of school and empowers all of us—students, teachers, administrators, parents—to be better people and live more fulfilling lives” (p. 672). His notion extends civic learning from the social studies classroom and into the English Language Arts classroom, employing books as a means to help students develop critical literacies and to unpack the world around them. This work is crucial, especially in the contemporary moment, when democratic participation is key to creating change and addressing the multitude of inequities plaguing our society in every state across the nation as well as around the world.
When engaging in social action projects, students determine a contemporary problem that exists in their community (local, national, or global), design steps to address it, and implement their action. Our model, which we call COAR, includes four explicit steps: Contextualize, Organize, Act, and Reflect (Boyd, 2017; Boyd & Darragh, 2019). We do not conceptualize COAR as a stringent framework but rather a way to guide students through the process smoothly and with attention to detail.
In the first step, contextualize, students determine a social problem rooted in their understanding from their reading. Through trial and error, we have realized the importance of specifically narrowing from issue to problem. For example, one group of students with whom we have worked limited their topic from ‘racism’ to ‘the stereotyping of Black men’- a topic inspired by their reading All American Boys (Reynolds & Kiely, 2015). We have learned that for students to design a project with tangible actions and results, this initial move of contextualizing and narrowing is key. If students attempt to tackle topics that are too broad, they tend to feel overwhelmed and at a loss for what to do. Additionally, as part of this phase, it is important for students to gather information on their topic of interest. We suggest students complete extensive background research on the problem they name as well as posit why and how this problem is connected to systems of power.
Next, students determine their action related to the problem they identified and organize for it. In this step it is crucial that students contact the correct individuals needed to participate or to provide guidance for their actions. If they were to propose a campus march to support the #BlackLivesMatter movement, for example, they would need to decide how to spread the word, what route the march would take, what permissions must be garnered, and who would speak. In the third step, students perform their planned action and collect evidence, such as images and artifacts, to document the implementation. Finally, they reflect on the process, noting successes and challenges, and plan for next steps. The reflection and next steps portion is key so that students can begin to view change as ongoing and realize that social action should not stop at the conclusion of one event.
they felt inaccurately represented mental disorders and led a critical dialogue afterward with their forty participants. Still another created an interactive display on campus with resources, books, and a space to share coping strategies for stress and anxiety.
Inspired by the novel Darius the Great is Not Okay (Khorram, 2019), one group sought to investigate the ease and barriers connected to accessing mental health supports on campus. Group members identified that the new counseling center was not on current campus maps and did not have signage outside of the building to guide students to its location. This group started a petition for funding to update the campus maps and purchase a building sign.
We have built on our students’ work in Reading for Action: Engaging Youth in Social Justice through Young Adult Literature (2019). In the book, we focus on one social justice topic per chapter and one young adult novel. Amongst other topics, we include bullying, global poverty, the gender spectrum, and women’s rights, and we offer myriad before, during, and after reading strategies as well as ideas for social action projects for each. As former secondary teachers ourselves, we know how busy teachers are, so we tried to provide as many resources as possible, including other young adult and canonical texts connected to each issue, music, film, and electronic resources. Although we emphasize that ideas for action should come from the students, we hope to provide samples to illustrate the kind of work we envision that students can accomplish.
Young adult literature gives us a medium through which to read, think, and talk about issues that may be uncomfortable for some or discerned as controversial in society. It provides us with insight, perspective, and experience; the rich texts we have now develop readers’ empathy and afford for a depth of personal connection. We believe that harnessing this capacity of YAL and channeling it into action is key for addressing inequities and building communities. As we have said before, “Reading is important. Discussions can be valuable. But reading for action- that is something that can empower, inspire, and ultimately change the world for the better” (Boyd & Darragh, 2019, p. 195). Certainly, in these unpredictable times, we need that more than ever.
through Young Adult Literature. Rowman & Littlefield.
Boyd, A. & Miller, J. (2020). Let’s give them something to talk (and act!) about:
Privilege, racism, and oppression in the middle school classroom. Voices from the Middle, 27(3), 15-19.
Boyd, A. & Darragh, J. (2019). Critical literacies on the university campus: Engaging
pre-service teachers with social action projects. English Teaching: Practice & Critique, 19(1), 49-63.
Petrone, R., Sarigianides, S.T., & Lewis, M.A. (2015). The youth lens: Analyzing
adolescence/ts in literary texts. Journal of Literacy Research, 46(4), 506-533.
Wolk, S. (2009) Reading for a better world: Teaching for social responsibility with
young adult literature. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 52 (8), 664-673.