Exploring Young Adult (YA) Literary Narratives
The general course description for ENG125 is, “Critical reading and analysis of a variety of literary narratives that reflect on human experience.” In this reading-intensive section of ENG125, we will focus on literary narratives written for and/or marketed to young adults, as well as adapted from young adult (YA) literature. In addition to reading and analyzing YA novels written by a diverse group of authors, we will also read and watch other young adult texts, including films, television shows, and fanworks. Alongside class discussions in which we analyze the social, cultural, generic, and media influences of these (and on these) texts, we will also critique these texts using formal and creative genres. Supplementary readings about literary narratives, YA literature, adaptations, and analysis will also be assigned throughout the semester, in order to help us achieve the course goals.
By the end of the semester, you should be able to:
- Analyze young adult (YA) novels, and their connections to your life and the wider world
- Discuss and analyze literary narratives created using different media
- Understand the importance of genre(s), media, authorial intention(s), and audience(s) when creating literary narratives and/or writing literary analysis
- Work in small groups to improve your writing, analyzing, and public speaking skills
As the only guideline for this course is its one-sentence description, I decided to try out a reading-heavy but writing-light approach to teaching this course. As I designed it as a survey course with YA texts that crossed different genres and media, and included representations of different genders, races, sexualities, family dynamics, and more, I knew that the reading load might be intimidating for some gen ed students, so I made sure to mention the amount of reading in my course description. As I’m a big believer in including creative assignments in my classes, and I know that’s not the case for all literature courses, I included this information in my description, as well.
- Ten Little Indians by Sherman Alexie
- Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes
- The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
- Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez
- Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli
- What Goes Up by Katie Kennedy
- American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
- Feed by M.T. Anderson
- The Awakening (Vampire Diaries, Books 1) by L.J. Smith
Ten Little Indians – I wanted to start our literary analysis practice with a collection of short stories, so that students could focus on shorter narratives that had a lot of potential material to analyze. I knew Alexie’s work would provide this material, though I ended up limiting our reading to six of the stories, rather than all of them. I felt that a few of the narratives didn’t match the course theme well, so I decided to exclude them from our required reading. Going forward, if I taught this course again, I’ll use another collection, though a few of my students mentioned how much they enjoyed the intensity of these stories.
To start the group projects and literary analysis posts, we first had a unit focused on realism novels. I’ve listed the books below in the order we read them. I wanted to make sure to balance the reading load, so I started with a shorter book, then a longer one, another shorter one, etc. I’ve listed below some of the major key terms and concepts that we discussed in relation to these texts.
Bronx Masquerade – POV, high school, poetry, race, class, gender.
The Sun is Also a Star – POV, race, gender, class, family, immigration, love, fate vs. coincidence
Before We Were Free – Historical fiction, characterization, ethnicity, gender, age, government, immigration
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda – Characterization, setting, sexuality, friendship, family, gender, technology
After Spring Break, we started what I jokingly referred to as our “non-realism unit.” Once again, I balanced the reading load by length of texts.
What Goes Up – Science fiction, POV, setting, ethics, gender, class, friendship
American Born Chinese – Graphic novel, narrative structure, visual semiotics, religion, ethnicity, friendship, high school, bullying
Feed – Dystopian, characterization, focalization (what do you do with a primary protagonist that you don’t like?), language, consumerism, society, education, environmentalism, family
The Awakening (Vampire Diaries, Books 1) – Fantasy, narrative structure, POV, foreshadowing, characterization, gender, high school social dynamics, friendship, romance, supernatural
Additional Required Readings/Viewings:
- YA Movie (students voted on it)
- Selected episodes of television series, The Vampire Diaries
- Vampire Diaries fan fiction (and other fan texts)
- PDFs and hyperlinks located on Reggienet
I was originally just going to assignment Mean Girls as our YA movie, but I prefer giving my students as much agency as possible over their work, so I listed 5 YA movies and they took a vote on which they wanted to see. They ended up choosing High School Musical. As The Awakening was just the start of our Vampire Diaries unit, students were also required to watch episodes 1-6 of the television adaptation and read/watch/view various fanworks I assigned to them. I’m a big believer in getting students to see how literary narratives live outside of the pages in which they often first appear, so we had this adaptations unit before watching High School Musical.
- A single-subject composition notebook or notebook of equal size
- Access to the Internet outside of class
Most class periods began with a few minutes of notebook writing. I gave students a prompt to answer for each of these short writing sessions (3-5 minutes). Some prompt examples: “How did the visual nature of American Born Chinese affect your reading experience?” “Which character did you relate to the most in The Bronx Masquerade? Why?” “Who do you think is the primary protagonist in What Goes Up? Why?”
As for access to the Internet, I uploaded all class materials and hyperlinks to our class blackboard website. With the secondary sources and fanworks students needed to read/watch/view, access to the Internet was essential. I also try to be as eco-friendly as possible when teaching, so students turned in their major assignments digitally, as well.
Grade Breakdown and Course Assignments:
- Literary Autobiography – 10%
- Reading Quizzes – 10%
- Group Project – 20%
- Literary Analysis Posts – 15%
- Literary Analysis Paper or Presentation – 20%
- Fanart/vid – 10%
- Participation – 15%
Here are brief explanations of why I included each of the major assignments listed above.
Literary Autobiography – I decided to start the class with this short assignment (2 pages), as I wanted students to realize right from the beginning of class that their experiences with literary narratives have likely affected them quite strongly. I also wanted to make clear early on that literary narratives aren’t just books, but also movies, TV shows, plays, and many video games. This activity was low-stakes, and it was due by the end of the second week of class, before we read any narratives and started analyzing them. For this assignment, they had the option of writing a 2-page narrative, or the equivalent via a creative composition. They had to answer the question, “Up to now, how have literary narratives been a part of your life and how have they influenced the person you are today?” Here’s a blog post I wrote about this assignment.
Reading Quizzes – How could I get students to read the class material in a timely manner? Answer: Have them take a reading quiz before discussing each book. The reading quizzes also enabled me to see if students were picking up on important plot, character, and setting details when reading, rather than staying too surface-level or reading too quickly to absorb details for class discussion.
Group Project – To get my students more invested in class discussions, I had them break off into groups for one of the major projects. Each 3-person group picked a book from the reading list, and they had to create and lead a 25-30 minute class activity that required their classmates to take part in a literary analysis activity. Students had to write out an explanation of the activity, a rationale for their activity design, and an after-activity reflection in which they considered how the activity did and/or did not meet their expectations. As there were only eight books to choose from for this activity, two groups led their activities based on the genres of the texts, rather than strictly on concepts and key terms found in the novels.
Literary Analysis Posts – A multi-part assignment, this activity required students to write multiple literary analysis discussion posts about the texts read/watched each week. They had to submit their posts before we started discussing the texts in class, and they would not be able to see any posts for each individual week until they submitted their own or I changed the settings for the forums after the deadlines passed. My intention with this design was to help insure students were practicing creating their own original ideas/arguments as preparation for their final paper/presentation. In requiring multiple (short) analysis posts, rather than one or two longer papers, my goal was to have students think and write deeply about at least four texts, rather than just one or two. Students had to complete three posts, but they could complete more and only the three highest grades would be included in their course grade.
Fanart/vid – This assignment was the last one they completed before their final paper/presentation. Students had to choose one of our class texts and create a piece of fanart or a fanvid based on it. I asked them to consider what message(s) they wanted their work to send (I showed them examples of racebending and genderbending art, along with a few other types of critical fanart), though they did not need to create a critical piece. Along with the fanart/vid, they also had to write a 1-page reflection about their piece and their creation process (answering questions I listed for them).
Literary Analysis Paper or Presentation – Students could choose between writing a paper or creating a presentation for the last major assignment of the course. For option 1, students had to create an argumentative thesis and support it via close reading and analysis in a paper that was at least four pages in length. In it, they also had to discuss the significance of their argument, why it mattered outside of simply existing as an argument. They also had to include at least one academic source in their paper. Rather than writing about one of our class texts, I provided students with a list of 60 YA texts (books, movies, TV shows, video games) that they could pick from as the focus of their paper. Students could not pick the same text as another student, and they were welcome to ask me to use a YA text not on the list as their focus.
For option 2, the presentation, the students created a poster that included a mini literary analysis (400-600 words), examples of why their text was worth analyzing using our class key terms (POV, narrative structure, characterization, etc.) and concepts (race, class, gender, family, etc.), and a still-life photo/visual that included five objects that they believed represent the text. They also had to write a 2-page reflection in which they answered questions I listed for them. The five students who chose this second option presented their posters on the last day of class. They had 5 minutes to present and then 5 minutes Q&A, with their classmates scoring them on poster design and information, and presentation and Q&A response (I created mini score cards for them to use).
Participation – With the amount of discussions that took place in this class, along with the notebook prompts and small group activities, a participation grade was necessary to take all the in-class activities into account.
Extra Credit – I always provide extra credit opportunities in my class. For similar reasons behind allowing my students to turn in late work at any point in the semester for partial credit, I wanted to make sure students had a few chances to improve their grades if they were willing to put in some extra effort. Students could reply to their classmates literary analysis posts, they could attend two children’s literature campus events (Genre Luen Yang’s visit and the Lois Lenski lecture), they could answer one extra credit question per reading quiz, etc. Most students don’t tend to complete my extra credit activities, but I still continue to offer them every semester.
Top 5 Online Resources
- I posted two author interviews for each book. Like this one for Bronx Masquerade.
- I posted two contextual secondary readings for each book. Like this one for What Goes Up.
- For the non-realism unit, I assigned online resources about the genres we were reading. Like this one for science fiction.
- Our ISU library website, especially the databases.
- Tedx Talks, like this one about science fiction in the classroom.