Young Adult Literature, or YAL, has never been more popular or prevalent in this country. It seems like every month, a new film based on a novel or short story aimed at adolescents and young adults hits theaters to huge ticket sales, whether it be series like “Divergent,” “Twilight,” or “The Hunger Games” movies or the most recent giant, “The Fault in Our Stars.”
Last week, a collection of Young Adult authors gathered with scholars, students, teachers and librarians at LSU for the inaugural Young Adult Literature Conference & Seminar, hosted by the LSU College of Human Sciences & Education.
The conference was the brainchild of School of Education professor Steve Bickmore and grew out of his own passion for young adult literature. The conference attracted eight speakers and 60 attendees, and also featured a number of authors from Louisiana and all around the country.
“In the current climate of pop culture, Young Adult Literature is extremely popular,” said Bickmore on his inspiration for the conference. “These books represent the fasting growing segment of print publication. This conference brought academics, teachers and young adult writers together in order to discuss the teaching and the critique of this engaging body of literature.”
“This conference helped teachers and librarians feel liberated in the face of high stakes testing; liberated to use books that meet kids where they are in their reading ability and interests,” he added. “When kids are free to choose what they want to read and are guided into lives with rich reading opportunities, they read more widely. They enjoy reading, they comprehend more and they engage in more complex levels of critical thinking. The conference provided an array of opportunities for teachers and librarians to increase their understanding of young adult literature as well as developing ways to include it in the curriculum.”
Academic guest speakers included YAL historical fiction and non-fiction author and the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents, or ALAN, president Chris Crowe of Brigham Young University; Alan Brown, assistant professor of English Education at Wake Forest University; and past president and current executive director of ALAN Terri Lesesne of Sam Houston State. Other speakers included best-selling authors Matt de la Peña, Chris Crutcher, Kimberly Willis Holt and Sarah Guillory, a local high-school English teacher who released her debut novel in October of 2013.
Lesesne, the whimsically pink-and-blue-haired “Goddess of YA Literature,” delivered the opening keynote address, focusing on the marriage of YAL and Common Core curriculum and the importance of building a reader’s community in the classroom. She shared her own love of reading and passion for teaching others to appreciate the written word, and also offered tactics and other best practices that she has found to be successful from her own classroom experiences.
“It’s impossible to establish community in the classroom without the teacher being a reader themselves,” Lesesne said. “And their students must have access to books.”
Lesesne is professor of library science at Sam Houston State University and the author of “Making the Match: The Right Book for the Right Reader at the Right Time,” “4-12,” “Reading Ladders: Leading Students from Where They Are to Where We’d Like Them to Be” and “Naked Reading: Uncovering What Tweens Need to Be Lifelong Readers,” all of which help teachers and librarians choose books for adolescents.
Crutcher is an award winning novelist of teen fiction whose works include “A Brief Moment in the Life of Angus Bethune,” which was made into a feature film in 1995. His novels focus on teen athletes, including his most recent, “Period 8,” published in 2013. Five of Crutcher’s books appeared on an American Library Association list of the 100 Best Books for Teens of the Twentieth Century.
A child psychologist by trade, Crutcher writes about children in crisis. His work gives a voice to the thousands of unheard children struggling with issues far greater than those of the characters in his books. In an age of preoccupation with decreasing the stigma of mental illness, his work brings an empathetic, human aspect to a prevalent societal issue.
As a child therapist and former teacher, Crutcher spoke about the need for honesty in writing, no matter how brutal, and shared his own experiences with a common consequence of such writing – censorship. He regaled attendees with anecdotes from his own life and shared the real people and circumstances that inspired some of his most beloved characters. A pin drop could be heard as he read an excerpt from his novel, “Deadline,” which like the majority of his work, deals with adolescents coping with grief and loss.
Despite his penchant for ending up on school boards’ banned lists, Crutcher insists that his writings and the stories they tell are vital to youth education, and can often be life-saving.
“If your education doesn’t make your life better, what good is it?” he said.
De la Peña’s keynote focused on the importance of reaching racially and socioeconomically diverse young adult audiences through literature. He also shared his own passion of reaching youth through his writing and read excerpts from his novel, “Mexican WhiteBoy,” which was inspired by his own childhood.
Growing up in a working class, Southern California neighborhood as a biracial child of Mexican and white descent deeply influenced de la Peña’s own path in life and has had a great effect on his writing.
“I felt like an alien in school settings,” he said. “I felt like an impostor because I had decided that I wasn’t a good student. You will encounter all sorts of definitions of who you are in life, but the hardest one to break free from is self-definition.”
De la Peña is the author of critically-acclaimed young adult novels: “Ball Don’t Lie,” “Mexican WhiteBoy,” “We Were Here” and “I Will Save You;” the award-winning picture book “A Nation’s Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis;” and a fifth YAL novel, “The Living” released in 2013 along with his first middle grade novel, “Curse of the Ancients.”
Louisiana native Willis Holt delivered her keynote nearly 20 years to the day that she sat down to pen her first novel. The Boston Globe Horn Book Award-winner shared her writing processes, the joys and challenges of being an author and confessed that even as an accomplished author, she is still learning about writing every day.
“Care about what you write about,” she urged her listeners. “If the writer doesn’t care about what he or she is saying, no reader ever will.”
She also described how her own childhood influenced her career. Hailing from Forrest Hill, La., Willis Holt traveled the world as the child of a military family. Still, she has remained loyal to her Louisiana roots.
“Louisiana has always been home, because it was the one place we kept coming back to,” she said.
Guillory, a sophomore English teacher at Brusly High School just outside Baton Rouge, published her debut novel, “Reclaimed,” in October 2013 and is currently penning a second novel. Her life-long passion for reading led her to become an educator, although her taste in literature has changed drastically. A self-confessed, one-time “literature snob,” Guillory’s love of the written word began with the classics, which she read voraciously until college when she was forced to enroll in a Young Adult Literature course.
“I read Harry Potter and that was it,” she said. “It just changed me as a person and as a reader.”
Guillory also shared her own journey as a teacher and writer.
“I became a teacher because I wanted kids to be as passionate about books as I am,” she said. “And as a writer that is my hope as well. YAL makes kids feel validated and like their voices are being heard.”
Guillory’s love for reading and writing YAL is fueled by the audience it reaches.
“Teens are the most passionate group of people. They are amazing,” she said. “At this point in life, the highs are the highest highs and the lows are the depths of despair. And there’s a beauty in that. I adore teens and I love writing for teens.”
Bickmore’s keynote on the history and importance of YAL and the organizations that champion it inspired attendees one and all. Commenting on Bickmroe’s presentation, de la Peña said it made him want to be a better writer.
The conference also partnered with the East Baton Rouge Parish Library to visit the Baton Rouge Juvenile Detention Center and hosted readings by Crutcher, Guillory, Willis Holt and Crowe. The events were hugely attended by local fans who participated in Q&As and got to meet and get their books signed by the authors.
This year’s conference marked the first of an annual event that will continue with Bickmore’s endeavor to bring YAL into the classroom in a legitimate way.
Bickmore’s joint appointment in the LSU Department of English allows him to further explore YA literature and develop contacts within the YAL community. During the conference, the participants formed writing groups, discussed pedagogical practices and planned academic projects in order to advance the field. This unique conference, the only of its kind in the country, created a collegial environment that fostered developing academic relationships.
During the event, visiting academics facilitated a cohort of teachers for a week in workshops and breakout sessions as they explored topics relating to teaching and interpreting YAL. As college professors and teachers worked together, they produced lesson plans that educators can apply to enhance the literacy skills of adolescents as they engage in this exciting literature.
Bickmore is hopeful that the success of this year’s conference will help it to grow next year and in the future.
“The most important moment of the conference for me was the recognition that the academics, the writers and the teachers who attended wanted to come back,” he said. “The collegial engagement was contagious. The vision that young adult scholarship can occupy a legitimate place in the academy and in the English language arts classroom is achievable and this conference promoted this work.”
During the event, visiting academics facilitated a cohort of teachers for a week in workshops and breakout sessions as they explored topics relating to teaching and interpreting YA literature. As college professors and teachers worked together, they produced products for teachers to use in the classroom including lesson plans, resource lists, academic blogs sponsored by the participating workshop presenters and other materials that will enhance the literacy skills of adolescents.
For more information on the conference, visit www.chse.lsu.edu/yalit.
The LSU School of Education offers graduate and undergraduate programs in Curriculum and Instruction and in Educational Leadership, Research and Counseling. The school’s mission is to prepare P-12 educational professionals to be leaders, practitioners and scholars knowledgeable in contemporary educational issues. Visit the School of Education at lsu.edu/education.
The College of Human Sciences & Education is a nationally accredited division of LSU. Formed in 2012, the college brings together programs and capitalizes on individual strengths to create a dynamic new college that addresses the socially significant issues we face as a state and nation. The college is comprised of the School of Education, the School of Human Resource Education and Workforce Development, the School of Kinesiology, the School of Library and Information Science, the School of Social Work and the University Laboratory School. These combined schools offer eight undergraduate degree programs and 18 graduate programs, enrolling more than 1,900 undergraduate and 977 graduate students. The college is committed to achieving the highest standards in teaching, research and service and is continually working to improve its programs. Visit the College of Human Sciences & Education at chse.lsu.edu.