Kevin: In 2018, annual sales of young adult fiction reached a new high of $80 million a year. And that was before the pandemic drove a nearly 10% increase in book sales over the course of 2020. With the genre gaining popularity like never before, I'm wondering, how has young adult literature changed over the years? Why is it so important for kids in this age group to be engaged in literature? And what can we as educators and parents do to encourage students to read more? This is "What I Want to Know".
Kevin: And today, I'm joined by Arizona State University professor, Dr. James Blasingame, to find out. Dr. James Blasingame is an author and associate professor at Arizona State University. He focuses on young adult literature and secondary writing instruction. He is the co-editor of the "ALAN Review," a journal devoted to young adult books. He is also a past recipient of the International Reading Association Award for Outstanding Professor of Children's and Young Adult Literature. Dr. Blasingame is with us today to explore this genre, and what it has to offer our kids today. Dr. Blasingame, it's so good to have you on "What I Want to Know," I was looking at your career. And my goodness, you've done it all. You've been a high school principal, a wrestling coach. You taught in the heartlands, places like Iowa and Utah and Nebraska, college professors you are now, but through it all, now, Jim, your passion has been English. How did that happen?
Dr. Blasingame: Oh, my gosh, reading. When I was a little boy, in rural Iowa, our mother would load up the station wagon with all the kids and drive into town, the first grocery store in the edge of town, the bookmobile would be there. And all the little Blasingame children would run up the steps into the bookmobile, and we would go to our area for our age and grab five books and probably read one on the way home. Our mother was a big reader, and her mother was a big reader. This was one of the ways that you entertain yourself when you're in a rural area. Love to read.
Kevin: Now, I don't know, are parents reading as much?
Dr. Blasingame: I'm not sure. What we do know is that children whose parents read to them, that is the highest predictor of academic success. And we also know from several studies that kids who read, it develops not only their imagination but their empathy, because it enables them to imagine what it would be like to be someone else. So walk in someone else's shoes. To be sympathetic for somebody who's not just like you.
Kevin: When we think about literature, and you talked about the value-add in terms of parents who read to their children, the children end up doing better academically. You talk about the value-add in terms of empathy, and understanding others, and walking in other person's shoes. What about some of the other overall values associated with human development that we can trace to reading?
Dr. Blasingame: Oh, my gosh, this is so important. And I learned a lot about this from my professor, bless him, he passed away just a few months ago at the University of Kansas. And I learned from him that young people between the ages of 11 or 18 or so are trying to figure out who they are, "What are the possibilities for a personality and identity for me?" And if they read a lot, they can try on a lot of different personalities, a lot of identities, "Would I be like this protagonist, or would I have this value system? Is this the identity that fits me?" So it gives them a lot of material to choose from. That's why I think it's important for our schools to have a lot of diverse literature, both in the curriculum and in the library so that kids have all sorts of really good material to create the best version of themselves.
Kevin: This idea of diverse literature, and diverse authors is so important, particularly today, because today's young people face so many different options or distractions away from, you know, the learning environment. And I had a teacher say to me, and happened to be a white teacher in a school in North Carolina, that the curriculum she had, you know, it had the Mark Twain, you know, it had the Dickens, but she wanted more diverse literature and literary writers that she can share for students who are primarily minority because there's one student said to her, "Who are these white guys in wigs? I don't know them." And you've been a big advocate for that. And you can see the difference when a diverse array of authors are provided as part of the literature curriculum.
Dr. Blasingame: There is empirical data that proves that to be true. And one of my heroes, Ted Hipple, who was the founder of The Assembly on Literature for Adolescence called it DOWMLS, dead old white men literature. And he said, "We've got to get this out of the way so that kids can read books about people who are like them, and they'll engage with those books. And they'll learn from those books." Studies have shown that when kids read books with characters they can identify with, their reading proficiency goes up, and up and up. And their ability to understand both themselves to make sense of their world, to make sense of their lives, but also, to make sense of the broader world, just grows and grows and grows. There was a big study on the...down in Tucson, the Mexican American ethnic studies program, and the kids who were in that program, and not that I think test scores are the end all be all, but their test scores just soared. And more than that, I think their self-value soared. And, you know, having been in education for, well, 46 years now, I think sometimes the best thing you can do is help young people to love themselves. And once that happens, boy, the sky's the limit.
Kevin: I'll never forget when I was in college, my senior year, and I took a short story writing class from a legendary English professor at our college who was about 80 some years old. And I went to class expecting, you know, to deal with "White & Strunk" and all these, you know, sentence structure. But literally, he spent the bulk of the class. He sat us down, in, you know, a small class, and he read these stories to us. And we were riveted like we were kindergarteners. But I'll never forget that. And do you still see the value in that? And by the way, the one question, I want to ask you this. I think that because of that, that's helped the explosion of audiobooks.
Dr. Blasingame: Ten Brzezinski, who was literally in the reading Hall of Fame, says that it's all about prosody. It's not how fast someone reads, or when you're hearing it, does the ebb and flow, and the speed, and the tenor, does it change with the meaning of the words, and enhance the meaning?
Kevin: I understand and agree with all you're saying. But again, with the other options out there, and the increasingly prevalent video world, how do we combat that? Or how do we supplement this sort of newfound approach to information gathering and entertainment that young people are drawn to?
Dr. Blasingame: These new literacies are not going away. Henry Ford said, "If people had asked me what I should make, they would have said faster horses rather than cars." And my good friends PJ Haarsma, who is both an author and a movie maker, and Frank Beddor, who's also a YA author and was the producer of the movie, "Something About Mary."
Kevin: Oh, yeah, that movie.
Dr. Blasingame: They're doing this thing where they have made their books into video games. And they're doing some experimentation. I work with him on this, where there are those games where players are playing at the same time around the world with each other. And our experimentation at quick snapshot surveys showed that the 300... Let's see, I better do percentages, 98% of all the people playing the game said, "I'm going to read the next book. But in between books, I'll play this game because it feels like I'm in the book."
Kevin: What about though, this attention span issue? Because there are textbook manufacturers, I'm sure you know this, that want to sell the abridged or condensed version of classics. It could be "War and Peace." It could be "A Tale of Two Cities." And instead of 600 or 700 pages, they'll sell for 200 or 300 pages. In effect, they'll pull out different passages to make it less intimidating for, you know, students to want to read. And the argument that many make is that, you know, today's students, everything is abbreviated. You know, if you text someone, I think I've even done it, when it's Y-O-U, it's just the letter U. How do we get around that? And is that a bad thing to abbreviate these books, these classics?
Dr. Blasingame: I am the chair of the Board of Directors of the Arizona Humanities, which is the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. And the National Endowment for Humanities did a study based on U.S. Census Bureau data that showed, in about 2000 or so, that reading was dying in America. And by 2050, no one would be reading fiction especially kids. What happened? "Harry Potter," "The Hunger Games" turned it around, but the dead old white men literature doesn't turn it around. And better to climb the reading ladder, as a very famous YA person, Terry La Seine called it, read a book that the level that you're at now, then up a little bit, then up a little bit. We'll reach "War and Peace" at the appropriate time, maybe it's when we're 30. And we're ready, we have the literary prowess to read it. But if you try to, you know, dumb it down for us, you know, the... Pasternak and the others [inaudible 00:10:21] that this is not Dostoevsky. This is not what they had in mind. And a lot of it comes from this testing.
Kevin: You mentioned that there's been an explosion in young adult literature interest based on "The Hunger Games," and "Harry Potter." But studies have shown that now 55% of the readers of young adult literature are actually adults. Are we facing any danger that genre is tilting so much more toward adults, that young adult literature writers will start tailoring more messages toward the adult population, as opposed to the adolescents and teens that have saw value in that literature historically?
Dr. Blasingame: And I'm reading more and more books that are being marketed as YA that are...boy, this one, 30 years old, 40 years old, they would like this book, too. And the current research shows that our brains are actually developing, continuing up to about 27, the executive part of the brain that makes decisions, makes judgments. We're really adolescents until 27 or so. What was it? 10 years ago, there were 4,000 young adult novels published in the year about. This past year, more than 10,000.
Kevin: You've also been outspoken about book banning. There's been a lot of people, and particularly in this either-or political world we're in to say, you know, "We should not have these books in these schools. We should not have these books in these libraries." Generally, the whole topic of book banning, why is that an important issue?
Dr. Blasingame: Oh, my goodness, well, Pico versus Island Tree, Supreme Court president found that, it's okay for me to judge what my young people read in school, but I can't do it for you. That violates your first amendment rights of free access to ideas. And maybe I don't like an idea that you do like. It's not right for me to try to control that. I'll give you an example. There was a school who was giving a teacher a hard time about six YA books that she was teaching. And one of them was a book in which the main character goes to a beer party. And I am an old Sunday school teacher, high school principal, I hate beer parties for teenagers, horrible things happen there. And I'm against them. In the book, the main character finds out that, "Hey, this is wrong. Some of the things that are happening here are wrong. This is not the me that I can respect, and I'm leaving." But they wanted to ban that book because, well, it has a high school beer party in it. Read the book, because it's not condoning these things. It's trying to help a young person see, well here's what could happen if you get in this situation.
Kevin: So, Jim, this is what I really want to know, what are the best strategies that teachers and parents can use to get kids interested in reading?
Dr. Blasingame: Oh, my gosh, it's all about getting as many books as possible out in front of them. When they hear about these titles...today, my class starts in about two hours. And I'll have my book recommendations. Every class session, I have a big cart of about 300 books. And I just pull out some books and say, "Well, here's what this one is about. And I highly recommend it." And then I ask them, "Do you have any recommendations for each other?" There's a book out there that will inspire every single young person to read. Now, if they're not reading at grade level, there are what's called high-low books. And there are thousands of these. They have interesting topics told about high-school-age protagonists, but they're at about a fourth or fifth-grade reading level. I could read that book, it would be interesting to me. And when I finish it, my reading proficiency will have gained a little bit. There are sequential narrative art that's the graphic novel that give something like 24 different clues to the reader about what's going on in this frame. In fact, Stephen Krashen, a linguist in California, proved that you can learn a new language faster through reading sequential narrative art, comic books, graphic novels, than you can through reading traditional linear text. Short story collections, prose, poetry books, there are books on almost every topic and if there's not, then someone needs to write it. I've published something like 400 interviews with authors, and time after time, they say, "When I was that age, the book that I needed about a person like me was not there. So I wrote it."
Kevin: I love the fact that you offered that simple, yet straightforward answer, "Get as many books as possible in front of as many kids as possible, and there will be something that resonates with them." Dr. Jim Blasingame, tell you what, I would have loved to have had you as my English teacher, I can tell you that right now.
Dr. Blasingame: Oh, my gosh, you would have been a great student.
Kevin: Well, I sure would have because I would read and talk about it, you know, ad nauseam. So thank you so much for joining us on "What I Want to Know," and good luck to you. Thanks for joining, "What I Want to Know." Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. And don't forget to write a review, too. Explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK on social media. For more information on Stride, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining, "What I Want to Know."
Meet Dr. Blasingame
Dr. James Blasingame is an author, associate professor of young adult literature and secondary writing instruction at Arizona State University, and co-editor of a journal devoted to young adult books. He is also a past recipient of the International Reading Association’s Award for Outstanding Professor of Children’s and Young Adult Literature.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.