Books save lives — just ask any librarian, teacher, author, or college professor who works with young people. That phrase became the unofficial mantra of the first Summit on the Research and Teaching of Young Adult Literature, held at UNLV in June.
It brought new books, new techniques, and new resources to those who want to profoundly engage with teens through books that relate deeply to issues in their lives — from racial inequity and school shootings, sexual assault to substance addiction, and gender discrimination to neglect.
“Reading good young adult (YA) literature not only saves lives, but it can also help kids become the best version of themselves, providing a map to navigate a world fraught with problems,” said opening keynote speaker James Blasingame, a professor at Arizona State University and executive director of the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents.
The four-day summit featured more than 40 presentations and keynotes speeches from educators and authors across the nation. Topics ranged from “Rising Up: Socially Relevant Texts, Critical Literacy, and Identity,” to “Sports and Literature: How Do We Make the Connections?”
Co-hosted by the Clark County School District (CCSD), approximately 50 Southern Nevada educators completed professional development credits by participating in dynamic sessions. CCSD curriculum and instruction specialist Amy Ramer said, “We are excited to see how each of them plans to bring more YA texts and strategies they learned during the summit to their schools through infusing a variety of YA lit into their curriculum.”
The conference recognized that helping teenagers grapple with serious issues can be complicated and politically risky.
Kekla Magoon, spoke about her novel, How It Went Down, a story in 18 chapters and 18 different perspectives on the shooting of an unarmed black youth. Although it is fiction, the story echoes the circumstances seen in the shootings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.
The conference can help educators inspire “teens to use their own voices to tell their own stories and make changes in the world,” Magoon said. “I left even more committed to creating dynamic YA literature, and even more convinced of its power to heal, inspire, teach, and build thoughtful empathetic leaders for the next generation.”
Laurie Halse Anderson, whose debut novel Speak examined sexual assault from the perspective of a ninth-grade victim named Melinda, read from her soon-to-be-released autobiography, Shout, which reveals her own struggles and triumphs as a teen, including being sexually assaulted, living with an alcoholic parent who had post-traumatic stress disorder, and overcoming eating disorders.
Bill Konigsberg, award-winning author of titles including Openly Straight and Out of the Pocket was the first openly gay major league/major network sportswriter. He explained how he has seen the nature of YA literature with LGBTQ characters move from the problem novel genre — with sexual orientation being the problem — to normalized fiction with characters, including protagonists, who are LGBTQ only as a part of their characterization and not merely as a plot conflict. Konigsberg read from his latest book, The Music of What Happened, a tender story of two young gay men operating a food truck in Arizona. “What I saw (at the summit) were people committed to getting kids to read books they really connect with, and scholars and teachers putting their heads together about how best to achieve that. I left feeling more hopeful about the world, to be honest.”
Chris Crutcher, recognized by experts as a major influence in the evolution of young adult literature, talked about the source of most of his material — his experience as a therapist for families and children who have experienced dysfunction through abuse and neglect. His latest book, Loser’s Bracket, explores the heart-wrenching fact that no matter how badly treated children may be, they still seek the love and attention of their biological parents.
Additional author-presenters included e.E. Charlton Trujillo, C.G. Watson, Jen Nails, Jo Shaffer, Amy Bright, Justin Joschko, and Sarah Donovan, as well as Aaron Levy, a Kennesaw State University professor and director of academics for Georgia Film Academy, who was named winner of the Georgia Young Adult Author of the Year during the conference.
Alice Hays, a 20-year high school classroom veteran and now college professor, noted, “Every person at the summit was there because they care about young adults and their growth. I feel privileged to have been a part of this historic event in which authors, teacher educators, and classroom professionals were able to speak freely, get new ideas, and walk away inspired by one another.”
Steven Bickmore, UNLV College of Education professor and summit organizer, expects the conference to become a regular event. “The success of the summit is a testament to the strength of the community of scholars, writers, teachers, and librarians who strive to work with adolescents.”
Committee organizers included: Crag Hill, the University of Oklahoma; Susan Slykerman, Clark County School District; Sarah Donovan, Chicago Public Schools and DePaul University; Gretchen Rumohr-Voskuil, Aquinas College; and author representative Konigsberg.