Sunday, March 9, 2014

Using my books in the classroom (or not) - Jenny O'Connell

Oh my. Suddenly I feel terribly inadequate because I can't imagine any of my books ever being used in a classroom! Especially given the reaction I've seen from some adult reviewers - characters have sex! They swear! There's an abortion! They smoke weed! And drink alcohol!

I can't imagine any of that landing in a classroom without some parent calling the school and objecting, thereby quickly ending any of my books' short-live classroom experience. Even though none of those things (the sex, the pot smoking, the drinking, the abortion) are written in a way that makes them seem cool or encouraged, or even without consequences. They are part of the story because that stuff happens in teen lives and in the stories I've written, they seemed honest to the characters and to their stories. To ignore it, to me, would be to pretend it doesn't happen, and that's not true.

The thing is, I feel like if that's all a book is about, that's fine. If it's a book about a girl getting pregnant and her struggles to deal with that, fine. It's a "lesson" book. If it's about a girl struggling with addiction, fine. It "teaches." But if those things aren't central to the story, if they aren't treated like an "issue," then there's a presumption that they're dealt with cavalierly, as if they're inconsequential. Or trivial. And therefore the book they're in isn't heavy or substantial enough.

I get at least a few emails a week about THE BOOK OF LUKE. For some reason, this book really resonates with readers. Not one of them has ever said that they remember the sex. Instead, they talk about the relationship between Luke and Emily and how they could relate, how it was like they became their friends.

In PLAN B, no reader has ever mentioned that Vanessa and Reed smoke dope together, instead they talk about how much fun they thought the story was.

In RICH BOYS, no one ever mentions the abortion, just the characters and the story of Winnie and Jay.

And when readers send emails about LOCAL GIRLS, not once has any of them mentioned the sex that takes place.

While the premise for each book is different, they all deal with issues all teens deal with - friendship, loss, fear, first love, parents, siblings, school. All things any student in high school could relate to. And they learn lessons, of course, but they're life lessons, and I'm not sure the type of lessons welcome in a classroom.

And that's okay with me. I've seen the books read in my kids' school, how they have killed their love of reading because they are books for a curriculum rather than books that create a joy for turning the page, a connection with characters they could imagine meeting in real life, stories that become part of who they are. It's sad how much my kids hate reading now, how they don't pick up a book outside the classroom because they think most books suck.

I wish schools would introduce more books that are well-written, engaging stories that make kids want to read, even if they're not necessarily "school" books. Creating life long readers is so important. Not just picking from a list of educationally-approved texts, proven over time, read generation after generation, just because they're supposed to be "school" books.

5 comments:

  1. Life long readers and readers with healthy lives. (((((hugs))))

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  2. Totally agree--creating readers is INCREDIBLY important.

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  3. GAH! Your last paragraph so nails it. Yes, creating lifelong readers is so important. Also as someone who also writes books with sex and drugs, I have found that it's totally true that teen readers don't get hung up on that the way adults do. Instead, they are looking for an emotional connection to the story.

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  4. Yes! I remember shuddering when my son read Captain Underpants, but he was reading! And today, at 19, he loves to read. That's the goal !

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  5. I can so relate to this!! The letters I've gotten from teens about my books, thank me about writing about what's real and what they've been through. The reviews I've read from adults (and have heard in person) ream me out for using inappropriate language, etc. Like you said, though, even if the books won't be read in the classroom, doesn't mean they're not doing good in the world. :-)

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