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Independent Reading Myth #1–Today’s Teens Don’t Read

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There is a heavily engraved image of today’s youth, earbuds as an extension of their actual bodies, thumbs glued to their smart phones.  No where do we see books in their hands.  Today’s youth is uninterested in the simple pleasure of reading.  He would rather be figuring out how to advance to the next level of Halo XXIII or updating his Facebook status about what he ate for dinner.  Not only is he uninterested in the simplicity of the printed word, he doesn’t have the attention span for it.

On the contrary, according to the NEA’s 2008 report, Reading on the Rise, young adults represent the fastest growing subpopulation that have significantly increased their reading habits.  Literary reading as a whole has reversed its downward spiral over the past two decades, increasing by 7% between 2002-2008.  Young adults, who on the last survey showed the steepest decline in 2002 have grown by 9 points, rising fastest out of the whole survey population.  In 2008, 51% of young adults reported that they read novels, short stories, poems, and plays either in print or online. 

The reality is that today’s teens are reading and reading in droves!  Thanks to the popularity of recent blockbuster adaptations of YA series, these exciting and relevant stories are coming into mainstream.  In fact, there is even a movement to include a book award in Fox’s Teen Choice Awards.  YA author Jennifer Donnelly has been an advocate of this movement from the beginning.  I can see it now–Veronica Roth’s Divergent up there next to Lil Wayne and Lady Gaga.

Teens are flocking to stories with strong heroines and nerdy book smart boys.  They are stalking authors like John Greene and Stephanie Meyer with more gusto than any film or radio star.

How do I know this?  Because I talk to them about it. I ask them what they’ve read or who their favorite author is.  I ask them about how they choose books and who among their friends shares the same taste in books as they do.  I ask them what makes a book great and then dangle carrots of curiousity in front of their noses, hoping to lead to discover yet another awesome YA novel.

Then why can’t we seem them doing it? Many of them are reading covertly.  Sadly, in their daily lives reading may not be valued.  Perhaps none of their teachers talk to them about reading for pleasure or even give them time to read something of their choice in class.  Devastating, I know.  Or for some, they are reading in plain view, right under your nose.  E-readers, apps, and digital media have connected a whole generation of “digital natives” to a new look at literary life.  They look like they are scrolling through Facebook?  Nope, they’re flipping as fast as they can through The Summer I Turned Pretty.  Texting a friend?  Nope, they are updating their goodreads shelves and writing reviews of their favorites.
Perhaps it’s not teens whose behaviors and perceptions need a major shift.  Perhaps it’s how we perceive readers themselves and what they read that could use a little adjustment instead.  

Like to think about this a little more?  Check out some of these resources:
“The Young Adult Voice in Research About Young Adults” (YALSA)
“The Kids Books are Alright” (NY Times)
“American Reading Habits Studied”

Please share any resources you may have to contribute to this conversation!

Happy reading 🙂

Audrey

Book Review: Insurgent

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Originally written for nerdybookclub.wordpress.com on May 23rd, 2012
Insurgent by Veronica Roth
One choice can transform you—or it can destroy you. But every choice has consequences, and as unrest surges in the factions all around her, Tris Prior must continue trying to save those she loves—and herself—while grappling with haunting questions of grief and forgiveness, identity and loyalty, politics and love (Goodreads.com).

What would you choose if you only had one choice:  bravery, honesty, selflessness, knowledge, or peace?  If all of your actions, your relationships, your being were to be determined by only one of these traits, what would be your choice?? 

The futuristic society of Veronica Roth’s Divergent has determined that the one way to combat the darkness of human nature is to divide itself into five factions, each faction devoted to one of the pre-determined necessary human qualities. Sixteen-year old Beatrice (Tris) Prior’s journey begins with a choosing ceremony.  (Sound familiar?) Unlike her peers, Tris has a much broader spectrum of who she could become.  Her choice takes her to a foreign world on the other side of the tracks in downtown Chicago where there’s a fine line between bravery and bullying, courage and cowardice. 
Suddenly, she finds herself at the center of a social and political civil war.  As Divergent closes we find ourselves speeding away on a train through the heart of Chicago seeking sanctuary from those who once stood by Tris, protected her,  glowing in the warmth of her new-found relationship with fellow Dauntless, Four,  and  suspended as  she yearns for redemption from her overwhelming guilt.
Insurgent is a remarkable exploration of human nature and motivation.  It’s an experiment in societal reform.  When society has so divided itself that it can no longer function as a cohesive organism what happens to those who have been abused and their abusers?     As the consequences of her fatal choice in Divergent fall like dominoes, faster than she can process, her dearest relationships are endangered;  her self-searching and determination to understand the truth about who she is at the foreground of a crumbling societey. 
True to many other “seconds” in a series, I found myself spending a painful amount of time teetering at the edge of our hero’s abyss.   In the first installation, we walk with Beatrice through the threshold (Divergent fans recall Tris catapulting herself from a rooftop) as she finds a loyal band of followers and undergoes a series of tests and trials as part of her initiation.  Once her quest is determined in Insurgent, other figures emerge as part of the dystopian landscape: the evil figure with the untimely good heart, the temptress, even death and rebirth.  As her plunge into the abyss drawers nearer, she must go deeper and deeper into her most fearsome landscape– her own soul– in order to proceed with her journey of self-discovery.
It is impossible to ignore the similarities between Tris Prior, Katniss Everdeen, Harry Potter, Todd Hewitt, Cassia Reyes and countless other YA sci-fi/ fantasy heroes, teens teetering at the edge of their own awakening to their true powers.  Every one of their societies is fighting to analyze, sort, and label who they will become.  The societies and settings, too, bare familiarities leading me to believe that Gale or Katniss will suddenly appear, running alongside the train with Four and the other Dauntless.  I hear Manchee’s searching “Todd?” from under some discarded street rubble.  At any moment, I expect Hermione to pop out of the Erudite crowd, toting a long lost volume that holds the key to what really lies outside of the fence. 
And so, as I sprinted through the final chapter and the shadows on the wall were revealed to me as they are revealed during the jaw-dropping finale, I couldn’t help but wonder …Why are we so drawn to adolescent heroes who are standing on a precipice, waiting and daring to take such a leap, whether it be bravery or curiosity that compels them?
 There is no denying the sudden rise in popularity of dystopian literature.  A recent Goodreads blog examined the growing trend in popularity of dystopian novels and described its over-arching themes over the last 50 years.  The blogger labels this latest explosion (The Hunger Games, Matched, Diverent) as “Romance” Dystopian and sites such inspirations as 9/11, War on Terrorism, and the prevalence of pop culture.  Tough heroines and anti-conformity drive these stories. 
After reading Divergent and now Insurgent, I am taken back to an Erudite’s explanation,
“Insurgent,” he says.  “Noun.  A person who acts in opposition to the established authority, who is not necessarily regarded as a belligerent. “ 
Do I hear anti-conformity?  Oh , yes.  But I think it extends beyond being radical, to being purposeful.  In a futuristic society where every member knows his or her purpose as it is handed down to him or her, where does that leave free-will?  As a constructivist, this resonates with me.  As information is funneled into our teens (as it so often is at many bytes per minute), they are persistently bombarded with labels, categories, and profiles, what choices then are left to them to determine what their truth is? 
Are we–all of us as educators, librarians, readers–not all insurgent, seeking truth for ourselves and then deciding how we will assimilate that truth into who we are and what motivates us?
Are teens devouring dystopian literature for their love triangles and star-crossed lovers?  Yes, probably.  But, are they also entering a landscape of their own fears, beliefs, doubts, and dreams in order to choose what they will take with them as they emerge from their own abyss and cross the impending threshold into adulthood?  Absolutely!