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iYMAS and Why YA Lit Matters (A Lot)

In her beautiful, smart and funny book Why You Should Read Children's Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise, Katherine Rundell writes:


“...children's novels… speak of hope. They say: look, this is what bravery looks like. This is what generosity looks like. They tell me through the medium of wizards, lions and talking spiders, that this world we live in is a world full of people who tell jokes, and work and endure. Children's books say: the world is huge. They say: hope counts for something. They say: bravery will matter, wit will matter, empathy will matter, love will matter."

As a massive fan of books written for young adults, I’d take this one step farther and say that children's books, the best ones anyway, show us what it means to be a good human; not a perfect human, but a fundamentally good one. And for teen readers, who are developing their own values, that are both connected to and separate from the ones they were raised with, young adult fiction provides important snapshots of what the consequences of those choices can look like. Put another way, as children transition into adults, young adult fiction can help them decide what kind of adults they want to be.


Let that sink in.


As a profession, we talk a lot about why our work matters. We assert the important work of helping kids become readers. Out of necessity, we frame those conversations in the language of accountability. We dress them in data and toss in a pie chart. As a profession in constant peril, librarians have become experts at showcasing all the ways we serve the whole child and prepare learners for an uncertain future. From maker spaces to multi media production studios and learning laboratories, we’ve become educational chameleons: swiftly adapting to whatever pedagogical buzzword seems most likely to insure our survival. Don’t get me wrong, all of that work matters, and serves all sorts of needs not being met by traditional, test driven, classroom instruction. But ultimately, the most critical parts of our work can’t be measured, because the ways in which reading fundamentally changes who we are can’t be measured either. Reading makes us better at being human. And there’s simply not a yardstick for measuring that.


I’m not sure how successful I am at it, but this is a message I try hard to convey to the students in the YA Lit course I teach for Rutgers. As a survey course, we read A LOT! And I try to balance a few assigned titles with student choice. To do this, we read three books each week (for 11 weeks). These readings are (mostly) arranged around the ALA’s Youth Media Awards - meaning that each week we read books that have either won or that qualify for a given award. Because so many of the awards speak to a specific reader’s experience, this gives me a chance to do two things:


  1. point students towards books that reflect diverse representation and

  2. nudge students to consider what representation is MISSING from the current award offerings.

It’s with this second goal in mind, that one of our culminating projects includes the creation of an iYMA award. For this project, students create a trailer announcing their own Youth Media Award that features a specific reader, who (in their view) is not explicitly represented by the current YMA offerings. As part of their presentation, students must name the first winner or their award, along with three runners up.


I always love what students come up with in response to this challenge, but last semester I was particularly impressed. What’s more, if we believe that books have the power to help young people decide what kind of adult they want to be, it’s no exaggeration to say that many of the Youth Media Awards my students propose makes me hopeful for the future of humanity.


Take a look* - and feel free to leave comments on the ones you like!

Finally, for those who are interested, here’s a list of the books we read last semester:


  • Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi**

  • Hey Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka**

  • The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali by Sabina Khan

  • Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed

  • Illegal by Andrew Donkin and Eoin Colfer

  • On The Come Up by Angie Thomas**

  • Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds**

  • The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore

  • Pride by Ibi Zoboi

  • Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson

  • Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina**

  • The Benefits of Being An Octopus by Anne Braden**

  • The Truth As Told By Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor

  • Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly

  • The Girl Who Drank The Moon by Kelly Barnhill

  • Internment by Samira Ahmed**

  • March (Book 3) By John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell**

  • We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

  • A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Taheri Mafi

  • We Are Not Yet Equal by Carol Anderson with Tonya Bolden

  • They Call Me Güero by David Bowles**

  • The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo**

  • Lowriders to the Center of the Earth by Raúl Gonzalez

  • The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya

  • I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erica L Sanchez

  • What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper**

  • Roughneck by Jeff Lemire**

  • Home After Dark by David Small

  • All Systems Red by Martha Wells

  • The Wasp That Brainwashed the Caterpillar by Matt Simon

  • Electric Arches by Eve L. Ewing

  • You’re Welcome, Universe by Whitney Gardner**

  • Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D Jackson**

  • Macy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess by Shari Green

  • Roll With It by Jamie Sumner

  • In Waves by AJ Dungo

  • When We Collided by Emery Lord

  • They Called Us Enemy by George Takei**

  • Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and June Jo Lee**

  • The Unwanted: Stories of Syrian Refugees by Don Brown

  • A Few Red Drops by Claire Hartman

  • Fault Lines in the Constitution by Cynthia and Sanford Levinson

  • Picture Us In Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert**

  • Check, Please by Ngozi Ukazu**

  • The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater

  • The Dangerous Art of Blending In by Angelo Surmelis

  • The Whispers by Greg Howard

  • Laura Dean Keeps Braking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki

  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas**

  • The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner**

  • Darius The Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram

  • Blood, Water, Paint by Joy McCullough

  • Dear Martin by Nic Stone

  • Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly**

  • The New Kid by Jerry Craft**

  • Spin by Lamar Giles

  • Sadie by Courtney Summers

  • Opposite of Always by Justin Reynolds


*This is a copy of the original Padlet with comments (and products from students who did not want to share publicly) removed.

**Required reading.


PS: BIG thanks to my RU548 students who agreed to let me share their work here. I'm so grateful that each of you has chosen librarianship as one way you are going to change the world!

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