Author-Educator Interview: John H. Bushman on Using Young Adult Literature in the English Classroom

John. H. Bushman on John H. Bushman:

Undergraduate Degree — Ottawa University, 1962

Master’s Degree — University of Kansas, 1966

Ph.D — University of Illinois, 1971

“I have taught 9th grade English in USD 290 (Ottawa, KS), taught English at Ottawa University (1965 – 71), and taught English Education at the University of Kansas from 1971 to 2005.”

What about young adult literature first called to you as a reader? As an educator?

My first reading of YA Lit was The Chocolate War (1974). I was fascinated with Robert Cormier‘s style. Grabbed me from the first paragraph and kept me reading until I was finished. Really was disturbed–perhaps too strong a word–with the ending. But didn’t realize until a couple of years later after reading other works that he was “right on.” His ending clearly showed that “the good guys don’t always win.” That’s life!

It was so easy to get my students–undergrad and graduate to read his novels. Most grabbed on and stayed reading. It was somewhat easier to move from the Cormier style to other works.

How have you seen young adult literature grown and change over the course of your career?

There is a great range of YA Literature from the early days to the present. For me, the literature has become a little more real–i.e., there is more for the mature reader to enjoy. Perhaps more for the high-school reader. Language is stronger–more sophistication in the writing.

Congratulations on the success of Using Young Adult Literature in the English Classroom, co-authored by Kay Parks Hass, (Prentice Hall, 2005)(fourth edition)! Could you tell us about the book?

What we try to do with our book is to make it very practical for the classroom teacher.

There is some research, but we try to apply that to the classroom. We make every effort to help teachers have the strategies and the content to “do what is right for kids.”

Something must be right with the book — we are in the 4th edition!

What about this topic spoke to you? Why do you think using YA books in English classes is so important?

Kids come out of elementary school with a great desire to read and enjoy what they are reading, and they are then often faced with Great Expectations.

The YA Literature captures its readers. The plots are about them. They can see themselves in the characters. There is very little about Pip or Estella that turns kids on.

I strongly believe that we (teachers) have a strong mission to keep kids reading, and we can do that by providing them with literature that they can get excited about.

I have never said that the “classics” are bad in and of themselves. I do believe that they are bad for sixth through eleventh graders. Seniors–most of them–have the intellectual ability to understand the complexity of plot and of language. They can work with the classics.

In my tenure at the University, I have visited classroom after classroom and seen kids plodding along with a novel or play in which they find no excitement, no connection. Most of the time, the teacher is reading and or interpreting the work. The kids aren’t reading at all.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) of first bringing the book to life? Of the latest edition?

One of the major challenges is to include the latest and most relevant literature. My challenge is to keep up with my reading, and then I have to be selective in what is included.

The other challenge is to be aware of any changes in the research–what emphasis has changed.

There has always been some literature on “Reader Response.” There seems to be more emphasis on that approach in recent years. But I think the most important challenge is to be sure to include the right literature and place it in the right context.

We also have to provide enough of a change in a new edition so that when it is sold the new edition is significantly different from the previous one.

Could you give us a few (maybe three or four) examples of YA novels featured in your book that work especially well in English classrooms? What makes each such a great pick?

Some of the older works that I still believe are workable in the English classroom are The Chocolate War by Cormier (Dell, 1974), Chinese Handcuffs by Crutcher (Greenwillow, 1989) and Far North by Hobbs (Morrow, 1996).

These are basic, great quality books with much interest for students. Their characters are strong, and the plot lines are very well executed. Perhaps most of all, kids can still relate to them.

More recent past, I like Dessen‘s The Truth about Forever (Viking, 2004) and Draper‘s Copper Sun (Simon & Schuster, 2006) Both take on a different set of values and basically give young people choices to think about.

What new YA releases would you consider highlighting to English teachers?

I would urge English teachers to consider new releases such as Deadline by Crutcher (Greenwillow, 2007), Thirteen Reasons Why by Asher (Penguin, 2007), Handcuffs by Griffin (Delacorte, 2008), Thaw by Roe (Front Street, 2008), Timelock, The Caretaker Trilogy: Book 3 by Klass (FSG, 2009) and Walkaway by Carter (Holiday House, 2008).

There are so many books that hit the market almost everyday, it is very difficult to keep up. I find I’m reading every spare moment and I’m still behind. My library is bulging with books.

What strategic suggestions do you have for teachers wanting to use YA literature, but don’t have the support of their administrations, districts, etc.?

If test scores are not very high in reading, most administrators will want to know why. Often times, teachers can explain that students are not reading because they don’t want to read. It is not that they can’t read (most of the time), but it is simply due to the lack of reading interest. There are many articles from The Alan Review, English Journal and other journals that speak to this issue. Teachers can copy these and give them to those who question the teaching of YA Lit.

Book clubs before and after school can provide young people with quality reading. This may very well carry over to the regular curriculum if those in power can see the benefits.

I suppose the most important suggestion is to “go slow.” Introduce one book at a time. Then more may be added as the years go by.

Suggest that the curriculum committee read one or two YA books.

On another front, could you tell us about The Writing Conference? What are its goals and activities?

The Writing Conference is a nonprofit organization with its mission to increase the reading and writing skills by providing services for young people and teachers. The Conference was started in 1980 and has been moving along ever since.

One of the major concerns now is the lack of funding. We offer many activities for students that are not revenue generating.

The Writing Conference, Inc., sponsors writing contests, which are follow up by a Celebration of Writing event in which winners are invited to attend. An author is invited–our own Cynthia Leitich Smith was the 2009 author.

We also have the Heartland Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature. YA Lit is nominated, and then a committee of 20 read the nominated books and then meet in late August to determine the 10 finalists. That list is made available through our web site.

Students then read as many of the 10 finalists as they can, and then they vote. The winner is determined in April and is invited to the Literature Festival in October.

From time to time, other conferences are held.

More specifically, would you like to fill us in on the upcoming Literature Festival?

The Literature Festival, held at the University of Kansas on Oct. 13, brings together books, young people and authors.

Small group discussions are held on the author books, the new Heartland Books, and the book read for this Festival. Students rotate through a number of discussion groups throughout the day.

Who were the winner and honor authors of this year’s Heartland Award?

The 2009 Winner of the Heartland Award is Thirteen Reasons Why by Asher (Penguin, 2007). The two Honor books were Deadline by Chrutcher (Greenwillow, 2008) and Elsewhere by Zevin (FSG, 2005).

I was very impressed with the Heartland choice that the students made. Thirteen Reasons Why concerns a problem that many young people face. Asher does an incredible job. And, of course, Crutcher is being Crutcher with Deadline. We all love him!

In considering YA literature in the whole, what would you like to see more of and why?

In general, I would like to see more high-school level young adult literature. There is plenty of mid-level literature–more and more each day, it seems. I know the argument: that’s where the reader base is. Well, if there were an increase in the more sophisticated, more “mature” themes, perhaps that readership would increase.