Guest Post: Lyn Hawks on How YA Is Literary: The Search for an Abundant Canon

By Lyn Fairchild Hawks

As a young adult author and former high school teacher who loves reading lists full of unique voices and identities, I find recent news about banned books heartbreaking.

Back in 1986, I wrote a high school research paper about book censorship, and here we are again. I dived back into this problem as an MFA student at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, guided by the marvelous Cynthia Leitich Smith, writing a thesis titled “But Is YA literary? The Search for an Abundant Canon.” I wanted to explore obstacles teachers face when teaching young adult literature and find ways to overcome them.

What first sparked my thesis was an English department’s dilemma at a large public high school in 2020, where teachers were debating whether to replace Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird [(J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1960)] with Nic Stone’s YA novel, Dear Martin [(Crown Books, 2017)]. Some teachers argued the YA novel Dear Martin–a story about Justyce, an Ivy-bound Black teen catalyzed by an unjust arrest to try living like Dr. King–was not literary enough.

Inspired by great work by #DisruptTexts and We Need Diverse Books, I sought specific reasons schools won’t put YA into their “top ten” lists (the canon). So I surveyed and interviewed high school English teachers, asking what might keep a YA book out of the canon. I also interviewed young adult literature professors. I examined the Common Core State Standards and the school’s curriculum standards. I studied Dear Martin and read critical articles. You can read my thesis here to get the full story, my findings, and my analysis.

I found many obstacles, ranging from limited budgets to confusion about what YA lit actually is. I also learned that some teachers’ and institutions’ standards, assessments, and rubrics define literary in a narrow way. One of my goals was to elicit a clear rubric that could help us determine how gatekeeping works. Before books get banned in school board meetings, are some of us already using implicit bias to ban the book from canon consideration?

The deeper I dived, the more I had to own this truth: my typical first read of YA texts favors craft moves in the style of white, male, cis, straight, abled writers. Even with a history of creating multicultural reading lists, I was once trained–and still have to fight against–the attitude that YA lit is missing certain literary marks. Matthew SalessesCraft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping (Catapult 2021) and The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom by Felicia Rose Chavez (Haymarket Books 2021) were instrumental in reshaping my thinking.

Lyn reading from her work in the chapel at Vermont College.

Turns out, I’m not alone. When I asked teachers to define literary in my survey, definitions got murky. “I know it when I see it” even popped up. I grouped their definitions under these umbrellas. Literary means:

  • timelessness (or universality);
  • complexity (or difficulty, nuance, sophistication; allowance for interpretation or critical thinking about ideas, concepts, questions, and answers);
  • craft (theme, diction, style, etc.);

In other words: Timelessness + Complexity + Craft = This Text Will Be Taught as Canon.

I returned to Dear Martin holding this rubric. I studied Stone’s opening pages. And from the very first one, I saw how literary craft abounds. There’s alliteration, consonance, contrast, foreshadowing, idiom, irony, motif, sensory detail, simile, and symbolism. (See my analysis, beginning page 30 of my thesis.) So wait: why would some teachers miss these marks of a literary text that I believe can hang with the Bard or Hemingway?

I’ve got my theories. One factor can be implicit bias against “immature” subjects (drinking, parties, romance are all mentioned in the early pages of Dear Martin). Some believe those topics are best for a Netflix series and not the AP exam. Yet Romeo and Juliet has crass sexual jokes while To Kill a Mockingbird contains sexual abuse, lynching, and racist tropes. So what’s our rationale for what’s permitted, again?

Another measure where Dear Martin shows itself to be literary is its ability to spark critical thinking. If a book makes you think–discover insights, argue claims, and present evidence–then it’s going somewhere deep. The novel gets super Socratic, posing dilemmas around justice, privilege, fate, and free will. Did Justyce do the right thing in responding to racist classmates? What is privilege? How is Justyce, the protagonist, both privileged and underprivileged? Where does Justyce have agency, and where does he not? See page 37 of my thesis for more of these queries.

In my research, I also learned more about signifying in Black American literary traditions, thanks to the work of KaaVonia Hinton and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. I learned more from Zora Neale Hurston. I learned from the writings of Ursula LeGuin, Cynthia Leitich Smith, and Traci Sorrell about other ways of seeing literary excellence in various cultural craft techniques.

By the end of my research process, I had tips and strategies for those who want to disrupt the canon at their school and see if they can integrate more YA lit. Here are 5 Tips to Make a More Inclusive Canon Today, including a set of questions for Cynthia Leitich Smith’s story, “Between the Lines” in the anthology Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids [edited by Cynthia Leitich Smith, (Heartdrum/HarperCollins, 2021)].

To all the devoted educators out there, including those I interviewed and surveyed: thank you for your daily labor and your willingness to keep evolving. I see all the meaningful work you do to embrace the younger bards and those voices ignored for so long. Fortunately we have blogs like Cynsations and movements like #DisruptTexts and We Need Diverse Books to inspire us. Let’s keep sharing the good news of how we all can build a beautifully abundant canon.

Cynsations Notes

Lyn Fairchild Hawks is a North Carolina YA author who writes about gifted, weird, and wise activist youth. Her novels include How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought and @nervesofsteel. She is also the author of Minerda, a middle grade graphic novella and collaboration with illustrator Robin Follet; and The Flat and Weightless Tang-Filled Future, a short story collection for adults. Lyn is a recipient of the Norma Fox Mazer Award and an Elizabeth George Foundation grant and an MFA graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Art’s program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

A former high school and middle school teacher, Lyn runs Success Story Essay Consulting, helping students applying to college and writing novels express their authentic voices. She is the author of Teaching Macbeth: A Differentiated Approach and Teaching Julius Caesar: A Differentiated Approach (NCTE, 2022, 2010). She is the co-author of The Compassionate Classroom: Lessons that Nurture Wisdom and Empathy (Chicago Review Press, 2004) and Teaching Romeo and Juliet: A Differentiated Approach (NCTE, 2007).

See also: a Cynsations interview with Nic Stone on writing Dear Martin.