Literature to share with tweens and teens: Go beyond today's young adult titles

Today's 'Young Adult' genre in literature is booming, and often attractive for adults and younger readers alike, but experts also encourage parents to read more classics with their kids, to bring historical works to today's audiences.

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The cover image for George Orwell's 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' originally published in 1950, which still has themes that easily relate to today's audiences.

Kay DiTolla, mother of six and long-time high school English teacher, had a personality as large as the characters she taught. Dramatic, curious, adamantly positive even when life was not, she loved literature.

But she was known to have taken an extra drive around the block on her way home from school in the afternoon, the better to gird herself for what she knew would be a vigorous conversation with her son Daniel about books.  He shared her passion for reading and was not to be ignored.  

The pair’s frequent, long and sometimes exhausting conversations about literature were “her fault,” quips Daniel DiTolla. “She turned me on to a lot of those books.” Mr. DiTolla, vice president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, says he routinely came home from school anxious to talk to his mother about an element of a particular book he’d read that day. 

“They were very exciting conversations. Literature was very exciting to me. That was something that I could share with my mother – that sense of discovery – and she indulged me,” he recalls. 

Great literature by its nature asks the big questions and those came up early on for DiTolla, when he realized through reading biographies that people needn’t be prisoners of their past. 

“In grammar school I read a ton of Abe Lincoln biographies,” he says. He was particularly interested by the fact that Lincoln’s family moved around a lot.  His mother explained to him that Lincoln’s family was extremely poor, and that his father was, as her son interpreted it, “a drunken derelict.” That such a leader as Lincoln could come from such an environment “was earth shattering to me,” he recalls.

In high school, four specific books awoke DiTolla to life outside suburbia, where he grew up.  The books were Chaim Potoks’s “The Chosen”; William Styron’s “The Confessions of Nat Turner”; “Black Like Me” by John Howard Griffin; and – his favorite – Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables.” To the mix, his mother added a trip to see Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” in Stratford, Connecticut. Broadening her children’s vision was his mother’s intent.  

“She was pretty liberal in her reading. She read beat-generation stuff. Avant-garde stuff.  She never squashed what we were reading or said ‘that’s garbage.’” His mother’s teacher-self was in gear at home as well as at school DiTolla says. “She’d prompt you: ’What about this?’ or ‘I agree, but how about this other interpretation?’” He could never recall her being dismissive of a differing point of view.

Of course rare is the parent who has the content of the classics at her fingertips, awaiting a question from her child. But you don’t need an English degree for you and your children to read books simultaneously.  Starting at the middle school level, experts say, there are plenty of classic titles sophisticated enough to hold parents’ attention yet accessible enough for kids.  Perhaps a perfect treat for the waning days of summer?

Much like grown-up book club buddies, families can’t help but learn more about each other as they share literature. Your child may come to appreciate your fascination with plot while you’re delighted to discover that she’s mature enough to really understand metaphor. 

Maybe you savor a lovely, melodic, description while he helps you relish gritty dialogue.  What’s more, in adolescence, when relationships can be strained, a fictional situation may give you or your child just the neutral opening you need to broach a sensitive issue without having to address it directly. 

”Ultimately any literature helps us develop key skills we need to navigate daily life,” says Chris Shoemaker, president of Young Adult Library Services Association, a division of the American Library Association. The classics continue to shed light on current issues, he says.  He suggests that George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and his “Nineteen Eighty-Four” – for instance – though written in the 1940’s, are well-positioned for today’s young reader, given the questions they raise about surveillance and totalitarianism. He suggests that students might read and compare them to Corey Doctorow’s contemporary “Little Brother” and see how the themes have endured.     

Rachel Claff, editorial director of the Great Books Foundation’s K-12 programs, suggests that parents who want to read with their children begin by piggybacking on the reading lists already being offered by their schools. Such lists often feature the classics, she says. In case families need additional inspiration, the Great Books Foundation has shared a list of 32 must-read titles for middle school and high school students.

Also, the Great Books Foundation web site provides some guidelines for discussion, and the Young Adult Library Services Association pairs classics with contemporary retellings.

How does a book become a classic? Experts say it’s through a combination of literary merit and the hard, timeless questions the stories raise – notions about choices, about class and society, about personal responsibility, about how societies are sustained and how they collapse, as well as about themes of interpersonal relationships and of love, as in the perennially popular “Romeo and Juliet.”  

Consider “The Great Gatsby,” suggests Nancy Carr, senior development editor at Great Books. Its enduring place in American canon, she says, derives from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ability to deal in a complex way with such questions as identity, selfhood, professed values versus the values revealed through action, responsibility to self and others and so forth. Such a book, she says is “inexhaustible.  You can’t distill it down and say “this is the theme…You can keep revisiting it over a lifetime.” 

 Each year on his birthday, Kay DiTolla gave her son a copy of a book that was very important to her. Books by novelists, playwrights, and poets – there were all the greats: Dickens and Shakespeare, Yeats, Dickinson, Burns, and Blake. She inscribed each for him, usually with a quotation that she considered important, taken from the book. The two talked literature until her death at age 84 last November. In recent years he was the one giving books to her, most recently “Norwegian by Night,” Derek B. Miller’s debut novel.

She, meanwhile, had a chance to tell him that, family lore notwithstanding, it had only been once that she drove around the block to put off their after school talks. And really, why would she have? As her son says, “She loved that stuff.” 

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