Everybody has a story. These stories comprise the events in our lives that intersect in complicated and uniquely beautiful ways to shape our perceptions and general outlook of the world. They demonstrate our strengths and vulnerabilities, they humanize our experiences, and allow us to empathize with others. Stories help us experience unexpected and unfamiliar situations by allowing us to embody the journeys of the storyteller, who initially may appear to be different. As middle level teachers, we are often keenly aware of students' struggles to define themselves and establish their individual identities. Our students come to our classes brimming with distinctly complex stories. One of our primary responsibilities as teachers is to facilitate the growth of our students as citizens of the world. Young adult (YA) literature provides a platform by which middle school students can explore the world via multiple points of view that are both similar to and different from their own.
YA literature is a readily available resource that can help students better understand various perspectives by examining fictional characters that hold different beliefs, experience unique situations, and engage in controversial actions. Such literature can aid students in challenging their beliefs by experiencing the world through a character's life. This aspect is especially important when the character represents a member of a marginalized group who expands the student's awareness of this group or his or her own identity. This article provides activities and resources that encourage students to explore multiple viewpoints by comparing and contrasting alternative explanations for the resiliency of the characters from two contemporary YA books. YA literature will be used for eighth or ninth grade students to investigate aspects of social responsibility to examine social injustices. More specifically, the activities and text selections allow adolescents to gain a more intimate understanding of the social factors that impact identity formation.
Characteristics of Young Adult Literature
Per the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), YA literature is designed to appeal to individuals from ages 10-25 and attempts to speak to the readers' needs—that is, young adults are portrayed as individuals in search of their true selves and are thus constantly evolving. It also includes literary formats encompassing narrative nonfiction and variations of poetry like novels written in verse. In addition, YA literature allows readers to not only see themselves depicted in the written pages, but it fosters empathy of people who are not like the reader. YALSA poignantly asserts that YA books have the capacity to tell the truth, despite how disagreeable such truth may be, in order to prepare readers for the realities of adulthood and responsibilities of citizenship. "In this way [YA] literature invites its readership to embrace the humanity it shares with those who—if not for the encounter in reading—might forever remain strangers or—worse—irredeemably 'other'" (Young Adult Library Services Association, 2008, para. 12). In the next sections, several activities with two YA books are discussed.
YA Books that Exemplify Cultural Identity Construction
Characters in YA books allow readers to experience what it might feel like to be an outsider. Additionally, experiencing a culturally rich perspective can facilitate social awareness and responsibility among readers. For example, if a character is culturally different than the reader, daily challenges and prejudices that may be invisible to the reader suddenly become tangible realities. Two YA books that allow students to familiarize themselves with cultural identity construction are The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo and Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson. The Poet X is the story of Xiomara Batista, a teen from the Dominican Republic who resides in a working-class neighborhood in Harlem. The novel, written in verse, depicts how Xiomara navigates various cultural elements among her family (e.g., religion and gender roles) and classmates (e.g., assumptions about promiscuity).
Piecing Me Together is about Jade, a junior attending a private high school in Portland, Oregon, who struggles to negotiate the disparities between her home in a black urban neighborhood and her expensive education at her predominantly white school. Jade joins a mentorship program, and throughout the book she reflects on how people, including teachers and her mentor, believe she needs to be saved from poverty and her culture. Both Xiomara and Jade grapple with how to define their uniquely complex and multi-layered identities that are emphasized by dual and dueling identities of race and social class.
Building Self-Awareness through YA Character Identity Analysis
Adolescents must often negotiate which parts of themselves ought to be hidden and which aspects of their personalities should be shared, in addition to how and when such sharing should occur. By examining how YA characters struggle and experience their identities, students begin to build self-awareness, while also expanding their understanding of others. The teacher builds background knowledge and engages students in an initial self-analysis by completing a 3- to 5-minute quick-write on the following questions:
- What makes you, you?
- How have you changed within the last year?
- Which experiences have impacted your personality?
- How has your culture or background influenced your life?
It is important that students know that their responses can remain private. The quick-write also helps develop an identity chart with the student's name centered in the middle of a page, surrounded by the major characteristics that define his or her personality and identity.
Afterwards, the students actively read each book by making notations and evaluative questions to be used during Socratic seminars and literature circles. The teacher explains that as students read each book, they will also compare and contrast the two main characters and themselves. The comparisons center on identity and how personal experiences, culture, and stereotypes impact our identities. Students independently complete the graphic organizer in figure 1. As an extension to the organizer, students can include direct quotes from the books that support the character comparisons. The teacher then facilitates a whole-class discussion about the ways in which different aspects affect our personalities (e.g., lived experiences, labels, physical appearance, etc.).
Identity Comparisons Between YA Characters and Student
Following this discussion, students in pairs identify common themes and supporting quotes from Piecing me Together and The Poet X. After identifying themes such as the intersections between race and gender or how societal and cultural pressures shape identity, the teacher leads a dialogue regarding the factors that shape individual identities and the contributing social inequities. The students reflect on what it means to be socially responsible by gaining an understanding of the forces that impact someone's identity and why such knowledge helps to celebrate different perspectives. Students are asked to consider who and what defines each main character, and how they resist such definitions.
This reflection results in a culminating creative nonfiction or haiku writing piece, whereby students write about their identity via prompts such as: Who defines your identity and how do you challenge these definitions? What are the superpowers of your identity? Self-reflective writing allows students to explore meaningful connections between themselves and the characters in the book. This writing activity also deepens students' awareness of individual, yet complimentary, characteristics that should be celebrated.
The activities and text selections in this article enable students and teachers to explore the social factors that impact identity formation. As teachers, we remember the angst that demarcated our adolescence, without fully realizing the fluid and changing nature of our identities. Teachers and students of color have the added complexity of limited opportunities to see their perspectives reflected within the curriculum. Thus, the inclusion of YA books with diverse characters and themes are essential to any program of study. YA books provide vivid portrayals of the interior and exterior lives of characters, thereby building personal connections between readers and characters that begin to deconstruct stereotypes. These books offer a vehicle by which adolescents can explore the world, while simultaneously exploring perspectives that stretch their limited and potentially constricting identities.
Additional Young Adult Books that Explore Identity Issues across Various Cultures
- American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang from Square Fish.
- Darius & Twig by Walter Dean Myers from Amistad.
- Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram from Dial Books.
- Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams from Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books.
- My Name is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson from Skyscape.
- Saints and Misfits by S. K. Ali from Salaam Reads.
- Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman from Simon Pulse.
- The Tequila Worm by Viola Canales from Wendy Lamb Books.
- They Call me Guero: A Border Kid's Poems by David Bowles from Cinco Puntos Press.
- Watch us Rise by Renee Watson and Ellen Hagan from Bloomsbury.
Acevedo, E. (2018). The poet x. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.
Watson, R. (2017). Piecing me together. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Young Adult Library Services Association. (2008). The value of young adult literature. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/yalsa/guidelines/whitepapers/yalit
Vanessa E. Vega, Ed.S., is director of the Office of Clinical Experiences and a doctoral student at the University of Alabama, Birmingham.
Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2019.