“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” ~ Maya Angelou
Angelou’s simple, yet evocative words resonate with me every single day. Teaching at an alternative high school my students often arrive disillusioned with their educational journey; certainly the most recent leg. Unfortunately that disillusionment often stems from failed relationships with the very adults who have been charged with accompanying them on this most recent leg. They do remember what has been said to them, what has been done in their presence, and most importantly, how they have been made to feel. Young people no matter their circumstances often struggle to make sense of the world; a world in which their perception of their own place in it is tenuous, at best, creating a good deal of uncertainty.
Valuing this uncertainty, along with their varied experiences, is essential to creating a classroom culture of trust and respect. Through patience, reassurance, and understanding relationships are fostered that will have a positive impact on their future, thereby opening them up to the possibility of successes on a multitude of levels. Books serve this, my most important work, in so many ways. We would be hard pressed to recognize a universal theme across media content without first learning to identify a text-to-self connection. Thank goodness for Young Adult authors whose courageous words speak loudly to my students and their experiences. Writing about painful relationships, shameful secrets, rash decisions and the reality of living with the consequences of your actions these authors validate not only the experiences of my students, but also the human experience. My students need to know they are not alone and it is simply not enough for me, their teacher, to tell them this.
On September 17th our community of learners was privileged with a classroom visit from two YA powerhouses, Ellen Hopkins and Sonya Sones. Touring to promote their latest books, their visit fittingly took place just before Banned Books Week. Candid conversations ensued about why books are challenged and how these same books help heal broken spirits, bring social secrets to the forefront, and provide readers with the courage to face everyday challenges. My students were mesmerized by both women, and are still talking about the visit while reading, reading, reading.
In Smoke (Burned #2) Hopkins gifts her readers with the next leg of Pattyn Von Stratten’s journey; something they have been clamoring for since she was first introduced in Hopkins’ second novel, Burned. Pattyn, upon the urging of her mother, leaves her family and her past behind. But family ties, a past deeply rooted in faith, and a broken heart struggling to heal, make Pattyn’s attempts to create a new life challenging as ghosts refuse to be silenced.
Sonya Sones explores the implications of habitual lying in her latest novel in verse, To Be Perfectly Honest: A Novel Based on an Untrue Story. Readers are reacquainted with Colette, who first appeared as a secondary character in One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies. Colette, struggling to make sense of her place in the world (sound familiar?), uses lying as a way to exercise control. Colette comes to realize the implications of her choices only after she herself experiences them at the hands of another.
In these, their latest works, both Hopkins and Sones provide readers with strong female characters who navigate the uncertainty of life with courage, candor and resiliency. Their authentic voices ring loud and true, reminding readers that the human experience is their experience, and that they are not alone.
Enriching experiences such as this cannot be found in any set of standards, Common Core or otherwise. They are too uncommon. To suggest that a high school English/Language Arts curriculum should be structured around a plan that includes 70% non-fiction and 30% fiction is to flatten the experience of those I am charged with. I remain steadfast in my resolve to champion literature that values all readers and to protect its place in the classroom. In 11/22/63 Stephen King reminds us that “We never know which lives we influence, or when, or why.” Ellen Hopkins and Sonya Sones, please rest assured that your influence, here and how, has had a profound impact on a community of learners. You have made them feel that their experiences have value, that they are not alone, and that they can move forward. For this I am forever grateful.
Cathy Blackler teaches High School English in Southern California. A proud, card-carrying member of the #nerdybookclub, she is the current President of the Foothill Reading Council and is serving a three-year term on the California Young Reader Medal (CYRM) Committee. She truly leads a reading life, and still owns the first book she purchased with her own money.