Breaking Away from Conventions by Michele L. Haiken

I have clear memories of my early teen years sleeping at my grandparents’ house with my cousins and younger sister. I remember staying up late and reading aloud passages from the then, popular (and what some might refer to as taboo) Forever by Judy Blume. The secrets, giggles, and conversations extending the text we shared in the second floor bedroom influenced my love of literature going forward, but there were very few authors in my youth who I felt spoke directly to me. I cherished Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me Margaret and Forever for their honest and direct approach to subjects like young love, sex, and growing up.


My own middle school and high school experiences were consumed with too many required reading books full of abstract themes and symbolic metaphors that I didn’t understand until much later. Cynthia Voigt’s Dicey’s Song, Kamala Markandaya’s A Nectar in a Sieve, and A Slipping Down Life by Anne Tyler were far too complex for me. I felt my English teachers chose books selfishly to torment me.  It wasn’t until college that I was introduced to required reading that peaked my interests. All of a sudden, I had a voracious appetite for reading. My bookshelves started overflowing with Anais Nin, Henry Miller, Erica Jong’s The Fear of Flying, Toni Morrison’s Paradise, and Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent. My dual major in English Education and Women Studies introduced me to women writers who did not follow the norms, writers whose voices were loud and clear. And I felt these authors were speaking directly to me. Women writers who broke away from the conventional and who didn’t shy away from difficult and sometimes taboo topics were the authors I craved, sought out, read, and reread. My appetite for books with risky, raunchy outliers and others is still present in the novels I read today.


As a middle school English teacher for the past eighteen years, I am constantly searching for young adult fiction and writers who speak to my students the way young adult fiction spoke to me in my youth. My classroom library is filled with a variety of new voices and YA writers who address topics that appeal to the diversity of my students’ lives and interests. I scour recommendations across social media and the web to find the books that will capture my students’ attention. You might be asking at this point who are those authors that resonate with me and the likes of my students? Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle is a apocalyptic adventure of a bisexual teenage boy trying to save the world and figure out who he is at the same time. Jennifer Mathieu’s multi-voiced novel, The Truth About Alice, is filled with deceit and vicious gossip that turns a town upside down. I sobbed the last seventy five pages of Laurie Halse Anderson’s The Impossible Knife of Memory, and I was shocked by the resolution in  e. lockhart’s we were liars. I am drawn to these edgy YA novels that are filled with gritty realities and protagonists left in limbo. Certainly, the last thing I want to read is a cliche or pseudo happy ending. By sharing these books with my students, my hope is that they, too,  will find the books that keep them up late at night and encourage chats with their friends.


If I didn’t find Judy Blume in my impressionable teen years, I might have continued to be a struggling reader. I might have even stayed a defiant reader throughout my schooling. The books that my teachers assigned made reading a loathsome challenge. But outside of the classroom,YA contemporary fiction allowed me to make connections, seek answers to questions, and think about who I was and who I wanted to be. I was disconnected from the required reading books of my secondary schooling, and because of that, I struggled tremendously with reading. But put a raunchy book with taboo topics in the hands of a reluctant reader like me, and reading was as addictive as Halloween candy. I could never get enough.


Judy Blume once said, “Let children read whatever they want and then talk about it with them. If parents [and teachers] and kids can talk together, we won’t have as much censorship because we won’t have as much fear.” If educators are to promote book love, then the roadblocks must be removed and students must be given the choice and freedom to read what they like.   In addition to the classics, our booklists and required reading should introduce young people to new voices, perspectives, and contemporary authors who push the envelope, and give us a reason to stay up late and gossip about with our friends the next day.


Michele L. Haiken, Ed.D. (@teachingfactor) is a middle school English teacher at Rye Middle School in Rye, New York and an adjunct professor in the Literacy Department at Manhattanville College. To find out what she is currently reading and the books she has piled high on her nightstand, you can visit her blog where she shares highlights about literacy and learning in her classroom.