Complexity in Young Adult Literature
In Teaching Reading with YA Literature: Complex Text, Complex Lives by Jennifer Buehler, Chapter 2 looks at Young Adult Literature and Text Complexity and gives 8 different elements to think about to help analyze the complexity of a text:
Examples of complexity in The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson
Published January 7th, 2014
ALAN Walden Award Finalist 2015
National Book Award Longlist 2014
School Library Journal Best Young Adult Book of 2014
Summary: For the past five years, Hayley Kincain and her father, Andy, have been on the road, never staying long in one place as he struggles to escape the demons that have tortured him since his return from Iraq. Now they are back in the town where he grew up so Hayley can attend school. Perhaps, for the first time, Hayley can have a normal life, put aside her own painful memories, even have a relationship with Finn, the hot guy who obviously likes her but is hiding secrets of his own.
Will being back home help Andy’s PTSD, or will his terrible memories drag him to the edge of hell, and drugs push him over? The Impossible Knife of Memory is Laurie Halse Anderson at her finest: compelling, surprising, and impossible to put down.
Other questions that could be asked while reading to find complexity in YAL
(Examples from Teacher Reading with YA Literature, Buehler 36-37)
- Language: Are the sentences artfully constructed? Are the words carefully chosen? Does the author incorporate figurative language or poetic expression? Can we hear voice in the writing?
- Structure: How is it built in terms of form and structure? How do other elements such as titles and subtitles, vignettes and interludes, shifts between past and present, or multiple points of view work together to service the whole?
- Other Stylistic Elements: Are there other distinct elements in the text?
- Character: What is there to explore in terms of the character’s thoughts and feelings; conflicts and contradictions; struggles, growth, and change?
- Setting: How does the author bring us into the world of the story? What details help us to see, hear, and imagine this place?
- Literary Devices: How does the author use literary or cultural allusions, intertextual references, dialogue, internal monologue, metaphor and symbolism, magical realism, or repetition to build meaning?
- Topics and themes: What questions does the book ask? What ideas does it explore? What is at stake for teen readers in this book?
- How the book is put together: How effective is the interplay between plot layers and thematic layers?
Discussion Questions/Writing Prompts for The Impossible Knife of Memory
Complexity can also be increased by the characteristics of the reader (such as motivation, knowledge, and experiences) and task variables (such as purpose and the complexity generated by the task assigned and the questions posed). Here are some examples of discussion questions or writing prompts that could be used in classrooms or with independent readers who are reading The Impossible Knife of Memory.
- Hayley classifies all people into two categories: freaks & zombies. What does Hayley’s idea of the world show us about her outlook on life?
- How does Laurie Halse Anderson use the idea of THEN and NOW throughout the novel to build on the theme that memories are a very complex part of life?
- Drowning is a motif throughout the novel.
- How does Laurie Halse Anderson show the reader that Hayley’s father is suffering and found addiction without using those words?
- How did the inclusion of Hayley’s romantic relationship with Finn help move along the story and Hayley’s transformation? Do you feel that Hayley’s story arc would have been the same without Finn in the story?
- How was the setting an integral part of the story? How did Hayley returning to her deceased grandmother’s home propel the story?
- .Trish is one of the most complex characters in the book because there are many different Trishes shared with us throughout the story: Trish then, Trish now in reality, and Trish now in Hayley’s mind. How did Laurie Halse Anderson develop each of these different characters to show the reader a full picture of Trish?
To learn more about complexity in young adult literature, please read Teaching Reading with YA Literature: Complex Text, Complex Lives by Jennifer Buehler!
When I was my Methods of Teaching English course as an undergraduate many moons ago (with my smart, thoughtful mentor Wendy Glenn), she used dialogue journals with us. I absolutely loved the idea and used it with my own students when I became a teacher. Since my graduation, I’ve seen dialogue journals used in a variety of different ways. Many teachers have students write to each other. I like this, but there is something particularly special about getting to know your students through their dialogue journals and having a conversation with them.
I follow the way that I was taught to use dialogue journals. I begin with a prompt and staple it to the first page. The student writes a response to the prompt or writes about anything of interest. I then write back (a minimum of a paragraph but usually longer). The student then responds to me and writes back to me. Throughout, I introduce new prompts, or the students can continue our conversations.
How do I evaluate them?
I choose to evaluate dialogue journals based on completeness. I ask students to write a lengthy note to me, and as long as they do this, they receive an A. For me, dialogue journals are not about the grade. They are about a) me getting to know my students, b) me showing my students that I am interested in their lives and passions, c) me learning about my students’ interests to cater the curriculum to their needs, and d) me learning about their strengths and needs with respect to writing.
How do I purchase that many journals?
I invite students to get their own journal. They enjoy picking them out. But I always buy a few dozen cheap journals before the school year starts (during the crazy sales) to support students who prefer to use mine. To prevent a divide between the haves and the have-nots, I typically say, “If you don’t feel like going out and getting one, you can have one of mine.” Some teachers request department money be allocated for this.
How do I grade 100 dialogue journals in a semester?
Easy. I stagger when the students turn them in. I take home five to seven journals a night, and I read students’ journals every two weeks or so. If I am having a light grading time period, I take more of them home. I know that this is the scariest part for teachers, but I have always found it to be manageable. I have learned so much about my students’ lives in these journals, and they have been an invaluable part of my teaching.
What ideas do you have for using dialogue journals with students? What recommendations do you have for teachers? I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions!
Selecting books for my Adolescents’ Literature course is always a struggle. There are so many good books out there, and a week after I submit my book order, I always wonder if I should have used X book or highlighted the amazing work of X author. I will admit that some of my favorite authors aren’t even on the list. I try to mix it up each semester. I believe that I am only keeping four (of almost forty) books from last semester. This allows me to spread the author love and placate my guilt for not being able to include X work or X author. I am really excited to hear what the students think about the books this semester! Sharing this list brings some anxiety for me. I really struggle to build a list that is diverse, but I recognize that I am missing major topics and texts. This feels inevitable, but it doesn’t make it feel right.
For some of the weekly topics, only one book is listed. This means the entire class is reading the book. For other topics, three books are listed. This means that the class is divided in thirds. Each third reads a different book, and then we look across the texts to talk about the topic. I recognize that categorizing books has its problems, but we unpack this and discuss how it also helps us talk about many aspects of adolescence in a focused way. Many of the texts on this list could fit under several topics.
Identity (and Complications with Studying Identity)
If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth
Nontraditional Forms of YAL
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
Family and Friendship
Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson
Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick
They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz.
If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo
When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore
The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater
Time and Place
Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner
We Are Okay by Nina LaCour
The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X. R. Pan
Americanized: Rebel Without a Green Card by Sara Saedi
Vincent and Theo by Deborah Heiligman
Mary’s Monster by Lita Judge
Anger is a Gift by Mark Oshiro
Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley
Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert
Considerations of Class
The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock
The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner
Me and Marvin Gardens by A.S. King
Refugees and Immigration
Refugee by Alan Gratz
American Street by Ibi Zoboi
A Land of Permanent Goodbyes by Atia Abawi
Disability and the Body (Literature Circles)
Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson
Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
Girls Like Us by Gail Giles
Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
Wonder by R. J. Palacio
Not If I See You First by Eric Lindstrom
Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman
Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork
The Politics of Adolescence
All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
Tyler Johnson Was Here by Jay Coles
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
What books do/would you include on a course list?
For any seasoned teacher, they will tell you that building a community within your classroom will help not only with discipline but also with achievement since students who feel comfortable and engaged in a classroom will be more successful. Here are some tips for helping build rapport and community […]
For any seasoned teacher, they will tell you that building a community within your classroom will help not only with discipline but also with achievement since students who feel comfortable and engaged in a classroom will be more successful. Here are some tips for helping build rapport and community within your classroom:
Spend some time at the beginning of the year getting to know your students. I know this seems like a no brainer, but you know that your curriculum map always yells at you to get started. However, students are going to do better in your classroom if they feel like it is a place they want to be and learning about them will help you make the classroom that place.
Have students fill out interest and book inventories sharing about themselves and read them! After receiving them and reading them, write each student back a letter. The letter can be quick, but make it personal. Take it to another level by recommending books based on their interests!
For rules, for procedures, for texts, for lessons… let students have input! What is the easiest way to get buy in? Allow students to feel ownership of what is going on in the classroom.
Don’t forget to also talk about yourself! Show them you are human.
Part of making community is students trusting and respecting each other. The only way to do this is to allow students to get to know each other through group work.
Greet every student, every day. Show them from the minute they walk in that you care and are happy they are there. It is such a small thing that will make a huge difference.
Remember, these are kids we are teaching. Don’t jump to conclusions. Listen to them; they have a story to tell. This will show them that you respect their stories, and giving respect leads to receiving it.
What do you do to help build community in your classroom?
After Parkland, school shootings and any topic associated with them was often talked about in my classroom. Students needed someone to talk to about everything that was going on. They also had to mourn, as Parkland seemed too close to home for us, and the lives lost were grieved by all of my students. When I allowed students to write a blog post, these two sixth graders asked if they could write about school shootings and how they need to stop. And I am posting it now as the next school year starts, to keep the conversation going–this needs to stop. Here is how they reflected:
Visual Reflections on School Shootings by Sasha M. and Maelynn A. (6th graders)
Facts found during research:
- On an average day, 96 Americans are killed by guns.
- America’s gun homicide rate is more than 25 times the average of other high income countries.
- Black men are 13 times more likely than White men to be shot and killed with guns.
- There are nearly 13,000 gun homicides a year in the United States.
- Seven children/teens 19 and under are killed with guns in the U.S. on an average day.
- There have been 22 shootings involving schools since January, 2018 (as of the end of May, 2018).
- 187,000+ students have been exposed to gun violence at school since Columbine.
- As of mid-March, 2018, 12,752 students have been present at school shootings.
- There are school shootings in small and large towns.
- Targeted shootings are far more common than indiscriminate slaughter (64.5% to 22.3%).
- Our country has about 250 million guns.
- Students who were victims of school shootings can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder that can be cripling.
- Black students make up 16.6% of school populations, but experience shootings at 2x the rate of other students.
- It is now safer to go to war than to be at school (in 2018).
- Kids SHOULD NOT be afraid to go to school.
This poster includes quotes from protest posters and students speaking out. We also put the schools and cities along with the causalities to raise awareness that this is a problem that is occurring way too often.
This is a remake of a poster that somebody made for a protest though we improvised a bit to make our own version.
Thank you to my wonderful students, Sasha and Maelynn, for sharing! This is a topic that is too close to home for all of us
The Struggles of Writer Wannabes by Paola M. and Amy C. (6th grade)
(Kellee’s note: These girls are already writers, not wannabes, but they titled their piece, so I didn’t want to change it.)
So, you want to be a writer? Truth is, it’s not as easy as it seems. Take it from two author wannabes. We could come up with the greatest ideas, but as soon as we pick up the pencil or or place our hands on the keyboard we realize we have nothing to write! And this is only one example of the struggles authors go through every day.
Coming Up with Story Ideas
Everyone comes up with ideas differently. You could be riding your bike when an idea about talking dogs talking over the wold hits you. But honestly the real problem isn’t how you come up with your ideas, it’s actually coming up with them.
If we’re being completely honest here, a big problem that writers like us have is coping with the planning stages of writing our stories. Now, I know you must be confused. What does planning have to do with coming up with ideas? Answer: Absolutely everything! Planning is basically thinking about the basic elements of your story (like theme and characters). What makes it especially difficult to deal with is the fact that you need to have everything ready to write. Which means you need to be able to explain your ideas off the bat if someone asks for your synopsis (that’s a fancy word for summary).
Another problem we have while coming up with our ideas is second-guessing ourselves. We keep questioning what we’ve written because we get nervous about what other people might think of our story or we start thinking about whether or not this is relevant to the story. Problems like these, fellow writers, is what causes writer’s block.
Ah, writer’s block. Don’t take it personally but nobody likes you. Currently, we’re dealing with this mess which makes writing (very) hard. You’d think writing about writer’s block while having writer’s block (wow that’s a tongue twister) would make things easier for us. Sadly, that’s not the case.
Writer’s block is pretty self explanatory. It’s when a writer can’t come up with new ideas or doesn’t know what to write next in his or her story. The problem about writer’s block is that no matter how hard you try you CANNOT come up with anything. You have to do something else to occupy your mind and get the creative juices flowing. The good thing is that while you’re doing chores (or anything else, for that matter) you can get some pretty amazing ideas. But sometimes doing something else can just be distracting.
We can’t wait for the live action Mulan movie (that has no songs whatsoever) to come out!!! Oops! Wrong blog post… As you can see from our totally off topic starter sentence, we’ll be talking about some distractions that get writers off their game.
One thing that distracts aspiring authors from writing is the Internet. People can get so distracted with videos, social media, Netflix, games, and researching stuff for their books they forget about the most important thing: WRITING!!! This happens most often when you write on the computer. You can be searching something up real quick and come across an article that is interesting enough to keep you off task.
Procrastination plays a HUGE part here. Procrastination is the act of avoiding something. So basically when writers procrastinate they try to delay or avoid writing. Procrastination is a pretty big problem because we get absolutely no work done. And if you ever want to publish something… well let’s just say you can’t show an unfinished story to a publisher.
This is probably a very weird one but too much noise, or even no noise at all, can distract writers. If there’s too much noise some writers won’t be able to concentrate. But if there’s no noise at all it can make some writers weary and unable to focus on their writing. Distractions can also cause another problem: A hiccup in time management.
Not Having Enough Time to Write
As we have previously mentioned, distractions can cause many problems. Like time management problems. Sometimes writers just can’t find enough time to sit down and actually write.
For us the biggest problem is having so much school work to finish. For others it might be actually having to go to work. Whatever the reason, may it be homework, your job, having to run errands or see family members, it’s hard to set apart some time to do what you love, which is (hopefully) writing. The worst part? If you have no time to write, then you probably have no time to edit.
Revising and Editing
Editing and revising are such a pain! And it gets even worse when you have no time to write. The problem is that it’s necessary. You need to edit and revise some parts of your story to get the best results for your book. Sometimes you need to cut out whole chapters or just fix a word to improve your story.
Editing and revising is a multi-step process. You need to know what you need to change and then you have to have the time and patience to actually edit and revise your story. We usually dedicate a couple hours to a day of editing and revising, so that we can get most of that work off our to-do lists. But as we have said countless times before: People do things differently. And getting over these writing struggles is yet another example of that.
From not being able to cook up some new ideas to not being able to write about those ideas, we have talked about some of the most painful struggles that we, as writers, go through every day. All of these things are hard to overcome and sometimes we might want to give up (Please don’t). In the end, though, this is all part of the story-making process and we kind of have to learn to deal with it.
Thank you to my wonderful students, Paola and Amy, for sharing your hilarious and thought-provoking reflections on being a kid writer!
Edwin C.’s Book Wish (7th grade)
I’ve never seen a book with a motive or change like this: I want it to be your typical protagonist and they have to stop someone. The author makes the protagonist look all nice and like they are the one doing the right thing then suddenly the protagonist shares their true intentions and they show they are actually the antagonist. And the antagonist is actually the protagonist. I think this would make a very interesting story, and the big plot twist would drag someone into the book.
Alejandro S.’s Book Wishes (8th grade)
- One of my book wishes is for there to be more teenager reincarnation into a fantasy world where they are strong and smart enough to survive.
- Another one of my book wishes is for there to be books where a person is transported inside a game and the game turns into real life.
- Kellee’s note: Heir Apparent by Vivian Vande Velde would fit this wish!
- I wish there were books about surviving in a fantasy world as the main character has to purge the demon king and has to keep his power a secret to stay safe.
- I wish there was a book about a main character who starts out weak in a fantasy world then unlocks a secret power which allows them to grow stronger at a faster pace and they have to save the world from chaos.
- I wish there was a book with a main character who is a dragon who has to deal with monsters and humans.
Lucas D.’s Book Wishes (8th grade)
- I wish there were more books about a kid who has it rough and only basketball helps him ignore it.
- Kellee’s note: Slam by Walter Dean Myers would fit this wish!
- I wish a book existed about a kid who rules the school but a simple mistake ruins his whole career in basketball.
- A wish for me is for there to be about a book where there’s two kids left on Earth, and there are clues on how to live.
- Another wish is for a book about a man who is hard working and dedicated to going to the NBA but ends up playing in the G-league, so he’s now nonstop training to make his dream come true.
- I wish there was a book about a struggling kid who has nothing to live for and no one to help him in life or school, but when he picks up a basketball, everything changes.
Christian U.’s Book Wishes (8th grade)
- I would like a book like Rescued by Eliot Schrefer but from the ape’s point of view. Many books are from the primate’s owner’s POV, and it would be interesting if one would accurately describe the behavior of an ape in real world situations.
- I would like a book about a chair that holds secrets from WWII that could potentially stop WWIII from happening.
- I would like a book about the life of an abused child because it can show how hard one’s life can get and the hardships they face and how they overcome it.
- Kellee’s note: A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer would fit this wish!
- I would like a book about the hardships Black Americans face today. This information can help show readers what it is like and potentially stop racism, discrimination, and other hardships.
- Kellee’s note: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Dear Martin by Nic Stone, Tyler Johnson was Here by Jay Coles, and more would fit this wish!
- I would like a book about an utopian community that seems perfect but the main character is facing many hardships. Readers would relate to hardships when everything seems perfect.
Lizzie S.’s Book Wishes (6th grade)
- I wish there were more books about:
- Middle schoolers discovering their sexuality.
- Camp life.
- Sexual assault survivors.
- Funny things little kids say.
- The struggle of being a woman.
- Dying coral reef.
- Women becoming themselves.
- Endangered species.
- Characters who are enemies and the narratives alternate.
Sarah H.’s Book Wishes (8th grade)
I want more books that talk about LBGTQ+ in middle school because middle school is already hard and questioning your sexuality doesn’t make it easier. Reading about people/characters in the same situation help push you in the right path. More books like that will help kids/students feel less alone and find people who are facing the same problems or thinking the same questions they are.
Estela R.’s and Ashley F.’s Book Wishes (8th grade)
- Here are some ideas for books that Estela and Ashley wish existed:
- Tabitha is just a normal 17 year old girl, except for the fact that she goes to Gloria Steinem School of the Arts, a Performing and Visual Arts School. During junior year she sees her dad die in a car crash, so she becomes a foster child of one of the most popular stars on Earth, Gavin DiCaprio, the son of Leonardo DiCaprio.
- Lilia is in her senior year at Jackson High School in Prescott, Arizona. In 8th grade, her best friend, Justin, moved to a boarding school in England. He suddenly comes back for senior year and although Lilia remembers him, he has no clue who she is. She plays it off like they never met before; however, at a party, she goes into his room with him, and she sees all these pictures of her and him when they were little.
- Every year teens from 13-18 go to a camp. They each get put into 4 different groups: cliste (smart), athletau (athletic), terreux (down to earth), and dirigeants (leaders). Bellamy and his sister, Maxwell, go to a camp where they have to take three official tests with their group to survive and not get illuminated (which means death).
- Lee was a “normal” 8th grader, but his life changes when he gets stuck in his favorite horror movie “Skin.” He meets the main character, Victoria, and they have to work together to kill Skin for Lee to be able to go home.
- Casey and Maisy are internet best friends. They have bonded for months over shows, movies, and more! They Facetime and text everyday until Casey gets into a coma, and Maisy has to figure out why she’s not texting anymore. Then she wants to somehow get to her.
Kim J.’s and Serine M.’s Book Wish
- Here is an idea for a book that Kim and Serine wish existed:
- The story is based off of a kidnapping. The main character has to be kidnapped to save others. What if she fails? But the world needs to change, and she’s the only one that can do it.
- Main character: Adelyn Wyer
- Friends: Julie, Kalia, Angelica
- Other characters: Calyn, Wybie, Mr. Smelly, Doodle, Pete
- Parents: Alex Wyer, Melissa Cargener
- The story is based off of a kidnapping. The main character has to be kidnapped to save others. What if she fails? But the world needs to change, and she’s the only one that can do it.
Thank you to my wonderful students, Edwin, Alejandro, Lucas, Christian, Lizzie, Sarah, Estela, Ashley, Kim, and Serine, for all their wishes and ideas!
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