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!
Author: Anna Kang
Illustrator: Christopher Weyant
Published August 1, 2018 by Two Lions
Goodreads Summary: Eraser is always cleaning up everyone else’s mistakes. Except for Ruler and Pencil Sharpener, none of the other school supplies seem to appreciate her. They all love how sharp Pencil is and how Tape and Glue help everyone stick together. Eraser wants to create so that she can shine like the others. She decides to give it a try, but it’s not until the rubber meets the road that Eraser begins to understand a whole lot about herself.
Inspired by a school essay their daughter Kate wrote in the third grade, the author and illustrator behind Theodor Seuss Geisel Award–winner You Are (Not) Small have created a desktop drama about figuring out who you are, finding happiness, and the importance of second, third, and maybe even fourth chances.
Ricki’s Review: I love this author-illustrator team. Every book that they’ve written has been brilliant. This book offers readers a glimpse inside the mind of the lesser-known characters in life. It forces us to think about who we are overlooking and who deserves more praise. It’s easy to get caught up in our own lives and the lives of those who are close to us, and we often forget to consider those who feel distant to us. My son and I talked about this together, and he said there are some kids at school that he doesn’t talk with often. I asked him what this book taught him, and he said that it reminded him to talk with more friends in his class and to be kind. With a valuable message and a powerful punch, this book is sure to become a favorite in classrooms.
Kellee’s Review: There are times in all of our lives that we question our purpose. Someone louder, prettier, more aggressive, or different than you may get recognition where you don’t even though you feel you deserve it. But it is all about valuing yourself and showing others that value, but we don’t need others to tell us our worth. That is what Eraser teaches us. When we finished, Trent said that Pencil learned that she needed help and Eraser learned she IS important. If that isn’t a message that I want my son to learn, I don’t know what is. Oh, and it is quite funny sometimes, and like Kang & Weyant’s other books, it is told in dialogue only so the illustrations play a big part in the telling of the story.
Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: Teachers might give students a list of the names of all of the students in their class. The students might look through this list and ask themselves, “Who do I talk to often? Who could I get to know more? Do I show every person on this list that they matter?” This activity connects well with the theme of the book and reminds students to support others in their world.
- How does Eraser’s feelings change throughout the book? What causes these changes?
- How do the other school supplies act toward Eraser? Does this remind you of any instances in your life?
- What is the message of the book? What does it teach us?
**Thank you to Barbara at Blue Slip Media for providing copies for review!**
Author: Minh Lê
Illustrator: Dan Santat
Published: June 5, 2018 by Disney-Hyperion
Summary: When a young boy visits his grandfather, their lack of a common language leads to confusion, frustration, and silence. But as they sit down to draw together, something magical happens-with a shared love of […]
Author: Minh Lê
Illustrator: Dan Santat
Published: June 5, 2018 by Disney-Hyperion
Summary: When a young boy visits his grandfather, their lack of a common language leads to confusion, frustration, and silence. But as they sit down to draw together, something magical happens-with a shared love of art and storytelling, the two form a bond that goes beyond words.
With spare, direct text by Minh Lê and luminous illustrations by Caldecott Medalist Dan Santat, this stirring picture book about reaching across barriers will be cherished for years to come.
Ricki’s Review: This book is absolutely stunning. It will certainly be making my favorites list this year. It is a solid contender for the Caldecott this year. The story and illustrations are absolutely beautiful. Due to a language barrier, a boy and his grandfather have difficulty communicating with each other. Through drawing, they discover a deep, magical connection with each other. This book pulled at my heart. It is one that I will remember for a long time.
Kellee’s Review: This gorgeous book took my breath away. Actually. I read it at ALA Annual, and when I finished, I looked around to find someone to just feel with because the emotions were overflowing within me! The celebration of art and family and the feeling of being stuck between two worlds and not being to connect with a family member were all things that just touched me. It is a book that I had to own, I now will buy for so many people, and I cannot wait to share with my students and my son.
Teacher’s Tool For Navigation: Teachers might ask students to try to sit with a peer partner that they don’t know very well and try to connect with each other without speaking. Then, they might take a piece of paper and use drawing as a means to try to connect with their partner. This has the potential to spark conversations about language, relationship, and humanity.
- How does the story evolve? How do the characters evolve?;
- What do the characters learn?;
- What does the story teach us about language? Communication? Relationships? Bravery?
Read This If You Loved: Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña, Nana in the City by Lauren Castillo, Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson, A Bus Called Heaven by Bob Graham, Harlem by Walter Dean Myers
Running on the Roof of the World
Author: Jess Butterworth
Published May 1st, 2018 by Algonquin Young Readers
Summary: A story of adventure, survival, courage, and hope, set in the vivid Himalayan landscape of Tibet and India.
Tash lives in Tibet, where as a practicing Buddhist she must follow many rules to avoid the wrath of the occupying Chinese soldiers. Life remains peaceful as long as Tash, her family, and their community hide their religion and don’t mention its leader, the Dalai Lama.
The quiet is ruptured when a man publicly sets himself on fire to protest the occupation. In the crackdown that follows, soldiers break into Tash’s house and seize her parents. Tash barely escapes, and soon she and her best friend, Sam, along with two borrowed yaks, flee across the mountains, where they face blizzards, hunger, a treacherous landscape, and the constant threat of capture. It’s a long, dangerous trip to the Indian border and safety—and not all will make it there.
This action-packed novel tells a story of courage, hope, and the powerful will to survive, even in the most desperate circumstances.
About the Author [from her website]: As a child I wanted to be many things, including a vet and even David Attenborough, but throughout all of those ideas, I always wanted to write. So I studied creative writing as a BA(hons) at Bath Spa University, where I won the Writing for Young People Prize in 2011. I then completed a Master’s in Writing for Young People, also at Bath Spa University, and graduated in 2015.
My first two novels, RUNNING ON THE ROOF OF THE WORLD and WHEN THE MOUNTAINS ROARED are set in the Himalayas. My family on my Dad’s side has lived in India for seven generations and I spent much of my childhood in India too. My father was a trek leader and we lived on a remote foothill above Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama and a Tibetan community in exile is settled. My mother’s family lived in London, where I was born. She was off on her own adventure, travelling in India, when she met my dad. Growing up, I would always write about the Himalayas when I was in the UK and missing the mountains or my dad and grandparents who still lived there.
Although RUNNING ON THE ROOF OF THE WORLD is fiction, it is inspired by a journey that tens of thousands of Tibetans have braved. I wanted to write a story that is relevant to today and grounded in events, places and communities I care about deeply.
Now I live between Louisiana in the US and Frome in the UK, and you’ll often find me back in the Himalayas too.
Review: We all have knowledge gaps. I try to learn as much as I can about the world and others unlike me, and this story took me to Tibet and showed me a struggle happening that I was unaware of. While reading and since reading, I have spent hours reading about the history and current affairs of Tibet.
But other than smacking me in the face with this truth and taking place in a setting and from a point of view that is not often shared in middle grade and young adult novels, it also is a page-turning survival adventure. Tash and Sam must face a trek that hundreds of thousands have done, but they are doing it alone with only help from a few yaks and maybe some unexpected allies.
I included the author’s biography in her own words above because I think it is important to see that although this book may not be an own voices per se, it is written by someone who lived in the area and cares deeply about the people who live near the Himalayas.
Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: I would love to see this book and others from countries in other continents as part of a lit circle or in-class book club within middle school or high school classrooms to allow kids to see the world outside of their small area. Some other texts could be: Tiger Boy by Mitali Perkins, Rickshaw Girl by Mitali Perkins, Refugee by Alan Gratz, Diamond Boys by Michael Williams, Now is the Time for Running by Michael Williams, Golden Boy by Tara Sullivan, Serafina’s Promise by Ann E. Burg, Endangered by Eliot Schrefer, Son of a Gun by Anne de Graaf, Long Walk to Walter by Linda Sue Park, The Glass Collector by Anna Perera, Sold by Patricia McCormick, The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis, Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan, La Linea by Ann Jaramillo, and I am sure there are more that I just don’t know. In addition to the novels, students could read news articles about the current events that connect with what they read in their fiction novels.
- Why do Tash and Sam have to leave Tibet?
- What are Tash’s parents doing that is so dangerous?
- What is the geography like between Tibet and India?
- What religion is Tash and Sam if they are going to see the Dalai Lama?
- How do the yaks impact the success or failure of Tash and Sam’s journey?
- What did the message in the letter end up meaning?
Flagged Passages: “Chapter 17: Journey
Eve steps into a ditch and I slide forward, slamming into the hump above her shoulders.
‘Sorry, Eve,’ I mutter, shuffling back to find my balance.
Being a yak rider should run in my blood but my leg muscles ache from clinging on so tightly.
We approach the thick wire fence that surrounds the village. Two rocks stand to our right like giant guards.
Please let it be clear.
Sam dismounts. He moves slowly toward them, crushing the gravel under his boots.
‘There’s no one here!’ he shouts.
‘Is the fence still broken?’ I ask.
He nods and disappears between rocks with Bones.
I follow him. The rusty fence has bowed to the ground where the boulder fell and flattened it. The space between the rocks is just big enough to squeeze Eve through, though I have to tug at her harness to get her to move. As I step over the fence, my heart jumps.
Read This If You Love: Books about climing mountains like Peak and The Edge by Roland Smith, survival books like Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder, or books that expand your reading borders like the books listed above
**Thank you to Brooke at Algonquin for providing a copy for review!**
Author: Sarah J. Donovan
Published: May 1, 2018 by Seela Books
Summary: Sadie Carter’s life is a mess, as wavy and tangled as her unruly hair. At 15, she is barely surviving the chaos of her large Catholic family. When one sister becomes pregnant and another is thrown out, her unemployed dad hides his depression, and her mom hides a secret. Sadie, the peacekeeper and rule-follower, has had enough. The empty refrigerator, years of hand-me-downs, and all the secrets have to stop. She longs for something more and plans her escape.
However, getting arrested was not her plan. Falling in love was not her plan. With the help of three mysterious strangers—a cop, a teacher, and a cute boy—maybe Sadie will find the strength to defy the rules and do the unexpected.
Told in verse, Sarah J. Donovan’s debut Alone Together has secrets, romance, struggle, sin, and redemption, all before Sadie blows out her 16 candles. It’s a courageously honest look at growing up in a big family.
Review: Sarah’s writing shows that she has a firm grasp on adolescence. The book is a beautiful book in verse. I found myself thinking about the characters long after I had closed the text. Sadie lives in a Catholic household, and she is struggling emotionally. She is the only one of the eleven people in her family to sit at the breakfast table, and one of the few siblings who hasn’t left the family altogether. She is the peacemaker and is sick of the empty fridge and bad choices that others seem to make for her. I think that Sadie has a life that many young people will relate to. She is left wondering about the ways in which people exist alone together. This is a great read, and I will be using it (in part and in whole) in my classes.
Teacher’s Tools for Navigation: The title of this book is quite inspiring. Students might be asked to reflect on all of the ways that we are “alone together” in this world. Teachers can offer space and place for students to critically analyze whether we are alone together or whether we are something else. I’d love to hear students’ thoughts about this.
- In this text, what is the role of family? In our world, what role does family play? How are we tied and not tied to our families?
- How does Sadie’s family impact her life?
- How does Sadie grow within the timeframe of the book? What does she learn?
- Which verse resonated with you? How does it connect (or not connect) with your life?
“The only one of eleven
who sets the table every morning
with cereal bowls and spoons,
who matches mounds of socks
without complaint or disdain,
who obeys every stand, kneel, sing in mass
without sneaking out after communion” (6).
Read This If You Love: Because I Am Furniture by Thalia Chaltas; Stop Pretending by Sonia Sones; The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Nocturnals: The Slithery Shakedown
Author and Illustrator: Tracey Hecht
Published: April 10, 2018 by Fabled Films Press
Goodreads Summary: Discover the friendship and humor of the Nocturnals Brigade! In The Slithery Shakedown, three unlikely friends—Tobin, a sweet pangolin, Bismark a loud-mouthed sugar glider […]
Nocturnals: The Slithery Shakedown
Author and Illustrator: Tracey Hecht
Published: April 10, 2018 by Fabled Films Press
Goodreads Summary: Discover the friendship and humor of the Nocturnals Brigade! In The Slithery Shakedown, three unlikely friends—Tobin, a sweet pangolin, Bismark a loud-mouthed sugar glider and Dawn, a serious fox—stand up to a big bully snake. In the process, they find themselves some spec-tac-u-lar snakeskin capes!
Includes Bonus Animal Glossary!
About the Author: Tracey Hecht is a writer and entrepreneur who has written, directed, and produced for film. The American Booksellers Association chose her first book in The Nocturnal series, The Mysterious Abductions, as a Kids’ Indie Next List pick. Last year, in partnership with the New York Public Library, she created a Noctural Read Aloud Writing Program for middle graders that has expanded worldwide. She splits her time between Oquossoc, Maine and New York City. Check out our Q&A with her here!
Ricki’s Review: I don’t tend to gravitate to early readers because they can be awfully boring. This book breaks the mold. It’s fun and engaging, and my son loves reading it. I frequently catch him looking through the pages and staring at the pictures. He didn’t know what nocturnal animals were before he read this book, and now, any time we see an animal, he asks if it is nocturnal. The conflict in this book is wonderfully portrayed, and it teaches about the power of friendship and bravery. I recommend this book for folks seeking engaging early readers that will capture children’s attention. It’s wonderfully done.
Kellee’s Review: What a fun book to read! It not only will be great for Trent when he is a beginning reader to practice his reading, it is overall a fun story that is a fantastic read aloud. It looks at the idea of bravery and fear as well as friendship while also introducing scientific ideas like nocturnal animals and carnivore animals.
Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: The Summer Reading Kit is available on the publisher’s website. This book begs readers to research nocturnal animals, and it provides a lot of opportunity for classroom use.
Additionally, the author uses a ton of alliteration which makes it super fun to read out loud but also gives a chance to introduce this literary device.
- Which animal is most afraid? How does friendship influence this character’s bravery?
- How does the snake react to the friends? What does this tell you?
- What other nocturnal animals do you know?
- What do you think the setting of the book is based on the animals?
- How does the author use alliteration throughout the book?
- What words did you not know in the story? Using context what do you think they mean?
‘Did sss-someone sss-say breakfassst?’ the snake said.
Bismark spun around.
Behind hijm was a long, blue, shimmery snake.
The snake slid from the grass.
The snake raised its head.
The snake flicked its flickery tongue.
‘Bismark, look out!’ Dawn cried.” (p. 24-25)
Read This If You Loved: Night Animals by Gianna Marino, Baby Animals at Night by Kingfisher Publications, National Geographic Early Readers
**Thank you to Stacey and Nicole at Fabled Films for providing copies for review!**
A Land of Permanent Goodbyes
Author: Atia Abawi
Published: January 23, 2018 by Philomel
Guest Review by Rachel Krieger
Summary: In a country ripped apart by war, Tareq lives with his big and loving family . . . until the bombs strike. His city is in ruins. His life is destroyed. And those who have survived are left to figure out their uncertain future.
In the wake of destruction, he’s threatened by Daesh fighters and witnesses a public beheading. Tareq’s family knows that to continue to stay alive, they must leave. As they travel as refugees from Syria to Turkey to Greece, facing danger at every turn, Tareq must find the resilience and courage to complete his harrowing journey.
But while this is one family’s story, it is also the timeless tale of all wars, of all tragedy, and of all strife. When you are a refugee, success is outliving your loss.
Review: This book is astonishing. In a world where people like to avoid talking about awkward things or situations that make us sad, this novel is completely, unapologetically honest. With every horror that Tareq experiences, you will find yourself crying with him, hoping with him, and loving with him. You will wish you could be with Alexia helping these people to find new lives. It is impossible to read Abawi’s story without reflecting on your own life, wondering what destiny would write about you.
If you know nothing about the refugee crises happening all over the world, this story will give you a glimpse into the lives of people struggling every day. Although it only looks into the lives of a few refugees, it gave me an idea of how different the life of a refugee is to my own. Atia Abawi’s story will make you reflect on your own humanity and actions, changing the way you think about the world and your own privilege.
Teacher’s Tool For Navigation: This is the perfect book to start a discussion about the situation in Syria. Since it is so essential to address current events regardless of the sensitive nature of those events, teachers should start conversations about this war-torn region. There are many young adult novels that address immigration, however, this one specifically follows the process of that immigration. It would be very beneficial to have students read a book like this and a book like American Street to look at very different stories of immigration with a few similar characteristics. This book in conjunction with others about immigration could be the perfect opportunity to discuss the idea of the danger of a single story.
This novel also offers a very interesting twist on narration. Since destiny is the narrator of this novel rather than one of the characters, there are small parts of the story that reflect broadly on war and humanity. It could be interesting to have students think about how this odd source of narration changes the story. They could even experiment with their own unique narrators, discussing how these odd points of view add or detract from stories.
Discussion Questions: What does the perspective switch add to the novel? Do you think a book like this is likely to encourage people to support this cause? How does Destiny as the narrator change this story? How would this story change if Tareq was a woman?
We Flagged: “Making it to Germany ended Tareq’s crossing and escape from war, but his new life as a refugee is just beginning. There are millions of Tareq’s, Susans and Fayeds, all in search of safety and kindness. I hope you will provide that warmth, be that helper, do what you can to make that world a better place. Because when I meet you—and I will—there will be reckoning. There always is.”
Read This If You Loved: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Supetys, American Street by Ibi Zoboi, Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert
Recently Popular Posts
- This is my Anti-Lexile, Anti-Reading Level Post.
- Top Books for Struggling/Reluctant Middle School Readers
- Novels with Science Content
- The Nazi Hunters by Neal Bascomb
- Top Ten Tuesday: Our Favorite Pairings of YA Books…
- The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
- Harlem: A Poem by Walter Dean Myers
- Journey by Aaron Becker
- Engaging Classroom Discussion Techniques
- Review and Teaching Guide!: El Deafo by Cece Bell
Subscribe to Our Posts