Sam D. Gill
In our experiences as teachers or media specialists, many of us have noticed the same phenomenon: adolescent males often tend to enjoy literature less than their female counterparts. Of course, as middle school and high school teachers and media specialists, we have no control over the early reading experiences or instruction a male child receives, and since the patterns of reading behavior have been established long before he reaches our classroom, it may seem impossible to help him become an avid reader. But it is not impossible. In fact, helping a male become an enthusiastic reader may be as simple as offering a kind of literature that will engage him with intriguing plots, fast-paced action, and characters who not only catch his interest, but who mirror the life that he is living.
Recent critical studies of the subject matter and themes of young adult literature have included focuses on the presentation of female gender roles (Hayn & Sherrill, 1996), readers' responses to the portrayal of racial minorities (Chevalier & Houser, 1997), and literary attention to teens' struggles with spirituality (Mendt, 1997). However, little direct, specific attention has been given to writers' portrayals of adolescent male characters in fiction or non-fiction.
Nevertheless, the growing canon of adolescent literature has produced a rich base of fiction that both portrays and appeals to all types of males. Researchers have shown that introducing YA literature to males improves their reading ability (Ballash 1994). These findings, however, have also pointed out the bias that many teachers hold against YA literature. Since its inception, generally considered to coincide with the 1967 publication of Hinton's The Outsiders and Zindel's The Pigman, young adult literature has fought an uphill battle to be given some of the classroom space normally reserved for the classical canon. According to Christenbury (1995), its use is limited mostly to higher elementary and middle school grades, where it is included in curricula as an incentive for poor readers. In this case, the strongest argument for using young adult literature- its readability and high interest level- is also the strongest argument that critics use for not including it in the highest grades. It is my argument that YA literature, because of its range of authors and story types, is an appropriate literature for every adolescent male, whether he be a prepubescent fourth grader, or a college-bound senior who needs compelling material that speaks to him.
Aidan Chambers, author of challenging YA fiction and a critic of children's literature, maintains that every group needs its own literature (Chambers 1996). According to Chambers, adolescents constitute a minority in our modern society, and like any minority, adolescents need a literature to call their own. Chambers even goes so far as to consider adolescents an oppressed group that needs to shed its shackles. To help with the process, Chambers began writing thought-provoking fiction and plays for his teen students in England, even before Hinton and Zindel emerged on the scene. While not as militant in their insistence that adolescents receive special attention as Chambers, others have noted a need for young adults to identify with the protagonists in the books they read (Small 1980).
In his study published in Literature In The Secondary School, Applebee (1993) notes that most of the books in the literary canon where not intended for, and do not feature, adolescents. However, the only two books of the 20th century books to crack the canonical top ten, Salinger's Catcher in the Rye and Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, both feature adolescent protagonists. Literary theory and criticism have labeled these books with their stamp of approval, and their appeal, for many readers, is far greater. Why? One answer lies in the fact that the adolescent male characters,...