It’s no secret that the more frequently children read, the more likely they are to develop strong comprehension and writing skills.
And read many adolescents do. In recent years, young adult fiction — texts specifically geared toward adolescents — has become one of the most popular and marketable genres in the publishing industry. At their best, works in this category entertain young (and middle-aged) readers while simultaneously offering honest stories that are relevant to their lives. Such texts can help young readers to develop crucial critical literacy skills.
What, exactly, is critical literacy?
Unlike functional literacy, which refers to the ability to read and write competently, critical literacy emphasizes analytical skills in interpreting texts beyond the surface level. It is important to develop the ability to read in this way — not only for writing in high school and college, but also for engaging in daily life via newspaper editorials, email newsletters, and other written documents. The tools that critical literacy involves can help attentive readers uncover deeper levels of meaning in a text or grasp implicit arguments that may remain hidden for others.
Critical literacy can lead students to question social norms and structures they may have previously taken for granted. Learners can further heighten their analytical skills in eye-opening ways by focusing on texts that reflect a diverse range of perspectives, opinions, and experiences.
To develop into intelligent, critical thinkers, young readers must have access to honest texts that are relevant to their lives. The following titles are examples of entertaining and highly accessible young adult novels that can also help cultivate critical literacy.
Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah
Amal, the main character, causes controversy at her conservative Australian prep school when she decides to begin wearing a hijab full-time to demonstrate her commitment to Islam. What unfolds is a coming-of-age story through Amal’s exploration of her faith. As she embraces her own identity, she also challenges herself to attempt to comprehend her critics’ positions. She sets out to understand the motivation behind individuals who misunderstand her devotion to her religion as radicalism. This examination of religious principles, social acceptance, familial conflict, and self-exploration is complex and rich, and lends itself really well to discussion.
While Abdel-Fattah’s novel may sound complex (and it is!), it is anything but heavy-handed: 16-year-old Amal narrates the novel in a conversational style that reads like an email exchange with a close friend. When it was released in 2005, it won both the Australian Book Industry Award and an Australian Book of The Year Award.
Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli
This novel about a young boy’s experience in Warsaw during the Holocaust both entertains and educates younger readers, who might not otherwise be able to identify with such a perplexing and disturbing historical event.
Through the book, the young narrator Misha watches the rise of the Third Reich with wide-eyed naivety, assuming he will avoid capture because he is not Jewish. Spinelli’s primary audience — of American young adults several generations removed from the Holocaust — might be tempted to believe that the political situation that allowed for the rise of Third Reich is a distant memory. Misha’s eventual imprisonment, however, acts as a warning that no one is safe from hate-propelled tyranny. Milkweed is both entertaining and educational, a book that prompts young readers to question modern forms of injustice that may be less visible but just as systematic as those in Nazi-occupied Poland.
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
This graphic novel was released to critical acclaim and numerous awards, including the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature, back in 2006. Upon reading the book, you’ll see why it was so widely praised. The story follows high schooler Jin, an American–Chinese boy in San Francisco, as he attempts to wade through the confusing channels of (his very white) high school amid racial slurs and stereotyping. Jin attempts to disregard and even distance himself from his ethnicity in the hope that he will be accepted if he assimilates. Eventually, however, he begins to consider the cost of this approval from others. Through Jin’s experience, Yang’s novel asks readers to examine their own experiences with discriminatory practices and identity politics.
Since this is a comic book, it might be especially appealing to kids who are interested in visual art, or to those who are not particularly keen on reading. On the flip side, it may present a new challenge to students who are looking for a way to practice interpreting the juxtaposition of text and images, a crucial skill in our increasingly graphic society.
Noodle can help you and your child cultivate a love of reading. Check out other free reading resources, and get more advice from Kevin Kearney, such as, 5 Steps to Improve Your High Schooler’s Reading Comprehension.