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Arizona State University played a major role in the first-ever Summit on the Research and Teaching of Young Adult Literature, held at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, June 13-16. Ten participants from ASU — faculty, alumni and doctoral students — presented 11 of the 40 keynotes and were featured in programs for authors, K-12 teachers and university scholars and administrators in attendance.
The best minds and practitioners in adolescent education, literacy, and literature were invited to the conference, which centered on youth literature — known as "YA lit" — dealing with all manner of adversity faced by teens today, from LGBTQ discrimination to racial injustice, from abuse to school violence. As teen suicide rates climb and funding for schools and social services dissipates, the future might seem bleak. The YA Summit intended to demonstrate that through reading and working together, hope and help are on the horizon.
Keynote speaker and ASU English Professor James Blasingame summed up the value of quality reading experiences: “Reading good young adult literature not only saves lives, but it can also help kids become the best version of themselves, providing a map to navigate a world fraught with problems.” Blasingame is also executive director of the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English.
YA Summit 2018 conceiver and convener, Steven Bickmore, director of the UNLV Gayle A. Zeiter Literacy Development Center, envisioned a gathering to showcase methods, materials and motivation for providing literacy instruction that enable young readers to take charge of their own circumstances. Laughter, tears, and breaking voices were the standard for four days in Las Vegas during which well-known authors, dedicated K-12 teachers, devoted librarians, internationally renowned scholars, graduate students, and community organizations convened to address growing concerns about teenagers whose lives are in shambles, and the power of reading to save them.
Assistant Professor E. Sybil Durand presented with four ASU Department of English doctoral students.
"There was something really special about the YA Summit at UNLV," she said. "YA authors, teachers, graduate students, and university professors convened in the same space and shared their creative work, research, and teaching ideas, and YA literature was firmly at the center of these conversations. For the first time in a long time, I felt part of a field of study, one that brought together all the aspects of YA literature I explore in my own work — the books themselves, the authors, how students respond to these stories, and how current and future teachers can share these stories with their students and teach them in critical ways."
ASU creative writing alum Bill Konigsberg (seated), an award-winning YA author, signed copies of his books for convention-goers at the 2018 YA Summit. Photo by Noah Schaffer
Featured author Bill Konigsberg, an ASU creative writing alumnus, weighed in about tough teen issues in his presentation. Before publishing six award-winning young adult novels, Konigsberg was most famous as the first openly gay major league sportswriter.
Konigsberg had grown up in the Bronx, where he knew of no books in his school library with gay characters. Upon finally seeing a reference to homosexuality in an out-of-date medical text, he was disheartened to see this sexual orientation categorized as a mental disorder. Eventually, in high school he discovered texts with gay characters, including the "Tales of the City" books, first published as serials in the San Francisco Chronicle beginning in 1978. Konigsberg explained how, like so many authors, he writes the books he needed when he was a teen.
Aaron Levy, who earned his bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees from ASU, is now director of academics for the Georgia Film Academy. Levy was on hand to discuss his award-winning book, "Blood Don’t Lie," as well as techniques to help young readers become writers. While Levy was presenting at the summit, news came that the Georgia Writers Association had just named him author of the year in the young adult category.
In addition to authors and faculty, ASU alumni-turned-professors Alice Hays (PhD English education 2017), and Danielle Kachorsky (PhD education 2018) presented their research on books and readers. ASU doctoral students Stephanie Reid (Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College), Kristina Bybee (Department of English), Darby Simpson (Department of English) and Heather O’Loughlin (Department of English) presented to packed venues about literacy issues.
The summit had advertised the inclusion of an unscripted, organic, extemporaneous “unconference” component called the “EduCamp,” which attempted a level of professional work rarely aspired to at education conferences. By all accounts, the EduCamp experiment succeeded. Problems in the field and potential solutions were identified and discussed live. License was given to think out loud, bat down traditional thinking and toss around critical and new ideas.
ASU Assistant Professor of English E. Sybil Durand presented on the value of teaching how to evaluate young adult literature with a postcolonial lens. Photo by Noah Schaffer
"One of my favorite parts was the Educamp portion of the conference, where participants had spontaneous conversations about the issues we still needed to address as a field," Durand said. "These ranged from discussing issues of diversity in YA texts and research to the potential of YA literature for engaging in social activism, and raised questions that went beyond typical conference transactions. It was generative, and I’m still unpacking all the ideas I collected over the weekend."
"As the conference took on its 'unconference' format, the summit also presented participants with the opportunity to envision the future of the field and to start formulating steps towards those imagined possibilities," Reid said. "I left the summit inspired, ready to read even more young adult literature and eager to start journeying along new research pathways."
Hays was a longtime high school teacher in Gilbert, Arizona, and is now assistant professor at California State University, Bakersfield. She said she found the event, sessions and collaboration empowering.
“Every person at the summit was there because they care about young adults and their growth," Hays said. “I feel privileged to have been a part of this historic event in which authors, teacher educators and classroom professionals were able to speak freely, get new ideas and walk away inspired by one another."