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Exploring Children’s and Young Adult Literature One Book, One Child at a Time

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UT to Offer New Doctoral Specialization in Children’s and Young Adult Literature. Read more here

By Nichole Stevens

What is it in these books that young people connect to? What is in the reading experience that’s engaging them? And what are young people thinking about and feeling when they read? These are questions Susan Groenke, Director for the Center of Children’s and Young Adult Literature, asks herself when she reflects on what kinds of books young people want to read, and how to provide equal access to books for all young people.

“I think working with community partners like the Boys & Girls Club gives insight into different social and cultural contexts and encourages the appreciation and valuing of diversity, and certainly provides more awareness of what young people bring into the classroom. It takes working with partners to learn this,” Groenke said.

When choosing which books to bring in for their 18-month collection, Groenke and Associate Director, Cindy Welch, say it’s important to pay attention to both what young people want to read, but also those books that young people and their caregivers may not know about.

“We feel it’s important to let community members know about award-winning children’s and young adult literature,” Groenke said. “There’s just so much good stuff happening in children’s publishing right now.”

CCYAL Center Stacks

Photo courtesy of Susan Groenke

The Center connects teachers to workshops about new books, and brings in guest authors, illustrators and poets for public discussion and readings several times a year. Books older than 18 months in the CCYAL collection are sold during the annual “Best of the Best” workshop in July and the proceeds are used to fund the Center’s outreach mission.

We make sure to have books in our collection that are getting lots of “buzz”—like Jacqueline Woodson’s verse novel, Brown Girl Dreaming, which won the 2014 National Book Award for young people’s literature.Brown Girl Dreaming

Popular publishers like Penguin and Random House send their most recent titles to the Center, located on the third floor of Hodges Library. Since the late 1990s, the CCYAL has had the outreach mission to educate community members about the importance of reading and the high-quality, award-winning children’s and young adult books that are published each year.

“And all of our books are hot off the press.”

In addition, the Center wants to connect children and young adults to the reading material they’re interested in, so the CCYAL provides reading resources to children and young adults during summer months in the “Book Buddies’ program, a partnership with the local Haslam Boys & Girls Club. For six weeks during the summer, the CCYAL brings in trained, college-aged tutors –a combination of students enrolled in Dr. Groenke’s summer young adult literature course and volunteers, to read with the middle-school-aged kids.

“Media says young people don’t read as much today,” said Groenke. “But our summer program proves that’s not the case.”

Diary of a Wimpy KidSome popular reads among the kids in the program are the Diary of Wimpy Kid series and unauthorized biographies about sports and rap icons.

Groenke says, “I think we can learn important things about young people, and what they’re looking for in books, by paying attention to what they want to read.”

The young boys who like the sports biographies say they like to read about specific players’ humble beginnings, and really seem to respect how many of the players had to work hard for their prominence.

“I think they really look to these books as ‘road maps,’ to think about what they want to do in life, and how they can get there,” said Groenke.

The books are connected to the young people’s interests and personal knowledge about a subject. The books help the kids become more social as they read together and talk about it with their reading buddy, friends and classmates, teachers/mentors and family members.

The book buddy program allows for experiential understanding of how reading is personal and social, and how the desire and motivation to read can be a complex issue. Groenke says, “Motivation to read is not something you can capture through a test score.”

CCYL event

Photo courtesy of Susan Groenke

After participating in the summer book buddy program, one young boy proudly exclaimed to Groenke “I’m a reader now!” and continued to talk about all the books he had read once school started and planned to read. At the end of the summer program, the kids get to keep the books. Groenke says, “We know research supports a correlation between book ownership and reading achievement. We want young people to be able to build their own home libraries.”

Groenke said having a continuous cycle of books is a critical piece of their mission, as well as staying in tune to what teachers, parents, librarians, and young people need for reading material.

By reading with the kids and getting to know them, the college students—many of whom are training to be teachers–are able to help on a social level. Having an interactive experience and one-on-one time with young people in the community is something that can’t be created in the classroom.

In engaging with the external community and implementing outreach programs for the public, Groenke says it’s important to be thinking about the overall mission of your organization and what you want to do.

“Our mission is to make sure people know about good literature and the importance of reading in all stages of life,” Groenke said.

The Center would like to see more college students, as many as possible, interested in volunteering for the summer program. Groenke says it is important for young people to see reading models in college-age students and that college-aged mentors can have a bigger impact on kids than adults might.

“We’re really excited about the Center and really feel supported. I think having the Carnegie Classification really highlights what we’re about and what we’re trying to do,” Groenke said.


The Center for Children’s and Young Adult Literature was nominated as a Partnership that Makes a Difference. Click here to read more.