Featured Author: Gwendolyn Heasely
Trying to woo my high school students with books can be, at times, a challenging proposition. Many of my kids (grades 9-12) are classified Learning Disabled and reading has long been a hated chore to most. Their comprehension skills are weak and when they come to me as freshmen, most have never known the joy that reading can bring.
Last year, in an effort to spin reading in a more positive light, I started supplementing my curriculum with a few contemporary YA novels. Though this may sound like an obvious solution, it’s actually quite difficult to find YA that is clean enough to read during class and to send home for assignments. My school is far more stringent than other schools when it comes to language, mature themes, and controversial subjects, so I have to be extra careful with my choices.
The novels I used met with such overwhelming approval from the kids that I was inspired to rework the Summer Reading list in the hope that the kids would actually DO the reading instead of just watching the movie(s), reading the Spark Notes, or just skipping the assignment all together.
On our first day back to school I had my students fill out anonymous critiques of the revamped Summer Reading choices. I asked for their honest answers and the questions had answers that could be circled (so I wouldn’t be able to determine answers by handwriting). Imagine my shock later that night as I leafed through glowing critique after glowing critique!
One of the authors I discovered during my search for clean and entertaining YA is Gwendolyn Heasley. Heasley balances writing with her career as a college professor. Her debut novel, Where I Belong, was published by HarperTeen in 2011 and was a perfect fit for my students. The protagonist, Corrinne Corcoran, comes from a privileged background (like many of my students), and I knew my kids could relate to Corrinne’s carte blanche shopping sprees at Barney’s and car service at her beck and call.
When Corrinne’s father loses his job and nest egg to the recession and bad investments, Corrinne and her little brother are shipped off to their maternal grandparents’ house in the one-horse town of Broken Spoke, Texas while their parents try to salvage what’s left of their lives.
My students recognized Corrinne as a dynamic character–one who changes as a result of experiences–and proudly told me they saw her grow over the course of the novel. They were also able to point out a few instances of inference–I had actually hoped they would miss the one about getting Corrinne not wanting to ‘get sweaty’ with boys, but I guess I’ve taught them too well!
I heard from both Heasley and HarperTeen after tweeting about my use of this book, and the publisher kindly furnished me with a copy of Heasley’s follow-up, A Long Way from You, which tells the story of one of the Texas characters–Kitsy–as she embarks on an art school adventure in New York City for the summer.
A Long Way from You was a good read, but it was a tad too racy for me to use in school (a make-out scene and a few profanities). I did pass the title on to students who, on their critique forms wrote, “Can we read more books like Where I Belong? PLEASE?!”
My campaign to get my reluctant readers reading has really been a success thus far. I continue to read 5-10 YA books a month so I have new trade novels to use in class and fresh stuff to recommend to my kids for outside reading. While it can be a challenge to find good, clean YA, I’m rewarded by my students’ new-found enthusiasm for reading.
Thank you so much to my friends at HarperTeen for sending me a copy of A Long Way From You, and a big thanks to Gwendolyn Heasley for writing relatable and enjoyable YA fiction!