- Start by telling us a little bit about your background in the YA world. How did you get involved in YA literature?
DG: While working on my PhD at Syracuse University and supervising student teachers in secondary schools, I developed an interest in books for teens as part of a course in children’s literature. That was 1967, the same year that S.E. Hinton published The Outsiders and Robert Lipsyte published The Contender, two novels that established what we now see as the foundation of contemporary literature for young adults. The following year, as a new assistant professor of education at the University of Colorado, I taught a course in literature for adolescents and shortly thereafter decided to focus my interests on YA lit. As a result, YA books and I grew up together, my career paralleling the growth of young adult literature. Not only did I become an authority in the field, but I also contributed to it a variety of ways, most significantly in 1984 as the editor of the first anthology of original short stories for young adults written by some of the country’s most notable YA authors at the time. Not only was Sixteen successful, it led to a dozen other anthologies for me, and launched a whole new area of publishing in young adult literature. And Sixteen is still in print 30 years later.
2. What are some of the other projects / awards you are most proud of?
DG: There are lots, actually. I was a founding member of ALAN, the Assembly on Literature for Young Adults, in 1973. With Greenwood Publishing Company in 2000, I created and ran the Authors4Teens website for ten years, interviewing more than fifty YA authors and updating that information constantly, thus developing the longest interviews of those authors that have ever been done. With Sarah K. Herz, I wrote From Hinton to Hamlet: Building Bridges between Young Adult Literature and the Classics, a significant text in the YA field. I was president of ALAN and the recipient of the ALAN Award as well as the Hipple Service Award. I edited the YA lit column in the English Journal for five years. From a yearly portion of royalties from my short story anthologies published with Random House, I started the ALAN Foundation that grants money each year to educators doing research in young adult literature. And I established the Gallo Grants that awards $500 to each of two young teachers each year to attend the ALAN Workshop at the annual NCTE convention.
What has been most pleasurable to me is meeting, getting to know, and becoming friends with so many authors in the business: Richard Peck, Bob Cormier, Chris Crutcher, Bob Lipsyte, David Lubar, Virginia Euwer Wolff, Sandy Salisbury, Lensey Namioka, David Klass, Jeanie Okimoto, René Saldaña, Jr., Will Weaver. Corresponding with them; interviewing many of them; publishing their short stories, plays, and essays. I’ve had meals with many of them; visited the homes of several; invited several of them into my home, a couple of them even spending the night. These are such intelligent, caring people, as well as talented writers who are a pleasure to know.
3.You wrote an article years ago that I still quote to this day that argued that one of the main, if not the primary reason, that teens stop reading for pleasure is because of Language Arts teachers draining the life of literature. Do you still hold to that position? Or have more teachers adopted YA or more relevant texts than just old white guys shot out of the canon?
DG: Certainly, I still believe that, though since I wrote “How Classics Create an Aliterate Society,” things have gotten both better and worse. Better in that many more English teachers have realized the value of young adult books and are using them in their classrooms. But worse in that the current push for the Common Core State Standards has caused too many administrators—and many teachers–to believe that they need to teach to the test and don’t have time for contemporary YA literature. Any English teacher who is doing an exemplary job of teaching literature—including YA literature—will produce students who will do well on any kind of test. Teens who read widely and with interest will want to discuss the content of books they read, and in doing so will meet any standards they encounter. Do not teach to the test; just teach well and use literature that interests your students. Trust your kids and your teaching!
Too many teachers and administrators also believe that they should abandon fiction for more nonfiction, which is totally false. The Standards do not require high school English classes to abandon fiction and teach 70 percent nonfiction. The Standards demand that 70 percent of all reading done in high schools be nonfiction—that includes books in science classes, social studies classes, health classes, art, PE, sex ed, driving, etc.
4. You’re best known to many for editing collections of short stories for teens written by YA authors. When I presented at AASL about reaching reluctant readers, you did a session on the appeal of short stories to these non-readers. Give us your pitch on why short fiction works.
DG: Yeah, we made a good team at that conference. Short fiction works with reluctant readers because it is what it says: short. When I’ve asked groups of teens if they like short stories, almost all the avid readers say no. Because they love to read, they want the thickest books they can find. They don’t want those stories to end. And they want sequels to them. Reluctant readers are what they are called: reluctant to read. So if I don’t enjoy reading very much (for whatever reasons), why would I want to be burdened by a long book in the first place? The shorter the better for them. Of course, the subject matter has to be appealing for them to read even a short piece, but interest is a significant factor in works of any length.
5. I coined for VOYA the idea of the “perfect ten” book. Perfect tens are books with both high literary quality AND broad popular appeal. You’ve worked with hundreds of authors in putting together story collections; who are some authors who combine both of these traits?
DG: Probably all of them, since I always invited the best writers I know, and published the best stories they could write. It’s interesting that every anthology I put together brought a variety of responses from different readers, both teens and adults. Almost every group of kids and every reviewer of my books has mentioned different stories that they felt were the best. And the worst. Some reviewer might criticize a particular story, saying it was inferior to the other stories in the collection, and then I would visit a school the next month and several students would pick that very story as their favorite from that book. For every story that someone attacked—“Why did you put THAT story in this book?”—someone else would say, “That’s my favorite story EVER!”
That being said, there are certain excellent stories that have become more popular than others over the years, the most famous being Richard Peck’s “Priscilla and the Wimps” from Sixteen. Another is Lensey Namioka’s “The All-American Slurp” from Visions. Of course, there’s Chris Crutcher’s “A Brief Moment in the Life of Angus Bethune” from Connections. Will Weaver can always be counted on for interesting stories with depth, my favorites being “The Photograph” from No Easy Answers and “WWJD” from On the Fringe. And then there are stories by Jane Yolen and Ron Koertge and Gordon Korman and Pam Muñoz Ryan and David Lubar and . . . .
6. You have a new venture called LitWeaver, which seems like a great way to bring YA writing, in particular short stories, into the classroom. Tell us a little bit about the history of the project, who is all involved, and what you hope to achieve.
DG: Author Will Weaver founded LitWeaver as a young adult literature outreach to schools through digital platforms. We believe YA lit should be more accessible, more varied, and more affordable—and now it is! Our cohort of more than sixty top authors came together to make contemporary short stories, essays, poems, and plays available to schools for e-reading or print on demand. LitWeaver.com has free selections for middle- and high schools right now, though we’ll eventually add a low cost subscription to help cover our website costs. Our program is like Netflix, but with literary readings. Teachers sign up, stock their electronic bookshelf with short stories, essays, or poems (novels are coming in the near future) that are just right for their grade or their purposes. Then teachers create “classes” and invite students. Students join the class, where great e-reading is waiting. We’re working on the tech side right now to make LitWeaver simple and easy to use, but it’s clear that our overall vision of improving access and affordability has struck a chord with teachers. There are other companies that provide electronic reading materials for English classes, but nobody except LitWeaver is focusing on teens, and nobody is offering the array of short stories, poems, plays, and essays that we provide.
It’s been my job as executive editor to acquire the literary selections for our program, most of which have been previously out of print. Almost all of the selections so far have come from some of the most highly respected authors in the business: authors such as Richard Peck, Katherine Paterson, Chris Crutcher, Jerry Spinelli, Jane Yolen, Walter Dean Myers, Nikki Grimes, Sonya Sones, Ellen Hopkins, and I just acquired a poem from the latest Newbery Award winner, Kwame Alexander. I have also acquired several new essays and poems that readers are going to be thrilled to read.
In addition to each literary piece, we provide an author photo, an author biography, and a reading guide of discussion questions as well as research and writing activities. It’s a complete package, all provided digitally. For me, this has been the most exciting project I have been part of in my entire long career.
7. So if you were given a chance to mentor a new librarian, media specialist, or secondary school Language Arts teacher, what advice would you give them on the best way to encourage reading, in particular among those teens who don’t like to read?
DG: The task is more difficult for public librarians, because kids who don’t enjoy reading don’t think of the library as a place to go to read. So librarians have to employ especially creative programming that will attract all sorts of teens to come there, and also make space in part of the building where those kids can feel safe and wanted. It has to be a space with lots of books and magazines, of course, and have plenty of computers and/or tablets for online games and searching.
The most important thing that English and reading teachers can do is build and maintain as large a collection of paperback books they can in each of their classrooms. And, of course, make LitWeaver.com, with all its choices, available to their students.
Teachers as well as librarians must, absolutely, give enthusiastic booktalks as often as possible, and encourage their student to share their opinions openly. To do that, of course, librarians and teachers must be avid readers of young adult lit themselves. There’s no substitute for that. Short stories make great read-alouds, because they are short and can be presented in 15 minutes or so. If a teen likes a short story, he/she might then want to try a novel by the same author. Interest builds like a snowball on a big hill—it starts compact and small but once it gets rolling . . . boom! it’s going to develop into an unstoppable force.