Category Archives: YA Reading

Article: Peer Influences on Young Teen Readers

Peer Influences on Young Teen Readers

What motivates teen readers (age 12 – 15)?

Two key elements jumped out at me from this article by Vivian Howard:

One: The importance of relationships to teens: that is to say, teens will rely on peers as information sources OR as a guide for where to get information in place of getting information from a book.

The findings of this study illuminate the central role played by people as information links and providers. Students relied upon a broad spectrum of people when seeking information. In fact, the interpersonal networks of students appear to determine the framework in which all information seeking takes place, therefore emphasizing the role of interpersonal interactions in gathering information as a critical component in the instruction process.

Howard goes on to report on one teen respondent’s insight about why a ‘live person’ is considered a much more valuable resource:

“One teen respondent explained her preference for human information sources in this way: ‘When asking people, I consider their expertise. If you don’t understand what a person is saying, you can ask them [sic] to explain it a little further. You can’t ask a book to explain what it means right now. I go to people because of their interactive nature.'”



Two: Avid readers read for pleasure in the a “social context”, but to different degrees:

“…many young teen readers systematically described how their pleasure reading takes place in a social context, as an effective strategy to cement peer friendships. These teens actively sought to read the same materials as their closest friends and used reading (talking about reading, exchanging reading material, following the same series) as a form of social bonding…” while for others “…reading has always been and continues to be something they do for pleasure, but in isolation, and it is not a habit to be shared with either friends or family.”

So, this perhaps begs the question about what role might a teacher play in getting teens to read?

“Librarians (and teachers) can promote themselves as accessible and valuable information resources. They can also integrate themselves into students’ interpersonal networks, working with parents, teachers and others to develop and market programmes that focus on students’ needs and the interpersonal aspects of information-seeking behavior.”

But, this makes me wonder about that the teacher:

  1. needs to therefore strive to be seen as a friendly adult (not necessarily a ‘friend’, per se), a safe harbour, so to speak.
  2. must know their students: as a student, as a person, but also as a reader (likes / dislikes, abilities and challenges as a reader, etc.)
  3. could function as ‘reading mentor‘, as it were, providing reluctant students with coaching for the critical skill of book selection as well as how to find out about new books and then to what degree a reader wants to connect with other readers. (Howard includes a very interesting exploration of a ‘Taxonomy of Teen Readers’ regarding how much connection and influence peers exert on teens’ reading.)




Part II: I love comics — but is this one safe for class?

Just because something is created in the comics (aka sequential art) medium, does that change the gravitas of the content? Would a serious topic be diminished presented in comics format? 

Sometimes, comics versions of stories are seen as lesser or substandard. For example, many ‘classic’ novels have been presented as graphic novels, such as: Macbeth, Hamlet, The Odyssey, Frankenstein and Beowulf.


And many fine original stories have appeared as graphic novels, such as: I, Witness, A Bag of Marbles and The Outside Circle, to name a few I have recently read. But again, they are considered less than traditional novels. 

But the following comic got me wondering about what degree the comics medium might diminish or inappropriately intensify a topic.

Consider the following comic from a victim of rape and her story as told to Jen Sorensen by Anonymous entitled “The phone rang. It was my college rapist”.

(Note: some may find this content disturbing.)




Should I have included the disclaimer “some may find this content disturbing”? Isn’t that the point? I asked a number of women colleagues to read this comic along with the question of “Is this comic ‘too much’ for high school students?

My colleague, Angie, who works in the field of guidance counseling, suggested that this comic is a reality for some high school girls already. And that the topic of sexual assault needs to come out of the shadows and into the forefront of conversation. But, as my colleague Annette and I spoke, I had the feeling of ‘but they are still young adults’. 

Where is the line?

Macbeth, as a contrast, explores murder (of a leader, of a male best friend, of women and children, of innocent civilians) as well as mental illness and suicide, and this text is part of the fabric of high school English courses. 

I wonder if a concern might be whether the offending or disturbing act is overtly depicted versus merely suggested. Lady Macbeth, for example, dies offstage as does Lady Macduff and her entire household; the rape and subsequent phone call of this comic are depicted more directly by the artist.

But violence is shown quite clearly and in brutal fashion in such war films as Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List. 

Is war violence somehow safer than sexual violence for classroom discussion? 

And yet in Canada, it goes without saying that a woman must face the possibility of sexual assault throughout their lives (1 in 4 women will be sexually assaulted in North America —

So, as a dad to three young girls, do I want them addressing difficult  topics such as those found in this comic in high school even if it makes them uncomfortable.

If it will forewarn them of very real dangers, I say “Absolutely.”

I love comics – but is this one safe for class?

I love graphic novels and comics. 

While I admit to being a lifelong fan of comic book heroes and their adventures, I am always on the lookout for comics and GNs that tell non-superhero stories –particularly ones aimed at young adults. I do this because I want to find new reading material for my high school students — but am also looking to change the minds of teacher colleagues who may think that comics and GNs are only about Batman, Superman or The Hulk – not that those are bad! 

I digress.

Two excellent examples of recent non-superhero graphic novels that I have read (and tweeted about as @mistercooke on Twitter) include: 

  • The Outside Circle by Patti LaBoucane-Benson and Kelly Mellings: after being sent to jail for murder, a young First Nations man strives for redemption through an exploration of his own culture.
  • A Bag of Marbles by Joseph Joffo, Kris, and Vincent Bailly:  a Jewish family living in Paris must make the heart-breaking decision to send their children away as the Nazis rise to power.


I would love to get both of these books into the hands of students and teachers to show that powerful, disturbing, beautiful, humane, transcendent stories can also be told through the medium of comics. Or as comics guru Scott McCloud says “sequential art”.

I have discovered, in my own practice, GNs can be light reading, entry point reading, a gateway to other reading or a challenging reach book, depending on the reader, as there is a literacy unique to comics that some are more familiar with than others. 

Indeed, I love comics and graphic novels because the visual nature of comics adds both an immediacy and a new layer of complexity that both invites me in and challenges me as a reader.

But could this immediacy be dangerous?

I discovered a longer comic today that presented a difficult conundrum for me as a teacher: can this visual nature of comics and GNs be too immediate? Should some subject matter be left to the reader’s imagination? 

What is that comic, the content of which vexed me so? It shall appear in my next post, posted post-haste.

Child of Dandelions: Embracing then Fixing Confusion

Child of Dandelions continued:

As I continue with this novel, I continue to hit ‘speed bumps’ where I find myself confused by what I am reading.

So, what would literacy ‘gurus’ suggest a student do when confusion arises while reading?


Kelly Gallagher from Deeper Reading:

Deeper Reading

From Stenhouse Publishers

Are students willing and able to embrace confusion? Do they understand that confusion is natural, even with proficient readers, and, Gallagher would suggest, is even necessary when reading something challenging.  He quotes Sheridan Blau:

“…recognizing when we are confused is actually a sign of increased comprehension and that as readers we should welcome and embrace confusion.  Learning begins when we encounter confusion.” (p.63)

He continues:

“Students do not understand this concept.  They think they are supposed to sit down and read Great Expectations once and understand it.  They are dismayed when they become confused, and they often see their inability to immediately work through the hard parts as a reason to give up.” (63)

I can relate.  As I struggle with the place names and plot points of Child of Dandelions, I am definitely also struggling with thoughts such as ‘I should be getting this’ or ‘a better reader would be getting this, so why aren’t I?‘ or ‘I am not getting this so forget it, I’ll just choose another book.

But Gallagher writes about coaching students to persevere in the face of confusion:

“I am not concerned that they will encounter confusion, however, about what they will do when they encounter the confusion.” (63)

The next question, then, is how do I fix my confusion?


Cris Tovani passes out a sheet of fix-up strategies to her students to help them with the question, “What are we supposed to do when we get stuck reading?“:

  1. Make a connection between the text and your life, your knowledge of the world or another text.
  2. Make a prediction.
  3. Stop and think about what you have already read.
  4. Ask yourself a question and try to answer it.
  5. Reflect in writing on what you have read.
  6. Visualize.
  7. Use print conventions (key words, bold print, italicized words, etc.)
  8. Retell what you’ve read.
  9. **Reread: Rereading is the principal strategy good readers use.” — Kelly Gallagher
  10. Notice patterns in text structure.
  11. Adjust your reading rate: slow down or speed up.

For me with Child of Dandelions, I have definitely been asking a lot of questions in my head which then had led to having to reread.  For example, I arrived on a page referencing a character called Munchkin and I had no idea who he or she was:

“Sabine was about to remind the queen that Hindus are cremated, not buried, when Munchkin pulled at Lalita’s gold earring.” (45)

Thus began an almost forensic back starting at the beginning of the book to find where this Munchkin character was introduced:

“Sabine’s little brother, wearing one one of her old dresses, ran to her and she kissed him.  His name was Minaz, but she called him Munchkin. Born with Down syndrome, he hadn’t learned to say many words, but he responded to some.  He would be nine this year.” (31)

The fact that he is not a major character, however, means that, I am guessing, my reading brain didn’t pay too much attention to Minaz / Munchkin when I first read him and / or I wasn’t tuned to my reading channel.

This forensic search also necessitated a slowing down of my reading rate to find the exact reference to Minaz.

So, I wonder if I adjust my thinking to expect confusion, as every proficient reader encounters it at some point and even embrace confusion as a good thing that is forcing me to think, then maybe I enjoy this book for a different reason than it is an easy read about a topic I know well.

Having said that, part of me hopes there is a tipping point soon, when the gears click together — to mix my metaphors — and I can start getting lost in the story instead of wrestling with it to make sense. Onward…

Child of Dandelions: Framing the Text

Child of Dandelions continued:

Following Kelly Gallagher’s ideas, what can I do to frame the text so as to increase the chances of a successful reading of this text?

What questions do I have?

  1. Where is Uganda?
  2. Who was Idi Amin?
  3. Were there actually east Asian people living there? Were they expelled?

Where is Uganda?

From Creative Commons

From Creative Commons

Who is Idi Amin? Did the expulsion of Indian people from Uganda actually occur?

Short-sighted demagogue who played the race card: Idi Amin

Idi Amin – Creative Commons

expelled the Asians






For my students, to activate and provide some background knowledge, I might ask them:

  1. Can you remember a time when you were asked to leave an event or a place because of who you were (teenager, for example)? (I recall students telling me that they have been asked to leave a store in the mall simply because they are teens.  Beyond that, I must admit that I have never experienced expulsion because of who I am.)
  2. Can you think of a story, movie, song, TV show, video game that also shows someone being expelled?( I have read or consumed many stories of the Jews and the Holocaust, and how they were expelled from their homes — such as Schindler’s List. In Please Ignore Vera Dietz, the protagonist is ‘expelled’ from a circle of friends.)
  3. After reading the article, does this story remind of you another historical event? (The Holocaust)

Another way for me to frame the text is to look for a book trailer for Child of Dandelions:

Plus: there was a movie about Idi Amin with Forest Whitaker called The Last King of Scotland: