YA Lit And The Gender Gap in Education

Despite this troubling gender gap in math and science education, however, literary reading has risen among adult Americans, and "the most significant growth has been among young adults, the group that had shown the largest declines in earlier surveys," according to the NEA.
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More teens than ever before are reading fiction outside of school assignments, and half of adolescents surveyed say "they read books to 'help you figure out who you are and who you could become.'" Young adults want to read -- will read and are reading -- good stories told well, fiction that speaks to their current young lives and that helps them to imagine how they could and should act upon the world as adults. The dramatic growth of Young Adult (YA) literature is an educational opportunity.

As an English professor, I teach writing (creative, academic, and graduate-level theory) and cultural studies to young adults. As a novelist, I write and publish fiction that I hope is compelling. My new novel, Glimpse, book one of a trilogy titled The Tesla Effect, is my foray into the genre of YA literature.

It's impossible for me to separate my academic work from my creative work, and in Glimpse this has proved to be especially true. My intellectual grounding in feminist and cultural theories, my appreciation, as a reader, of the outstanding writing and world-building I have found within the YA genre, my ongoing interactions with students aged 17-25, and my personal fascination with science have all informed The Tesla Effect. For me they are inextricably connected, a connection that becomes clear when we take even the most cursory look at gender and education data.

While there is no discernible difference in the math and science proficiency scores of boys and girls at the age of 9, a significant gender gap begins to appear at age 13. The U.S. Department of Education reports that "[s]ince 1970, 13-year-old boys have outperformed girls in science," and that "[i]n 1994, 13-year-old boys scored 5 scale points higher than girls of the same age." Such gaps persist, despite attempts across the spectrum of education to close them -- and to eliminate the subsequent gender inequities in professional opportunities and pay, and equal representation in professional STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). I believe with many others that a multi-pronged approach to these problems should mobilize popular culture, along with education and industry, to more effectively address these disparities.

Despite this troubling gender gap in math and science education, however, literary reading has risen among adult Americans, and "the most significant growth has been among young adults, the group that had shown the largest declines in earlier surveys," according to the NEA. Further, Scholastic's 2010 Kids & Family Reading Report finds that "43 percent of the children... believe the most important outcome of reading books for fun is to open up the imagination. 62 percent of the same demographic say they read books for fun 'to be inspired by storylines and characters.'"

Finally, Siobhan Reardon, President of the Free Library of Philadelphia, explains that "once you start dedicating a section of library specific to the materials of a teen's life, you can see that the stuff will fly out the door, and we're seeing that happen here...".

I write YA fiction in part to lend my voice and my expertise to that effort. The Tesla Effect is a trilogy about teenagers whose lives and adventures and relationships swirl in and around the exciting possibilities of new discoveries and inventions central to math and science. And while genre fiction, and perhaps especially YA fiction, is often criticized as mindless, mass-market entertainment, these fictional works together carry an enormous responsibility. As a teacher and cultural studies scholar, much of my academic work revolves around the ways in which popular cultural texts both reflect and create their social context. Young adult literature, perhaps more than any other commercial genre, contributes to shaping the worldviews of its formative readers, which is why Glimpse features strong, complex female characters, a diverse racial and ethnic cast, and a plot in which science and technology and disciplinary expertise, gained through formal education, are valuable commodities -- as well as creative, exciting, appealing areas of interest and ambition.

Many YA authors set their stories in fantasy realms, and explore identity, possibility, transformation and difference through magic and otherworldly creatures; my characters explore these things at the ethical junctures of our very real, and increasingly integrated, human-technological experience. And like most YA fiction, my characters must grapple with some pretty big questions that can seem philosophically abstract, until you plant them in a complex narrative with characters readers care about -- questions like, How do I navigate change, and recover from devastating loss? What do I owe myself, and what do I owe others? How can I know what is right when the future is a mystery -- how can I be certain? And if I cannot -- if certainty eludes us all as part of the human experience -- how can I know if I am acting ethically?

The joy I have found in writing YA fiction is in the challenge of addressing these very serious, classically literary themes in a way that requires intellectual reflection from readers; constructing a positive vision of "who you are and who you could become" for adolescent and young women that includes science and math as appropriate, exciting, even natural areas of endeavor for them; and trying to do so with a plot and style that does in fact appeal and entertain. Education happens both within and outside of the classroom, and true education causes us to question the status quo, and imagine who and what we -- and the world -- might be. And there's absolutely no reason why that can't, at least sometimes, be fun.

Julie Drew is the author of Glimpse.

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