Class Projects in YA Lit: How They Taught and Teach Us How to Read

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Class Projects in YA Lit, by Alexandra Rudolf-Dib

For: The Los Angeles Review of Books

I like that, even amidst Bella Swan’s world of vampires and werewolves, I can at least say that I too have read Macbeth. Like all readers who turn to young adult literature, I like to be somewhat grounded in the world of a novel, and as a student, hardly anything seems more familiar than a class project.

Why do so many YA novels, typically regarded as fun, easy, escapist reads, deal with art projects, final papers, and science labs? Doesn’t it kill the fantasy to know that even if you got your letter from Hogwarts, you’d still need to pass the rigorous O.W.L.s? No, actually. The only victim of this YA trope is our false notion that we can separate ourselves from academic settings when reading. Even while we read about a school for witches and wizards, a Seattle suburb secretly housing a coven of vampires, or even mere mortals, classroom settings provide us the social context to orient ourselves with guidelines of “normal” interactions. Our ideology of authority and social norms, rather than causing what James Kavanagh calls “the unfortunate irruption of opinions and doctrine within… an ‘imaginative’ work,” capitalizes on our expectations so that the requisite plot structures and character development in a novel appear realistic and effortless.

Accio cheatsheet? Nope, even the world's favorite three witches/wizards have to study sometimes.

Accio cheatsheet? Nope, even the world’s favorite three witches/wizards have to study sometimes.

Class assignments facilitate exposition much the same way strangers find more comfort in chatting over a meal or activity than simply talking. Although it might be strange if an author threw together two characters solely under the pretenses of fate or destiny, class projects serve as the perfect excuse for linking people together. Bella, a self-professed reticent, reserved teen, finds herself revealing her true reason for moving to Forks only during her second lab with Edward. Graciously offering for Bella to take the first look through the microscope (“Ladies first, partner?”), Edward not only establishes a precedent for Bella to pass information to him, but also reinforces their new link as “partners” (Meyer 44). Just as Edward skillfully masters the lab assignment with only a fleeting glance at each slide, he equally succeeds in inducing Bella’s “babbling” to the point where she compliments him as “a good reader” for being able to decipher her emotions and thoughts (Meyer 54, 50).

Bella and Edward learn about mitosis and about each other in their first lab sans onyx-death stare.

Bella and Edward learn about mitosis and about each other in their first lab sans onyx-death stare.

Although class projects are not blatantly obvious as the fulcrum of a novel, they work like a corset for the plot: keeping it in tact while also remaining covered in more decorative layers. Each part of an assignment echoes the traditional plot of a YA novel, starting with the stasis prior to the teacher’s directions, which shows everyday life and establishes social orders (usually through seating arrangements). The complication and ensuing conflict usually arrive through the assignment itself or in the partnering (again often determined by the last available seats), often pushing together two initially repellant forces in a setting that requires their compliance. Anticipated social cohesion provides us the expected context for how to relate to each other in projects. From these expected niceties, we generate an idea of conflict in a novel without needing to be told that something is not quite right. We know it’s going to be sad when Miles “Pudge” Halter, in John Green’s Looking for Alaska, has to write his final essay based on a prompt from his dead crush, because we know that the personal isn’t supposed to enter the academic. We know it’s going to be uncomfortable when Edward looks like he might kill Bella, because if they sit at the same lab table then they will have to play nice. Because we expect fairness, equality, and superficial politeness out of group project settings, we become engrossed in the plot’s conflict by asking our own questions without needing to be prompted by the authors—why is Bella’s lab partner being so rude and uncooperative? How will Pudge learn to grieve while working for an “A”?

Class projects further develop believable character relationships through our ideological assumptions of power and perspective within the academic sphere. For example, only Bella or Edward can look through their microscope at a time; the equipment renders it impossible for them both to fully see through the lenses at once. This requires that they switch off and trust each other, much like later when they must wholly commit to either the vampire world or the human one after failing to keep one foot in each. Similarly, the final paper Pudge’s classmates encounter establishes that only a teacher can facilitate an escape from the “labyrinth of suffering.” Pudge’s real closure in his mourning for Alaska comes from the teacher-generated final essay, rather than the student-organized final prank in her honor or his usual comfort in the final words of famous figures. We believe in this relationship of power because we unthinkingly grant teachers the final say, and as a result we evaluate the characters’ success based on their ability to maneuver the tasks given to them.

 

Pudge's final answer and some of the novel's closing words.

Pudge’s final answer and some of the novel’s closing words.

Based on the characters’ literacy of these social cues and expected behavior within the parameters of a given assignment, we can orient ourselves in their personal development with their progress on these projects as our Northern Star. We know that Pudge has finally approached his “Great Perhaps,” and become part of the Culver Creek crowd, when he cracks the code to Alaska’s question, even if he can’t determine whether her death was suicide or an accident. Operating off of the assumption that academic success translates to emotional maturity, the intelligence required of completing such a project serves as one of the primary markers of adulthood. We know that the end of a book is quickly approaching once the project itself wraps up, because really what else could so subtly and successfully drive the plot? The characters work toward answering a riddle or identifying the stages of mitosis with the same interpretation and finesse that readers employ to decode the plot and understand the characters through their efforts, grades, and social skills in the familiar world of school.

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