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What's wrong with fantasy books for teens?

Claire Needell Hollander is an ELA enrichment teacher at a Manhattan middle school and the mother of three daughters, all public school students.

For those not directly affected by the damage wreaked by Sandy, boredom was the enemy over the past school-free week. Lucky were those households with a stockpile of good books, or access to a bookstore whose doors remained open. Alas, most of the books for teens at my local chain bookstore are dystopian novels and paranormal romances. Few and far between are the thought-provoking realistic young adult novels like "Kind of a Funny Story," by Ned Vizzini and "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian," by Sherman Alexie.

While there is nothing wrong with spending leisure time reading fantasy books, they are mostly devoid of real world knowledge—unlike realistic novels, like "Sold," by Patricia McCormick, that may introduce students to other cultures.

I teach middle school, and the books most often cherished by my students are realistic and literary. In addition to the above titles, students ask me daily to chase down copies of "Speak," by Laurie Halse Anderson and classics like "Catcher in the Rye." These novels speak to the universal adolescent experience of change and confusion. They address the evolving sexuality of the young teen without the obfuscating additions of fangs, and supernatural bloodlines. These books are about being human.

While series books are engrossing and may pull more reluctant readers into the habit of reading, those of us who came of age prior to the explosion in the young adult category were probably dabbling in more sophisticated, world- knowledge laden adult thrillers and mysteries, such as books by Michael Creighton, Robert Ludlum and Agatha Christie, all of which contain high level vocabulary, and the settings of which span the globe.

Although many young adults adore genre fiction, as parents and educators we need to keep in mind that was is being offered at giant retail chain bookstores is simply what these enormous retailers believe they can sell in the largest numbers. Your child may browse these shelves and conclude that vampires are interesting, simply because they are there, in much the same way she might pick up a pair of sherbet-colored short-shorts at a clothing store, making the purchase on impulse.

Just as she probably wonʼt wear the shorts a second year, she will probably replace the fantasy novel with another one very much like the first. Sheʼll gain little new vocabulary, and little insight into her own developing psyche. Young readers need, not just to read, but to discern between thoughtful, enlightening fiction and entertainments that go down just a bit too easy.

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