jueves, 28 de enero de 2016

Young adult fantasy literature… in the classroom? (1st part)

   Promotional artwork of the videogame Final Fantasy Tactics A2 developed by Square-Enix.
For this entry we are pleased to welcome a two-part contribution from Alberto Bolaños Montealegre. Alberto is a former student of the MEd in Children’s Literature and Literacies at the University of Glasgow and his entry is based on his Master’s dissertation for this Programme. Given his thoughtful research on YA fantasy books and the potential they have in the classroom, as well as his particular enthusiasm for Laura Gallego’s series, Memorias de Idhún, we felt sure that his ideas would be of interest and benefit for many of our readers and especially those who work with young people and reading.

Alberto Bolaños Montealegre specializes in second-language teaching and most of his career has developed in this field. However, his childhood interest in fantasy literature led him to explore YA fantasy books in the classroom in his masters’ dissertation. Currently, he works as a primary English teacher for the Department of Education of the Government of Castile-La Mancha (Spain).

In the entry of this blog entitled “Back to school and back to the same old issues with reading?” (Arizpe, E. and Guerrero, L., September 4, 2015) Evelyn and Laura emphasized how important it is to give a twist to literary education in school. It is true that the teaching of the classics is a fundamental part of the area of literature but it is also important to remember the interests and the tastes of 21st century youngsters. In my opinion, our task as educators and mediators of children’s and teenagers’ books is to find texts that can connect with our students; reflect their concerns and trap them in such a way that reading becomes the door to other texts.

That was precisely the idea that motivated me to write my Master’s thesis “The Educational Potential of Young Adult Fantasy Literature: The case of Memorias de Idhún by Laura Gallego García”. In this dissertation I tried to approach the fantasy genre, a literary genre which is usually ignored in schools, from a classroom practice perspective through the case of the trilogy Memorias de Idhún [Memories of Idhún], a saga which perfectly exemplifies the characteristics of both “fantasy” and “YA literature”. In this entry I am going to summarize the main conclusions of my work.

It is a fact that fantasy literature has never managed to find its place in school curricula. Educators and academics alike have frequently shared certain reticence toward this type of books by considering them “not-serious” or “low-quality” literature. Yet, fantasy literature and, particularly, its juvenile branch, have certain characteristics that make them a very useful educational resource, a situation which contrasts with the mistrust shared by the educational community. I will now build my analysis of YA fantasy from an educational point of view by trying to answer these two questions: Why should we include YA fantasy books in schools? Is it possible to include them into the classroom practice in a way that is coherent with curriculum planning?

Firstly, a simple but powerful reason to include these books in the class is that teenagers like this type of readings and we have research that confirms it: Smith (2012, pp. 20-21) comments that more than a half of the 25 most read books by the American teenagers in 2011 belonged to the categories of either fantasy or science fiction. Research carried out in Spain in 2013 points in the same direction (Federación de Gremios de Editores de España, 2013).

A second reason is how easy it is for fantasy stories not only to deal with tough and complex topics which concern teenagers (such as identity or parental absence) but also to situate them in a place far from our environment, a fantasy place, where it is easier to talk about these topics. In Colleen-Cruz and Pollock’s words (2014): “when children [I think it can also be applied to teenagers] read about a fantastical world, far removed from their real lives, it is much safer to think about issues of loss, betrayal, and change” (p. 185). In describing their own classroom practice, Colleen-Cruz and Pollock (2004) tell us how reading fantasy books led their students to develop interesting discussions about the nature of evil or death. Therefore, it is worth taking into account the potential of these books to create scenarios for debate in class, to address issues and the anxieties of our students or even to work with philosophical ideas or concepts.

In terms of how to include YA fantasy in the classroom practice, it is important to point out that fantasy is an especially heterogeneous, flexible and diverse genre and, for this reason, these texts offer a plethora of possibilities in the classroom. For example, in the area of language and literature, apart from the traditional teaching for literary analysis, these stories might be a useful resource to make connections to folklore and the oral tradition, given how deeply fantasy is rooted in them. Beyond literary education, YA fantasy books also offer many possibilities in other curricular areas such as geography and cartography (1) or audiovisual education (2), to name but a few (3).

All in all, YA fantasy books can perfectly fulfill the role of a didactic tool. Most of  students like it, they identify with the narratives and, moreover, these texts provide good material for working with different curricular aspects in a different and attractive way. However, the educational potential of YA fantasy books does not only lie in the stories they tell. In the second part of this article (next blog entry), I will look in more depth into some of the educational possibilities that these books offer beyond the book itself.


(1) See Sundmark (2014), an original classroom project proposal in which creative writing is developed together with cartographic concepts using maps of fantasy books.

(2) We can use these books, for instance, to treat concepts such as “transmediation” or to work competences related to “multimodal literacy” given that many of them end up having adaptations in other media such as cinema, graphic novels or videogames. See Soler Pardo, B. and Martín Marchante, B. (2014) for a classroom project proposal using both fantasy literature and cinema.

(3) YA fantasy can be integrated in the classroom in thousand different ways. If anyone is interested in checking out some different examples (among many others) of how to do it, I encourage to look up my Master’s thesis in my profile for the network “Academia.edu”.

- Arizpe, E. and Guerrero, L. (2015) “Back to school and back to the same old issues with reading?” Reading Changes: Adolescents, Young Adult Literature and Literacy Practices in Mexico. Available from: http://readingchanges.blogspot.com.es/2015/09/back-to-school-and-back-to-same-old.html (Last accessed 9th January 2016)

- Colleen-Cruz and Pollock (2004) “Stepping into the Wardrobe: A Fantasy Genre Study”. Language Arts, 81(3), pp. 184-195.

- Federación de Gremios de Editores de España (2013) Hábitos de Lectura y Compra de Libros en España. Alcalá de Henares: FGEE. Available from: http://www.editoresmadrid.org/media/43692/h%C3%A1bitos%20lectura%20a%C3%B1o%202012.pdf (Last accessed 9th January 2016)

- Soler Pardo, B. y Martín Marchante, B. (2014) “White as Snow, Red as Blood, Black as Ebony…: Employing film adaptations of the Brothers Grimm Snow White as a Didactic Tool for Learning EFL”. In: Reyes-Torres, R. et al. (eds.) Thinking through Children’s Literature in the Classroom. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

- Smith, D. (2012) Bringing Fantasy and Science Fiction into the Classroom. The ALAN Review, 39(2), pp. 19-24.

- Sundmark, B. (2014) “‘Dragons Be Here’: Teaching Children’s literature and creative writing with the help of maps”. In: Reyes-Torres, R. et al. (eds.) Thinking through Children’s Literature in the Classroom. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.


jueves, 14 de enero de 2016

Reading surveys: Is the glass half empty or half full?

The anxieties about reading in general and about young people reading in particular manifest themselves in the amount of recent national surveys and studies on the theme and have intensified at the same time as –and probably as a result of- the so called “boom” in young adult literature as well as new technologies that encourage multimodal reading. As Roberto Igarza writes about the evolution of reading and writing practices: ‘The interest in enquiring about this growing complexity invites us to continue to renovate known forms of measuring reading and writing. Never before has measuring reader behaviour been so plural, open and challenging’ (2015: 15 EA translation). Literature and literacy practices have always been subject to cultural, social and economic processes of transformation; what is new is the accelerated rhythm of these processes and the rapidity of change. From one moment to the next they dazzle us and then urge us to keep up, whether we are parents, teachers, mediators or researchers. Fortunately, digital technologies also allow us to gather and analyse data with new methods and populations, to publish and exchange information in ways that facilitate access to a wealth of data and information as never before.

In the recent holidays, I took a few days to read the results of some of the surveys and other publications in Spanish that appeared towards the end of 2015. This text does not intend to be a complete synthesis nor a comparison between countries – that would require an analysis far beyond the possibilities of a blog entry. Rather, this is a reflection about what seem to me to be the coincidences, changes and some of the most significant results in terms of reading and young people’s practices, based mainly on documents from Mexico, Chile and Spain. I also refer to a few other documents that may be useful for readers of this blog (see references).

The surveys on reading tend to include similar topics, for example, questions persist about the quantity of books and of time invested in reading but they now include more and more questions about reading on screen and the survey by IBBY Mexico/A leer and Banamex is the first dedicated to this theme. There is also evidently a new interest in the reading of images generally (on paper or on screen) and in the activities related to computing and the internet, particularly those initiated by young people themselves.

As in all empirical, quantitative research, the responses can be interpreted in either a more negative or a more positive light, as in the case of the proverbial half-empty or half-full glass of water. For example, according to the numbers reported by the ENL (National Reading Survey), in Mexico an average of 5.3 books are read per person per year, which positions that country in second place in Latin America (only just below Chile, with its 5.4 average) but if we consider that the average in Spain is 10.3 (not to mention Finland, with 47), there is little to celebrate; also considering the fact that 60% of the surveyed Mexican population did not buy a single book in the past year and that 45% has not been to a library for more than a year. There are also big differences in the quantity of books (not including textbooks) in the home (in Mexico 40.1, in Spain 201). The access to libraries and bookshops is unequal and books are increasingly expensive and not everything can be downloaded cheaply (or illegally).

In terms of the numbers that interest us most, in general they do seem positive (as we noted in the entry for 1st May 2015): young people do read. The ENL identified four reading profiles, one of which reported an interest in all types of reading and is mostly comprised by young people (between 12 and 21 years old) called “Diversified reader with a preference for books and comics”. The IBBY-Mexico survey supports this finding and also reported that young people read due to personal initiative more than due to obligation; that they frequent libraries and that 7 out of 10 invested in printed books in the year before the survey. Both surveys indicated more time invested in reading and writing due to text messages and other digital practices; a greater capacity for choice and a wide repertoire of visual and media texts.

These results are similar to those that have been reported from Chile and Spain, where the younger population reads the most and combines reading with a variety of social and digital practices. From the perspective of the “half-empty” glass, however, we must note that the majority of the contents consulted and written are brief and ephemeral and that the reading is done very quickly and therefore there may be less comprehension and reflection.

Some coincidences seem obvious, such as the reasons for not reading (lack of time, apathy or boredom) and the reasons for reading (pleasure, entertainment, for information and for study) or the ways in which schools seems to ignore current practices. In this sense, nothing much has changed in the last 25 years. However, what has changed and is evident in the survey data is the impact of the global publishing market and massive communications media. We can see this, for example, in the proliferation of young adult books. However, the coincidence of book titles mentioned is worrying (in Mexico, 20 books represented nearly 20% of the total of responses) given they indicate little variety, perhaps due to lack of knowledge or access or due to fashion and publicity (for example, the influence of films of the book) and the persistent didactic/sentimental traits.

In terms of reading on screen, on one hand, the increase reflected in the surveys carried the benefits of access to information, participation and even book reading, but on the other hand, the access to digital media continues to depend on a certain level of economic resources and schooling and also on geographic context (it is much higher in urban areas). The regional and international average of access to internet also continues to be very unequal. It is worrying that the economic and social breach continues to determine reading levels. No matter how much young people can access with their mobile phones, the technology at home and a school (private or public) is not the same.

But, as Marco Antonio Coloma writes about Chilean reading surveys ‘… numbers are not enough. It is also necessary to advance in qualitative dimensions, un sociological and anthropological approaches to the phenomenon of reading, that will tell us from other perspectives how readers have changed (…) and how their form of reading has been altered’ (Coloma 2015: 109 EA translation). The surveys bring us closer to the contemporary young reader but the numbers must be interpreted carefully and the next challenge is to share and put this information at the service of young people themselves and think ‘how reading and writing practices can be enriched and expanded in their plural and multiple forms, in the supports and modes in which they are produced today…’ (Dussell 2015: 142 EA translation). With the help of authors, illustrators, editors, teachers, reading promoters, librarians and researchers we can imagine what we want responses to future surveys to look like so as to ensure that the glass is full for everyone.


Coloma, M. A. (nd) Medir la lectura: ¿para qué sirven las cifras? Actas del II Seminario Internacional ¿Qué leer? ¿Cómo leer? Lecturas de Juventud. Ministerio de Educación, República de Chile.

Dussel, I. (2015) Una mirada a los resultados de la ENL 2015 desde la acción de la escuela y la cultura digital. En Encuesta Nacional de Lectura pp 134-142.

Eliessetch, K. (nd) Los jóvenes según las encuestas. Actas del II Seminario Internacional ¿Qué leer? ¿Cómo leer? Lecturas de Juventud. Ministerio de Educación, República de Chile.

 (ENL) Encuesta nacional de lectura y escritura 2015-2018. Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, Dirección General de Publicaciones, México D.F.

(FGEE) Federación de Gremios de Editores de España (2012). Hábitos de lectura y compra de libros en España 2012. Madrid: Federación de Gremios de Editores de España.

IBBY México/A leer and BANAMEX. (2015) Primera Encuesta Nacional sobre Consumo de Medios Digitales y Lectura.

Igarza, R. (2015) El desafío de poner en perspectiva el comportamiento de los lectores en México.  In Encuesta Nacional de Lectura pp 4-15.

Picton, I. (2014) The Impact of Ebooks on the Reading Motivation and Reading Skills of Children and Young People: A rapid literature review, London: National Literacy Trust.

Primer Estudio de Comportamiento Lector (2011). Consejo Nacional de la Cultura y las Artes, Centro de Microdatos, Facultad de Economía y Negocios de la Universidad de Chile.