George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

Pairing Young Adult Books With Classic Literature

Reading contemporary books alongside classics can help high school students better grasp the nuances and themes embedded in literature.

April 30, 2024
Covers courtesy of publishers, Ben Stevens / iStock

One of the most rewarding elements of teaching reading is when students come rushing into the class wanting to talk about the reading from the night before. I relish these moments. It took me a while to realize that these moments are few and far between when I assign classic literature on its own. But when I started asking students to read young adult (YA) literature independently while we worked through classical texts in class, the energy and excitement became palpable.

Pairing novels does not mean “doubling up” on the amount of reading students are required to do. Pairing essentially provides carefully selected reading materials that support the skills and lessons that the teacher is emphasizing in the classroom. In the classroom, this may look like reading a classical text, listening to an audiobook and following along, or selecting key passages to work through. Teachers and students use these to work through specific standards and skills in reading and writing. Then, students can apply those skills to a young adult novel or a more contemporary work to see how the skills play out in real-world, independent reading. 

Using YA Novels as an introduction to the Classics

Light summer reading can provide an opportunity for teachers to give material that previews themes or genres that students will embark on in class by assigning enjoyable “beach reads” for summer reading. When I taught middle school, we started the year with The Odyssey, by Homer. I assigned Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan, as a summer read to preview the Olympians and give a basic introduction and understanding of the Greek mythology characters that students encounter in The Odyssey.

Another way to approach this is to give a selection of options about a character’s odyssey to provide a preview of the narrative structure of the ”hero’s journey.“ For instance, I could ask my students to select between J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit; Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen; Into the Wild, by Jon Kraukauer; and The Maze Runner, by James Dashner. Teachers can consider creating a list of young adult titles that may work well with their first unit’s reading and give students some options of light summer reading to preview the themes or lessons they’ll encounter in the new year. The goal here is to allow the enjoyment of reading to be at the forefront without any major work attached to it and let the organic enjoyment of reading come through.  

Complementing, Not Complicating, classic texts 

When we set out to teach a text in the classroom, we understand that there is an element of rigor: We want to push our students to think deeply and stretch their cognitive abilities. However, the process of reading does not always have to include such cognitive stretches. The goal of pairing books is to teach with rigor and allow those skills to filter into more digestible texts. For this activity, I give students “note catchers,” graphic organizers that have specific tasks or questions to look for as they do a close reading. They complete it or “catch notes” as they go.

For instance, we read Lord of the Flies, by William Golding, and I pair it with The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, which students read on their own. We listen to Lord of the Flies on audiobook, follow along in the text, and catch notes with a variety of activities that teach skills from the standards, then link it to the paired text.

We study the symbolism of the conch shell, glasses, and knife/spear in Lord of the Flies. I then ask my students to consider the symbols they encounter in The Hunger Games as they read independently. Often, they come back with things like the cornucopia, the Mockingjay, and fire, with some interpretations of what those symbols represent. The Divergent series also works well here. So while we are doing the heavy lifting of learning about and exploring symbolism in class, students can apply those rigorous lessons about survival, alliances, and power to a dystopian young adult novel on their own. 

Connecting Themes in Classical literature

For many students, the plot lines in the classics are unrelatable. The characters in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet are a bit unrealistic as they swoon over each other; Gus and Hazel in John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars move at a pace that is more in line with the subtle flirting that today’s youth can relate to. However, the theme of tragic love is timeless and can be explored in different ways between the classic and the contemporary. 

In this unit, we work through the language and the depth of Shakespeare and the poetry of love and passion with in-class analysis and close-reading activities. Then, for individual reading, students compare and contrast the expressions of love, passion, and being a teenager in Green’s love story. When we pair these, we can explore how the expression of love has perhaps changed over time, but the theme of young love and tragedy remains timeless. 

Teachers can consider other timeless themes through the pairing of literature. For instance, you could explore oppression and how a character’s voice can be silenced in The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the young adult novel Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson. It‘s easy for younger students to write off the oppressive voice of religion in The Scarlet Letter, but society still has a long way to go with acknowledging women’s voices around trauma and assault, a concept made more relatable with the teenage character in Speak.

You could also explore racial injustice by teaching To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, in class and Monster, by Walter Dean Myers, as independent reading. The setting of Maycomb during Jim Crow and the Depression is a bit unrelatable to many students, despite previewing with research and activities; the setting of Monster in Harlem in the 1990s is closer.

When classics are paired with contemporary works of literature that are perhaps more engaging and easier to read or connect with, students may connect more with the material on their own, and the teacher can leave the heavy lifting of the classics in the classroom lessons.

Now it’s your chance to share: What’s been your experience with teaching contemporary novels and classic texts side by side? If the idea is new to you, what pairing are you most excited about and why? Reply in the comments below.

Share This Story

  • email icon

Filed Under

  • Student Engagement
  • English Language Arts
  • 9-12 High School

Follow Edutopia

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • instagram icon
  • youtube icon
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use

George Lucas Educational Foundation

Edutopia is a free source of information, inspiration, and practical strategies for learning and teaching in preK-12 education. We are published by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization.
Edutopia®, the EDU Logo™ and Lucas Education Research Logo® are trademarks or registered trademarks of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in the U.S. and other countries.