Academic journal article Reading & Writing

Broken Promises - A Novel's Impact on Shaping Youth Identity

Academic journal article Reading & Writing

Broken Promises - A Novel's Impact on Shaping Youth Identity

Article excerpt


In this article we focus on the gender constructions of girls and boys in contemporary youth literature from a South African context. Novels that youths read in schools are often read without any discussion. In such cases, students' knowledge of the relationship between gender and language can be limited or even absent; in addition, their awareness of how the connection between the social and linguistic construction of gender is implicated in daily life, where it is negotiated and visible through beliefs, speech and actions, can also be poorly developed.

This paper draws from a study about teachers' development of their literacy practice over a twoyear period in two secondary schools in the Eastern Cape. The teachers found it frustrating when students in Grade 8 could not read at a satisfactory level. The teachers realised that the students needed to read much more, not only for obtaining good marks, but also for the joy of reading and for their own satisfaction. Therefore the teachers started reading projects in their classrooms through the assistance of the researchers (Lundgren, Scheckle & Zinn 2015).

A starting-point for those teachers was to find donors of books for their school: private individuals, publishers and other organisations. One of the donors was FunDza, Cover2cover, which gives out free books to many partner schools in South Africa. This publisher mostly distributes ten copies of each title from the Harmony Series. Broken promises by Roz Haden, which is set in a fictional township, is the first of five books in the Harmony Series. The series follows a group of teenagers at a fictional high school, Harmony High.

During an informal meeting with teachers at one of the schools, we also met some students. Through discussions with teachers and students we realised that the students liked the novels from the Harmony Series very much because they could relate to the content as it was about their real world and real-life situations, the same as they experienced daily in the townships. Furthermore, the students argued that they have learnt from the novels, for example, not to trust easily or believe everything they are told. They have also learnt to have more confidence in themselves. Therefore we decided to examine the novels more closely from a gender perspective.

We emphasise the importance of making classroom literacy practice visible and offering examples of fiction literature that challenge the status quo. This study hopes to contribute to a wider understanding of the impact that language and the content of fiction literature can have on students' identity-shaping. The aim of this article, therefore, is to provide a gendered analysis of the novel Broken promises. This analysis is guided by three questions: In what ways are gender and power presented in relation to women and men? What language is used to describe women, men and the power relations between them? What gendered messages do students receive from reading the book and how can these be understood and deconstructed?

Reading in South Africa

Firstly, to understand why it is extremely important for the teachers to find books for the students we contextualise youth and reading in South Africa.

Studies have shown that the higher the socio-economic index for a country, the higher the reading and writing competency among its inhabitants (Konstantopoulus & Borman 2011). For South Africa to improve its economy, therefore, there is a need to empower its citizens with skills in order to enhance their economic contribution (UNESCO 2012). South African youth experience emotional distress in many situations because of factors such as poverty and parental absence (Eddy 2009). In the area of Port Elizabeth where the novel was read, more than 50% of the youths were living without their parents, according to Holborn and Eddy (2011). Furthermore, young people might feel hopeless when they do not know where their fathers are while at the same time they are expected to respect adult male authority. …

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