Why It's Newsworthy: Members of Generation Z have grown up in a world filled with rapidly developing technology, and they’ve taken a liking to it. Their frequent use of technology has made them the most likely demographic to encounter new books via social media, including ones targeted at younger audiences. This creates the perfect climate for cultivating new, youth-targeted book communities and for introducing modern literature forms into traditional English education.
One look at Olivia Marenda’s bedroom and you can tell she likes to read.
Her floor-to-ceiling bookshelves teem with books bound in lively hues and shades: bright blood reds, fiery oranges, deep teals, warm creams and shimmery golds atop muted blacks. One shelf is dedicated to novels that feature females with scary, Slytherin-like, energy. Another houses books by authors of diverse ethnic, racial and cultural backgrounds, dubbed by Marenda as the rainbow shelf. The stack of books perched near her bed helps encourage her to read a few pages each night before drifting off to sleep.
In March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the University of Georgia to close its campus and switch to remote learning, Marenda, then a senior biology major returned to her colorful, bookish boudoir in Marietta, Georgia.
Soon, the quarantine boredom set in, and Marenda started sharing some of her favorite novels from her collection, posting them to @olivesbookshelf, her book devoted Instagram account.
In creating her account, Marenda joined a growing community of readers and literary lovers who call themselves bookstagrammers— people who post on Instagram about books. Similar communities have found a home on platforms like TikTok (#booktok) and Twitter (@TwitterBooks) and on websites like Goodreads.
‘When I pick up a book, it's because I want to escape into that world, and I feel like reading you, you become fully immersed,” Marenda said. “Then it's over really, you have that conclusion. You feel like things are resolved."
For months Marenda posted; her photos hitting Instagram’s feed every day or so. Then, in September, Marenda posted her first Reel.
“At that point, I probably had maybe like 6,000 or 7,000 followers,” Marenda said. “When I started using Reels, that's when my following really picked up.”
Marenda’s Reels are simple; they show her reading in bed, fangirling over a juicy plot twist and relishing in her favorite childhood stories, yet they average tens of thousands of views.
Her most viral reel, posted in December, shows her sitting cross-legged on her bed, a book open in front of her. She pulls a fluffy white sheep-shaped pillow up to her face as the voice on the audio track she’s miming along to sounds a muffled, frustrated scream. Tossing the pillow behind her and repositioning her glasses on her face, Marenda mimes a defeated “OK” and picks up her book to continue reading. The text floating near her head reads: “When everything’s going wrong and there are only 20 pages left.”
This struck a chord with Instagram users; the Reel has over 1,500 comments, 241,000 likes and 5.4 million views.
Marenda isn’t the only bookworm on social media. She, and her over 14,000 followers, are part of a virtual book community who are ravenous to rave and roast their recent reads or nerd out over their favorite literary memes, tropes and writing styles. They’ve created a safe place— a place where being bookish is cool.
“I read more and I'm inspired to read more because I know that I can always find someone who will talk to me about those books,” said Marenda.
Kate Mixon, a UGA senior English and English education major from Macon, Georgia, also likes to talk about books. Her @an.introspective.reader Instagram page is full of bright and airy pictures showing off her new reads.
Bookstagram embraced Mixon in March 2020, when she made her first post, one that immediately received comments from strangers welcoming her to the book community.
“I just really found that there are a lot of people out there that are, like, really excited about books and really want to talk about books,” Mixon said. “I did not realize that there were other people who were like me.”
Marenda and Mixon often post about young adult or YA literature: books aimed at readers in their tweens to early twenties.
The boom of YA literature in the past several decades has shown some academics, like Dr. Thomas Hunter Strickland, an assistant professor of education at Anderson University, that YA books can have a valuable place in English classrooms.
“We can teach all of our standards using those texts that students are interested in reading, that talk about things that are important to them and reflect their values and their family and their cultures and their identities in various ways,” Strickland said.
Traditionally, English education occurs through reading textbooks or analyzing esteemed literary classics like “The Great Gatsby." But these canonical works of English can often be out of touch with modern-day issues and lack diverse voices that resonate with students.
Instead of learning about race issues by reading “To Kill A Mockingbird,” Strickland suggests that students instead engage with “All American Boys,” a young adult novel written from the perspective of two teens— one Black, one white— as they reckon with an experience of police brutality. Or they could study the race relations in Angie Thomas’ “The Hate U Give," following a Black teen with a foot in two different worlds.
“Students are going to be able to connect to that in way bigger ways,” Strickland said. “They're going to be able to say, you know, ‘This feels like my life.’”
As an aspiring educator, one of Mixon’s goals is to have a classroom library where students can find books that represent their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and interests, encouraging them to find joy in reading. Through her bookstagram, Mixon accumulates an array of diverse YA books, keeping track of ones that her students may be interested in.
“I want my students to have access to those books,” Mixon said. “Whether it's a Black student who wants a book that they feel like they can understand or it's possibly a white student that's like, ‘I want to know more.’”
By reading books that are more in line with students’ interest and daily realities, educators can encourage students to be analytical thinkers that critique and comment on today’s modern landscape.
“Creating people who analyze the world around them, and push themselves to experience the world in different ways and to be cognizant of people that are different than them, if that's our goal, then we can use both young adult literature, and things like these digital tools to ask students to do so much more,” Strickland said.
On social media, students are finding spaces that reflect who they are and what they want to read, creating a community not found in most traditional classrooms. Engaging students and educators with these online communities and with more contemporary texts can help make reading something students enjoy well after graduation.
“The last thing I want is for students to never read a book again for the rest of their life after they leave my class,” Strickland said.
The good news is, these online communities don't seem to be disappearing anytime soon. They are imperishable flames, illuminating readers to new adventures and casting away dark, daunting thoughts. They offer a way to not just live in the pages of a novel, finding comfort and thrill in the beginning, the end and everything between, but to follow the story into its reincarnation—as its journey begins in the hands of another eager and hopeful reader.
(Above) Marenda talks about some of her favorite reads on one shelf of her collection. (Photo/Olivia Marenda)
(Above) Mixon talks about some of her favorite thriller books that she's read in recent years. (Photo/Kate Mixon)
Click on the dots to discover some of Olivia Marenda's and Kate Mixon's favorite reads, as told in their own words.
Read an annotated version of this story here
The Next Chapter
How Social Media is Creating a New Space for Literature Learning
By Jillian Tracy