July 01, 2010

School Reading

I was just perusing facebook and a status update caught my eye. It concerned "Summer Reading" for high schoolers and the change from 10-15 years ago. Summer reading when I was in high school consisted of such books as:

Dracula - Bram Stoker
Frankenstein - Mary Shelley
The Hobbit - J.R.R. Tolkien
Farenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury
Tom Sawyer - Mark Twain
Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte

And so on and so forth.

Today, apparently, we have authors such as Nicholas Sparks (gag me), Tom Clancy, Jodi Picoult, and John Grisham on the summer reading list.

Now, I'm not saying that one is better than the other (although I am a tad bit biased against Nick... sorry. Romance just isn't my preferred reading genre... and I really hated The Notebook (movie version)).

The question that all this raises, however, is not the one you may think it is. The question is: who makes the decision that certain books are "better" than others for academic reading? Why do we place such importance on a book like The Scarlet Letter or The Hobbit or even Romeo and Juliet?

Having been an English teacher, where I had the ability to write my own curriculum a few times, I know what the criteria was for the books I picked for my students to read. They had to be well-written. They had to be age-level appropriate. They had to have good themes to discuss. They had to be good examples of literature. They had to be books I enjoyed reading (because I wasn't about to ask my students to read and discuss a book I found boring or obscene). But what is the criteria that makes something a school "Standard"? Why are some books just taken for granted to be on the reading list and others not? Especially in public high schools? I can understand a Christian school choosing books that have themes of morality and ethics, but in a society where we want to kick God out of the schools, we can't have it both ways. We can't say, "No pledge of allegiance or prayer in schools" and then choose a book like "The Scarlet Letter" because it addresses the sin of adultery (well, without God, what makes adultery a sin?) that's a double standard. That's saying that we want God gone, but we want to keep some of His rules.

Er. Ahem. Tangent.

So, back to my question: what makes some books acceptable and not others? Because if Nick Sparks is allowable, then that means Stephanie Meyers is not far behind... and while I liked the Twilight books,  I don't think they're academically viable options. The big problem that I face with this whole question is... I'd LOVE to teach a course on Fantasy fiction. I think there are books out there that are academically sound.

Ender's Game - Orson Scott Card
The Lord of the Rings - Tolkien
The Death Gate Cycle - Weis and Hickman
Perelandra - C.S. Lewis
The Icarus Hunt - Timothy Zahn
The Giver - Lois Lowry
Harry Potter - J.K. Rowling
The King Raven Trilogy - Stephen R. Lawhead
Inkheart - Cornelia Funke
The Princess Bride - William Goldman
even
Jurassic Park - Michael Crichton (more sci-fi than fantasy, I'll grant you)

and of course, those are just a few. But even when we add "popular fiction" to the list of school reading material, these books are not considered. These books are what my jr. English teacher would have referred to as "high class trash." Why? Because they're "genre fiction." Genre fiction is getting a bad rap and has gotten a bad rap for years. Why? Because it's actually something people enjoy reading? Because it deals with fictional settings and creatures? If that were the case then we wouldn't teach mythology in English classes either. Only a few authors (Lewis and Tolkien) have managed to break through the hoity-toity English teachers' association and onto the school reading lists. While I knee jerk away from anything on the NY Times best seller list, I also don't think popularity is a good reason not to read a book.

So, if the standard for high school reading is that they only read the classics, and "classics" are defined as being popular only after the author is long dead then Shakespeare and Dickens definitely shouldn't be allowed in the classroom. If having literary merit is the definition, then I don't believe Jodi Picoult should be on the list (her being the only author on the previous list that I've read, I can't speak to the other three). And if telling a good story in a new and different way is the only standard then why do we revolve around the 10 books or so that seem to be the only books that are ever on the list (Dickens, Bronte, Austen, Shakespeare, Tolkien, and Twain)? Are they really the only authors who have managed to tell a compelling story in a new and different way while intertwining literary genius into their stories? Dickens (and for that matter, Shakespeare) weren't even really novelists - how does that affect the standard? Especially when we start teaching their writings as "books" in the classroom? What is the criteria? What should the criteria be? Should we even consider *gasp* whether or not a student may want to read the book? Should promoting a love of reading be on the list of criteria? I think it should. I don't think it should be the only criteria though. And I don't think that, plus being on the NY Times bestseller list should bump a book to the reading list either. But what should the criteria be? English, being a subjective subject already, is hard to pin down, hard to define. What makes something a good book and therefore worth reading, especially for academic reading, may be even harder to define...

Questions? Comments? Smart Remarks?

Anybody have an opinion?

4 comments:

Norma said...

I taught *The Giver* this year. My first read through I hated it. Studying it, though, I came to love its accessibility for young middle school students. Then we got some anonymous parent complaint that the House of the Old bathing scene and "stirrings" were downright scandalous and students should never read about that kind of thing. Had to prove its literary merit to administration. Did. It remains on the reading list.

On the other hand, we had other students AND their parents declare that it was the best novel ever written. One mom even went to a local bookstore and stood in line to get a Lois Lowry-autographed copy of the novel for me as a thank-you for introducing her son to a work of literature that had inspired him to read more. (Like I had a choice... the curriculum was set way before I got there, but OK. Thank you. Wow.)

So... here is my question for you, Englishy chick... What are the ten books you think no one ought to be able to graduate from high school without reading? As we are charting curriculum for the future at our school, we are talking through this question. I would truly value your insights.

Dinglefest said...

Nope, no opinion.

Dinglefest said...

Mkay, now that I've gotten my sarcasm out and don't have to unleash it on your political rant (which I don't fully agree with, because Chicken Little, the sky is not falling), I can respond.

Here's my criteria:
-Potential for teaching literary elements (foreshadowing, allusions, figurative language, and so on)
-Multicultural aspects (because while I think diversity education is forced elsewhere, I think literature is the one area in which we can legitimately help students see the world through another perspective)
-Originality (i.e. not cliche or formulaic, unless it is a recognized exemplar for that form)
-General acceptance in the literary field as "literature" (in other words, just as the books that are in the Bible were accepted as canon before they were officially canonized, I think literature is informally "canonized" by teachers and scholar before being recognized formally as reading list worthy)
-and, of course, some sort of Spark Notes or Cliff Notes of the book because let's just admit that that is the definitive measure of literary-ness

And shame on you, my dear, for judging a book by its movie. However, don't rush out to read The Notebook either. Meh. Good ol' Nick Sparks has only slightly more skill than your average Christian romance author.

Fantasy Writer said...

I would be interested to know if sparknotes or cliffnotes come first... because I don't think that's a good judge of whether or not a book is teachable/literary. I believe the -notes come from a book being part of widespread curriculum... not the other way around. Nobody is going to make a 'notes version of a book that isn't guaranteed to be widely read, that wouldn't be good business. Just a thought.