Wednesday, November 16, 2011

YA Highway: Road Trip Wednesday #1

The YA Highway does a group blogger activity on Wednesdays. But before I can talk about the activity, I have to talk about the name of the blog.  Am I the only who reads it and thinks of a road occupied only by teenagers? 

(Image courtesy of Library of Congress)
Maybe they’re walking or driving, maybe they’re on bikes or skateboards or pogo sticks, but it’s a mass army of adolescents sweeping up and down an eight lane highway.  You can hear it from four states away. Right. Okay. The YA Highway does this thing called Road Trip Wednesdays, in which they post a question and bloggers across the YA galaxy respond on their own blogs.

Today’s topic/question is: 

“In high school, teens are made to read the classics - Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Bronte, Dickens - but there are a lot of books out there never taught in schools. So if you had the power to change school curriculums, which books would you be sure high school students were required to read?”

Hand wringing over being “made” to read the classics in high school has never really resonated for me. I was the kind of nerdy child who loved and read so much of the British classics that I still spell certain words with the British preferred spelling (grey, jewellery, etc.). 

Let’s consider the authors presented. Sure, we could probably knock Dickens off that list without losing much.  Shakespeare, while not a personal favorite, is pretty foundational.  Hawthorne and Bronte and are just awesome. But this is where the problem arises.  Taste is extremely subjective, and for “reluctant readers,” or those high schoolers who just can’t get into the diction of another time, the classics seem boring, or outdated.

To which my response is—so? Since when is what we learn in school supposed to be a non-stop carnival ride of thrills? Would history teachers present the events of World War II in a catchier, “sexier” way? Or skip the war entirely, since it’s old and boring and new stuff has happened that students would rather learn about? But I’m getting cranky, and the Cranky Divorcee is only allowed to come out to play on Mondays.

Next: A Solution

Teachers should be focusing on literature which students need to know in order to be educated members of society. What exactly that body of literature is has been up for debate for a number of decades. If anything, the real question is, what are the classics? For schools still stuck in the outdated mindset of “the canon” the concept of “classics” in high school, as in the names listed in the question, focuses almost entirely on DWM (dead white males.) I would suggest teaching the true classics; texts which encompass a variety of perspectives and experiences. In addition to works by the authors mentioned in the question, I’d like to see titles by Octavia Butler, Sherman Alexie, Isabel Allende, Edwidge Danticat, and Jhumpa Lahiri, just to name a few.

There are also ways to teach the classics and make them seem more relevant to teenagers who may be having trouble connecting to the story. On the YALSA listserv, the great collective brain recently came up with a list which shows just how many classics have been retold as YA novels. Teachers frequently will teach the “paired books” as a way to make the classics more accessible. For Hamlet alone, there are a wealth of options:


       Something Rotten by Alan Gratz
       Hamlet by James Marsden
       Dating Hamlet by Lisa Fiedler
       Ophelia by Lisa Klein
       Falling for Hamlet- Ray

There are lots of new and exciting YA books out there. But removing the classics from high school curriculums and replace them with current titles simply to make required reading more fun seems short-sighted to me. 


  1. I so very much agree with you on this "There are also ways to make teach the classics and make them seem more relevant to teenagers who may be having trouble connecting to the story"! And I understand your nerd self as I was the same way (I also loved latin because I could read in the text :-)). I think a mix would be possible as well in the curriculum: classics, modern fiction, and recent YA...

  2. Thanks! I read yours as well. I loved your point about the productivity of reading books you hate. The process forces the brain to work more critically. And it's very true that teenagers(and adults!) love to have intense and productive discussions about books they couldn't stand.

    I aspire to be as big a nerd as possible, but I'm not sure I understand what you're saying about Latin. I had a humbling experience in studying a dead language--I took a semester of Ancient Greek my freshman year of college, solely because I was in love with The Secret History. The power of books!

  3. Hey, I LOVE Dickens.

    "Since when is what we learn in school supposed to be a non-stop carnival ride of thrills? Would history teachers present the events of World War II in a catchier, “sexier” way?"

    And I love this point. In order to pin down what the "real" classics are, as a first approximation maybe we could do a study to determine which books or authors are most often referenced by every author in the sample set, in which case Shakespeare would probably be at the top -- unless it's the Bible or something. I think generally when people use the term "classic", they're talking about something being a work of transcendent genius, and that we read the classics to somehow be able to share in that genius. I think that was basically the position MY teachers held, or anyway, they taught as though that were their point of view. But what makes you really literate isn't that you read and appreciate "great" books, but that you understand the ways in which books are connected and how they resonate with each other more than how they might resonate with you, personally -- although that's fine, and one of the great pleasures of reading. Or to put it another way, it's understanding how our sense of shared humanity is distilled into literature. Well, that's a slightly superficial, but I think essentially correct, assessment. Since new writing builds on older writing, you have to read these foundational works to really see how it all fits together, or else your experience of reading is very shallow, indeed. The thing is, when're you going to be exposed to this old shit EXCEPT in school? The trick of teaching, though, is in making these connections obvious, and I think pairing classics with more immediately exciting (maybe), contemporary fiction is a really good suggestion.

  4. I'm going to go with the assumption that you're kidding about Dickens. Yes?

    The only novel of his I could tolerate was Dombey and Sons. Although I have to confess, I have watched the Ethan Hawke/Gwyenth Paltrow movie adaptation of Great Expectations an unhealthy number of times.

    When they made us read Tale of Two Cities, I was just like, seriously? This is so bad. So, so bad. But I'm glad I read it, and can only hope my teacher thought it was important that I was exposed to this foundational work, as opposed to thinking it was a work of genius.

    But he was an old man who shed flaking skin all over the classroom, only wore cowboy boots, and blatantly hit on female students. So I may be giving him too much credit.

    I love the idea of books all being connected in this slightly mystical way. Or, in a very pragmatic way, it could be this huge, never ending diagram of relationships between works. And then when you add in the component of literature reflecting our shared humanity (love that phrase), it gives me goosebumps.

  5. My secret shame is that I like Dickens. :( And cowboy boots. And skin flakes.

  6. And now it’s not so secret! Though I will never understand liking Dickens, apparently you’re objectively right to enjoy skin flakes:

    Gross but Useful

    Who knew?

  7. I agree with your DWM point. I would choose some minority-authored texts to help supplement current standards.