Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The Old Boys' English Canon (And How to Change That) by Miranda Paul #KidlitWomen

The Old Boys’ English Canon
By Miranda Paul

Starting March 1st, we’re celebrating Women’s History month with 31 days of posts focused on improving the climate for social and gender equality in the children’s and teens’ industry. Join in the conversation here or Twitter #kidlitwomen and access all the #KidlitWomen posts this month on our FaceBook page

I’m a former English teacher. 

On and off for nearly a decade, I had the extraordinary pleasure of digging through school library closets for class sets of titles deemed relevant to a state curriculum for teenage students. Sometimes I got a choice. Here are as many of the “choices” I can remember from the three schools I taught at between 2003-2013.

(I want to note that this is not a commentary on the merits or talent of the authors or titles mentioned.) 

Night by Elie Wiesel
The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
1984 by George Orwell
Animal Farm by George Orwell
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare 
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Othello by William Shakespeare
Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Crucible by Arthur Miller
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury 
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard
Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel García Márquez
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Master Harold and the Boys by Athol Fugard
The Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer
The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

One does not need pie charts to recognize that this list is dominated by male authors. But if you haven’t read the titles on this list, you might not recognize how many of these:
  1. Have an all-male (or nearly all-male) cast of characters
  2. Have an all-white (or nearly all-white) cast of characters (and are by white authors)
  3. Have an all-cis (or arguably all-cis) cast of characters
  4. Are historically-set—in politicians’ or royals’ residences, boarding schools, battlefields, or labor camps
  5. Include female characters who are non-important side characters, the love-interest, hysterical, sisters/mothers tied to their gender role, societal outcasts, or symbols of evil
  6. Were published long, long ago
  7. Are lauded as the “best of the best” or “classics” and have won awards, favorable reviews, and literary prizes.
When teaching in between larger novel or drama units, you can imagine how much material I tried to incorporate in my lessons—possibly a futile attempt to balance such numbers. Poems, short stories, nonfiction essays, etc. were the genres I had more choice in selecting, and whenever I had the chance to add in a short story or poem by or about a female or a person of color, I did. But do these short pieces stick with students? Do they carry the same weight as spending weeks discussing a novel or play?

Back when I was a high school student, I went through my high school career without having to read a single female-authored novel or play for class. (Sadly, I couldn’t even imagine reading a book at school with an ENTIRE cast of females, or a book by or about a non-binary person or LGBQTIA content.) Even in middle school, the only female-authored book we read as a class was Lois Lowry’s The Giver—which features a male protagonist. We spent a lot of time on Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, which left me hungry and it’s probably why I spent all of my babysitting money on Lurlene McDaniel and Diane Hoh series books, and read a tattered copy of The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan twice before graduating high school.

Now that I have two middle graders, things are better, right? Here are the class reads they’ve come home with so far:

Holes by Louis Sachar
Tangerine by Edward Bloor
Petey by Ben Mikaelsen

While I’m relieved they still do individual choice reading in middle school, I don’t have to do the math for you on the all-class reads. And although they read a wide array of contemporary novels by and about women (especially women of color) at home, the fact is that what gets presented to them in school is (consciously or unconsciously) interpreted as notable by society as a whole. More academic. More literary. Better. Important. And these titles get thought about, discussed, studied, written about, and absorbed by our students—who then grow up to become our society and form its culture and rules, both written and unwritten. What does this imbalance tell our girls? Or, perhaps of more consequence, what does it tell our boys?

What really baffles me is that I’ve only ever had one male English teacher throughout middle and high school. Truly, it’s females telling their students that these all-male (mostly white cis male) books comprise the literary canon worth a lot of our time and study.

Are you an English Language Arts teacher? What can you do about this?

  1. Do the math. Take a look through your Department’s cupboard. Statistics are power.
  2. Speak up. If your collection is lacking in representation for women, especially women of color. Whether that’s speaking up to your administration or your students, ask them what they think? Maybe this can become a topic for the next 5-paragraph essay you assign.
  3. Make a case for new books. Choose contemporary. Choose diversity. Read the other KidLitWomen posts for an awesome array of titles you might want to plead for. (And, if budgetary restraints are an issue, don’t forget that the We Need Diverse Books Scholastic Flyer offers low-cost paperback versions of many diverse books. There’s also crowdfunding, and children’s authors are some of the most generous contributors to teachers’ Kickstarter and GoFundMe campaigns.)
  4. Supplement, supplement, supplement. If you’re locked into a set curriculum of novels or longer works, but have choices for smaller pieces of literature or mini-units in between, choose works by women (especially women of color), or transgender and intersex authors.

Although smaller works don’t always get as much time or attention, the right poem at the right time could have a big impact on the right kid. Just like Marcie Hans’s “Fueled” opened my 14-year-old eyes with its words that completely related to a girl with almost no friends but a big love of nature.


by a million
wings of fire-
the rocket tore a tunnel
through the sky-
and everybody cheered.
only by a thought from God-
the seedling
urged its way
through thicknesses of black-
and as it pierced
the heavy ceiling of the soil-
and lauched itself
up into outer space -

--Marcie Hans

Now that I’m the author of several environmentally-themed and poetic books for children, it’s astonishing to look back on small moments like this. If you’re a #KidLitWoman, you already know how tiny moments of inspiration were all we girls had to grab on to. 

Let’s change that.

(Action item: Please comment below, sharing a title of an MG/YA novel by and/or featuring female protagonists that would make a good all-class read for kids in grades 7-12.)
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