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.)


Carrie Finison said...

Interesting observations, Miranda. I think it is such a great point that in schools women are often the gatekeepers of these lists. We can change this and the first step is noticing.

With my 12yo son, I'm currently reading aloud the book Dicey's Song by Cynthia Voight, which I adored when I was that age. It's about a 13 year old girl who has to find a way to get her 3 younger siblings to a relative's house in Connecticut (from Massachusetts) when their mother abandons them. I'm not a teacher so I can't say if it would make a good class read, but we are certainly enjoying it, and the writing is gorgeous. I have never bought into that nonsense about a boy not wanting to read a book with a girl MC, and it has never been an issue for him. He also loved Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt.

Elaine Magliaro said...

Well done! This is an important topic. Schools need to look at and re-examine their lists of required reading/suggested books. Love your choice of "Fueled" to help make your point about inspiring girls/young women.

Unknown said...

My daughter--newly on faculty at Boston College teaching 18th Century Literature, so they couldn't completely drum a love of books, words, and stories out of her--once said, "Mom, any book we read in school is ruined for me." Further back when I taught high school English, I was told that high school English teachers are a conservative bunch--the ones who loved the canon back when they were high school students...and to give up thinking I could bring any change. I know individual teachers do fill kids' lives with the right books. It's huge!

Unknown said...

The first two that came to my mind are BROWN GIRL DREAMING by Jaqueline Woodson and NINTH WARD by Jewell Parker Rhodes. Thanks for this post, Miranda. I need to do better as a book gifter as well. (I bought one of my nephews HOLES for Christmas this year. DOH!)

Colleen Paeff said...

I'm hoping THE HATE U GIVE becomes regular classroom reading.

Unknown said...

THE RUNNING DREAM by Wendelin Van Draanen.

The Bookish Advocate said...

I teach 8th grade ELA, and this year I shook up our Spring class novel choice by getting rid of The Pearl by John Steinbeck and instead we are reading The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline. Not only is is by a woman, but it's an #OwnVoices book by a Native woman. I know my students are going to love it! It took some convincing for my fellow teachers to be on board with this choice (I think teachers get comfortable teaching what they already "know" and teaching books for which they already have lessons prepared) but with a little extra work on our part our students will benefit tremendously. Shake up those lists, teachers!

Kathleen Odean said...

This is what I do! I give all-day workshops to teachers and librarians on great new YA books. Every year teachers come back and tell me how they used the books I spoke about -- especially for giving kids advice on independent reading. But some of them also change their curriculum when they can. I think things are getting better. (I've been giving the workshops for more than 15 years.)

Alli said...

My sister and I binged on Babysitters Club books when we were young. Not "literary" books, but definitely ones that make an impression. Young female entrepreneurs!

Alaina said...

In seventh grade, I made my best friend by reading at the lunch table and handing her a book by Tamora Pierce. I handed one to an adult two months ago and she's going on twelve books by her now. Ms. Pierce is infamous for writing amazing fantasy stories with female protagonists.

Probably the best books to go with for all-class reads are The Protector Of The Small Quartet by Tamora Pierce; it covers the adventures of Keladry of Mindelan, who's training to be the first openly female knight in a century. Book 1 begins with her at age 10 and book 4 has her around 18 or 19; it deals openly with sexism, gender roles, power imbalances, and how traditions can be wrong. It also features background issues of rape/sexual assault, racism, and classism. And of course, there is magic, monsters, and lots of learning how to be a knight, whether you get a couple paragraphs on the code of chivalry or a character expected to tell the difference between horse tracks and centaur tracks.

Great books, wonderfully written, and appropriate for good readers as young as 9 or 10.

Jane said...

Titles for a new list #kidlitwomen (librarian)

All of the Above by Shelley Pearsal

Amina's Voice by Hena Khan

Patina by Jason Reynolds Had to include because I was a student runner

Heaven by Angela Johnson

Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy

Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon

You're Welcome Universe by Whitney Gardner

This is Where it Ends by Marieke Nijkamp

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Christy said...

Margaret Atwood, Amy Tan, Helen Oyeyemi. And for an old classic, why not Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre.

Miranda Paul said...

Thank you, everyone, for your author and title suggestions! Keep 'em coming!

ptnozell said...

Fascinating post! For authors I'd include Edwidge Danticat, Julia Alvarez & Margarita Engle, especially her novels in verse, and anything by Jacqueline Woodson, of course! For older classics, Virginia Woolf.

Claire Bobrow said...

These may be for a slightly younger audience than specified, and maybe not right for academic curriculum, but how about Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (Grace Lin), The Girl Who Drank the Moon (Kelly Barnhill), Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms (Katherine Rundell), The War that Saved my Life (Kimberly Brubaker Bradley), Between Shades of Gray and Salt to the Sea (Ruta Sepetys), Ticket to India (N.H. Senzai), and especially for 7th graders navigating the tricky waters of middle school: Real Friends (Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham) and El Deafo (Cece Bell).

Our son's freshman high school English class read Their Eyes Were Watching God - I think I'd reserve that for late high school - and The House on Mango Street. Older authors who spring to mind are: Kate Chopin, Willa Cather, and yes - Agatha Christie. Many people consider The Murder of Roger Ackroyd a masterpiece.

Julie Hedlund said...

My 6th grader has had two class books so far this year - Tangerine and The Thief of Always. Both male authors with predominantly male characters. BUT, when his English teacher announced that she was doing a literature unit to coincide with their study of Asian cultures in history class, I jumped at the chance to help and am not only providing her a list of contemporary books by Asian authors (with the help of MY fellow authors), I am also going to the class to talk about authenticity in writing and the importance of representation. Little by little, we CAN make adifference.

ECM said...

Great post, Miranda! I'm seeing this weeks later but it's certainly a timely topic. I'm glad you've requested that people suggest titles to share with others. I will bookmark this post and return to copy the list. Here are a few titles that I've read and would highly recommend:
--The Invention of Wings and The Secret Life of Bees, both by Sue Monk Kidd
-- Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
-- When the Elephants Dance by Tess Uriza Holthe
-- The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
Okay, so the last title is non-fiction but it is sooooo good--one of the best "instructive" books on writing that I've read!
Well, TTFN--enjoy a great day, all!
:) Edna

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