In high school, although I was loathe to admit it to friends, I loved English class. Outwardly I complained like everyone else about the ‘boring’ books the teachers put on the reading lists. Inwardly I loved them. (Most of them. Moby Dick, still not a fan.) But I never thought about the books as more than just explorations of literature. I didn’t think about them on a social scale. I didn’t think about how even the choice of books impacted others.
Stagnant Summer Reading Lists
Recently, I read an article about the current lack of diverse books on school reading lists. In it, the author laments how the required reading list for his child felt regressive, like a list from another era. It had no diversity.
This made me think back to the books assigned to students to read in my high school. I grew up in a progressive community. I thought, even though it was long ago, it would be an exception. I was certain I’d look back and say, no our school was different even back then.
I tried to make a list of all the books I remember reading for school that would be considered “diverse” by US standards. I even based it on a pretty broad definition of essentially any book in which the main character is not White and/or Christian. It should have been a pretty low bar…
Apparently, it wasn’t low enough. I came up with a rather meager list. Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry and Island of the Blue Dolphins, both of which I think I read not in high school but in junior high school, maybe even elementary school. However, Night and Cry, the Beloved Country I did read in high school. That makes a whopping four books between junior high and high school I can recall that could be categorized under the diverse heading.
Granted, there could be more that I just can’t remember. In all fairness, it was a long time ago. But I had no problem listing other books I read in junior high and high school that I would not categorize as diverse. There were so many they tumbled out of my memory easily.
Romeo and Juliet, Red Badge of Courage, Pride and Prejudice, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, The Scarlet Letter, The Crucible, The Outsiders, Wuthering Heights, Beowolf, The Canterbury Tales, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Oedipus Rex, Heart of Darkness, The Jungle, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Most Dangerous Game.
If you’re counting that’s 19 to 4. And while this list contains many books I love dearly – Romeo and Juliet marked the beginning of my love affair with Shakespeare and Heart of Darkness marked the beginning of my love affair with metaphor – it sends a clear message regarding the reading requirements of my youth. My school wasn’t special. It did not celebrate literary diversity.
Life Lessons from a List
Even though I grew up in what I felt was an open and caring community, I realize now something I didn’t then. Just having a community with many different races, ethnicities and religions may make a community diverse, but it doesn’t make a community accepting. That takes thought, education and a willingness to open your hearts to people who may be different from you.
When I was in high school, I would have said our community was accepting. I would have even said that I was color-blind. People to me were nice or not nice, fun or not fun, interesting or not interesting, jerks or not jerks. I categorized by personality traits, not skin color or religion. I thought that was enough.
And it’s true, I was blind. But not in the way I thought. I was blind to the undercurrent of subversive racial and ethnic hierarchy of our society. I never once thought about diversity in terms of literature. Yet, in high school, we had English class every day. We all read the same books.
Regardless, I didn’t think about what it might be like to be a minority and only read books in school that centered on White, Christian characters. Yes, part of reading is experiencing the lives of other people. But it’s also about relating to characters and themes. (Sidebar: This same sentiment was epitomized in a great photo series called “Let’s talk about race”. It’s worth checking out.)
I never thought about the message it sent to minorities to have the institution of learning not teach any literature about them. But, like many people, that’s the point. I didn’t think. Because I was that White, Christian kid, it didn’t even cross my mind. I wasn’t just blind. I was selfish, self-centered and myopic.
Can We Change?…
Still, I went to high school 20 years ago. (Yes, I’m that old.) Based on the article I referenced earlier about non-diverse summer reading lists, it appears nothing has changed in the last two decades.
However, that article was one book list from one place in the US. I live outside Washington, DC, where I do believe there is more (I say more because we still have a ways to go) acceptance of the importance of diversity than seems to exist in many other places in the US.
Therefore, I was curious about the reading lists for where my daughter would go to high school in a few years. I wondered if it had changed much since I was in high school. While I couldn’t find an official one for her future school, I did find a local summer reading list from a neighboring county, which uses the recommendations from the Virginia State Reading Association’s “Reader’s Choice” selections and adds a few more per grade level.
I wanted to tear this list apart. I had my pitchfork out, ready skewer it. I’d already written the blog in my head and started amassing my own list of books that should replace the ones on the list.
…I Think We Can
But, my pre-anger dissipated as I started to read through the list. By the end, I found myself pleasantly surprised.
Now, it’s important to note, this isn’t the official required reading list for the county, so I don’t know what they are reading in school. But this summer reading list includes a swath of LGBTQIA, African American and Latino/Latina main characters. There are also stories that tackle class issues, social issues, freedom, isolation and body image.
If you were a rising freshman in this county, your summer reading list would be this…
- The Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and
- Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
- Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli
- Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez
- More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera
- An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
- Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy
- Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon
- All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
- All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
- Animal Farm by George Orwell
- Anthem by Ayn Rand
- Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
- House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
This is a respectable list, in my opinion, in terms of not just diversity of authors and characters, but diversity of ideas, stories and genres. I hope the list my daughter gets for summer reading when she goes to high school is similar to this.
If this list, compared to my high school reading experience in this same area of the country 20 years ago, can be used as a small litmus test, a tiny microcosm, of change, then maybe things have changed for the better since I was a teen. I just hope the next 3.5 years don’t send is back past 1990 and into the 1960s or worse. This seems like progress. Here’s hoping it continues forward and not back…