In high school, I secretly loved English class. Outwardly, I complained about the ‘boring’ books on the reading lists. Inwardly, I relished them. But I never thought beyond the books. I didn’t think about social implications or 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 like it was from another era. It had no diversity.
This made me think back to the books assigned in my high school decades ago. I grew up in a progressive community. I was certain I’d look back and say our school was different, even back then.
I tried to make a list of all the diverse books I remembered reading, based on a very broad definition: any book with a main character who was 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, I actually read in middle school or elementary school. Two others, Night and Cry, the Beloved Country I recall reading in high school.
That makes a whopping four books.
Granted, there could be more I can’t remember. But I had no problem listing other books I read in middle and high school I would not categorize as diverse.
Romeo and Juliet, Red Badge of Courage, Pride and Prejudice, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, Scarlet Letter, The Crucible, The Outsiders, Wuthering Heights, Beowolf, Canterbury Tales, 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.
While this list contains many books I love dearly, 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
I realize now something I didn’t then. Having a community with many different races, ethnicities and religions may make it diverse, but it doesn’t make it accepting. That takes thought, education and a willingness to open your hearts to people who may be different from you.
In high school, I would have said I was color-blind. People to me were nice or not nice, interesting or not interesting, jerks or not jerks. I categorized by personality traits, not skin color or religion.
And it’s true, I was blind. But not in the way I thought.
I never once 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. I wasn’t just blind. I was self-centered and myopic.
Can We Change?…
I went to high school 20 years ago. (Yes, I’m that old.) Based on the article I referenced earlier, it appears nothing has changed since then. However, that article was one book list from one place in the US.
This made me curious about the reading lists at my daughter’s future high school. While I couldn’t find an official list, 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.
I had my pitchfork out. I was ready to tear this list apart.
…I Think We Can
My pre-anger dissipated as I started to read through the list. By the end, I found myself pleasantly surprised.
The summer reading list included a swath of LGBTQIA, African American and Latinx main characters. There were stories tackling class issues, social issues, 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, not just in terms of diversity of authors and characters, but diversity of ideas, stories and genres. If this list can be used as a small litmus test, maybe things are changing for the better.