By Elizabeth Wroten
On 02, Sep 2014 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten
<—-This is the book. It was required reading the summer before ninth grade. And I hated it. There were some sex scenes in it that, as a young and immature ninth grader, I was not ready for. I think we all have one or two Required Reading books that we’ve really hated. I’ve been thinking about writing a bit on this topic, especially because I think required reading is problematic. Since it’s back-to-school season and because The Hub also wrote up a post related to the topic I thought now would be a good time to tackle it.
There were plenty of required texts that I liked. Several I loved (Jane Eyre, The Scarlett Letter, and The Heart of Darkness). And some I wasn’t fond of but could appreciate (The Great Gatsby, Beowulf, Gilgamesh). I can only think of two that I really disliked (The Chosen and A Separate Peace) but I know it’s because I didn’t get them. I doubt I would adore them if I did get them, but I could have respected them.
Then there are a couple text that tended to be required reading that we did not read and I am SO GLAD. Because I read them when I was a little older and could appreciate them more, specifically The Joy Luck Club and Things Fall Apart. Things Fall Apart is one of my all time favorites and, along with Jane Eyre, I reread it every couple years.
Some of this required reading kicked off a classics reading binge. Or maybe it was the looming AP test? I’m not sure, but I went on to read most things Bronte and loved them. And that turned me onto gothic novels and ghost stories. I loved The Jungle and Fitzgerald’s short stories (Flappers and Philosophers is a great anthology, I’m really glad Gatsby didn’t turn me off to his work all together). There were plenty of other American and British novels I went on to read.
I went through another classics phase when I was living in Cairo. I needed to fill the time I wasn’t in class or at the museum. Reading options were limited, but the AUC had a wonderful bookstore that was well stocked with British versions of the classics. I started to read through a ton of those. Moll Flanders, Wilkie Collins ghost stories, Rebecca, The Four Feathers, and many more that I don’t remember. I’m glad I came to all those when and how I did.
I think there is a conundrum of required reading. I understand why we have required reading, to get kids to read outside themselves, to read outside their comfort zones and to expose them to classic, quality literature. But what if that exposure turns you off? I worry that by taking such a rigid tactic, that in some ways presumes to tell kids we know what they should be reading, we run the risk of turning them off to good books, good authors, or, worst of all, reading in general. For me, I went out and found more and kept coming back to the classics, but that can’t be said for a lot of kids. Working in a high school library I heard more complaints about the books they “had” to read than compliments or expressions of a desire to read more.
How do we keep require reading from making that mistake? First and foremost students need a good English teacher to walk them through many of those books. Often you are too young to appreciate or relate with the themes and characters and situations, so having a knowledgeable adult walk you through it is essential. That is what I needed when I read Leaving Cheyenne. It wouldn’t have been my favorite book, but I doubt I would have taken as much issue with it as I did. I think as librarians we can help kids find YA novels that can speak to them more directly. That they do enjoy. I think we can also encourage English teachers to use a few well-written YA novels in their curriculum. I know there are a lot of complaints about YA, but there is well written content out there (The Giver, anyone?). By showing students that reading material can be great and lofty (with classics) and can meet them where they are (with YA) I think we would do them a great service. It would give them the gift of pleasure reading.