Take a moment to think about the last four or five books you read. Who were the protagonists (the heroes)? How many of them were boys or men? How many were girls, or women? How many were gay? How many were Black?
Considering the diversity of people we meet every day (sometimes without even realizing it), we should really expect our books to have a wide array of characters. As a white guy, I didn’t question it for a long time; I saw myself represented in virtually every book I wanted to read over and over. A lot of folks don’t question it, but the reality is that women and people of color feel it every day – and perhaps especially in school, where classes are packed with the “classics”, a bunch of books that were clearly written by, for, and about a bunch of white guys.
I could speak to you about how as a parent of two black daughters, it hurts me to see them read book after book about white girls (who are still frequently weaker protagonists than their male counterparts to begin with), and how hard it is to find books they can really feel themselves a part of. I could explain how my partner and I have to work to supplement their reading (at a good, largely responsive school mind you) with other materials to make sure that they develop a more complete and realistic understanding of the world. I could, but those are topics for a different day.
In this case, I want to speak to y’all as a teacher, and to explore this a little bit more.
Why the “Classics” Anyway?
First off, why do the “classics” matter, anyway? Yes, they’re part of the accepted collection of works that “simply everyone must read”, but the reality is that they’re just really good books (or sometimes really terrible books but with really good stories) that some people (largely white scholars) decided to make folks read, because if they liked them, other people must like them, too. That’s not actually a good excuse to make something mandatory, is it?
Some have argued that forcing everyone to read the same books gives everyone a shared cultural language; basically, we’ll all understand each other better if we all read the same thing. Obviously, in practice that doesn’t work. Reading a bunch of books about white guys doesn’t help me at all to understand what it’s like to be a woman in Japan, or a Black man growing up in rural Louisiana, nor does teach the Japanese woman or the Black man anything meaningful about me that couldn’t be learned from another source.
Read What Makes You Happy!
Of course, if “classics” don’t matter, the question becomes, “What do we read instead?” The answer: read what makes you happy! The point of reading is generally to enjoy yourself, to explore a new idea or place or identity, and to build the skills and endurance to read more afterwards. This last bit is especially important for kids, for whom that’s part of their daily job.
The important thing is for kids to be encouraged to read, regardless of what gets them there; no matter what they read, if it keeps them engaged and encourages them to read more, then they are developing the skills that will later let them read those “classics”, if that’s what they choose to do. If that means reading a graphic novel, awesome (in fact, there’s some great social justice literature in the form of some amazing comic series). As a teacher, I would rather my students enjoy what they read. I would rather they want to read. I can work with that, and I feel good in the meantime knowing that they are growing.
Stepping it Up
So, reading is important. Reading interesting, engaging books is even more so. But I would argue it’s important to step that up, too. See, it’s important to see yourself reflected in the books you read, but it’s also important to see through many eyes, to step into many shoes. So step outside your box! I regularly write lists on here and on Facebook of books I’ve read that me and my family enjoy. I try to cover lots of different topics, and themes, and characters, and there are loads of other resources for good books with characters who aren’t just white, straight dudes.
Yes, for white guys it’s especially important to try out other perspectives – we’re the dominant group (even if we didn’t earn it), and so it’s the easiest for us to get complacent. Still, no matter who you are, it’s worth branching out – it’s one way to explore the world and grow your perspective, and it can be a part of bigger activism, too.
Books are Revolutionary
Make no mistake, too: books are revolutionary. In this country, there are lots of books that have been or are currently banned from libraries and schools because people in power deemed them unacceptable. And before you imagine that they’re always horrid, dangerous texts that were banned to protect folks, or that book banning doesn’t happen anymore, it’s important to know that in 2010, Arizona passed a law that banned, among other things, Shakespeare’s The Tempest – one of the so-called “classics”. Other books have been banned for a variety of other reasons. A quick search on Google offers lots of lists of banned books both here and abroad; many are censored because they talk candidly about serious social issues.
So, read what makes you happy (and let your kids and students do the same), especially if it’s something radical. You’ll be glad you did!