English was undeniably my favorite course throughout my school years. The idea that we got free time to read during class? Amazing! Having homework that was just “read 100 pages of this awesome thing called ‘To Kill a Mockingbird?’” Yes, please! Discussions on literary elements? More, more please! Yet, the fun of English class often dissolved when the assigned book was something I just couldn’t get on board with. I suddenly understood why some kids hated assigned reading and English class—there’s nothing worse than being graded on reading a book you can’t connect with.
Adults often say “you’ll like that book when you’re older” when kids complain about school books, and often, they’re totally right. I’ve totally changed my mind on a bunch of books I read in school after re-reading them with a few more years of experience. Yet, there are some I still just cannot:
1. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”
Whoa there. I see your nostrils flavoring. I see you ready to defend this book, citing some quotes from Lincoln about how in a way, this book started the Civil War, maybe lead to freeing the slaves. Don’t get me wrong—this book was AMAZING and CHANGING and POWERFUL back in its day. Today? Teachers (at least mine) try to lump it in with “the black experience,” narratives of what it’s like to be a slave, etc. Not cool! I hate the idea that this book, which, let’s face it, has antiquated depictions of African Americans, is taking up the lesson-planning space of books we could read that were written by actual black authors. Because, unlike in the 1800s, we have a plethora of amazing black authors being published that are more deserving of student’s time.
2. “Tuesdays With Morrie”
I actually read this before my 10th grade class was assigned it. I think my mom handed it to me thinking that was a good idea or something. I really did like it the first time I read it, probably when I was 13. I was most likely alone in my room, where the teenage tears and rampant emotions could flow freely and I could let it all out, blow my nose, and not have mascara run down my face in public. In case you don’t know where this is going…. Cut to 16-year-old Kati, sniffling up tears in class, trying to fight the lump in my throat in front of classmates who are looking side-eyed at already awkward Kati trying not to lose her composure. In summary: Don’t pick books that make girls cry like ugly monsters in the middle of class.
3. “My Sister’s Keeper”
Unlike “Tuesdays with Morrie,” when sad things happened in “My Sister’s Keeper,” I did not want to cry. I just got mad at Jodi Picoult. I respect her writing and understand what she’s doing, but dannnng can that girl twist an emotion out of a sponge. This time, I watched other girls in my 10th grade class well up with tears while I kinda sat there and wondered why anyone really cared about the characters, why anyone was sad, because obviously the story is set up so that someone is gonna die, just like touching a Picoult book is akin to buying a box of tissues. Let’s say my reasoning is less that this is just generally never a book that I’d want to read than along with my previous line of reasoning.
4. “Ethan Frome”
My 12th grade teacher had us read this to teach about symbolism (I think). It reads like the dictionary got bored defining “symbolism,” and so, composed this story to teach the youths what that word meant. This book is a symbol of me falling asleep at my desk.
5. “The Catcher in the Rye”
I hated this book the first time I read it for school. Then, I tried it again and lovvvveddd it. I bought a nice copy. I read Salinger’s other works. I read obscure essays of his. I thought the guy was great! Then… I read Joyce Maynard’s “At Home in the World,” in which she talks about the way Salinger wrote to her as an 18-year-old (while he was old enough to have a daughter her age), took her into his home, controlled most aspects of her life, and then threw her out. I am NOT about older mean taking advantage of teen’s naivety. I can’t look at Salinger without a sour taste in my mouth now. Can we read a different novel about youthful innocence written by someone who doesn’t seem to feed off of it?
6. “Pride & Prejudice”
Oh no. I said it. I’m so, so, so sorry, but I can’t with Jane Austen. I feel like so many of her books are just the same: (1) Girl comes from family with some stigma/does not have an impressive dowry; (2) Boy is mysterious, but maybe also mean?; (3) Girl and boy fall in love; (4) Conflict because of society and what it might think!; (5) Conflict resolves, happiness ensues. I just can’t. But more than that, I think a lot of girls read Jane Austen’s “Pride & Prejudice,” get addicted to Austen alone and bypass a lot of amazing females from that time they could read like the Bronte sisters. I guess if I am ever a teacher, just saying, I will teach the Bronte sisters.
7. “Heart of Darkness”
Where to begin… Africa looks like a jungle in this book, even when we’re talking about the people, whom Conrad treats as little more than another creature among the lions and tigers and bears. Like I said, can we not read antiquated depictions of Africans and maybe read Chinua Achebe instead?
8) and 9) “Where the Red Fern Grows” and “Because of Winn-Dixie”
DON’T MAKE KIDS READ BOOKS WHERE THE DOG DIES. Don’t. Do. It. It’s mean. It’s cruel. Let’s all just pretend dogs don’t die and the world is a happy place for a few more years, cool?
I guess if I were Queen of Books & Curriculums—please make this a job and grant it unto me, oh public school systems—I’d follow three simple rules for what students should read in schools. No. 1: Let’s read more stories about people of color’s experience. Let’s make sure these stories are actually written by people of color and not just assumed or stereotyped. No. 2: Let’s not pick books based on how much emotions the author is able to twist out of teenage girls or the author’s ability to make middle-school mascara run (it was so hard to put on right back in those days). And finally, No. 3: Let’s teach books that can keep kids awake, engaged, and interested in reading more. Because if a book in school doesn’t make you hungry for another, what’s the point?
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