The work of making books for children and teens more diverse and inclusive is ongoing. How do I know? MANY People of Color offered specific examples throughout the American Library Association conference in Chicago. One area of work that needs attention is the continued Whiteness of the literary canon, especially in our K-12 schools.
During his 2017 CSK Honor speech Jason Reynolds (video) recalled a discussion with his college English professor. Their debate was focused on Reynolds’ interest in writing a thesis about the expansion of the traditional canon to acknowledge the contributions of the wide diversity of U.S. authors. His White professor would not accept this idea. This White gatekeeper of culture said a work must “shape and shift the face of literature” to be considered canonical. Reynolds offered some remarkable examples (Nikki Giovanni, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, and Phillis Wheatley to name a few). The professor denied all of these possibilities. Will you do the same?
Let’s talk about the work to be done in our high schools. If you work in or liaison with secondary schools what are the titles students are required to read (i.e. the canon)? Steven Wolk reported the results of a national survey he conducted to answer this question. The top ten titles (with a three way tie for 10th) identified in his article What Should Students Read? (Kappan Magazine V91 N7 2010) were:
The Great Gatsby
To Kill a Mockingbird
Catcher in the Rye
Lord of the Flies
Romeo and Juliet
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Of Mice and Men
Hamlet, 1984, The Things They Carried
According to this survey the White canon maintains a firm grasp on the reading lives and imaginations of all secondary students. Wolk said of his findings “When looking at what students are required to read in school in 2010, it might as well be 1960.” These books are required reading. Think about the dynamic of a system that continues to force a diverse student body to read mostly White male authors. Compulsory reading of the White literary canon is one way White supremacy is expressed and sustained in schools. Are the required books in schools near you overwhelmingly White? Can you use your power to make change? What will be the pushback? How do we redefine classic? The first Printz award winning book, Monster by Walter Dean Myers, shaped and shifted the face of literature - right?! United States schools were legally segregated until the 1960s. Would it be reasonable to establish sometime after Brown vs. Board of Education as a timeframe to select our readings?
Reynolds presented the need to make the expansion of the canon a reality in our K-12 schools. This is part of the work. I don’t have the answers to all of these questions. But, I do know we need to get to answering them without delay.