Thursday, August 12, 2010

Sugar and Spice and Reading is Nice

As evidenced by the terrible little title above, this post will not be fully thought out or crafted, just a few thoughts that were running through my mind. You have been warned.

As an English teacher, I want teenagers to read. (As an aspiring writer, I want everyone to read, but that's another post.) I see part of my job as introducing my students to the cultural conversation through studying "great" and "important" works, and one of the pleasures of teaching at a private school is that I get to decide what "great" and "important" means, since we can't read everything, even though that would be nice. Because I feel like I can teach it better if I'm excited about it, I typically choose books that resonate with me, so we get a lot more Frankenstein and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, stuff that gets me thinking, and a lot less The Awakening and The Bell Jar. Now, that might mean I identify more with crazy and monstrous protagonists, or it might mean that I respond more to male protagonists, and both possibilities come with their own set of problems. Also, before you get up in arms, I do try and represent both feminist points of view and female narrators (A Doll's House, The Haunting of Hill House, and Their Eyes Were Watching God all come to mind as engaging pointedly with gender roles and all of which have interesting female protagonists), but I think part of the issue is one English professors have been complaining about for the last thirty years: a big part of the accepted literary canon is focused on male authors and their troubled male protagonists.

Except, after reading this New York Times essay earlier today, I realized there is one area--growing in popularity--where that's not the case: Young Adult Literature. Like the author of that piece, this summer I loved reading the first two books in the Hunger Games series (by Suzanne Collins) with their poorly-named-but-still-engaging-heroine Katniss Everdeen. (Seriously. That name. Gag.) And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that young women don't just exist in great numbers in YA literature, they thrive. Of course a plethora of silly vampire-tinged multi-book series  have sprung up in the wake of Twilight (go to your local bookstore and I bet you'll see at least one display of novels with titles like Vampire Boarding School or Ghost Boyfriend or whatever), and there have long been high school dramas aimed at girls (did you know that Gossip Girl the tv show started as Gossip Girl the book?). But let's look at the lit that either aims for something higher or manages to be better than the genre it comes out of: The Hunger Games series, The Book Thief, Lyra from the His Dark Materials trilogy, the writings of Laurie Halse Anderson (by all accounts--haven't read her yet). Go back a little further and you get things like Tuck Everlasting or To Kill a Mockingbird. Go back further and you get The Wizard of Oz's Dorothy or Little Women or Alice in Wonderland.

I'm not saying boys are underrepresented here either. Sure, there's Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield and a ton of other teenage boys--the name Harry Potter comes to mind. But I would wager (and it would be a wager; I have no evidence and like I said this is by-the-seat-of-my-pants analysis here) that there are a lot more strong female protagonists for young adult readers than there are male, especially in the last twenty years, even as there are a lot more male protagonists in "important" literature.

So, the question is, why?

One of my coworkers who knows of my writing aspirations suggested that she was concerned that there wouldn't be much for her son to read when he gets into the 12-17 year old range (a range when I think a lot of young men lose the drive to read) and that targeting that age range would be good for an aspiring author. I don't mind that suggestion--a lot of what I write actually features young male protagonists--but I wonder if she's right. Which came first? Do young adult males read less because there are fewer books marketed to and written for them, or are there fewer books marketed to them because they read less? And if there are, as I suspect, more young female readers than male, why is the literary canon still dominated by men? Are we just in the gap range when the centuries of male-dominated writing is still weightier than the decades of female-dominated reading? And what should I be doing to encourage boys AND girls to a) read more, and b) read more worthwhile books?

I have a feeling this is going to vex me.

Oh well. One week till school and two weeks till the last Hunger Games book. I'll find ways to stay distracted.


i like whispering too said...

A few things to consider: there are more female writers now than there were--female writers who are now given just as much of a chance to publish as men. And many female writers seem to write female protagonists.

I've tried to figure out why it seems that younger males read less than younger females, in general, and I can't figure out anything concrete beyond the fact that some boys are influenced by their peers that academics in general isn't cool.

I also have had outside reading assignments with my students, where they pick a book of their choice, read it, and do a project about it. In my lower-level classes, I let them pick anything, just trying to get them to "read more," or read at all. In my AP class, I had a list of approved authors, but I was pretty lenient if they came and brought a book that wasn't on the list and it was still "worthwhile." Our school year was divided into 6-week increments, so they had one outside reading project due each 6 weeks.

Please let me know if you come to any conclusions about all this. :)

Joel said...

Good thoughts, Beth!