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Blasting the canon

As a new English department chair, I’ve already been faced with decisions about book orders. Our high school opened in 2007, but our middle school just opened with a sixth grade class last year. This means it was time for us to create a seventh grade curriculum.

I believe in leadership through structured freedom, so I decided that I would create a list of texts and let the seventh grade English teacher select the books she wanted to use for her class. My instinct, like usual, was to turn to Google. I searched terms such as “books all middle schoolers should read,” “classic literature for middle school,” and “best seventh grade texts.” I scoured random syllabi and reading lists from all over the country.

Though there was variation, by and large the books I kept coming across could be considered part of the literary canon. You could probably guess several of them, and chances are you read many of them if you attended middle school in this country over the last century.

I know I have a habit of blogging about old questions, but here I am with another: how important is it that our students read canonical works?

Do our West Philly middle and high schoolers really need to study Red Badge of Courage or Call of the Wild? Why not The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, or Copper Sun by Sharon Draper?

The Red Badge of Courage     The Call of the Wild

The Graveyard Book     American Born Chinese     Copper Sun

I’m not saying that the newer texts are better. Some are. Some aren’t. However, I do think that many of us—especially those of us in the position to put books in front of kids—need to question our unquestioning allegiance to the “classics.”

I suppose there are two arguments in their defense: 1. These books represent the very best writing in the English language; 2. Students will gain cultural capital from familiarity with these stories.

Yet, neither of these sway me.

I think it’s more accurate to say the canonical works used to represent some the best writing, but times change. Great books are published every year, whether or not they end up on some school’s curriculum or a bestseller list.

As for the cultural capital argument, that seems to me just a straight fallacy. The true value of a book comes not from the power to impress others but from whatever that book impresses upon its reader.

So instead of automatically turning to the canon because of faulty assumptions, let’s trust ourselves to find stories that will speak to our children.

Randy Ribay About Randy Ribay

Randy Ribay teaches high school English at an all-boys charter school in Philadelphia and is a regular reviewer for The Horn Book Guide. He holds a B.A. in English Literature from the University of Colorado and an Ed.M. in Language & Literacy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is the author of An Infinite Number of Parallel Universes (Merit Press, Oct 2015).



  1. Thanks for this. As has been discussed in previous critiques of “the canon,” the elevation and delineation of a certain group of books is often linked to other forms of power. Many have argued that the traditional literary canon acted as a means of protecting cultural dominance (both by defining itself against differences in sexuality, race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, religion, ability…, and by reifying aesthetics that are similarly exclusive.)

    While I think this view is understood by many when it comes to the adult “canon,” I’m not sure it’s as widely considered when applied to children’s books. I think this is an important aspect of the current conversations about diversity and equality in children’s literature that often gets glossed over. Many have pointed out that with kid lit, canonical books also tie in with issues of nostalgia. I’ve also seen critiques of classic children’s texts described as “impolite.” But I agree that nostalgia and politeness shouldn’t stop us from questioning both the children’s canon, and the desire to protect it.

  2. I think it’s very worthwhile for kids to learn to deal with narrative styles, writing styles, and vocabulary usage that are out of style these days — especially when the books you’re teaching work as great literature. (I’m a bit swayed by the cultural capital argument. It’s not about impressing other people; it’s about having an intellectual common ground with them.) I also think that if the classics are worth reading (and a lot of them are), it’s worth it to have a chance to read them in school where you have a teacher to guide you through the thorny parts. But I definitely don’t think the “canon” should be the ONLY thing that children are reading in schools, or even the majority. I’d be happiest with a couple of classics, a couple of newer books, and a lot of self-selected reading.

  3. Emily Schneider says:

    Do they need to read Edith Wharton? Do they need to read Mark Twain? Do they need to read Nathaniel Hawthorne? I believe that the answer is yes, at least as a part of their education.
    It seems that Mr. Ribay has set up something of a paper tiger by suggesting two venerable classics that address somewhat specific parts of human experience, war and confrontation with nature, within a distant historical setting. There are many other works that might “compete” with such talented contemporary authors as Gaiman and Yang. Students today have terribly declining literacy skills and often a severe distrust of what reading may offer them. Again, by using the easily mocked phrase “cultural capital,” Mr. Ribay undercuts any possible true respect for great authors of the 19th or even 20th centuries. The most these creative minds can offer students today, he implies, is a crudely pragmatic entry into the world of careers and success. Both Stephen Crane and Jack London would be appalled to have been associated with those goals.
    Adults should offer students standards, the opportunity to learn even when effort and initial boredom might seem obstacles. I am also a teacher, and I am saddened at the constant lowering of our expectations for children and teens. By all means, include some contemporary authors, but please do not abandon the riches of the English language or the American historical experience in educating kids in the power and joy of reading.

  4. Certainly we need to expose children to and encourage them to embrace the richness of the English language, but we also need to consider two things: One is what we mean by literary quality, and how antiquated our perception of quality has become if we believe that it reached its heyday more than twenty years ago, and the other is the populations represented in the books we consider classics. To whom are these books deemed good, and who do they represent? I think in many cases you’ll find that the books that have become classics belong in a tradition of literature that is essentially exclusionary and replicates themes and values that we have already embraced as a culture. If pre-adolescence and adolescence is a time for questioning, shouldn’t we promote books that challenge us as well as our students? I don’t think we should start throwing classics out the window, but consider the extent to which we can push ourselves and our students with the classics we choose to keep. Do they still feel fresh? Will they feel so to our students? If not, it might be time to reevaluate them.

  5. Randy Ribay says:

    Thanks for commenting, everyone! I’m glad this is generating discussion that is still relevant.

    Just to clarify, I am certainly not advocating the abandonment of the classics! But like most things in life, balance is healthy. As many of you have pointed out, modern literature has much to offer, and I think it should be included alongside traditional texts.

    However, I don’t think it’s fair to say the quality of literature is in decline–it’s just changing. The world is different, we are different, our language is different. It makes sense that our books have evolved with us. For example, readers of yesteryear needed extremely detailed descriptions of foreign locales because they could not travel as easily as we can now (let alone pull a device from their pockets and instantly watch videos of said locale). While there is value in such descriptions, their diminished presence does not indicate the loss of quality. I think modern writers use that freed up space to explore complex themes, perspectives, and ideas in new ways.

  6. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    You all will know better than I, but I wonder if the continued reliance on classics has also to do with the difficulty of changing ANYTHING in the bureaucracies that schools can be. Randy seems pretty easygoing but I bet there are some schools/districts where a change to curriculum requires approval at a number of levels.

    Back in the early eighties, when there was a big push to put YA novels in high school English curricula, Richard Peck told me, “better a book they’ll read than one they won’t.” His point was that you can assign ROMEO AND JULIET all you want but it’s wasted if a significant number of the students worm out of reading it one way or another.

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