There’s opinions all over the board on what kind of literature should be taught in the classroom. Tradition dictates that teachers impart the Canon onto their students, making them read the classics and appreciate the literary greatness of the days of yore. On the other end of the spectrum, though, lies the teachers who want their students to read modern works more relevant to their experiences, vernacular, and cultures.
Printz Award winning author Amy King has had discussions with many English teachers who refuse to teach her novels, including her major award winner Please Ignore Vera Dietz, to their classes. Her suspicion, particularly of private schools, is that teachers are worried about preparing students for standardized tests and college classes, not in developing the students into lifelong readers or “modern” individuals.
The whole idea of a canon can be traced back to English colonialism. As a means of ushering in modern “western” standards, laws, morals, values, and religious practices, England introduced its own education system that stressed literature as a way to teach and “correct” the morals of the natives of their colonies and territories. The English canon, since then, has become a source of identity and pride, with its works glorifying Christian morals and bringing its audience to enlightenment and intellectual superiority. Thus, to modern advocates of the canon, the main argument is culture building.
Others, though, argue that forcing only the canon on students makes reading a chore and a distasteful activity, and therefore fails to produce lifelong learners. Legendary author Maya Angelou was once quoted as saying, “Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him.” Many younger teachers have taken this attitude in their reading selection and tried to offer a wide variety of media (audiobooks, graphic novels, etc) as well as a broad array genres and topics that include culture points relevant to modern times with references to what’s going on in the lives of today’s teens.
Some teachers use a blend of canon and modern books in their curricula and “pair” them to give students some perspective on how similar themes play out differently given different places, times, and cultural cues. Some teachers have abandoned the concept of assigned reading altogether and instead offered a list of books from which students can chose and select the specimen of their desire to study a certain theme or device.
There are benefits and drawbacks to the inclusion and exclusion of YA literature, but the most important question to ask to ensure a positive result is the purpose of the literature assigned. If its historical appreciation and a shared experience, the canon may be the proper source, but for relevance and long-term reading delight, YA literature may do the trick.