Does Holden Caulfield matter any more?
The New York Times recently reported that kids find The Catcher in the Rye’s protagonist passive and whiny. They don’t understand Holden’s slang or his sense of alienation. Chances are you’ve known a student who has responded this way to Holden or to another character once universally popular. What do you do? Of course, our job is to help kids learn to think about books—even ones they may not like. And what doesn’t work for one reader may turn another into a lifelong reader. But it’s well worth revisiting the books we teach during middle school. That’s why we asked teachers to share what they think works for this generation—and what doesn’t.
OUT WITH THE OLD?
When it comes to classics, it can be tricky to find the stories that resonate with today’s plugged-in kids. Some of the books currently being taught felt dated when we were in school. “Lord of the Flies made me a non-reader,” says Rollie Welch, collections manager at the Cleveland Public Library and member of the American Library Association’s Young Adult Committee. “We had to dissect the book sentence by sentence, while I was more interested in what happens next.”
Of course, some of the responsibility undoubtedly rests with the teacher—line-by-line deconstruction rarely captures the imagination. Instructor contributing editor Hannah Trierweiler vividly remembers reading Lord of the Flies in eighth grade, thanks to her teacher’s creativity. “She connected it to our study of the U.S. Constitution,” Trierweiler says. “We had to imagine that we were stranded on an island and write our own constitutions.”
But the danger rests in assigning a book that is so disconnected from students’ lives that it turns them off reading completely–especially if it happens again and again. Welch feels that even the Newbery Medal is not an indicator that kids will connect with a book. “Some of those novels are out of print and no longer resonate with students,” he says. For example, novels with pop culture references to Ed Sullivan or Sputnik probably won’t grab readers.
So what classics are here to stay? Welch recommends looking for themes that are still relevant, such as the gang violence in S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. Despite the fact that it was published more than 40 years ago, kids still connect with Ponyboy’s story. Another classic students continue to enjoy is Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. “It’s more of a plot-driven book,” Welch says, “with lots of adventure and survival.” Often it’s a matter of getting the right book in the right student’s hands, whether it’s a classic or a contemporary novel.
KNOWING YOUR AUDIENCE
Just because a book is current doesn’t mean it will work with your particular students. Marty Frazier, a second-year teacher at Sunset Park Prep in Brooklyn, New York, says that reading selections must be site-specific. “Students at urban middle schools with low-achieving issues will respond to The Giver by Lois Lowry much differently than kids at a prep school,” Frazier explains.
Texts that work for Frazier’s urban population include Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and the works of Walter Dean Myers, such as Monster, his groundbreaking book from 1999. Written partially in the form of a movie script, Monster is about a kid on trial for manslaughter who starts writing to cope with what is happening to him. Frazier says, “I hear my students say things like ‘I want action or war or drama.’ That’s why Walter Dean Myers is so popular.”
THE QUALITY QUESTION
Sometimes antiquated selections remain on the docket year after year because of valid concerns about contemporary novels—teachers worry about content that may upset parents, administrators, and school boards. Additionally, some newer books may not seem well written or sufficiently complex. Despite its popularity, Welch feels that Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight is a good example of a popular book that doesn’t expose kids to complex characterization, intricate plotlines, and literary language.
However, Samantha Webb, who teaches children’s and adolescent literature at the University of Montevallo, in Montevallo, Alabama, makes the case for assigning Twilight in class. “I think that kids should read everything, even if it’s ‘trash.’ Perhaps the best way to encourage students is by fostering an open approach to books and reading.” Webb argues that Twilight might just “inspire smitten girls to read some of Meyer’s sources, such as Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, and Jane Eyre.”
And obviously, not all contemporary books are fluff—as evidenced by the work of Alexie, Myers, and many others. Webb praises the author Neil Gaiman, whose work she finds impressive. Welch concurs, going so far as to say that Gaiman is writing the classics of the future, specifically The Graveyard Book and Coraline.
One genre guaranteed to seem fresh and engaging in the classroom is the graphic novel, which can sometimes be used in place of tired-seeming classics.
For example, Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale is a Pulitzer Prize–winning graphic novel about the Holocaust that some teachers use instead of The Diary of Anne Frank. Webb explains that Anne Frank is not always the best choice for learning about the Holocaust. “It can sometimes be taught in a way that de-emphasizes what happened to Anne and her family.” She feels that this removes the horror of the event and lessens the effectiveness of the book. Because of the connection between the subject matter and the images, Webb feels that Maus is a more accessible choice for a unit on the Holocaust, particularly for older middle school students.
Another complex and challenging choice for older kids is Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese. This graphic novel about a teenager struggling to feel comfortable in his own skin was a finalist for the National Book Award, and it would be a first-rate substitution for any classic on the theme of alienation.
THE GOLDEN AGE
Truly, we are lucky to teach in an era when students have so many excellent choices available to them. Sometimes a classic will be just the thing to talk about metaphor or an issue such as friendship. Other times, you’ll want a contemporary novel, and, chances are, you’ll have it in this golden age of literature for kids, with children’s books crowding out the field and selling better than books for adults. Indeed, the New York Times decided to initiate a list specifically for children’s titles because children’s literature was taking over the adult fiction list. In short, it’s a great time to be a young reader.
THE 39 CLUES, BOOK FIVE: THE BLACK CIRCLE
by Patrick Carman.
Why it works: Like its predecessors, the latest 39 Clues invites kids to play along online. “There’s a lot of action,” says one sixth grader. “Plus, I learn something new.”
AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS
by Jules Verne.
Why it works: It’s a long-standing classic, but it’s filled with adventure. “I read an abridged version with my sixth graders,” says teacher Gail Hennessey. “Most of them really enjoy it.”
FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON
by Daniel Keyes.
Why it works: This oldie-but-goodie about a controversial lab experiment has “lots of adult content,” warns teacher Charlie Brown. “But the kids love the issues it raises—they love reading about adult situations.”
by Lois Lowry.
Why it works: Every reader will take away something different. “Kids love to argue about the perfect world it presents and whether or not it’s possible,” notes Brown.
THE TROJAN WAR
by Olivia Coolidge.
Why it works: “It gets all the great stuff out of the story without killing kids with a metrical epic poem in translation,” sums up teacher James Fiorile, who’s had less success with standbys like The Iliad and The Odyssey.
by Stephenie Meyer.
Why it works: Middle schoolers love it. “You want to read it over and over,” gushes one sixth-grade girl. How’s that for hooking lifelong readers?
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD
by Harper Lee.
Why it works: Kids still relate to the story’s themes of racism, bravery, and growing up. Pair with Loretta Ellsworth’s In Search of Mockingbird, about a girl on a quest to meet Harper Lee.
The HUNGER GAMEs
by Suzanne Collins.
Why it works: With nods to reality TV and Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, this fight-to-the-death adventure keeps kids turning pages. Look for the sequel, Catching Fire, to hit bookshelves on September 1.
THE SHADOW THIEVES
by Anne Ursu.
Why it works: Ursu blends ancient Greek mythology with modern middle-school life. Teachers also say that with a hero and a heroine, the story appeals to boys and girls alike.
by Erin Hunter.
Why it works: Several middle schoolers we spoke with raved about this ever-growing series about clans of cats living in the wilderness. The many volumes mean you always have an answer to “What’s the next book?”
PERCY JACKSON series
by Rick Riordan.
Why it works: Many teachers say that for kids with ADHD, it’s the first time seeing someone like themselves in print. (The main character, Percy, uses his ADHD as a strength.)
by S. E. Hinton.
Why it works: A watershed young adult novel written more than 40 years ago by a young adult. But despite its age, the themes are still relevant. Teacher Charlie Brown has found that “it’s especially good for kids who think they don’t read well.”
by Louis Sachar.
Why it works: There’s something for everyone in Sachar’s wacky humor and interweaving storylines. Gail Hennessey says that almost all of her sixth graders are fans.
WALK TWO MOONS
by Sharon Creech.
Why it works: While not universally beloved by middle schoolers—especially boys—many readers can’t help but connect with 13-year-old Salamanca’s search for her mother.
THE CATCHER IN THE RYE
by J.D. Salinger.
Why it works: When the Times reported that Catcher isn’t reaching today’s kids, teachers rushed to respond that for many students, Holden is a life-saver. Goes to show you—there’s a reader for every book!