The Catcher in the Rye. To Kill a Mockingbird. Nineteen Eighty-Four. Heralded as “classics” in the literary world, these are only a few of the texts that have circulated through the American school system for decades. They are taught religiously, analyzed thoroughly, and held up as paragons of the written word. But the 1900s have come and gone. Now, with diverse authors and stories topping bestseller lists for hundreds of weeks at a time, the true literary merit of books by old, dead white people should be called into question. In passing on these stories again and again, what are we really teaching?
The publishing industry has been known to favor the perspectives of white people since its inception, with the emergence of stories told by POC and LGBTQ+ authors only beginning to gain traction in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. But even now, their existence is all but erased within the walls of the common classroom. Why is that? An ideology based on racism and classism is to blame.
Literary elitism is the concept that literature inherently belongs to people of high social class, i.e. the white elite, whose access to higher education and more money made publishing more accessible to them historically. It is because of this that books published during the period of all the “classics” we know now are predominantly and inextricably white, even if they have major POC characters.
In continuing the cycle of teaching only these books in schools, we’re barring queer people and people of color from telling their stories with their own voices and barring marginalized kids from seeing themselves on the page.
“I still think of the kid who I taught probably 15 years ago at Franklin, who said, ‘I really love this book, and I’ve never read a book before,’” says freshman English teacher Pamela Garrett. A teacher for 31 years, Garrett has taught several books to incoming students, including some modern titles dealing with racism and sexuality. “Really, my philosophy is if you don’t like reading, it’s just because you haven’t found the right book yet,” she tells me.
“A lot of times I would go back to Catcher in the Rye because one of the things [it] does is it kind of gets you in the first 10 pages… even though you’ve got this rich white boy, it’s not typical,” Garrett remarks about Salinger’s bestseller. When asked why she thinks books like Catcher continue to persist through time in American schools, she explains, “[there are] so many materials on those classics, and the Internet has further perpetuated that.” Indeed, the tried-and-true nature of a lot of these stories entices schools to stick with them, even when more accessible stories come along. She goes on to describe the online resources that have helped her in teaching books to her kids, which often don’t exist (or are very limited) for modern titles.
“I think standardized tests also perpetuate that this-is-a-classic kind of thing,” Garrett continues. As another inseparable part of the American school system, standardized testing aims to fairly evaluate all students on the same metrics—but this doesn’t always happen, especially for more subjective areas of learning like language arts. “Even though they don’t say ‘here’s a list of books you need to read,’ certainly to have some knowledge of those [classics] will benefit you on the AP test, SAT, ACT, all those standardized tests,” she says.
Marginalized students are so often left out of discussions about reading and writing because they are not represented in the books that academic institutions center themselves around. By continuing to teach books that are fundamentally white and straight to an increasingly diverse population, the message received is you don’t belong in these spaces. But this is never true.
Aiden Thomas (he/they), Portlander and trans Latinx author of the young adult novel Cemetery Boys, expressed his anger and confusion on Twitter during a controversy about literary classics. In a thread, they stated, “it’s clear some of y’all never sat through a class where you were forced to pretend to [care] about books where your race/gender/sexuality/disability was the source of hate and violence.” He went on to point out how these ideas can damage a person before they even hit puberty, no matter how small or irrelevant the ideas may be to the story. “If you think a bunch of old-ass books written by dead white men is what’ll get kids to read/write you are absolutely TRIPPING,” they continued.
A recent example of an effort to overcome literary elitism is known as #ownvoices, an online movement to highlight books by marginalized authors written about characters like them—i.e., from their own voices. Books like Cemetery Boys, which follows a trans-Latinx teenager after he summons a ghost he can’t get rid of, are examples of such stories. Since authors and professionals have begun to work together in spotlighting #ownvoices books, more marginalized authors are being picked up by publishing houses, and demand for these stories has skyrocketed. But still, according to a study by The Ripped Bodice, a Los Angeles bookseller, only 8.1% of romance books published by leading houses in the last five years were written by authors of color.
There is a deep-rooted form of racism and classism that plagues American schools and the publishing industry as a whole. In order to combat literary elitism, we have to tell our marginalized kids that they belong in the literary world; our deeply white so-called “classics” are not the way there. As someone whose life and path was changed by finding the right book, I want to close this article by recommending five books that I believe would do well to be taught in the classroom. These five novels are all stunning #ownvoices stories, committed to the page for people who don’t see themselves in other, more “classic” titles.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Ari Mendoza is a quiet kid with problems controlling his feelings and a family that has many secrets. He also can’t swim. So when a kid named Dante approaches him at the community pool one day offering lessons, something in Ari tells him to say yes. From there, a wild friendship is born between two opposites—Ari, a frustrated independent, and Dante, a free-spirited artist. Over two summers, they grow from boys into men, but in a universe as big as their own, what exactly does that mean?
Originally published in 2012, Ari and Dante took the world by storm with its breathtaking prose and infinite heart. Bold, poetic, and authentic, this book has an unending supply of artistic choices to examine. Benjamin Alire Sáenz is a gay Mexican-American author who currently works as a creative writing professor at the University of Texas, El Paso. Like him, both Ari Mendoza and Dante Quintana are Mexican-American in the book, but they have different understandings of what that means for them. Identity is a core theme that persists throughout.
They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera
What would you do if you knew you were going to die? Death-Cast can tell you. Early each morning, thousands of so-called “Deckers” across the world receive emergency calls heralding a grim fate: you will die sometime over the next 24 hours. The service is unable to determine exactly when or how, but none have succeeded in proving it wrong—in fact, some don’t even live to pick up.
Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio get their calls on September 5th. As near-complete opposites, the universe had no plans for their paths to intertwine; that is until they meet on the Last Friend app, which pairs them together for a lifetime of adventure in a single day.
Puerto Rican queer author Adam Silvera utilizes alternating perspectives to create an absolute tour-de-force with They Both Die at the End. Chock-full of precise rhetorical choices and arresting prose, this book is perfect for the deeper analysis that classrooms require.
You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson
In the small town of Campbell, Indiana, Liz Lighty has always felt that she’s too marginalized to ever be as bright as her name suggests she is. As a poor Black kid in a rich white town, her plan has always been to get out—apply to an elite college, play for their orchestra, and become a doctor. Easy, right?
That is, until the financial aid she depends on falls through, and she’s in dire need of a scholarship if her life is to stay on track. Fortunately, her wealthy school offers plenty of money… to the prom king and queen. Throwing herself into a world of fierce, fair-skinned gossip girls is just about the worst thing she can think of at the moment, but despite her fears (and the fact that there’s a cute new girl also competing), she has to go for it. It’s the Lighty Way.
A feel-good, laugh-out-loud debut from Black queer author Leah Johnson, You Should See Me in a Crown exceeded just about every expectation I could have had for it. It’s an absolute delight in every way, even while tackling issues like racism, classism, and homophobia. This is the kind of story any student can get into.
Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram
Star Trek-obsessed Portlander Darius Kellner is nothing like the Persian king he was named after. Mostly because he’s only half-Persian (on his mom’s side), doesn’t speak much Farsi, and has lived in the United States his whole life. So when his family drops everything for a trip to see his relatives in Iran, he’s quickly whisked away from the world he’s always known. He even gets a new name: Darioush, the original Farsi version of Darius.
But everything changes when he meets his grandparents’ neighbor, Sohrab. Soon, the two of them are spending their days playing non-American football, eating all sorts of Persian foods, and exploring all of the beautiful sights that Iran has to offer. Darioush is a side of Darius that he’s never seen in himself—a side that’s connected to its roots, and perhaps more importantly, a side that knows friendship wholly and truly.
Darius the Great is Not Okay is a hilarious and shining debut about identity and the all-encompassing power of friendship. The main character’s voice is one of the most unique ones that I’ve ever read, and this book is brimming with interesting motifs to dissect. As an examination of culture, family, and teenage angst, it would fit right in the place of many young adult “classics.”
Parachutes by Kelly Yang
Claire Wang lives a nice, privileged life in Shanghai, China—at least until her wealthy parents decide that she become a parachute, or a student dropped off in the United States to study. Her newfound freedom in the States quickly becomes something fun and exciting for her, especially when she gets her class’s dream boy. But she wants nothing to do with the strangers she’s housing with.
Dani De La Cruz and her mother are struggling to make ends meet. Working as a maid on the weekends and renting a room out to an obnoxious rich person at all other times, it feels like she never gets a break. But as a ruthless debate star and academic, she knows she’s got what it takes to get to Yale. Her debate teacher even agrees to tutor her privately, so she can beat all the others who are buying their way upward.
But as the two girls try to avoid each other at all costs, their lives become more intertwined than they know. In the face of personal crises and life-changing events, Claire and Dani will have to turn to each other from their alternate worlds. New York Times bestselling author Kelly Yang executes this story with incredible heart and intricate detail—there’s plenty of material here to study. Teachers and readers should view content warnings before reading this book.