Parents, children and school personnel all need to be involved reviewing books for the literature curriculum. I’ll tell you why.
In sixth they had us read the Iliad and I wasn’t getting it. I asked my mom to read it to me. At one point, she said it was inappropriate and stopped reading. She asked the teacher for my reading assignment to be changed. Instead I was assigned stories from the regular six grade textbook. It was still Greek mythology but had a language and content level specifically for sixth grade readers. This was not true for our unabridged version of the Iliad. It had sexual content that was going over my head.
In ninth grade the school sent home a parent permission slip to read Khalid Hosseini’s The Kite Runner which portrayed graphic sexual violence. The alternative was to read a book which had been in the curriculum for a while, Lord of the Flies. Both works contain some violence in them. But this permission was specifically to read the sexual violence included in The Kite Runner.
I discussed this with my mom. She said my older brother had read A Thousand Splendid Suns and did not like it. She said the regular curricular assignment, Lord of the Flies, was a much better book. We came to the agreement that if I was the only student who didn’t get the permission slip signed, she would sign it. I had gone through that experience before of being the only student with an alternative assignment. As it turned out I was the only one whose parents had not said yes.
I ended up choosing to read The Kite Runner, which was a decision I learned to regret. I disliked this book with its predictable plot and poorly written characters. The rape scene was only there to make the antagonist seem worst, just another accessory to an excessively bad character and not a thoughtful addition to the story. It could have been removed and the bad guy would still be an unrealistic Nazi sympathizer, child molester, and member of the Taliban. The part of the book that required the parent’s signature was not necessary for the plot.
The protagonist was an ordinary man, possibly a self-insert of the author. The author must have felt the need to create an over-the-top dynamic with a vicious villain against pitiable side characters in order to make this ordinary person seem like a heroic protagonist. This resulted in a heavy-handed story-telling. It was obvious what I was supposed to get out of the story. There was no room for discussion about the meaning of this book.
In eleventh grade gifted English Literature class, I was assigned a second book by Khalid Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns, the one my brother had read and disliked. It had characters just as unrealistic as Kite Runner. Some students in my class said it was the first book that they read all of the way through. However, it was one I could not stomach. The author was obviously trying to make a feminist point and yet didn’t understand the relationship between men and women. It turned out to be so oversimplified that I couldn’t push myself through this book. After the first few chapters I switched to reading the Spark Notes.
Later after I was out of high school I read Lord of the Flies on my own. I enjoyed it and realized the book had a deeper meaning. Was it about this specific war or the innate violence in human nature? But, I was not in a classroom setting. I had no one to discuss my ideas with me.
The books assigned to classrooms should not be exciting stories meant to keep us engaged. They should be books that are slightly above our reading level with heavy topics for discussion. This does not mean “adult” content based on sex and violence, but political and philosophical ideas.
This is a guest blog by J.W. Listman