This post was originally published on June 11, 2010. I was in my summer semester of graduate school at the University of Maryland earning my Masters degree in Library Science. Please enjoy it’s relevancy to Tuesday’s post about Marley Dias’ journey to creating #1000blackgirlbooks (or, the fact that teens don’t like classic novels). Links were updated.
I’m taking a Summer course titled Young Adult Literature. In only 3 meetings of the class I’ve taken 6.5 pages of notebook paper with notes, titles of books I want to read, and potential final project ideas. I am in awe of the amount of YA and children’s books the professor, Deborah Taylor of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Library system, has read, and in only a week my list of books on hold at the local library has gone from 11 to 24. I cannot contain my excitement to the two three-hour classes a week, so I will share some of my findings with you.
A big reason teens don’t like classic novels (Shakespeare, Huck Finn, Gatsby) is that they are not given the right context. We need to set the stage for the young readers, explain to them the political/social nature of the time, war being fought, countries being established, etc. We need to give them a reason to care, not just slap a book in front of them and say, “This is a classic. Read it.” What was going on in society? What was the state of the United States in a social context? Racism, immigration, religion.
Perhaps my public librarian friends are saying to themselves, “Not my job.” But it is! When a teenager comes into the library on the first day of summer, dragging his feet behind him and wishing mom had stayed in the car, he doesn’t want to be given a diatribe on why The Great Gatsby is the quintessential 1920s novel of the independently wealthy and their horrible manners and lifestyle.
Re-frame the Story
But what if we can re-frame it? It’s the life of Paris Hilton and the Housewives of New Jersey [2019 update: Kim Kardashian] set in a time when divorce was taboo and African Americans didn’t have civil rights. A young soldier from the first World War returns to America and takes a job in Long Island, New York. His neighbor is the richest guy anyone’s ever met, and there’s major partying, adultery, drinking (in the age of prohibition! *gasp!*).
It’s not that teens don’t like classic novels, it’s that librarians (and teachers, I can assume) aren’t doing a good job of explaining why we should read classic novels. Librarians have the task of “selling” books to readers. There’s plenty of assigned reading in the school setting, so public librarians should:
1) re-read classics,
2) understand their historical context and be able to explain it to customers, 3) understand their modern context and make applications,
4) recommend appropriate contemporary read-alikes.