The Problem With Most Summer Reading Lists

slide1Illustrated by Tania Lili.
When my sister received the list of approved summer reading for school books, I noticed that all but one of the books was narrated by a boy. It got me thinking about the books I had been assigned over the years, and I began to realize how overwhelmingly male-centric they were — from the protagonists to the writers. And, that’s when it hit me: It's likely few girls would complain about reading a book narrated by a man, but several boys would likely whine about having to read a “girly book”— even if the book was nothing of the sort and had simply been penned by a woman.
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The male point of view seems to be the media default, so I guess it's no surprise that it's also the literature default in school. To be clear, I'm not suggesting that the books I was assigned are bad or useless simply because they were written by men; in fact, I enjoyed most of them. However, I do find it problematic that the large majority of assigned reads have been written by men because it sends the message that women’s stories are less important.
My freshman year started out well enough. Our summer reading assignment was To Kill a Mockingbird, written by Harper Lee, narrated by Scout Finch, both women, though the story focuses primarily on two men — Atticus Finch and Boo Radley.
That school year we also read A Separate Peace, written and narrated by a man. The story takes place in an all-boys school; moreover, there are almost no women in the story at all. We also read selections from The Odyssey, which was of course authored and narrated by a man. The majority of the story takes place on a ship full of men, only occasionally taking a look at the women back home. Moreover, the women encountered on the trip are magical creatures; the powerful ones — the Sirens — are portrayed as evil temptresses. Although we also read Ayn Rand's Anthem, Rand's key character is a man.
Things are starting to seem a little skewed, right? Men’s stories — not women’s — are dominating the classroom. My sophomore summer year included Lord of the Flies and The Jungle, both written by — you guessed it — men. There are literally no women whatsoever in William Golding's Lord of the Flies. Likewise, The Jungle has a male protagonist, though I'm happy to report that Marija, a prominent female character in the novel, is not condemned when she becomes a sex worker. Still, the novel is terribly male-centric.
Fortunately, we had an opportunity to read what we wanted to sophomore year, so I was free to choose books with strong female characters, but the second semester we read Of Mice and Men, again written by a man. There is but one woman in this novel, and even she is not actually a major character. Plus, spoiler alert: She dies — after being depicted as “loose” and villain-like by the male community she resides in.
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Junior year we read several more so-called classic novels. Our summer reading started with The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, written by David Wroblewski, which is a modern retelling of Hamlet, but without an Ophelia. After that, we read Into the Wild, a non-fiction story about an isolated young man, written by a man. Then it was The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, obviously by and about a man. Next was Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury. One woman is insane, the other a plot device. FINALLY, we read Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, which depicted the life of Miss Janie Crawford.
The negative effects of assigning novels that generally focus on men may be subtle, but they're, nonetheless, potentially damaging to the self-esteem of the girls that are reading them. It’s a classic example of the hidden (read: sexist) curriculum in our schools, and it tells young women that men are more interesting and that what men have to say carries more value than the stories a woman has to tell.
And, of course, all of this nonsense affects boys as well. If neither the media nor the teachers expose young male readers to the complexity and humanity of women, then what is going to stop them from future stereotyping? A diverse education is the key to ending prejudice, but the lack of female authors taught in school only reinforces the idea that women aren't career-minded. Heck, it's a stereotype that Jane Austen battled in the 1700s. How’s that for progress?
So, here I am, cracking open 1984 in preparation for my senior year, wondering what George Orwell has to say. Mostly though, I'm hoping that next year will be different.
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