by Shaker Laurie, a Reading and English teacher in Minneapolis, escaped academic, spouse, and mom to the feistiest three-year-old on the block.
[Content Note: Racism.]
Earlier this week, National Public Radio published its “100 Best-Ever Teen Novels” list. Voted on by NPR readers/listeners from a list of 1200 nominations, also audience-submitted, the list is loaded with amazing writing—amazing writing about white protagonists. Only two—yes, two—books on the list are written about main characters of color: House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.
As a teacher of reading and English in schools with large populations of students of color, young adult fiction about characters of color is high on my radar. Many of my students don’t see themselves as readers when they walk into my classroom. Reader identity and engagement are a huge component of the work we do as we address student reading problems, and when students are handed books full of characters that are unlike them racially, culturally, and socio-economically, the chasm between their picture of themselves and their idea of books and who books are for only widens.
The problem is not that amazing books about teens of color don’t exist. They do. My kids latch obsessively onto books about teens like them and read them voraciously because adolescents in all their self-involved glory enjoy reading texts that remind them of, well, themselves. Sherman Alexie and Sandra Cisneros certainly deserve their received accolades: The House on Mango Street is a beautifully poetic account of a Latina’s coming of age, and Absolutely True Diary poignantly tells the story of a boy who struggles with life on a reservation and his desire for a strong education. Judith Ortiz Cofer, Walter Dean Myers, Linda Sue Park, and Matt de la Peña’s work also comes to mind, so when NPR comes along and declares 100 books the “Best-Ever” and leaves nearly every single young adult title written about people of color off the list without caveat or mention, damage is done.
Clearly, audience-selected “Best Ever” lists are dangerous and problematic, but the absence of any indication of NPR’s awareness of the glaring neglect on their list is also troubling. A list of “Best-Ever” books that declares only two books about teens of color worthy keeps all of these amazing stories in the margins, and arguably marginalizes them even further. When the world of reading remains so predominantly white, children and teens of color receive the clear message that they don’t belong. It sends a message directly from readers as well as NPR that writing about people of color is not valuable or valued, that their stories aren’t as important as the trials and tribulations of Edward and Bella; theTwilight series ranks #27.
Such an exclusive list isn’t just problematic for teens of color; when white teens are told that the “good” books are all about white people, it normalizes the white experience and bolsters white privilege. For me, growing up in a community that was 99% white, reading was one of the first ways I was able to interact with narratives of people of color. Books lay a foundation on which kids can reflect on social justice and understand that the lives, conflicts, and struggles of people of color are important—that people of color are equal actors in the world. Yes, kids want to read about themselves, and that is important, but it is also critical for kids living with privilege to read about people living without those privileges, not just for some requisite “exposure to diversity,” but because, if we want them to be committed to changing the world, they have to understand it needs to change.
The walls of my classroom are covered in photos of my students—90% of whom are of color—reading books. For most of them, the visual of themselves with books is new and exciting. For most kids, reading is not inherently boring; it is a world of escape and imagination. Kids want to see themselves as smart and successful, and reading comes along with that image, so it is inexcusable that NPR publish material that screams, “Good reading=whiteness.” Those who champion literacy fight daily against the cultural message that reading is for white people, and according to NPR and its audience, it is.
This article definitely brings up some valid points, on how too often the dominant “mood” or POV is white when reading books, but specifically children’s lit and young adult. I have seen arguments made on reading male vs. female POV or perspective, but have to admit that point just wow…gets to me more, because I realize how true it is, and how I’ve never really even considered or really thought about this before when I was growing up. There were definitely some YA books like Linda Sue Park’s “A Single Shard,” and Lensey Namioka’s “Mismatch,” that I remember, but my overall experience of reading YA books from an Asian POV is pretty non-existent. [Hmm…I should really get on reading American Born Chinese and The Joy Luck Club.] My only recent exposure to to Asian POV books have been Lisa See books, Jamie King’s “On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet”, Paula Yoo’s “Good Enough” and An Na’s “The Fold.”
I mean, the list’s name itself, “100 Best-Ever Teen Novels” is somewhat problematic itself [no list should be named that if it includes Twilight as #27 on the list and half the books on the list are popular, contemporary reads that don’t have much literary merit and will most likely fade into obscurity within the next 50 years…] If the list had been named just ‘100 Best Teen Novels’ then I think I would have been fine with that. You also might want to take into account the “expert” panel [Pamela Paul, Diana Roback, Tasha Robinson, Ted Schelvan] that frankly, sound all pretty white to me.
I guess this can explain why I was the only one in my high school class that actually enjoyed reading “The House on Mango Street,” and how the students that voiced discontent over the book were the white students [Latino/a students were surprisingly silent on their opinion] - one student council candidate [also happens to be white] even made a campaign promise that he would vow to have the English department revamp their required reading, by specifically dissing House of Mango Street.
This is could also possibly explain [and something I never considered before] why I didn’t give a flying fuck for the most part, on the books I had to read during my sophomore year - considering with the exceptions of A Raisin in the Sun and Othello, featured white protagonists only.
Also, this article made me realize that I should give props to one of my high school English teachers who wasn’t only passionate as hell about teaching, but specifically always promoted literature written from a non-white perspective [she was particularly enthusiastic about Julia Alvarez, Sandra Cisneros, Jamaica Kincaid and Dai Sijie books]. I need to thank this lady profusely the next time I see her. Also, she’s cool because I introduced Fruits Basket to her and was totally okay about me writing an essay about my favorite manga, Full Moon Wo Sagashite :D
Definitely the best English teacher ever :3