Books in the NSW High School Curriculum

I am currently upgrading my qualifications so I can go teach English and History in High School. To this end, I’ve been reading the ‘recommended’ books for each different grade and stage to familiarise myself with the work I’m going to be doing. Seems sensible, right?

But the problem comes with the books themselves. One of the biggest aims of teaching literature is to enable students to understand, use, enjoy and value English literature. Use and understand is pretty clear, but the value and enjoy, that’s a whole other ball game.

So far the books I’ve read have all got a few things in common. They’re outdated. They are obviously ‘teaching texts’ with a focus on ‘teachable moments’. Without fail they keep the reader at arms-length. The language of the stories dates the text dreadfully. In one of the books, there has been some character development, but not much. In all the others, there is no discernable development of the character. All the books rely on happenstance and coincidence to resolve issues within the story.

The language is lazy. The reader isn’t considered at all, just the adults these books are aimed at; that is the judges on the panel of book award committees, librarians, teachers and parents. At no time is the teenage reader considered or engaged with in anything other than the abstract. Most of the books are incredibly patronising to teenagers, regardless of the level of the students reading ability. I understand some children are not kids who will pick up a book for pleasure, but inflicting these books on them is not going to change that. What student wants to read a book that uses simplified language because the author believes the child is too dumb to understand harder word choice? At the moment, I’m seriously doubting my ability to teach some of these books because the best thing I can say about them is these books show the way the young adult market used to be. But it isn’t like this now. I doubt any of these books would make it out of the slushpile of todays publishing environment.

I know most of these books are 30 years old (or more). I recognise that these books were once considered groundbreaking. BUT with the number of phenomenal young adult writers currently proliferating the marketplace, can’t we select books that are actually enjoyable, relevant and reflective of current standards in the world?

If classic books are so essential, how about a selection of classics that will grab the attention of the non-reader? I’m thinking David Eddings Sparhawk series; Anne McCafferey Dragonriders of Pern books and others that are entertaining while still being well written.

Or maybe concentrate on newer young adult novels. Gena Showalter has a few series for teenagers that are engaging, entertaining and still deal with real issues in a way that is relevant to modern children. Kresley Cole’s Arcana Chronicles fits well.

Over to you. Who else would you recommend (either books or authors) to engage and entertain students while still encouraging them become thoughtful, imaginative and effective communicators?

Cultural Appropriation OR Diversity and Inclusion: Can We Have Both

As an editor and writer, I have been following the argument over cultural appropriation with interest. I’ve also been watching the calls for cultural diversity in books closely. At the moment, I can’t see how any writer is able to walk this line between appropriation and representation with any kind of success.

On the one hand, you have people telling writers we can’t/shouldn’t write about cultures unless they are a part of that culture or know that culture very, very well because we are hindering writers from that culture getting published and telling their own stories. Fair call and I support it. I prefer to read about characters who are completely true to the ‘reality’ that character would have faced in the real world when I’m reading about a ‘real world’ situation.

On the other hand, writers get slammed by critics for not having culturally diverse characters in their novels. Again, fair call. Books with only one cultural perspective can be limiting and less than engaging. But why would the writer create culturally diverse characters if they are going to get accused of cultural appropriation?

I understand that culture and identity is an important and emotive topic. But having diversity in characters is just as important and emotive. But how is the modern writer suppose to balance both?

As a topic, this juggle requires serious consideration and discussions. How does any writer create a character who is different from their own experience? Does this mean I should only create characters who are female? Have a chronic illness? Are mothers? Should settings stay only in the time period since I was born in 1970? Or should I focus on creating entirely new worlds, new problems rather than explore the issues and problems that interest me?

The biggest benefit I can see to fiction (other than relaxation) is the ability of the reader to see into the inner world of the characters and hopefully gain insight into what makes those characters real. This can then be transferred to a wider context of society. This takes dedication, research, communication. A writer creating a character outside of their own culture needs to be willing to use all available options for getting that character correct. But does it really mean the writer cannot create diverse characters? Or more importantly, how do we create culturally diverse stories and characters that are honest, appropriate and real? As a profession, writers and creators need to be having this discussion but at the moment, rhetoric from one side of the fence or the other is almost all I can find.

At the moment, it seems like writers are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.

Or is that just me?