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 They’re outdated.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?

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