Paul W. Hankins remembers vaguely reading “The Grapes of Wrath” in high school, the same way he remembers vaguely reading “The Great Gatsby.” “That fake reading,” he recalls with a laugh. “Where you sat in class long enough to get the gist of the story enough to get through the assigned essay marginally well.”
His perfunctory approach to the classics was not, in the end, an indication of his appetite for reading. Today he teaches English to high school juniors at Silver Creek High School in Sellersburg, Ind., where he surrounds himself and his students with literary gems — many of them written in his students' lifetime.
John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men," yes. But also David Stahler's "Spinning Out" (2011) and Libba Bray's "Going Bovine" (2009).
"It doesn't have to be either/or — either canon or contemporary," Hankins says. "You have to allow books to be that bridge between the two."
Hankins is among a small but growing group of educators who agitate for contemporary young adult literature to be incorporated into the required reading curriculum in high schools. Mandatory reading lists, long the domain of Dickens and Steinbeck and Melville, are compiled largely at the discretion of individual schools. Nowhere is it written that a student has to have read "Othello" and "Beowulf" to graduate high school.
"The state sets standards and best practices, but we don't dictate the details of what books are required reading," says Mary Fergus, spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education.
Even within districts, reading lists often vary. At Chicago Public Schools, for example, individual high schools try to tailor their required reading to suit the student body's needs, says spokeswoman Murielle Sainvilus.
"Lists vary school-to-school," Sainvilus says. "CPS does not have a centrally developed reading list."
Nationally, reading lists are as varied as the student bodies reading them and the regions in which those students dwell, says Jack Martin, president of the Young Adult Library Services Association.
"It's really a mix of everything from lists of the same books students have always read to some schools where teachers are also looking for recently published historical fiction titles, Printz Award winners, new nonfiction titles," says Martin. "I've seen lists as varied as 'Twilight' and the 'Gossip Girl' books to 'The Color Purple' and 'The Catcher in the Rye.'"
Martin's organization works with school librarians, public librarians and reading advocates to improve young people's access to quality reading material. Which is, in effect, what Hankins and his ilk are doing as well — providing access.
"Libba Bray is writing some of the most ambitious, explorative looks at history I've read," says Hankins. "Her new book, 'The Diviners,' is young adult literature set in a time period — the roaring '20s — that I can tell you right now is going to allow me to marry her book to 'The Great Gatsby.'
"When I select books for my students," he says. "I want them to be ladders in and out of classic texts that complement or make reference to or even replicate the canonized texts."
Which is exactly the approach Teri Lesesne, executive director of the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents, would like to see more teachers adopt.
"There's a wonderful book, 'From Hinton to Hamlet: Building Bridges between Young Adult Literature and the Classics,' that says, 'OK, here are some broad themes of classic literature and here are some contemporary books we can use to build kids up,'" Lesesne says. "Here's a Don Quixote story we can tie in to show them the themes and the conceits that are part of a Don Quixote novel so when they get to 'Don Quixote,' it won't be so difficult for them."
Lesesne helped conduct a study five years ago that looked at how school reading lists had changed since the 1970s. In the '70s, she says, the lists were made up of Shakespeare and centuries-old classics. "The most contemporary was either 'The Catcher in the Rye' or 'To Kill a Mockingbird,'" she recalls.
Three decades later?
"Nothing much had changed," she said. "You'd see a couple titles of authors of color — Langston Hughes, Sandra Cisneros — but you'd still see a tendency to lean mostly toward classics."