I’d planned on writing up some reviews for today, but Sarah Andersen posted the results of a survey she ran with her high school students and I couldn’t not talk about it. Go check out her post, “Are Teen Girls Seeing Themselves Reflected in What They Read?”
I love the questions she chose to ask, and I loved the variety of responses her girls shared. They want to see a range of girls reflected in what they’re reading. They want the romantic girls, they want the girls who are strong, and they want the girls who can be strong and romantic at the same time. They want shy girls and brave girls as much as they want girls who funny and sporty. They want a little of everything because they themselves are a little of everything.
What stood out to me, though, were the answers to questions five and six. The girls overwhelmingly noted that they’ve not seen themselves reflected in the books they’ve been assigned to read for school and whether or not female authors or female main characters they’ve been assigned have been memorable for them.
After reading this, I did some serious thinking about what I’d been assigned to read in high school and what sort of ratio there was between male authors who were assigned and female authors. The truth is, it wasn’t very many. The emphasis freshman, sophomore, and senior year was primarily focused on European lit — primarily from England, save for some non-English titles we were able to read senior year (we read Les Miserables and Crime and Punishment). Junior year was American literature year, though it wasn’t uncommon to see an American title other years as an extra.
When I think about the female authors we read, I initially could only come up with a couple. I remember reading Willa Cather both freshman and junior year — O Pioneers and My Antonia, respectively. I remember reading and doing a huge project on Emily Dickinson junior year as part of poetry month.
I also remember reading Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and reading Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome (which contrary to most people who read the book, I happened to love and pursued reading more Wharton after that). We read quite a few Flannery O’Connor short stories junior year, as well.
But beyond those titles, I can’t come up with other female authors I read. There was a Shakespeare play or two every year except when it was American lit year. I read a Dickens every year except when it was American lit year. American lit featured Stephen Crane, a pair of John Steinbeck titles, The Great Gatsby, The Scarlet Letter, The Crucible. Looking at those titles in particular, it’s interesting how few representations of female characters there are, and those which do exist aren’t exactly flattering. Out of curiosity, I pulled up the reading lists for my high school district today and they look remarkably the same as they did over a decade ago.
It wasn’t until college when what I read became a lot more diverse and incorporated far more female voices. But that was because I had a lot more choice in courses — my first class in undergrad was entirely on Franz Kafka, followed by courses on multicultural lit, Harlem Renaissance lit, contemporary poetry, early modern American lit (including Virginia Woolf, H. D., and Rebecca West and allowed a friend and I to create a feminist literary journal to fulfill a project requirement), Victorian lit (including Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and taught by a visiting professor who really got my tastes and recommended titles to me that I loved), and creative writing workshops which led me to Marilynne Robinson, as well as a variety of modern and contemporary poets beyond Emily Dickinson, who is the poet of choice for poetry units in school.
I think it’s important to read the classics. They’re canonical for a reason, and even debating what that reason is fruitful for diving deeper into the value of literature and why we read. But it’s sad to see how few females are brought to the table in standard curriculum, both as authors and as main characters. This isn’t about getting rid of the male voices. In many ways, those male representations of female characters is a juicy point of discussion in and of itself.
Why is it though that girls are reporting not recalling female authors or female characters in class reading? Why aren’t they seeing themselves in what’s being read? And why is it often that females who are represented in curriculum are those on the fringes — the ones who write short stories or poetry?
I was a huge reader in high school independently. I found myself in a lot of what I read independently, and maybe most notably, Megan McCafferty’s Jessica Darling. No, I wasn’t a runner. I didn’t have a best friend who I wrote letters to. I didn’t have the feelings about boys that she did. But I knew her voice and it was so similar to mine. She wasn’t the only, but she’s one that resonated with me and begged me to stick with her through to the end of the series (which neatly ended at nearly the same point I was in my life when it did).
But what about those girls who are only ever exposed to the books in their classrooms and assignments? Do they know what’s out there? I wonder about this because as much as we like to believe girls will find the books for themselves, not all girls are readers. Not all girls are eager readers. They can be reluctant, too, and if they’re not seeing themselves in the books they’re reading, they can begin to believe reading isn’t for them nor that they’ll never see themselves in a book.
I’m curious: what did you read in high school? Did you see yourself in anything that you were assigned to read? If so, what, and if not, when and where did you first see yourself? I am eager to hear from anyone on this question, and I’m interested in hearing, too, about the books written by or featuring female main characters you were assigned in school.
If you’re a teacher, I’d also be interested in what you’re teaching and how you may be supplementing or encouraging further reading. Are you doing anything to diversify what’s presented to your readers, even if it’s not assigned to them?
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).