Allison's Book Bag

Should We Let The Classics Die?

Posted on: December 22, 2015

A few years back I read an online article with the title: “Are children’s classics in danger of becoming obsolete?” In it, the author Laura Cummings referred to a survey which suggests that the books which our parents treasured are being almost completely ignored by today’s young people. She also included this quote: “The children’s bestseller list is dominated by modern literature. Books like Oliver Twist and The Wind in the Willows, which have been must-reads for generations, are getting dangerously close to extinction.”

The article reminded me of a post-graduate education class I took, where a teacher made the comment that he didn’t want to teach classics anymore because his students never showed any interest in them. Every year, I dedicate a month to reading and reviewing the classics. More often than not, my reading selections for favorites come from the classics. I’d hate to see classical literature disappear. Yet I often do wonder: Do young people read the classics anymore? And if not, should we care?

From my experience as an elementary-school teacher, my answer to that first question is mixed. The students whom I have taught certainly lack familiarity with a lot of standard literature. They don’t know fairy tales. Books such as Wizard of Oz, Anne of Green Gables, Chronicles of Narnia, or The Black Stallion are unknown works to them. If they do know stories such as Peter Pan, Bridge to Terabithia, Paddington Bear, or Because of Winn Dixie, it’s because they’ve seen the movie. Then again, they’re suprisingly familiar with authors such as Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, Gary Paulson, and Louis Sachar. Why? Because they’ve been read selections by these authors are school.

In my opinion then, classics are still being enjoyed. In fact, the aforementioned article goes on to make two points. First, only the lesser known classics aren’t selling as well. For example, a contrast is made between the sales of The Railway Children by E.B. Nesbit and The Enchanted Castle. Second, young people tend to read those classics which boast of a new cover design and interior illustrations. In other words, sometimes presentation helps.

The question still remains: Should we care? The aforementioned article makes the point that the important thing is that young people read. Ones are also quoted as saying that today’s literature, along with books of yesteryear, are top-notch. So, maybe it’s okay that classics aren’t as popular. On the other hand, when it comes to other areas of entertainment, I see that at least the collections of dedicated fans tend to include a mix of the old and the new. In reality, I see this with my students too. Those who fall for reading tend to know not just the name of Rick Riodan but also of Lloyd Alexander. So, maybe there’s also a case for continuing to ensure the classics are being introduced.

What’s your opinion?

8 Responses to "Should We Let The Classics Die?"

I think that there is a lot of reasons for the decline of the Western Literary Canon and some good reasons for newer books being used in schools today.

1) First of all, many of the authors of the Literary Canon are white males, and from upper-class society, and many were christian. This has caused a controversy among students from other backgrounds.

2) Next of all, many of the authors tend to promote society in the stories with a pro-colonial viewpoint, and some of the values in the stories did not respect the cultural diversity we have today and some employ discrimination against populations in the classic stories. Such discrimination was common at the time the stories were written but not practiced today, and as modern culture became more accepting of all cultural backgrounds, all races, all gender identities, all sexual orientations, etc this has debate on the values in the classes, as more students with these backgrounds attend school together.

3) As schools diversify, there is a call toward including more authors of different cultural backgrounds, different races, different genders, different sexual orientations, different religious backgrounds, members of the LGBTQ+ community, different socioeconomic statuses, persons with disabilities, and many other populations that are not represented by the current literary canon.

4) I would NOT ban books (in fact, I think they all need to be UNBANNED), nor would I prohibit the teaching of classics in school, but I do think that an expansion of the Literary Canon to include a diverse range of books and readings from a wide variety of social background including many authors from multiple cultural backgrounds, authors of different socioeconomic statuses, authors of many different religions, authors of all gender identities, authors of all sexual orientations, authors of color, authors with disabilities, and those with different viewpoints on a range of social, economic, and cultural issues in society.

Excellent points! Yes, I agree that students should be exposed to a diverse literary canon. Thank you for your thoughful answer.

What’s my opinion? The same as those quoted in the article and as yours, that “today’s literature, along with books of yesteryear, are top-notch” and that “there’s … a case for continuing to ensure the classics are being introduced.”

The only fiction books that I owned as a child were the mainly Christian ones that I was given on special occasions, but I got to read piles of other fiction books by borrowing them from town and school libraries. Based on that experience, when you were growing up I tried to provide you with the best of fiction–whether Christian, classic, or modern–by using guides to children’s books. Between us, we tried to do the same for Robert and Shekinah.

However I should note that of the three categories I referred to–Christian, classic, and modern–I prefer the first two: Christian because of the spiritual and moral values conveyed by them, and classic because they’ve stood the test of time. I’m more cautious about modern books because often they convey poor values and because they haven’t stood the test of time.

I do try to stay aware of modern selections. I read those books which prove popular with my students, although most of these titles I don’t purchase. When I attend the annual Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival, I buy a sampling of books to get signed. As the festival tries to bring in only established authors, so far I’ve mostly been happy with my purchases. Finally, every year our local library hosts a book sale. There, I grab a few books unfamiliar to me that I store in boxes until I can read and evaluate.

Thanks to your guidance, I grew up with a rich heritage in children’s classics. With rare exception, my shelves are filled with books written years ago for young people. Thank you for this gift!

PS I wonder if perhaps some older books lacked values, but that they simply fell out of print. It seems the best tend to stay around, even if just as used books.

“I wonder if perhaps some older books lacked values, but that they simply fell out of print. It seems the best tend to stay around, even if just as used books.” I think the same thing.

I think there’s definitely a case for keeping the classics… Young women who enjoy romances will often gravitate to Jane Austen if they are introduced to her writings. And there are many other similar examples, including the one you make with Rick Riordan and Lloyd Alexander. And I agree: updated covers often help.

One of my students began a fan of the Encyclopedia Brown series by Donald Sobel after being introduced to it in school. Another student, actually all on his own, discovered The Tripods series by John Christopher. They seem to view them with the same interest as the modern books, which reassures me that the classics can still feel current even to today’s young readers.

I’m so glad to hear that, how one book links to the next, no matter when it was published.

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