Aftre Michael Gove announced the ‘banning’ of several iconic books for GCSE students a predictable and not entirely unwarranted torrent of abuse ensued and then alternative lists popped up – including the Guardian’s selection from notables. Oh, dear, what lists – full of self indulgence (Russell Brand) and complete ignorance of the teenage beast (nearly everyone else except for Hilary Mantel).
It is worth considering – what books should be experienced during the high school years, what should you read and know about as you grow and become who you are? After all those of us who dwell in the world of books know how we learn about ourselves and others from reading, as well as all the osmosis language skills we acquire simply from reading.
Should we agree with Michael Gove and eschew books from other countries, other cultures and be utterly xenophobic in our canon for the kiddies? What sort of citizens would we be brewing if we follow such a path? Others are asking this question and it is an important one to consider, given there is more truth in fiction than in history, given there is mandated focus on socio-historic-cultural baggage of the texts studied in school.
In my time in Australian schools we taught a broad range of texts from writers across the world, although perhaps we could have done better. But, there were a slew of excellent YA American novels by the likes of SE Hinton, Paul Zindel, Robert Cormier – so many kiddies loved The Chocolate War and I am the Cheese. I taught To Kill a Mockingbird alongside The Lord of the Flies. We had Animal Farm and Colin Thiele’s Storm Boy. But some of these dated – notably Colin Thiele and Lord of the Flies, or perhaps it became too English as we became more Australian and hade more home grown stuff to choose from, including Nick Earls, John Marsden, Isobel Carmody, Sonya Hartnet and Nadia Wheatley.
We were not starved for choice and indeed many of my happier moments were raging arguments in my departments about which books needed to go and which ones we now wanted in our book-rooms. Yes, schools where I chose what we would teach and then my teams chose from the range. Good times.
So, what might an All-Australian list look like?
For the Term of His Natural Life, Marcus Clarke
Capricornia, Xavier Herbert
We of the Never Never, Jeannie Gunn
The Eye of the Storm, Patrick White – there must be one White at least, as he is our only home-grown Nobel winner, no matter how inaccessible you think he is!!
A Fortunate Life, AB Facey
My Brilliant Career, Miles Franklin
Picnic at Hanging Rock, Joan Lindsay
Walkabout, James Vance Marshall
The Harp in the South, Ruth Park
A Town Like Alice, Neville Shute
The Man Who Loved Children, Christina Stead
Ride on Stranger, Kylie Tennant
Poetry of AB Paterson
Short stories from Henry Lawson
Oscar and Lucinda, Peter Carey
Gould’s Book Of Fish, Richard Flanangan
Monkey Grip, Helen Garner
Lilian’s Story, Kate Grenville
Maestro, Peter Goldsworthy
Fly Away Peter, David Malouf
Unreliable Memoirs, Clive James – entertaining memoir
My Place, Sally Morgan – important memoir
Fly Away Peter, David Malouf
Cloudstreet, Tim Winton
Carpentaria, Alexis Wright
Poetry by – Les A Murray, Gwen Harwood, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Bruce Dawe, Judith Wright, AD Hope, John Kinsella, John Tranter, Dorothy Porter
The One Day of the Year, Alan Seymour
The Club or The Removalists by David Williamson
Radiance, by Louis Nowra
The Obernewtyn serties, Isobel Carmody
48 Shades of Brown, Nick Earls
Looking for Alibrandi, Melinda Marchetta
Tomorrow when the war began, John Marsden
Lockie Leonard – Human Torpedo, Tim Winton
Sabriel, Garth Nix
The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
Classic Films (because films should be included too…)
Rabbit Proof Fence (based on true story)
Gallipoli (based on letters from the front)
Mad Max (just because…)
What would this highly personal selection tell us about being Australian? That women are valued in our canon, that there are Aboriginal voices (although there is an argument there should be more). There are few immigrant voices, but I have been away from home for a while and not as up to speed with recent developments… What would these stories tell us about ourselves? Do we not need texts from other countries, other voices in our heads to tell us about the world and how to live?
When I taught English Lit in the NT the texts were King Lear, The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night and 1000 lines of poetry, which was taken from an Australian anthology. So there was representation from three countries, different times and places, classics and moderns. Perhaps there should have been more classic Oz-Lit at that level, perhaps there is now. When I taught English Communications in Tasmania we embraced other cultures much better and taught The God of Small Things and Jhumpa Lhahiri’s collection of short stories alongside Radiance and some non-fiction texts.
From my list – extensive but not exhaustive you can plainly see we have as Australians a rich and long standing literary heritage from which to create a bespoke English curriculum but I am not sure this is wise. I think it would shame us in many cases, it would reinforce some of our less admirable characteristics and much and all as people might breath a sigh of relief at the absence of Shakespeare or the Romantic Poets, or Dickens, what would an English education be without a smattering of good writing, of the classics from across the world?
It is always wrong to ban books, or attempt to modify people’s reading, be they teenagers or adults. Reading books, reading fiction is one of those activities that is dying fast amongst the young. What is beholden on the powers that be is to promote texts that engage and excite and mix in the classics, from across the world. A country like the UK should be outward looking, to learn from reading, to be anything but xenophobic and nationalistic in your curriculum.
Remember there is more truth in fiction than in any other book, perhaps that’s why people want to burn them and ban them and why writers are often considered with suspicion…
What do you remember from your school days? What would you want students to be reading in High School? (Images courtesy Google Images)