Saturday, November 29, 2008

Must NOT Read List For Elementary School (Books That Were Once Great But Have Become Irrelevant)

Today's topic is about, as the title suggests, books that should not be read in the classroom. Now, I do have a side note on this one. I'm not just picking out horrible books, because there's many of those, too many to keep count, millions actually. This post is about books that were once great, or are still put on "must read" lists even though they're irrelevant, out of touch with today's child, or just hokie altogether at this point. So let's get to it. This could also be titled "The Great Classic Book Roast."

  • Little House on the Prairie: This applies to that entire series. I realize that these books were once considered the single greatest thing ever, and many teachers still hold on to them and use them in the classroom. In fact, in the 4th grade level of the current edition of the Scott Foresman basal reader that my district uses, excerpts of Little House in the Prairie can be found. WHY IT'S TRASH: I read this book in 4th grade, and hated every second of it. That was in 1990. Add 18 years to this, and that's about how kids today for the most part feel about this book. It's from a different time, and if you're reading it for historical perspective, there are much more meaningful ways to go about that.
  • Sarah, Plain and Tall: OK, this isn't really fair. Sarah, Plain and Tall and Little House on the Prairie are very similar books. This book is another outdated story that has no relevance to today's kids. WHY IT'S TRASH: See what I wrote for Little House on the Prairie, right down to the basal thing.
  • To Kill A Mockingbird: Wow, I'm going to take some heat for this one, but I had to do it. The book does impart some important racial situations and big issues of Harper Lee's time. I had two copies of this book on my classroom bookshelf, and in three years it was checked out twice, neither student finished the book. I found, from talking to them, that the story actually didn't seem to make sense. WHY IT'S TRASH: Popular literary theories about reading methodology tell us that children should find cultural connections with stories for them to be meaningful. This is even more important to marginalized children (socio-economic, language, race, ethnicity, and whatever else you could add to this list). This story is a classic, and is a book that I have a lot of respect for, but it's no longer a good mainstay in the classroom, there are other books that can be read that will have more meaning in our time.
  • Where the Red Fern Grows: This is another classic that put me to sleep when I was in school. It sits, to this day, untouched on my classroom shelf and in the library, where it hasn't been checked out in over 7 years (I checked). WHY IT'S TRASH: It's irrelevant, doesn't hold interest anymore, and is actually a little dated in many ways.
  • Tikki Tikki Tembo: I'm going primary on this one. I actually used to read this book to pre-schoolers when that was where I taught. In those early literate stages, children enjoy rhyming books. Dr. Seuss is more appropriate than this book, which now borders on culturally inappropriate and dated. What is this 1945? WHY IT'S TRASH: All Chinese people have ridiculously long names. Yao Ming? 7 letters, end of story.

I'm going to stop this there before I start listing all of your favorite books from the past. I want to end with my theory as to why these books continue to end up on lists of teachers favorite books each year (the NEA puts out a list every year where teachers vote, and other organizations do this as well).

These books continue to stay on these lists because many teachers don't actually know of too many other books. They're teaching what they were taught, which is, if you read me and pay attention, highly inappropriate, because times are different, kids are different, and instruction should be different in order to meet those new needs in a new world. Ask teachers who do read the books that their classes read, those who have knowledge in the field, and those lists will change greatly.

**I offer a more in depth discussion of Little House on the Prairie, in response to comments from this post. Please see that post (December 3rd): Another Look at the Downfall of Once Classic Book Little House on the Prairie**


rams said...

Wouldn't it be more to the point to say that just because the protagonist is a child does not make a book a children's book? To Kill a Mockingbird is a jaw-dropping masterpiece and the farthest thing from a children's book. "Inappropriate," you betcha. "Trash" -- step outside.

(As to Wilder, I'd go for The Long Winter, myself.)

david elzey said...

While I don't necessarily disagree with some of the books on this list, I think it wold be helpful (and informative) to list some of these "other books" that "have more meaning in our time." Especially if those books truly can replace these classics.

There are plenty of kids out there who didn't hate every second of Little House, and plenty of libraries where Red Fern is actively checked out (and not because it's assigned) so without alternatives it's difficult to take this list seriously

The Buss said...

Ram and David,

I honestly can't disagree with what either of you say. I'll try to go back into this topic in another post and make some suggestions for other books that I prefer in place of these books (I don't want to amend this post, I like to keep them in their original form). I'm sorry that you don't feel you can take it seriously without suggestions, I'll definitely work on that.

Rams, I think you said it much more precisely about To Kill A Mockinbird than I did by saying that it's maybe more appropriate to label it as a teen or adult read, but where I cam from in this was the fact that I've seen teachers choose it on the assumption that it is children's literature, out of ignorance or laziness more than anything else (a lot of my posts actually come from this perspective).

I'm actually surprised that this post has gotten the attention it has. How fun though, I love the contrast that comes from other points of view. Thank you both for sharing, if you have more you want to discuss (or have suggestions for improvement or future topics) please feel free to share.

Jacqui said...

I have to agree on these, though I think To Kill a Mockingbird is worth reading as an adult. I think the question is why spend time on these, great as they may be considered, when there are so many other fabulous books that speak right to kids of today. We all have limited time and budgets.

I will admit I wanted to throw myself out the window when I tried to read Little House aloud to my daughter. There's only so much on gun-cleaning and meat-smoking I can stand.

david elzey said...

See, now this is why I keep wanting examples of substitutions. Recently my daughter's school had one of those school-wide book club things where the entire grade read a single book and then had a night where students and parents could come and discuss it. The book chosen was Becoming Naomi Leon by Pam Munoz Ryan.

What struck me about it was how it seemed like an inferior imitation of Katherine Patterson's The Great Gilly Hopkins. When mentioned this casually to a librarian she said "Well, kids don't get into Gilly much any more because it feels a little stale." Plus, it turns out, Gilly was apparently too "white" where the school was concerned with presenting a more "culturally diverse" title.

So is that where things stand? We offer up weak imitations of other books because, classic or not, it's more important to cover the bases and keep kids engaged rather than teach the lessons? Should cultural diversity trump good writing?

As a side note, on the night of the discussion I noticed that 90% of the kids who attended were girls. When I suggested that Becoming Naomi Leon offered nothing engaging for male readers, and that it might explin why there were so few boys present, I was met with blank stares. Clearly the idea of taking into account the interest of one half of the school's population never occurred to anyone.

I'll second that Mockingbird is appropriate for elementary schools. Seriously, do people not understand what makes a title appropriate? Where did they get their training?

Carl said...

Hey, I'm very sorry but I have to diasgree with you about the Little House books. We read them out loud to our daughter when she was six and both she and we couldn't get enough of them! We read through the whole series (except for the last one because it was so sad) and went on to the related series by MacBride because we just had to know all about these characters! This was not just history; these were absorbing stories
about people we cared about. And irrelevant? Stories about basic, decent people trying to make it in difficult economic times? You tell me.

Charlotte said...

This would be more fun to talk about face to face :) but, that being impossible, I posted a response at my place...

ecochic said...

To Kill a Mockingbird NEVER belonged in an elementary or middle school classroom. I read it in high school honors English, where I would argue it still belongs. In terms of Little House, I absolutely devoured those books in third grade - but I read them by choice, not because they were assigned. While I loved them, I wouldn't want to require their reading, because I'm not sure they have broad enough appeal. Most books don't.

Instead of taking books off the list, though, why don't we expand the list and give students more options to select the book that is right for them? Literature circles are a great way to get everyone reading something they enjoy and the teacher approves.

The Buss said...


Becoming Naomi Leon is a mainstay down here in the southwest, along with Pam Muñoz Ryan's other highly popular book Esperanza Rising. While I think Esperanza Rising is a good book, I have to agree with your statement about Becoming Naomi Leon, it isn't a great book, it's simply a familiar tale told in an ethnic way. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that, but just because it's diverse doesn't make it superior.

The Buss said...


I realized when writing this post that there are people out there who absolutely love these books. Please take what I wrote in context, I'm talking about the classroom, not your child. I have to disagree with what you said, while these books WERE absorbing stories, I have found, in my own practice, that this doesn't hold for the majority of students today, and personally, I hate them. You have your opinion, I have mine, and that's what makes reading so great. Thanks for sharing.

The Buss said...


You make a very strong point about expanding the book list as opposed to removing books. My own class library is rather large, but I needed to do some spring cleaning, and Little House went the way of the Dodo in my classroom. I never had To Kill A Mockingbird on my shelf, and never will unless I teach high school lit/comp at some point.

Thank you for commenting, what you said is exactly right.

Debbie Reese said...

Hello fellow New Mexican! I'm from Nambe Pueblo, got my BA at UNM in the 80s, taught at Douglas MacArthur for a few months then went on for a master's in school admin at OU.

I've got a blog you might want to take a look at...

American Indians in Children's Literature

The Buss said...

For a more critical perspective on Little House on the Prairie, please read Laura Ingalls Wilder's LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, a post from Debbie Reese's blog American Indians in Children's Literature. Her perspective is much more critical historically and ethnically, and should be taken into account as well. I actually didn't reference or even consider anything from a critical Native perspective when putting Little House in my roast.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the post. I’d like to add two observations about books in school. The first is that many books have shelf space because there isn’t anything to replace them with. For example, a class set is a large investment for a school, so replacing a copy or two each year seems reasonable, but money for ‘new books’ is hard to wrest from the powers that be. ‘Trashing’ a book – literally consigning it to the dustbin – is at odds with the prevailing economic reality of most schools.

Second, I want to agree that an astounding proportion of teachers do not read. I know this because my wife is a literacy staff developer working in elementary schools, and when she polls participants, about a third describe themselves as readers. The other two thirds don’t identify as readers. This is deeply problematic for many reasons, not the least of which is that non-readers can’t evaluate texts and must rely on others to validate their choices.

david elzey said...

I have to confess, as a teacher I often could not read because I was consumed with classroom prep, paper grading, etc.

One of the things I realized only after I left teaching was how little time I had for anything else, which was one of the contributing factors toward my getting out. I felt I was doing the students a disservice because I just didn't have enough hours in the days, weeks, months to keep up with giving them a quality education. I was already supplementing my classroom financially to the extent that I had to work during the summers, which did not allow me the opportunities I would have liked to ready myself for the coming year.

It's just one things piled atop another that fails our school systems. More broke that our banking system and manufacturing, education doesn't need reform or an overhaul; it needs to be reinvented whole, from the ground up, and that change must be committed to and not subject to political whims.

A total diversion, but there you go.

The Buss said...

I'm going to address the above Anonymous comment and David Elzey's as well, because they are closely related.

First, on to what David said:
You are completely right, the school system is broken, and teachers too often find themselves caught up in a job that follows them home at nights and on weekends. There is not enough planning time during the day, and too often "planning time" is taken over by staff meetings and other pointless things that do nothing but suck time out of the day. It's not so much a diversion from the original topic to talk about this because it's another side of the story.

Now, Anonymous took this into the direction of saying that teachers should know before doing. This is 100% true, and in fact, I'm already writing a near future post about this fact. Teachers have to stop picking books of the shelf because they sound neat or have a great cover, or just because they're on topic with the current unit of study. The other thing teachers MUST STOP doing is making curriculum choices based on what they experienced in school, this is an inappropriate and lazy approach to education. BUT, as David said, there's not time, it's hard to take home these books and read them, it's hard to learn new approaches, to find new ways to teach things, and teachers have every right to refuse to not do more, because after all, we have contract hours and aren't obligated beyond them.

I would never argue that teachers "owe it" to society to put in brutal hours outside of the job in job related things, they have lives too. I actually never take papers home, and do all of my planning during work hours, it's an ethical issue for me. I do most of my reading during vacations, I don't have a lot of free time (as most) to read for pleasure during the middle of the semester. Good comments both of you, thanks for furthering this discussion.

Ms. Yingling said...

I do think that schools tend to use books much longer than they are relevant (The Iceberg Hermit? Bridge to Terebithia?)and of interest to students. This limits older titles' use as class sets, but often money is limited for replacements. That said, Where the Red Fern Grows was my daughter's absolute favorite in 5th grade, and remains popular in my library. All of Wilder is a tough sell, but the fans of historical fiction do still love them. This is why it is important for teachers and librarians to keep reading. Thanks for insightful comments.