Saturday, 31 May 2014

Of Mice and Men and American Novels

So my non-English readers may not know that the Education Minister (a fanatical little twerp called Michael Gove) has been micro-managing the English education system again, namely changing the books studied by 15 year olds. He has removed a lot of American fiction and replaced it with books by British authors.

Michel Gove knitted pin cushion
Micheal Gove looks pretty much like this...
This has got a lot of people up in arms 'cos one of the main things reading can (and should) do for us is open our minds to different view points and teach us things about different time periods, different cultures, genders etc.

I learnt all I know about English history from reading historical novels while living in New Zealand (so yes, some of the details are a bit confused). Through reading I learnt about what it's like to live as a young aboriginal girl, as a 'bright young thing' in the 1920s, as a child during World War II, as a prisoner is a Russian gulag, as a private investigator in Singapore, as a poor farmer in the Great Depression in America and much more.

You may be able to guess that I was (and still am to a lesser extent) a prolific reader. I was also a secondary school English teacher so I read a range of 'set texts' and other teenage fiction. My experience and research shows that the vast majority of teenagers only pick up a book if forced to at school. It's a phenomenon - when they turn 14, they stop reading fiction (especially the boys).

So, what kids read and study at school is pretty important because it may well be the only books they read that year and may even encourage or discourage ongoing reading habits. As a teacher, I found that if kids enjoyed what we were reading in class, many of them could be encouraged to read around the novel by picking similar authors, similar topics or more books by the same author.

Personally, I can't stand John Steinbeck. I just can't be doing with his depressed world-view. As a precocious 13 year old, I got an A on an essay castigating 'The Pearl' as a novel where things just went from bad to worse for the characters. However, Steinbeck does write books that are at a reasonably easy reading level, have clear themes and are well-written. Removing 'Of Mice and Men' from the curriculum is a stupid mistake if you ask me.

And as for 'To Kill a Mockingbird'! It is a very oddly structured novel, but it's strangely gripping. The theme is still vitally important and Atticus Finch is a fantastic role model. That book should definitely stay and it would make a great link with a history unit looking at racism in America and the UK between the wars.

So what's my point? I guess I'm saying that teenagers should be exposed to fiction from a range of contexts. And Micheal Gove is a twerp. 

 What's your favourite American novel? One of my top ten is 'St Agnes Stand' by Thomas Eidson (check it out if you haven't already read it).

What do you think about countries emphasising their own literature over world literature?

Also, if  you've got a teenager of your own (or know one), here's a handy guide to encourage their reading.


  1. Catcher in the Rye is one of my favourites. I"m sure the UK education secretary would not approve. Literary ethnic cleansing.

  2. I really couldn't understand what everyone sees in Catcher in the Rye - but I'll defend to the death anyone's chance to study it!

  3. I can't stand John Steinbeck either! My favourite American writer is Edith Wharton. Worlds apart and yet both American! Shocking.

    I am bewildered by Michael Gove. I can only assume he's trying to appeal to the xenophobic UKIP-esque voter, but he's going about it Chairman Mao style. It makes me sad, angry, and very worried.


    1. Hi Phillippa, I'm with you on the sad, angry and worried front. I'm also amazed that he has as much power as he seems to have. And thankful I'm no longer a teacher and that I don't have kids to try and shepherd through this minefield. Still, I do snark from the sidelines and try to raise awareness of what's going on.

  4. Okay You did it. I've long (LONG) felt guilty that I haven't read To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee is from my state, even! I also was a voracious reader as a child but somehow never read this one. But I just ordered it from Amazon because it must be remedied.

    My favorite American Author growing up was Madeleine L'Engle (A Wrinkle In Time, et al.) My favorite British Author, C.S. Lewis - as obvious as that one is, it's true.

    1. I *love* L'Engle with my heart! And C.S. Lewis too. It never occurred to me to think about where the authors I read were from, except for the New Zealand ones because they were fairly rare. Margaret Mahy is probably our most famous childrens/ Young Adult author. I think she won a Newberry Medal. Lovely stuff - you can find it on Amazon. I had 'The Lion in the Meadow' as a young child.

      With 'To Kill a Mockingbird' read it on a day when you don't have much else to do and just relax into its meanderings. It kind of drifts off course a bit towards the middle, but it slides back into a kick-ass ending so stay with it!


I get really excited when I shout into the void and the void says "hello" back at me. Thanks for your comments!