Friday, December 4, 2009

Discussion: Does YA Lit Belong in Classrooms?

The latest thing to stir up the YA lit and education communities is the removal of some YA books being taught alongside classics in a college preparatory English class at Montgomery County High School in Kentucky. Many of the parents and administration argue that the books are not intellectual enough to be taught in a class that's supposed to prepare intelligent and academically prone students for college. For more detail, check out the article here.

Now, a blogger by the name of Martin has been posting about the issue. His first post on Monday was titled The Banning of Academic Rigor: Anti-censorship groups now calling enforcement of curriculum standards "censorship", in which he argued that "popular teen books" have should not be given the same academic consideration as canonized classics such as Dostoyevsky, Conrad, James, and Steinbeck because they discuss "petty" things such as high school dating, zits, puberty, and crushes. His next related post, Do you have to have read a book to say anything about it at all? More on the Montgomery County "censorship" case, further stresses the fact that students in college prep courses should not waste their time with teen literature, focusing instead on the classics for collegiate preparation, and that students who require modern, popular, or teen literature to be engaged in class do not belong in a college prep class in the first place. His running argument is that classics have withstood the test of time and have been given the thumbs-up from millions of people over decades; why should we even bother with books whose literary presence may be virtually nonexistent in five years?

I read blog posts like Martin's because I like to see where both sides of the debate are coming from before presenting my own arguments. It's important to surround yourself with people who share your opinions, beliefs, and values, but it is just as important to open yourself up to the incendiary feelings and indignation caused by hearing the other side. Too often I read or hear heated comments made in the moment by offended debators who have not stopped to seriously consider the other side's argument, and who construct their own comments in ways that lend no support or credibility to their own side. The best debators succeed because they know their opponent almost as well as they do themselves, which is why I urge you all to read as much as you can about both sides of this argument, to fully see what part you may play in the debate. Those who believe that YA books do not belong in the classroom are not our "enemies:" our job is not to talk trash about them or yell at them. Our goal is to promote open-mindedness and an acknowledgement that our side is as equally justified as theirs. Closed minds, not groups or individuals with opposing beliefs, are our "enemy," and that goes for both sides of the debate.

Educator E. D. Hirsch, author of the What Your # Grader Needs to Know series, believes that everyone should be given a solid foundation of common knowledge to draw from, and I agree to an extent. Where would we (and by "we" I mean Americans in this instance) be if we did not all understand the conception and evolution of the Constitution? if people did not know for what reason the Civil War was fought? if no one had at least a basic knowledge of Shakespeare and what he wrote? if the times tables, addition, subtraction, and how to calculate interest were not essential knowledge?

It is along those lines that we do have a literary canon, a list of essential works that we encourage all students to have some information on. It would be nice if everyone got to read all of those books, but, like Martin said, one does not necessarily have to read the book in its entirety to grasp its meaning. I highly doubt I'm going to read another Steinbeck book, and I sure as heck didn't finish Heart of Darkness because it almost literally gave me stomach ulcers, it was so painful to stomach, but hey, I get the gist. I know that the whale in Moby Dick stands for something-something lalala. I know that Henry James ushered in a new era in writing style and themes. And I know that Brave New World and 1984 are dystopian novels (though I will forever call into question Huxley's writing ability).

So now we've established that there is a literary canon that most people should be aware of, and that school is a really good place to learn about those works. However, the most common misconception of schools is that education is completely separate from the real world. Tradition has established that there be an established basic curriculum that schools must cover, relevance be damned. Most tests do not measure retention and comprehension; that is why so many students can--and do--cram for tests, only to forget everything they ever learned about that subject within 24 hours of taking the test. That is why standardized tests such as the SAT have their worth constantly being called into question. What is it measuring? Academic aptitude--or a student's aptitude in cramming strategies? Intellectual achievement--or the level of a kid's achieving temporary absorption of the strategies needed to take the test? No--at this point the A in SAT stands for nothing, which is kind of darkly amusing and indicative.

Why should an institution that has so much responsibility and influence over a child's upbringing be thus detached from real world application? An appallingly high percentage of students nowadays find school completely useless. My own brother's educational mantra has become, "Why are we even studying this anyway? I have no use for this." We have been brought up with the belief that the literary canon is something that we all should know--but along the way, we forgot why it's important, why it was canonized. Why, it's important because many people over the years have said so! one may argue. It was canonized because it withstood the test of time! Well...uh....yeah, but why did it withstand the test of time?

It's not a problem with the texts, people like Martin would then say, but rather a problem with the way the teacher is presenting the material. Perhaps. I don't deny that there are some awful teachers out there who don't deserve their tenure or their positions. But when the majority of students out there find their English class required reading lists irrelevant, then we must overhaul our thinking of the educational system. We cannot simply assume that students in college prep classes are in those classes because they understand, appreciate, and like the material. Do you realize how many students out there unwillingly force themselves into Honors and AP classes because they've had it drilled into their heads by all facets of society that if they don't get on the college prep track, they will never get into a good college and thus will not succeed in life? Hidi & Renninger have done extensive research on the relationship between interest, motivation, and expression of interest, and their four-phase model of interest development is as follows:
  1. triggered situational interest
  2. maintained situational interest
  3. emerging individual interest
  4. well-developed individual interest
It may come as a shock to many people that many students in college prep classes fall into Phase 2: maintained situational interest. Students in this phase often get good grades. They know what is expected of them from assignments and tests, and work really hard to satisfy those who have assigned them. They do all that is required of them to do well in the class. They emerge from school with high GPAs and an appalling lack of passion or drive for anything beyond making the authorities happy and working through the system. Sound familiar? I know I had a lot of them as classmates back in high school.

The goal of education is not to create armies of zombies who acquiesce to the status quo and, while transcribing corporate documents or crunching numbers, believe that the way things were and are is the way things should be forever. Education is not a field of study similar to math and most sciences, where, once something is proven to be true, it can remain as fact for hundreds of years, and maybe even for all time. Even educational practices in place five years ago seem woefully out of date today. In education, success does not mean adherence to traditional methods. It means bringing out the best in each student. Acknowledging that there are individual as well as generational differences. Fostering a mind open to change and new ideas. Education equals change, and we want students to ask questions, to speak up if they disagree with something, and to accept that there are different sides to every story.

Smartly chosen YA books close the gap between school and real life, and encourage students to make connections and to take personal interest in things. Read the classics alone, discuss them within the context of the classroom, and students are more likely to feel apathetic about the works, dispassionate about reading and learning in general. Read the classics alongside similar contemporary works that are relevant to students' lives and feelings, and suddenly the "old" stuff takes on significance. I'm not a Shakespeare fan, yet I am constantly surprised and impressed at the many ways in which Shakespeare has manifested itself into our modern culture, without our knowledge.

A huge mistake is in assuming that only those works that have withstood the test of time are worth studying. This gives students the impression that childhood, schooling, and adolescence are only preparations for the Ultimate Crowning Glory of Adulthood, and that you have to be old to make a difference. Contemporary YA lit shows these students that it's okay to feel all those teenage insecurities and make those mistakes that seem awful the day after, but become fodder for laughter in a few months. Those who oppose YA lit trivialize the intelligence of teenagers, and those teens that have been bombarded with this kind of thinking grow up to be either the close-minded, loud-mouthed adults who believe that the success of their passage through adolescence makes everything they say the only way things can be, or else they become the feeble workers with the hunched corners sitting in corners and always fearing to speak up.

There is the mistaken association that things related to teens = bad/unimportant/valueless, and that contemporary books = low-quality/fluff/garbage. There is also the impression that the only books that belong in academia are those with "adult" themes, chosen by adults who believe their children should learn the things and the way they did. I think the biggest--and most important--voice missing from this debate, however, is the voice of those Kentucky high school students in Risha Mullins' class. What did they gain from the inclusion of YA texts on their reading lists? If they found that the "contemporary teen books," as Martin says so disdainfully, have actually bettered their relationship with and understanding of the classics and learning, then that's really all the data you need. YA literature is not attempting to lower the quality of literature; rather, considered in conjunction with canonized works, it may serve to enhance the reading and learning experience.

It's high time that the adults who have been the ones constructing curriculum requirements and composing the required reading lists take a step back, and allow the opinions and desires of the students to be heard. After all, progress in education means change, and who better than those whom we are trying to educate to become the change-makers of the present and future?


  1. Wow. Very impressive argument, Steph!

    I know I fell into the "maintained situational interest" category in high school. I'm an author, and I'm embarrassed to admit I hardly read an assigned book in HS--yet I got As in AP English. I learned how to navigate the academic system, while reading YA books on the side.

    Now as an adult, I've gone back and read many of those classics. But I think if I had had a teacher who incorporated them with books I found more relevant to my life, I probably would have read the assigned classics then before turning in my essays. :)


  2. AMEN.

    This is great. I agree with every point you have put forward here and I definitely think that contemporary fiction and contemporary young adult fiction should be included in the classroom. I did that reading on my own, but I was certainly in the minority. Generally we had a very interesting reading list, but there was so much that could be added to it. Excellent job, I want to send this to everyone I know.

  3. Excellent post!

    I think another flaw in the "classics only" argument is that many readings lists only seem to consider books that are told from a certain perspective- cultural, racial, socioeconomic, whatever- to truly be classics. One thing I found that was very different between college prep literature classes (which I took) and actual college literature classes (which I also took) was that there was a much wider scope of authors represented in college. Granted, college prep classes can't be expected to cover ever significant work ever written by anyone, but the faces of who attends our schools has changed and it's only appropriate that the reading lists change with them.

    I also think that there are ways, through the curriculum in general and through specific, well-designed assignments, to ensure that students are not only getting exposure to classical works but are also getting exposed to contemporary literature as well. I think that currently many students either skim, google, or just skip reading the assigned books, which kind of makes what books are assigned irrelevant. What academic value is there in writing about or talking about a book you haven't read?

    What Book is That?

  4. I love YA lit, but I also love the classics (Heart of Darkness and 1984 are two of my favorites actually).

    I am of the mind that a little (or in my case a lot) of both is a good thing. Certainly a purpose of formal education is to introduce you to the "big ideas" found in tried and true literature, but encouraging a love of reading via quality modern novels and promoting discussion of themes within is also incredibly important.

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  7. Diana: That's exactly what I'm worried about, all those maintained situational interest people becoming disengaged from the work. Why don't administrators consider the students' interests and needs while making up the curriculum? It would make so much sense to have relevant literature to connect to, like you said.

    Lu: Please do! lol. Send it to all those nay-sayers. :)

    Emily: You're right that most canonical works do have a particular "lens." Very little has been done regarding research into the nuances of canonization. The "perspective" trend occurs in all sorts of literature, though. The YA lit that tends to be used in classrooms often have a particular issue or important theme. Perhaps there is a connection between possible academic merit and perspective/lenses?

    Lenore: You're right, and I absolutely agree with you. I guess that from this post I make myself sound like I didn't enjoy the classics. In fact, with perhaps the exception of American lit, I greatly enjoyed most of the classics that I got to read for school. I also agree with you that people should read a little (or a lot) of both. Knowledge of the classics has certainly come in handy for me at many times! However, you and I might be in the minority, and I think the problem is how to reach those students who did not enjoy the classics as much as we did. It's good we know this, and we're not saying things like, "But WE read and enjoyed those books in school, so obviously THEY should do the same as well." Assuming that future generations of students are like the best and worst of ourselves is another common educational mistake.

  8. Brava! This is an excellent argument, so well-thought out and so well-written. I keep wanting to write more here, but you've already said it and more eloquently than me. Thank you! I'll be filing this post away for future thought and use.

  9. You know, strangly enough, I can't think of a single example of a classic I did not enjoy in school. Well, wait, there was this one short story by Thomas Mann that I hated because I didn't get it. But I read it again recently, and I loved it. So I always encourage people who didn't like the classics in school to give them a chance later in life.

  10. Lenore: I think either you have a generous and broad taste in literature, or else you had a fantastic teacher and class that really encouraged the classics and made them relevant to you. I'm envious! We need more of those environments and people in the world. :)

  11. Steph, I love the points you make. Its hard for me to say if I'd want YA in the high school literature classes because...well...back in high school, I was that girl who read every assigned reading from 4th to 12th grade 2 or 3 years prior. So for me, rereading that classic in school was fun because I had enjoyed it before. I read YA on the side as well as LOTS of "adult" novels (The Red Tent and White Oleander). I feel that everything is important to read. Its important to be bored during 1984, but then maybe love Jane Eyre. But you can also love Prada and Prejudice. lol. The point is, I think its important to read the classics in school. I DO think, though, that if a student has to do an essay on a book of their choice, then they should absolutely 100% have the right do it on Fairy Tale or Prada and Prejudice or Brightly Woven.
    I hope I'm making a bit of sense. :-) I always feel like I am just rambling and rambling on!

    Rachel S (

  12. I always find the American school structure really bizarre compared to my own experiences. Yes, our schools in the UK do have a set curriculum that needs to be covered within a certain time frame, but in our English Literature classes or even English Language classes, we were never given a set list of books that needed to be read. We once read Northern Lights. We once had to watch the Thriller music video over and over and then write our own analogies.

    The one classic book we did read though was Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor, which is essentially a childrens book. I can remember reading that one book the most out of all the others. Yes, we had to write an essay about Shakespeares Hamlet, but it was up to us to decide how we did that. We could rent the video or actually read the play. Truth be told, most of us read the play. I think our approach to learning is a lot more flexible and understanding. Some 15 year old children are not going to want to read heavy weight classics, and by being given that choice, we felt like adults and rose to the occasion and chose the book.

    I think there just needs to be a balance. Yes, I do agree that some of the classics are important in learning set criteria, however, reading is not suppoed to be a chore, its supposed to be a hobby, so by injecting something they can relate to into the curicculum would make the sudents more happy and at ease. I for one would not like to be pressured into reading a book I didn't want to, because what would be the point? I wouldnt take anything out of it, so its a waste of time.

    To try and keep my comment to a minimum, nearly all of my friends whilst we were in school were readers. We all read Shakespeare and Ian McEwan, heck, we even read George Orwell and Harper Lee. But, the difference is we did this by choice and by doing so got so much more from these literary master pieces than we would have done if they were assigned projects. So, yes I do understand the importance of said books, but still to this day I remember our teacher reading us Northern Lights and Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry than any of the other books we studied. And they are both childrens books, and why, because I related to the characters more.

  13. Hear, hear! I was a random and disorganized reader through elementary school, then fell into Every Fantasy I Could Get My Hands On in middle school. In high school I largely STOPPED reading because of so much pressure to read the "classics" in my literature classes. Ugh! I wasn't ready to enjoy them and I couldn't relate to most of them. Even the science fiction was only mildly interesting. Students need books they can relate to, in order to fire their love of learning and reading!

  14. Very interesting post, Steph.

    I think that essentially the books that are taught in high schools should teach students about a myriad of different forms, narrative styles, types of narrator, subject matter etc. In this sense, it doesn't matter whether the book that's being used is a so called 'classic' or not, as long as it illustrates that aspect of literature well and hopefully captures the attention of students. So yes, there's definitely a place for YA titles there.

    However, as someone who studied literature at university I found it really useful to have a grounding in those works we'd think of as classic. In most of my elective courses I chose to study contemporary literature, but even there it was useful to have the frame of reference that high school English had given me. Most YA novels wouldn't have contributed to that.

    So, I think the best option is to study YA titles alongside the classics and non-YA contemporary work. If nothing else, there's more chance of students discovering a love of literature that way, and then developing it further. If they just switch off, that's never going to happen, and all the classes in the world about 'classic' literature aren't going to have any impact.

    Case in point: my father, who had a very traditional English education, has not read a novel in his entire adult life. He just doesn't believe they could interest him, or that he would enjoy it. He's a very intelligent man, he just doesn't have that love of reading. If his English teachers had just branched out a little, this whole world of reading may have been opened up to him.

  15. Well argued! I think people often forget that "the canon" is not a firm unchanging thing. It changes all the time. It's an on-going reflection of what we consider to be of enduring value. It only makes sense that it would change as we change.

    My own preferred approach educationally is to provide a combination of "popular" fiction with "classic" fiction. Kids should be exposed to things they wouldn't necessarily choose, but they should also be encouraged to engage more deeply with books they might dismiss as merely entertaining.

    Almost any book can be examined, dissected, and critiqued in a classroom environment. Why not use the tools developed dissecting Moby Dick to say something intelligent about Gossip Girl? An open-minded, creative teacher could make a lot out of such a lesson.

  16. Thanks for such an insightful post on a very relevant topic. I read feverishly growing up, but I associated most school reading with misery and tedium. I wish my reading list would've been more contemporary. Of course, the classics shouldn't be tossed entirely - I agree that a complementary mix would be best.

  17. Incredibly well-written and thought out post!

    Especially loved this part:

    "The goal of education is not to create armies of zombies who acquiesce to the status quo and, while transcribing corporate documents or crunching numbers, believe that the way things were and are is the way things should be forever."

    I really can not say how much I feel like the education I'm getting in high school is intended to zombify me. I do find the majority of things we're learning have little or no relevance--and I'm definitely guilty of the cramming instead of actually learning.

    I feel bad about this--I really do, but with the amount of busy, pointless work that school assigns for advanced classes, it's hard to actually sit there and learn with passion when you have 5 tests tomorrow and the world is going to crash to a fiery end if you don't score well. It's horrible, because the students who are most likely to excel and perhaps go beyond what they learn in school and try to gain a "well-developed individual interest" are the ones who are becoming the most zombified.

    And on the classics-only approach:
    I love reading. I do--but I don't think forcing people to read certain books is the right idea. It's important that students become acquainted with the so called "great literature," but the way it's enforced currently isn't at all effective.

    I know so many people that HATE reading--and especially hate the books we're required to read in class. This is a problem--even I feel like I could hate reading if I had to go on with some of the stuff I'm forced to read in AP Lit. But luckily, I've loved reading for so long that I can tolerate and (even enjoy) some of the classics.

    I think this applies to everyone: if from early on, children were encouraged to read children's books, if teens were encouraged to read YA that they can relate to and actually enjoy, then they'll start to like or even love reading. Once they can read books on their own for the fun of it, they'll be able to get much more out of classics. So many of the classmates I know don't read anything else the whole year except required texts--and if that's the only reading I ever experienced, I'd hate reading as well. So I agree 100% with incorporating YA books into curriculum when possible :)

  18. Great post Steph.

    I HATED The Mayor of Casterbridge in year 11, it's like it robbed me of the will to live.

    That being said, I am not a grade eight teacher and find myself teaching an ESL class with primarily boys. If they aren't interested, they don't learn. This year I taught four class texts and I've only just realised that 2 are classics and 2 are popular choices but all have themes, characters and plots that my kids really responded too. (Outsiders, The Hunger Games, Tomorrow When the War Began and The Giver). Sure they weren't century old classics but they are well loved, high quality pieces of literature.

    Hear my students talk about The Hunger Games and you'll realise it's not gushing. They know that book inside and out....and who's to say that book won't be a classic?

    I am simplifying it an awful lot but my class of ESL kids finished THG in 4 weeks which was a BIG achievement for them. It was because the story and themes spoke to them, as well as the action, the adventure and the violence. And weirdly enough, for them it contrasted well with the Outsiders!

  19. Great post! I agree with everything you say. We read mostly classics in school and I often wonder why we're reading it in the first place. (For example, my class just finished reading The Epic of Gilgamesh and I'm thinking it was an absolute waste of time. The writing was horrible and repetitive, the story was stupid and not well-thought out, and all the characters made me want to scream.)

    Last year, we read a lot of dystopian fiction and I was thinking the same thing. I thought a lot of them were really radical and exaggerated, and I didn't enjoy most of them. And then I read The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, and I have so much more respect for dystopian fiction now.

    So I totally agree when you say that classics should be combined with YA in the classroom to provided a well-rounded experience for the student (as well as the teacher!)

    P.S. I read Brave New World in April and I think that Aldous Huxley can't write either :P

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  25. Wow, really great post. I'm going back up top to reread right now...

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  28. From an educational standpoint (and from the standpoint of being a student who has had my fair share of poor English teachers), I agree with you. However, keep in mind that everything is good in moderation. A decent YA novel here and there in a high school English class may not be a bad thing to keep interest, but there are other ways to keep interest too! Let's not forget some of the most amazing literature ever written; Candide, Frankenstein, Dante's Inferno, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Life of Pi, the Alchemist, all absolutely amazing books that can inspire students especially those in the high school level if they have the right teacher. I'm a physics education major, so I see where you are coming from. Maybe it is easier for me to explain the "uses" for what I will be teaching, but it still remains true that the method in which a teacher presents information has a large impact on student enthusiasm. Which is why I ask you to stay passionate about your subject and bring modern material into your courses. Just make sure there's a healthy balance of literature, and that we aren't just feeding our students candy.

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  31. I'm ignoring the comment before mine...

    I think both classic and contemporary fiction have a place in the classroom. It is important to connect with readers in their comfort zone before extending their reading to more literary novels. The Literacy Trust UK have done some research into this. It is all about building bridges with readers. There is no reason that contemporary cannot mean quality. I think Marcus Sedgwick is an excellent example.

  32. Steph - You know I was nommed for Most Ecelctic Taste during BBAW :)

    It could have gone differently! I had a lit teacher in 7th grade who SUCKED, but fortunately, I was pulled from that class. Then in 8th grade I had the best lit teacher ever, Mrs. Lorenzetti. She was very unusual in her teaching methods - lots of group projects/discussions and CHOICE about what we would read. (A classroom democracy of sorts).

    Of course there have been some classics that appealed to me less than others, but even if a novel took me weeks to get into (I am looking at you HARD TIMES by Charles Dickens) I've always appreciated the reading experience by the end.

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  34. Great post!

    I read a lot of classics in high school. The ones I liked and that weren't mind numbingly awful to read, I actually remember and may have learned something from. The others? I read Heart of Darkness and Moby Dick, and I couldn't tell you a single thing that happens in them. I don't know what I was supposed to learn from them, though I think in Moby Dick it might have been that ambition is bad? But there are a lot of books with that theme, and I'm sure you could find something contemporary that illustrated the same themes. Not that classics shouldn't be read, but they're not the "one size fits all" solution a lot of adults seem to think they are.

    I remember reading an article a couple years ago about a woman who only let her kids read YA in the summer, when it was okay for their minds to be full of trash, since they'd spent the whole school year reading classics. O__o YA books make me think, and a lot of classics are mind numbing. They don't make me think because I can't get into them.

  35. I am a high school senior who has been on the honors/AP track since 7th grade. We read fairly YA stuff throughout junior high, but once we hit high school, it was all about the classics. I have been lucky enough to be blessed with pheonomenal teachers for the entirety of my HS experience, and I have never had a problem with doing the assigned reading or delving into literary analysis. I know this is not the case for many students, though. I think it's a great idea to have a class wherein students can read many of the popular YA books of today as an elective or supplement to an english class. However, I think english classes should read the classics. (It would be ridiculous to take them out of education.) Not to put down the language or depth of YA books, but in all honesty, most of them don't compare to classics. People just don't write quite the same way they used to. We don't have any Dickens or Shakespeares these days. Even if kids don't like it, it's still important to have exposure to literary genius. I don't think schools should reshape english courses to cater to students who simply don't want to read. I understand that it's important to be interested in the subject of study, but to have a student say they don't want to read a book and to reply with 'ok, here, have this easier-to-read one instead' is undermining the intelligence of teenagers. Teens these days don't like to be forced into doing anything, but sometimes, it's healthiest to expose them to culture in spite of that. To let us read whatever we want all the way through high school would be saying it's ok to disregard the works of people like orwell, shelley, shakespeare, the brontes, hawthorne, etc.
    No, I don't think YA books will turn us into zombies. I'm a fan of Twilight, Harry Potter, and many other similar books. But school is school. It's there to educate us and to get us involved in things we probably wouldn't be interested in otherwise. Even without YA books in schools, teens would defintiely still read them. I don't think I could say the same for the classics. We've got to get them somewhere.

  36. My issue with the classics is that many of them are simply not engaging. Many modern works illustrate the sames theme as "classics" without the bloat, pretentiousness, uninteresting characters, etc. For example, the Harry Potter books have many of the same themes as Shakespeare, but they are expressed in a more understandable way that has relevance in our culture.

    Truth be told, many of the classics were simply boring.

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  41. "For example, the Harry Potter books have many of the same themes as Shakespeare, but they are expressed in a more understandable way that has relevance in our culture."

    That comment is reason enough to revisit the canon.

  42. Terrific work! This is the type of information that should be shared around the web. Shame on the search engines for not positioning this post higher!


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