Reading Alternatives to Three Problematic Classics

Some curriculum staples misrepresent cultures, reinforce racist or sexist ideas, and contain pejorative descriptions. Try these books instead of “The Little House” series, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

 

When it comes to rethinking curricula, assigned reading, book club selections, and one-on-one readers’ advisory interactions, it’s vital to offer young readers alternatives to books that may misrepresent their own cultures, reinforce racist or sexist ideas about particular groups, and contain dated vocabulary and pejorative descriptions. These books are widely considered classics of children’s and young adult literature and regularly appear on required reading lists. The titles accompanying each, a selection of contemporaneous literature and more modern works, can replace or be read in conjunction with the “classic” text.

 

The “Little House” series by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Many adult readers who have not reread the series since they were young may not recall the rampant anti-Native language and racism in Wilder’s work. The original text of Little House on the Prairie (1935) infamously included the line “There were no people. Only Indians lived there,” in addition to the abhorrent statement “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” In addition to the dehumanizing descriptions and language used, many of Garth Williams’s illustrations depicting Native characters are inaccurate and reinforce stereotypes. For richly realized, family-centered, coming-of-age narratives that span several generations, try:

Erdrich, Louise. The “Birchbark House” series. HarperCollins.
Gr 3-6–This multigenerational family saga begins in 1847, with The Birchbark House (1999), and follows the life of a young Ojibwe girl, Omakayas. The latest title in the series, Makoons (2016), is set in 1866 and stars the young son of the grown-up Omakayas, as the family moves from the rich forests of Minnesota to the Great Plains of the Dakota Territory.

Lovelace, Maud Hart. The “Betsy-Tacy” series. William Morrow.
Gr 3 Up–Similar to Wilder’s “Little House” books, Lovelace’s series is semiautobiographical, and the books become progressively more complex as the protagonist matures. The 10 novels in the main series, originally published between 1940 and 1955, chronicle the imaginings and adventures of a white girl growing up in a small Minnesota town at the turn of the century.

 

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. 1884.

Twain’s novel regularly appears on the American Library Association’s list of the top frequently challenged and banned books, most often cited for its stereotypical depiction of Jim, a fugitive from slavery, and the novel’s use of the N-word. Though the book remains required reading in many school districts, educators are increasingly seeing the need to offer contemporaneous #OwnVoices stories about the experiences of slavery and systemic oppression. For alternatives to Twain’s exploration of the injustices of slavery through the lens of a white male, try:

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. 1845. Prestwick reprint, 2005.
Gr 9 Up–A firsthand account of enslavement and the early abolitionist movement, this memoir by the famed writer and orator, published before the Civil War, contains harrowing descriptions of Douglass’s childhood and his eventual escape to the North.

Taylor, Mildred D. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. 1976. Puffin reprint, 2004.
Gr 6 Up–Taylor’s beloved series following the Logan family includes several prequels, sequels, and companion books. The first novel, which won the Newbery Medal in 1977, is set in rural Mississippi during the Great Depression and follows Cassie Logan, a young Black girl. Taylor explores the impact of racism’s legacy in the South and subverts the idea of the Mississippi River as a symbol of freedom, in contrast to Twain’s novel.

 

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. 1960.

Lee’s classic is perhaps one of the most widely read, lauded, and taught American novels. Despite its wide appeal, many critics have cited the prevalence of the “white savior” trope (an overrepresented narrative in which a messianic white protagonist rescues people of color), the oversimplification of racism and white supremacy, and the flat, infantilizing characterization of the novel’s Black characters. For more realistic, complex depictions of the history of anti-Black racism and the ongoing fight for justice, try:

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. 1952. Vintage reprint, 1995.
Gr 10 Up–In Ellison’s National Book Award–winning novel, an unnamed Black narrator experiences racial injustices and is ostracized as a Black man in a white world. Ellison employs an anti-realistic, Kafka-esque style, along with absurdist humor, that invites reflection and discussion.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. with Tonya Bolden. Dark Sky Rising: Reconstruction and the Dawn of Jim Crow. Scholastic. 2019.
Gr 9 Up–Both lyrical and scholarly, this work of nonfiction chronicles the changing rights of Black Americans in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation, the addition of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, and the Civil Rights Act of 1875, along with the rising tide of white violence that followed each step forward.

Magoon, Kekla. How It Went Down. Holt. 2014.
Gr 9 Up–When Tariq Johnson, a 16-year-old Black boy, is shot and killed by a white man, witnesses tell their version of events and how this act of racism and violence affects the entire community. Other contemporary novels that tackle similar themes include Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, Nic Stone’s Dear Martin, and Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s All American Boys.

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