Recently, I was listening to some friends discuss reading Where the Wild Things Are in Anna Howe’s English class and, after some probing, I learned that they were using the book as a springboard to think about the children’s books that mattered to them when they were little. The concept of analyzing picture books struck me as refreshing and also deeply interesting. So I sat down with Howe to get a sense of the rationale behind, and the resulting impact of, teaching picture books to 12th graders.
Talking to Howe, I learned that a big reason behind her decision was that she wanted to help students find meaning in literature that they saw as more accessible than books they typically read in English class with denser language. “Some people are coming in saying ‘I’m not an English student—I’m a math or science student,’” Howe said. “But everyone can engage when it comes to children’s books. It brings out all of our critical, deep thinking.”
Howe helped me reflect on how something I love—literature and the discussion of literature in an intellectual environment—can often feel exclusive and alienating to many students at GDS. The idea that literature sometimes isn’t accessible to others isn’t new to me—after I published my first Lit column, my editor told me wryly that though he thought it was a great piece, no one read it. I couldn’t really count myself surprised; I’d read the data about how, in recent years, reading has dropped drastically in popularity nationwide, especially among teens.
A lot of people I know cite distractions like TikTok, Instagram or schoolwork pulling them away from recreational reading. But Howe, in mentioning how picture books make people feel more comfortable approaching analysis in English class, made me think about how part of the problem is intellectual elitism.
Reading isn’t an inherently high-brow activity, but it’s often talked about in that way. It’s nice that people attach so much importance to an art form that I find valuable and interesting, but when people put up intellectual borders around literature—by saying that engaging with it denotes a certain sophistication or intellectual capacity—it can make lots of people feel like they don’t have a place in the reading world.
People also applaud someone much more readily for reading a book than watching a TV show or listening to music—both of which can be equally intellectually rich activities. (Or equally intellectually shallow. Some books don’t mean much, and are just a lot of fun—that’s why they’re loveable.)
The intellectual barriers to literature are made worse, too, because the books people often think are important or worthwhile are sometimes difficult to understand because of their complex language and references that only people steeped in literary knowledge can understand. “The Waste Land” by T. S. Eliot, for example, is considered to be one of the most important poems of the 20th century, but it’s also much harder to understand without a complete grasp of the contexts and pieces of literature Eliot was writing back to.
It’s great that some pieces of literature are complex and difficult to understand—in fact, sometimes a fuller form of self-expression can’t help but be inaccessible because the self is composed of pieces that are impossible to fully understand. It’s also great to continue to engage with old books with intricate references, because learning about those references can provide us with important background knowledge. But when we only talk about inaccessible books as being worthwhile or intellectual, people can be pushed away from appreciating books’ essential powers: to connect minds, broaden perspectives and find simple joy, too.
That’s not to mention the way that a lot of the classic books we read in class, many of which are written by white men born before 1960, implicitly exclude a lot of people from feeling like literature can matter to them. If a lot of what we’re told is worthwhile doesn’t seem to include perspectives that are accessible to you, it can feel extremely disheartening.
It’s important that we talk about all kinds of books, from the super high brow to the super accessible, and make sure we emphasize literature’s value beyond its superficial intellectual weight. That’s where teaching picture books comes in. Howe says her students always excite her with revelatory new ideas that come from deep-diving into picture books—and revelations, after all, are what the English classroom is ultimately all about.
Many English teachers, not just Howe, have been integrating mixed media elements into the English curriculum that subvert our traditional understanding of what kinds of art are worthwhile to analyze. I spoke to two of those teachers, Nadia Mahdi and Mike Wenthe, about their experiences teaching films and comics, respectively, in the classroom, and they both agreed with Howe that part of their rationale is empowering students. “Making our work relevant and meaningful, not just assuming that what we teach is going to be experienced that way because it’s commonly accepted as great literature, that is the teacher’s work,” Mahdi explained.
So do I care about reading high-brow books because they’re oblique and have a reputation for intellectualism, or because they resonate with my life—because they matter to me, or help me grow and think in some way? That answer is easy. Those books aren’t about distancing myself from others by signaling some ability to scale a difficult intellectual barrier. Instead, they’re about revealing who we are and finding meaning in self-reflection. Just because books have some superficially complex elements doesn’t mean that they can’t resonate with a seventeen-year-old boy in 2023. The way books have resonated with me—beyond superficial barriers—is the kind of joy I want other people to find in all kinds of reading and literary engagement.
What English teachers are doing by showing students that classic books aren’t more valuable than any other form of media or expression is actually, paradoxically, helping us access the truth of that literature: We are encouraged to lift the veil of pretension and artifice when we talk and think about books. Instead of making literature a way of gatekeeping intellectualism, we can focus on the meaning and joy behind the books we read.
These days, I’ve been trying to marvel more than I condescend and to appreciate literature for its connective powers instead of its alienating ones. It’s not really so hard. If you look closely enough, the connective threads in literature are all there, burrowing between the inaccessible and the confusing, shimmering with luminous, humanistic feeling.