“Oh we’re just happy if they’re reading.”
It’s a phrase I hear often as a teacher. We give students books that have interesting covers, aren’t very long, and that grab young readers within the first chapter. If reluctant readers don’t see these three things within the first two seconds of looking at a book, we think their attention is lost and no amount of “selling it” will make the kids excited to read it.
I’m of the firm belief that this is why most summer reading books suck. We’re so interested in getting kids to read that we often don’t care what it is they’re reading. When the students are picking out their own books at the bookstore or the library, there’s nothing wrong with that, but when the book is school-picked and school-sponsored, we have to take a close look at what message we are sending.
Take, for example, the friends we were hanging out with last night. Let’s call them Joe and Josephine*. Josephine is a middle school teacher, and as we were talking about summer reading, she disappeared back into her office and came out, producing a copy of this:
“Is that your beach read?” I asked, jokingly. “It looks like Fifty Shades of Grey lite.” I was noting the sexy pose and the flowing read dress of the woman on the cover, and the title – The Girl in the Steel Corset – that evokes even more sexiness (not to mention the infantalization of the “girl,” in the title who is clearly a woman in the picture).
“No,” she said. “This is our summer reading book for the girls at our school.”
My jaw hit the floor. They’re asking eleven- to thirteen-year-olds to read a book that looks like a Harlequin Romance? Yes, as it turns out, they are. Because they’re just happy to have kids reading.
It turns out that my first instincts about the book weren’t that far off. With a quick search on Amazon.com, I found that the book is, actually, published by Harlequin Teen, a division of the infamous romance novel publisher. It’s also part of a series that have similarly sexy covers and titles that evoke visions of clothing meant to bind a woman up.
Now, I don’t know anything about this book other than my quick Amazon.com search. The dust jacket description is clearly meant to lure readers in with potential sexiness and intrigue, but does seem as if it could be harmless enough:
In 1897 England, sixteen-year-old Finley Jayne has no one…except the “thing” inside her
When a young lord tries to take advantage of Finley, she fights back. And wins. But no normal Victorian girl has a darker side that makes her capable of knocking out a full-grown man with one punch.
Only Griffin King sees the magical darkness inside her that says she’s special, says she’s one of them. The orphaned duke takes her in from the gaslit streets, against the wishes of his band of misfits. And Finley thinks she might finally be a part of something, finally fit in—until a criminal mastermind known as the Machinist threatens to tear the group apart….
Included for the first time in print, meet Finley in her first adventure The Strange Case of Finley Jayne the novella prequel to The Girl in the Steel Corset!
Continue the adventures of The Steampunk Chronicles with The Girl in the Clockwork Collar and the upcoming title, The Girl with the Iron Touch.
However, is this really the reading we want to be giving young girls? Especially over the summer months, when there is no teacher guiding the reading and no guarantee of a parent to step in and play teacher? (In fact, I would almost guarantee that there is no parent reading this with their child, because if I was handed this book and told my pre-teen daughter needed to read it over the summer, I would pitch one hell of a fit.)
I can think of a number of YA novels that have badass female characters and send an important message geared towards girls. The Hunger Games comes to mind. Or Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, or anything by John Green (because he is awesome). Sure, there’s some violence and sex in these books, but how much more could there be in these than in something published by Harlequin Teen? Seriously. Asking middle school students to read The Girl in the Steel Corset seems more akin to asking high school students to read Twilight for summer reading: Sure, they can be fun books, but do they really contain the messages we want to send our youth? And don’t even get me started on the “girl books” and “boy books” that summer reading lists often contain. I’m glad we’re not just catering to the “default” male population, but we don’t need to participate in sex segregation with summer reading, either.
With all of the great books on the market – especially for young adults – it seems like it shouldn’t be too difficult to pick something that doesn’t further marginalize women, making them feel like if they are not sexual objects, they are worthless. They don’t have to be classics; they should just be good books with good messages for our young women.
Do you have any ideas for great YA summer reads for teenage girls? If so, leave them in the comments. I’ll compile a list!
*Names and relationships changed to protect their anonymity and their jobs.
Featured Image Credit: Pink Sherbet Photography