YA Highway this week wonders what books I might recommend as required reading in a high school English/Literature class. You gotta figure that the first title that springs to mind is Tankborn, because a girl’s gotta promote. But actually, if I say so myself, Tankborn would be an excellent choice for a high school reading program with its themes of class, race, and what it means to be human. Okay, shameless plug over.
The first non-Tankborn book I thought of is Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. This is a mind-blowing book in terms of gender identity, but also a fascinating piece of worldbuilding. I can imagine long discussions about what might be different about earth’s societies if we truly lacked separate genders, if we were only sexual beings a few days a month.
Even more intriguing is the main character Ai Genly, a male-gendered person through whose eyes we see the people of Gethen. They consider him “the pervert” because he’s stuck in his male body. The students could imagine themselves as either the single-gendered person or an androgyn. Or that androgyn in his/her monthly “kemmer” when their body chooses a specific gender. One more possible discussion topic is the fact that the Gethens are living in an Ice Age. The students might be asked to consider how a people could survive in that kind of environment.
A second book that comes to mind is Sheri S. Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country. This is a post-apocalyptic story, set on earth a few hundred years after a catastrophic war. In the particular community of Women’s Country, the women live a largely agrarian life within a walled city with a few male servants. The remaining men are warriors who live outside the city.
The men who live with the women are gentle beta types, while the warriors, as you might imagine, are fierce alphas. The women only interact with the warrior men once a year, when they are brought in to father the next generation. However there’s more to the relationship between the warrior men and dominant women than it seems on the surface.
There’s plenty to discuss here–the impact of a feminist-dominant society, the usefulness of aggressiveness in this world, what it truly means to be a man. The roles we play in the world, and which of those we choose ourselves and which we let society place upon us. On top of this, it’s a beautifully written book.
You might see a common element in these two books. They’re both written by women. So many (nearly all) of what are considered the classics were written by men. Yes, there are the Bronte sisters’ books and Austen’s. But while those offer an intriguing look into the society of the time, they don’t give as much meaty food for thought as the two SF books that I mention.
So that would be my final recommendation: Add more women-authored books to the required reading list. There are many out there besides Ursula K. Le Guin and Sheri S. Tepper. Octavia Butler, Julian May, Nancy Kress to name a few. It’s time for school districts to seek them out.