Friday, November 13, 2015

What They're Reading at Austin High

            With so much attention devoted to what kids are required to read in Texas’s schools, the mandatory curricula the State Board of Education struggles with, creationism versus evolution for example, and whether slavery was or was not a cause of the Civil War, it’s somehow refreshing to consider what adolescents are reading when they get to choose the books themselves.
The Austin school district recently released its top picks from the campus libraries of each of its eleven high schools and to answer your first question, yes, there are a lot of zombies, a lot of walking dead, and a lot of Manga too. Dystopian and anime are certainly top draws for inquiring young minds here as elsewhere. You may believe as many do that Austin is the exception in the Lone Star State, a liberal and well-educated mecca in a rough and tumble state, and that distinction may influence adolescent reading habits as well, but an equally convincing argument can be made that kids are kids everywhere and, especially in a connected world, what a teenager may wish to read at a high school in Denver or Detroit might not be so different from conservative Texas or liberal Austin. A bigger factor may be what the high school offers in its library and in that case the Austin schools apparently have some works that have been banned in other districts, one being Go Ask Alice, the purported diary of a teenaged girl addicted to drugs. In more conservative parts of the state or the nation you would not see that title in a school library.
            For those of a certain age who remember what they were reading as adolescents there are some wider changes. The big three of American literature of a past era, perhaps still forced upon kids in class, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Hemingway are just so 20th century after the bell rings today. Their works appear nowhere on the Austin lists. Stephen King gets a not but not Melville or Twain. Mockingjay places higher than Mockingbird. John Green (The Fault is in Our Stars) appears to be the top author with at least three titles across the eleven campuses. Green who gears his books to adolescents has been described by the Daily Mail as a master of “sick lit,” a kind of terminally-ill genre for teens, and indeed there’s considerable adolescent angst in all the schools’ reading lists, which should not be so surprising for teenagers. Rather than focusing on genres however a better way of looking at the released data may be to take account of the individual schools themselves, which have their own personalities and social-economic indices and diversity.
Austin High is said to have once been the only high school west of the Mississippi and has a rich and storied history as well as an alumni list to die for: Lyndon Johnson’s girls went there, as did President Bush’s twins (he was governor at the time) and former Governor Rick Perry’s son played baseball for the varsity team while his daughter was a cheerleader. Number one most checked-out at AHS is Great Books of the Western World but that title sounds suspiciously like a homework assignment and not casual reading. More convincing entries on Austin High’s list are the ubiquitous Fullmetal Alchemist, Kite Runner and the Bleach Manga series which “follows the adventures of hotheaded teenager Ichigo Kurosaki after he obtains the powers of a Soul Reaper,” in case you were curious. At Akins High School, with a student body more from working class origins than capital city elites, and heavily Hispanic, one of the most checked-out items is the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. At L.C. Anderson High which many consider the best high school in the district the top ten includes Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, which is also the mayor’s top pick for the city’s reading club. Remember the days when you chose a book to write a report on because it was short? That’s the most endearing memory of the Steinbeck classic for many of us. At Anderson the kids also like Fahrenheit 451, All Quiet on the Western Front, To Kill a Mockingbird, Catch-22 and Divergent which is set in a post-apocalyptic Chicago. There’s Crank, about another addict, and appearing on both Anderson and Austin High’s lists is The Stranger, the classic by French Nobel Prizewinner Albert Camus. It’s hard to believe any kid would dip into existentialism before cheerleading practice, or while waiting for the baseball coach to arrive, but the French masterpiece speaks to alienation which is a favorite theme on most campuses.
At Reagan High, where the kids tend to come from families of more moderate means, and where there’s an artistic streak, tied for number one is How to Draw and Paint Fairies. Farther down the list there's Let’s Draw Manga Monsters, and Young Oxford Book of Aliens—as well as Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, an adolescent fiction prizewinner from 2013 that has been criticized in other school districts for racy language. The work tied for number one with Fairies at Reagan is Other People’s Property: A Shadow History of Hip-Hop in White America, and further down the list, Animal Rights: a Handbook for Young Adults. These are two of the only works across the lists that have political content. Looking at the reading choices the kids seem, understandably, more concerned with their own development and how they fit in the world than deciding what others should think or do, which is one definition of politics, and not of much interest to kids, yet. The school district itself offered its own guide on the figures: “If you want the top ten in the district for high schools then Bowie HS will have 9 out of 10 of the top titles.” It also appears to have the mildest content across the campuses.
Following is the top ten for Bowie High School (named after the Alamo hero of course) and it’s a mixed bag, even milquetoast, which may, once again, be more a reflection of the school librarian’s judgment than the students’ wishes. But that’s being in high school, isn’t it? You really don’t get to start making your own decisions until college, which is another reason to get good grades, to get accepted to a school far far away, so you can escape their influence—your “parents”—whether they really are related to you or are aliens, as some of your extracurricular reading seems to suggest. Bowie’s list:
Rein it in: an A circuit novel [the horse-showing world, co-authored by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg's daughter Georgina]
Love in the Time of Global Warming [“a romantic comedy about global warming”]
The Here and Now tied with A Million Heavens [futuristic and mystic, respectively]
Jamrach’s Menagerie [a boat trip, featuring cannibalism]
The A Circuit [horses again]
The Heart is not a Size [a road trip to Mexico]
The Hidden Deep tied with Pieces of Me [paranormal activity and love, respectively]
True Believers [“Dazzling in its wit and effervescent insight, a kaleidoscopic tour de force of cultural observation,” per the blurb.]

Whatever parents’ tastes or politics, whether mom and dad are concerned that the schools are creating terrorists, or troglodytes, there is some reassuring news in the Austin high school stats. Homework is getting done. The number one checked-out item at four of the 11 high schools was a Texas Instruments TI-84 Plus graphing calculator.

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