This year, Girls Write Now is counting. A mentorship program that pairs established writers with teenage girls from underprivileged areas and underserved schools in New York City, Girls Write Now has long influenced our next generation of women writers.
Beginning this fall, and in tandem with their event for the United Nation’s “Day of the Girl” celebration, which includes a reception and roundtable discussion on a girl’s right to write with panelists from Penguin Random House, Little, Brown and Tumblr, Girls Write Now, with help from VIDA, undertook to collect information on what their young mentees are reading in school, as well as what the mentors remember reading in school.
Maya Nussbaum, Founder & Executive Director of Girls Write Now, says: “At Girls Write Now, we are interested in what resonates with our girls, whether it’s on their school list or books they’re reading on their own. We incorporate the classics into our curriculum and we expose them to new, fresh, diverse authors, including writing from our mentors and supporters, such as Tayari Jones, Christina Baker Kline, Roxane Gay and a host of others.”
The initial results are already in! Mentors remember reading the standard white, male canon for the most part; the girls are still reading a lot of these same classics (Shakespeare, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, Of Mice & Men by John Steinbeck), but there are several books written by women that do seem to be surfacing in schools now fairly consistently, including The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Beloved by Toni Morrison and The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston.
With this progress in mind, the girls will be adding to their lists throughout the year, perhaps with a new attention toward what they are being taught and why, and how that impacts the culture at large.
One mentee, a junior, had this to say of the two books on her reading list so far this year: “I can connect to Catcher in the Rye and the main character Holden because of how Holden views society and innocence. I connect to Maya Angelou’s [book] and her message.”
Other mentees were concerned with diversity. Even though there does seem to be some effort made to diversify these reading lists, there are only a handful of names being repeated, rather than a range of diverse voices. Another mentee, a senior, describes the problem succinctly: “Sherman Alexie is the only native American author out there, all three times I’ve searched Native Americans he’s the only author we’ve read.”
The mentees and their mentors are accepting of the canon, and glad for the education, but they are not unaware that they are reading from a white, male point of view. A young mentor, who remembers her most recent syllabus including The Great Gatsby, A Farewell to Arms, and Hamlet, sums it up well: “Yes, there are beautiful books about humans – I am a human. But there could have been better ladies.”
Stay tuned! We will have more on this project as the school year progresses. And here’s to the Day of the Girl!
Lynn Melnick is the social media and outreach director for VIDA: https://www.vidaweb.org/vida-team/lynn-melnick/