Ever heard of the book pictured at left? It's The Good Master by Kate Seredy, a Newbery Honor Book from 1936. It's about a motherless young girl from Budapest who is sent to the countryside of Hungary to live with her uncle because she is just incorrigible. Uncle is supposed to "break" her like a wild horse, apparently. As a modern female, I found the book to be mawkish and antiquated. The heroine wound up barefoot in the kitchen, completely passive, at the end. She'd been tamed. I was disappointed. At least, that's the way I saw it when I was teaching this book to fourth grade girls at The Chapin School in NYC in the early 1990's.
I've read many of the customer reviews for The Good Master on Amazon. They're all positive reviews. Almost every one that I read was written by someone remembering this book from back in his or her childhood days. There are a lot of "I loved this when I was in 5th grade" or "I read this aloud to my children" comments. They're heartwarming little testimonials. But they left me wondering: Is The Good Master relevant anymore? Though the customer critics at Amazon would most likely take umbrage with my assessment, I'd argue that it's not. Not anymore. The Good Master has passed over that very real but rarely discussed line between classic and inconsequential. If you want to teach a book about a girl learning the lessons of childhood, are you going to choose this book? Probably not. Just like you're probably not going to choose Runaway Papoose (Newbery Honor Book from 1929) if you want to teach about Native Americans.
Now, I know there are a lot of people out there who are thinking: "The classics will always be relevant! We'll always teach Laura Ingalls Wilder and E.L.Konigsburg and Jean Craighead George!" And I know that's true. But are we holding onto some of these books just because we loved them? And while the themes and lessons learned in many of these books are still relevant, aren't there more modern books that are teaching the same lessons, books to which students today can more reasonably relate? Is there a point where a book seems dated? A book that adults may find charming and moving may appear to students as cheesy, clunky, and just plain old. The girls at Chapin made it abundantly clear to me that that's how they felt about The Good Master.
If you want to give your students a great dog story, would you use Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes, which won the Newbery in 1952, or Anne M. Martin's wonderful and much more recent A Dog's Life? If you want a story about slavery and courage in the face of brutality, would you use Elizabeth Yates's Amos Fortune, Free Man (from 1951) or Sharon Draper's Copper Sun (from 2006)? Which would your students rather read? Should we even consider that question when choosing books for the classroom?
I am NOT saying that we should just summarily dismiss all older books. Both my students and I adore The Outsiders, which was written around the time that I was born (certainly a long time ago)! But where is that line, the line between classic and irrelevant? I'd love to hear what you think.