ALAN v21n3 - Teaching Tomorrow's Classics

Volume 21, Number 3
Spring 1994

Teaching Tomorrow's CLASSICS

Mary Ann Tighe and Charles Avinger

When we talk about teaching a classic, what literary works do we consider? Great Expectations , The Scarlet Letter , or perhaps a Shakespearean drama. There are, of course, some criteria that we traditionally use to determine whether or not a literary election can be considered a classic. First, has it stood the test of time? Second, does its peak to us across time? That is, does it confront the universal concerns, the enduring dilemmas that are a part of human existence? And third, does it have a unique beauty of style and structure that causes it to endure? These are high standards. Can young adult literature meet these criteria? Since contemporary young adult literature came into being in the 1960s, realistically its endurance record cannot exceed thirty years; but we can evaluate and make predictions. And we predict that literary classics will emerge from the abundant array of young adult novels published during the last thirty years. In both their original written form and in outstanding film adaptations, these works will endure because they do speak across time; they address the universal and enduring concerns of humanity. And they will endure because their authors, as well as the filmmakers who have brought them to the screen, have created works of unique beauty of style and structure.

The literary critic Northrop Frye reminds us that "All themes and characters and stories that you encounter in literature belong to one big inter-locking family . . . . You keep associating your literary experiences together: you're always being reminded of some other story you read or movie you saw or character that impressed you" ( Moss and Stott, 1986, p. 1 ). Young adult novels often follow the traditional patterns of folk tales or hero tales, ensuring not only that they are a part of this "interlocking family," but also that they are an effective transition, serving as a bridge between children's literature and the classics.

According to Moss and Stott , the plots in literature for children can be categorized as either circular or linear, depending upon the type of journey undertaken by the hero/heroine. In a circular way, the hero sets out on a quest or journey and eventually returns home but in a new and mature capacity, while in a linear journey, the heroine undertakes a quest and arrives at a new and more satisfactory destination (1986, pp. 2-3). Two contemporary young adult novels illustrate how clearly their authors have followed these traditional literary patterns while working with their own unique style and telling their own compelling story.

Folk tales

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare is a Newbery Award-winning book of historical fiction, but it is also a retelling of the traditional folktale of Cinderella. Moss and Stott have identified the common characteristics of folk tales. They are short, highly stylized stories with stock characters, events, and settings, keeping the same basic form and content, but being modified by different cultures. Certain motifs such as the wicked stepmother and the lost or mistreated child reoccur. The heroes/heroines are generally left alone to make a dangerous journey into an unknown world, encountering evil creatures and dangerous obstacles while being helped by fairy godmothers or talking animals to reach a satisfactory conclusion. Throughout their quest the protagonists display noble virtues and character traits such as courage, love, and forgiveness (1986, pp. 8-11).

In the folktale Cinderella, the heroine of noble birth is forced by her wicked stepmother and evil stepsisters to assume the role of servant in her father's household. She scrubs the floor, scours the dishes, cleans the bedrooms, and sleeps on a bed of straw in the garret. When her fairy godmother arrives, she finds Cinderella weeping because she cannot go to the ball. With a wave of her magic wand, she provides beautiful clothes and elegant transportation to take her to the ball where she wins the heart of the prince. Cinderella is so good and kind that she forgives her stepsisters and arranges for them to wed nobility and to live at court.

Kit Tyler, the heroine of The Witch of Blackbird Pond , is born into a wealthy and aristocratic family and grows up in the paradise-like setting of Barbados. But when her grandfather dies, she is left alone and penniless, and, at the age of sixteen, she travels aboard a sailing vessel to Connecticut to live with her mother's sister and a family she has never met. She discovers a new world where the people, the customs, and the geography are rigid and cold and forbidding, unlike the warm, sunny world she left behind.

In New England she does not encounter a wicked stepmother, but Uncle Matthew Wood is a stern Puritan, and Aunt Rachel is his obedient wife. Her cousins, Judith and Mercy, are not evil, but Judith is jealous of Kit's fine clothes and the obvious attraction she holds for William Ashby. Kit is not forced to sweep up the cinders and live in the kitchen, but she is expected to put aside her fine clothes and assume her share of the family duties, that is, to make herself useful.

By the end of that first day the word useful had taken on an alarming meaning. Work in that household never ceased, and it called for skill and patience, qualities Kit did not seem to possess. There was meat to be chopped, and vegetables to prepare for the midday meal. The pewter mugs had to be scoured with reeds and fine sand. There was a great kettle of soap boiling over a fire just behind the house, and . . . Judith set Kit to tend the stirring while she readied the soap barrel. (p. 47)

Both Kit's soap and her corn pudding turn out lumpy, and at night she shares with Judith a cold bedroom on the upper floor of the house.

Kit does not have a fairy godmother, but she does meet Hannah Tupper, an elderly Quaker woman living in the Great Meadow on the outskirts of the Puritan community of Wethersfield. She is the so-called witch of Blackbird Pond. Hannah does not transform Kit literally with fine clothes and an elegant carriage, but she does give her something important -- the courage to face her life in New England. When Kit displeases the local authorities and loses her position as schoolmistress, she runs away to the Great Meadow where Hannah finds her weeping.

All at once, with an instinctive quickening of her senses, Kit knew that she was not alone, that someone was very close. She started up. Only a few feet away a woman was sitting watching her, a very old woman with short-cropped white hair and faded, almost colorless eyes set deep in an incredibly wrinkled face. (p. 85)

Hannah has no magic wand, but she calms Kit with a glass of goat's milk and a blueberry corncake. Then she shows her a flower, which had traveled all the way from Africa and now blooms in her New England garden. Hannah has worked no magic, but Kit knows what she has to do: "Only one thing must be done before Kit could truly be at peace, and without speaking a word Hannah had given her the strength to do it. Straight up Broad Street she walked, up the path to a square frame house, and knocked boldly on the door of Mr. Eleazer Kimberley"(pp. 90-91). Kit is, thereby, reinstated as school mistress.

Kit has two suitors, each vying for the role of Prince Charming. William Ashby is wealthy and attentive and offers her release from a life of drudgery: "And William Ashby was the only person in Wethersfield who did not expect her to be useful, who demanded nothing, and offered his steady admiration as proof that she was still of some worth" (p. 71). But Nat Eaton, the son of the captain of the sailing vessel that brought Kit to New England, eventually wins her heart, not in a ballroom but in a courtroom, where Kit encounters the forces of evil in the person of Goodwife Cruff, who accuses her of witchcraft. When Kit is brought to trial, Nat provides the surprise witness who proves her innocence. Rescuing Kit from a life of drudgery at home and from danger in the courtroom, he takes her for his wife. Although they will spend part of each year sailing to Barbados, their home will be in New England, and Kit has completed her linear journey to a new life and a new relationship. Kit's cousins are not abandoned. When Kit releases William Ashby, he is free to marry Judith. And much to Kit's delight, Mercy, too, finds the perfect mate. Like the happy ending in some versions of "Cinderella," all three girls are wed, and the bookends with the reader believing that they will live "happily ever after."

Hero Tales

Another traditional member of the family of stories is the hero tale, tales of heroes and heroines who fulfill their quests in a grand and magnificent manner. Heroes, according to Moss and Stott , are set apart at birth; there is something mysterious and/or significant about their origin. As they grow up they remain apart from other children; they have a unique sort of education. As leaders, they display courage and face overwhelming physical tasks, but they are not perfect; they also have flaws. As the tale ends, they die, but not before promising their followers they will return (1986, pp.162-164). In the literary hero tale, when the author is known, the heroes frequently enjoy the companionship of a close friend, but, nevertheless, in the end, they are doomed to be lonely ( Moss and Stott, 1986, pp. 415-416 ).

King Arthur is a typical hero, and his story has been told by many authors. Asa child, his parentage is shrouded in mystery; as a youth, he is educated by Merlin the Magician; as the leader of the Knights of the Round Table, he is fair and courageous; and his closest friend is Lancelot, a fellow knight. But Arthur, betrayed by his wife and Lancelot, must stand alone. He fails to seethe evil hat is corrupting his own followers, and, before he dies from the wounds he received in battle, he promises to return and restore the kingdom.

In her novel, On Fortune's Wheel , Cynthia Voigt has created a heroine to serve as the focus of a hero tale set in a mystical kingdom during the middle ages. Birle, born the daughter of an innkeeper, is one of the "people" as opposed to the nobility. But she has a unique education. As Merlin served as Arthur's tutor, teaching him the ways of a wise ruler, so Birle's grandparents teach her to read and write, a skill common to nobility but forbidden to the people. As her grandmother shows her an old map and begins to identify the letters printed on it, Birle is astonished and frightened.

"You mean reading." Birle looked from one old face to the other, hoping they would deny it. She knew now why it had been kept secret. Only the Lords could know how to read.

"Aye," Grandma said. "And writing." (pp. 17-18)

Birle also inherited her grandparents' spirit of adventure. When, late at night, she spies someone trying to steal the inn's boat, she leaps aboard, determined to rescue their property. Thus begins her quest, for she is happy to escape her impending marriage and eager to find love and adventure with Orien, the young and handsome lord who has taken their boat. As they journey down the river, their small boat goes down in a storm. They escape to a large rock, awaiting either death or rescue. After many days, they re sighted by a ship's captain who brings them aboard only for the purpose of selling them as slaves.

While held prisoner, Birle befriends a fellow captive. When she first meets Yul, she is filled with both fear and pity, for he is a giant with limited mental abilities. But Birle is kind to Yul; she gives him part of her bread, and he does not forget. He remains loyal to the end. As Don Quixote had his Sancho Panza, Birle has Yul, "the monster," who serves as friend and protector.

When they reach land, Orien is sold to a local craftsman, while Birle and Yulare purchased by Joaquim, the Philosopher. Birle, although a slave, is fortunate. Joaquim is not a cruel master: Birle is well-fed and clothed. With Yul following closely behind her, she moves freely about the city. When Joaquim learns that she can read, he makes her his amanuensis. As a secretary, Birle records his observations and notes on healing plants and herbs. As his assistant, her unique education continues as she learns much about the healing powers of plants.

While she continues to learn and thrive, Orien's fate worsens. He is sold to work in the mines. Although he escapes and makes his way to Joaquim's house, the brand on his face (which marks him as a miner) has become badly infected. He is unconscious when Birle finds him, but she is determined to heal him and to carry him to freedom. The city is at war. It is not the Trojan War, but once again a kidnapped maiden is the cause of the fighting. As Paris stole Helen, Corbel has stolen the lady Celinde, a young girl whose father is now attacking Corbel's city. In the confusion, Birle and Yul escape, taking Orien with them. In a scene that is reminiscent of Aeneas carrying his ancient father on his back while escaping the burning city of Troy, Yul carries Orien's feverish and unconscious body as they escape the besieged city. As they travel, Birle uses her knowledge of herbs to begin the healing process. But, when they are captured by Damall, a traveling showman, she is forced to leave Yul behind as part of his "exhibit." In return, she and Orien are allowed to continue their journey.

Orien recovers, and they eventually reach the Kingdom, where he reigns as Earl. Although Orien claims Birle as his wife, she has known what it means to be free and independent, and she is not happy as the Earl's Lady. Even though she is expecting their child, she leaves behind the society and ceremony of the court and returns to the land once held by her grandparents. She is determined to live alone and to raise their child alone. Here she plants herbs and uses her knowledge of them to heal the sick. But Orien finds her. He has rescued Yul and renounced his life at court. Unlike the traditional hero, Birle does not remain alone and die at the end of her quest. Instead, she completes a circular journey and begins a new life with Orien and their child.

Will these novels become literary classics? You will recall that beyond the test of time, a classic must address universal concerns, the enduring dilemmas that are a part of human existence. Both novels that we reviewed trace the protagonist's search for identity, for her role as an independent adult. As they make their journeys, they confront evil and must make choices and determine what is right and good and what is evil and wrong. Surely these are conflicts and problems that endure across the ages. And third, a classic must possess beauty of style and structure. While both authors have their own unique styles, each has created a novel that follows one of the most basic literary patterns. These young adult novels build on the foundation of folk tales and hero tales from childhood and prepare students for the literary classics of the adult reader.


Young adult literature not only represents a bridge between children's literature and adult literature; it can also represent a link between literary analysis, the development of critical thinking skills, and what is often called"visual literacy" -- the study of film as literary text. Young adult literature is extremely compatible with classroom use of film and videotape, which can stimulate student interest, motivating even reluctant students to read. It is relatively easy to establish a rationale for the study of film as literature. Both film and literature are "capable . . . of a coherent and reasoned treatment of a subject," both use words to communicate (even silent films, which have subtitles), and both "tell stories and make reference to `imaginary worlds' " ( Brown, 1985, pp. 22-31 ). Perhaps most importantly as far as young people are concerned:

. . . they also share the very same basic appeal. Most of us have always gone to movies for the same reason we read; for escape, for fantasy, for the opportunity to identify with -- even to transform ourselves into -- other human beings for awhile and vicariously participate in their lives. ( Brown, 1985, p.39 )

One example of a movie adaptation that illustrates the benefits of young adult literature and film is the 1983 production of S.E. Hinton's novel The Outsiders . Directed by Francis Ford Coppola ( The Godfather , Apocalypse Now ), this film tells Hinton's story of youthful alienation and conflict through a combination of powerful visual images, stylish direction, and good ensemble acting by a talented group of young actors, nearly all of whom became major stars in the late 1980s. A well-made film with strong appeal to teenagers, The Outsiders affords opportunities for analysis and interpretation similar to those found in "the classics." High school classes could consider the following questions during and after viewing the film.

1. Characterize Pony boy and Dallas. How are they alike in spite of superficial differences?

2. What are the values of the Greasers and the Socs? Why do the two groups find themselves in conflict?

3. What does the film say about family relationships? About friendship?Compare the conflict between the Greasers and the Socs to a division between two other groups you know of. Are some of the basic causes of conflict the same in both cases?

4. How does the film present the Greaser's world as a dangerous, threatening place? What visual images support this impression? Explain the visual symbolism in Pony boy and Johnny's journey following the murder. What meanings do the golden sunlight, the spider web, the reflections in the pond, and the rabbit convey?

5. How can Pony boy's journey be considered circular? In what ways are his understanding of his relationship with Steve and Darry more mature than when he began his journey? (Note that the circular structure of Pony boy's journey is similar to that of Birle's journey in On Fortune's Wheel -- an interesting point for analysis if both works are studied in the same class.)

As these questions suggest, the film version of The Outsiders not only retains the thematic concerns of the novel but also expresses these concerns in both cinematic and literary terms. Students who watch the film and analyze it thus have the opportunity to study Hinton's plot, characters, and theme while also considering how film can express meaning in a creative way. The elegant, poetic style and structure of Coppola's film thoughtfully and faithfully reflects the beauty of Hinton's prose; Coppola simply uses visual images and compositions instead of words on the page to achieve the effect. The themes of alienation and social conflict in The Outsiders are similar to those found in classic works of adult literature such as Ellison's Invisible Man and Chopin's The Awakening . By studying the film adaptation or Hinton's original novel, students are considering the same kinds of issues and doing the same kinds of literary analysis they would in the study of adult literature. However, because the film and novel cast these issues in terms familiar and important to young people, their study of film and literature is facilitated, both comprehension and interest levels improved.

Another important young adult novel for classic status is Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War . The 1989 film adaptation combines dark humor and visceral drama to examine social and psychological tensions at a religious boys' school. The plot centers on freshman Jerry Renault's refusal to participate in Trinity School's annual fund-raising chocolate sale. This seemingly trivial situation offers Cormier a chance to explore fundamental human issues including conformity, the need for belonging, obedience to authority, and intolerance -- the same kinds of questions all great literature examines, but from an adolescent perspective. Through an unflinching examination of problems and conflicts specific to adolescents, the story challenges values and assumptions that pervade our society -- indeed, all societies throughout time. Jerry's experiences at Trinity School are no less harrowing than Kit Tyler's, Pony boy's, or Birle's. His journey is psychological rather than literal.

Jerry initially refuses to sell chocolates because of intimidation by the Vigils, a secret society at Trinity. The Vigils terrorize freshmen into carrying out "assignments" ranging from harmless pranks to demeaning, threatening tasks; Jerry's "assignment" is to frustrate the tyrannical Brother Leon, school administrator of the sale, by refusing to participate for ten days. Thus the film is able to dissect the ethics of secret societies of the kind found in high schools and colleges. Since many young adults seem fascinated by such societies and eager to join them, this film offers a good opportunity for students to clarify their values on this issue through literary analysis. Consider:

1. The Vigils make much use of secrecy, humiliation, ritual, tradition, trials and tests, cruelty, and harassment. Are these methods typical of secret societies such as high school and college fraternities, or are the Vigils an exception? Why would a society like the Vigils adopt these particular methods of control over their members? (Students who belong to fraternities or who plan to join one will undoubtedly claim the Vigils are aberrant; students who are not part of such organizations may be unwilling to speak out about similarities between the film and their experience. Both groups, however, will be forced to think about these issues, regardless of how they respond.)

2. Characters in the film continually refer to the importance of "bigger things": the Vigils, the chocolate sale, school spirit, the school itself, tradition. What values does one character reveal when he says, "The assignment is more important than anything, understand? More than you, me, or the school. Got that?" Is there merit in his view? Why or why not? The assignment in question is a ridiculous prank. Would it make any difference if the nature of the assignment were different?

3. Think about the importance society places on ritual and tradition. What social and psychological functions do they serve?

While cast in a specific setting -- a private religious high school -- Jerry's "war" leads us to ask questions about the relationship between the individual and society. A class studying comparative literature might consider how Jerry's actions would have been viewed in ancient Greece and Rome, in Neo-classical France, or during the period of the French and American revolutions. The novel's universality is preserved in the film version, again supporting the argument that it is destined for classic status.

From an artistic and literary perspective, the choices that Cormier and director Keith Gordon make are interesting. The title itself seems a contradiction in terms -- whoever heard of going to war over chocolates ?When students consider the questionable and even trivial motives that have often led to real wars, the symbolic appropriateness of the chocolates becomes clear. Students can also address other questions from a literary standpoint:

1. What is Brother Leon's apparent motivation as he questions Bailey about cheating? What does Leon believe his real motive is? What is the likely effect of this questioning on Bailey, and is it an effect Leon desires?

2. What is the significance of Trinity's being a private religious school? Would the drama play out differently in a different educational setting such asa public high school? a military school?

3. Explain the image of Brother Leon's face half-covered by a shadow. What is the significance of the picture of Jesus next to Bolo when he talks to Archie on the phone?

4. Hypocrisy is rampant in this story. What are some examples of hypocrisy on the part of teachers and students? Why is it so pervasive?

5. The ending of the film is radically different from that of the book. Is the revised ending a typical "Hollywood ending" designed to increase profits, or is it artistically valid in the context of the story's themes? Why?

6. Director Gordon often departs radically from traditional styles of filmmaking. In what ways is the film different from other movies? Do these stylistic differences accurately reflect the style and structure of Cormier's novel? Do they enhance or inhibit clear understanding of his themes?

The imagery, symbolism, and themes of The Chocolate War are immediately accessible to students because they are familiar. Studying this film as a work of literature can help prepare students for the study of adult literature containing many of the same ideas but more difficult to comprehend because of less familiar images, symbols, and language.

The film version of The Chocolate War is rated R, but probably should berated PG-13, for some profanity, violence, and sexual dialogue. Depending on the school, it could probably be shown in a senior class, but teachers should preview it before deciding whether and how to incorporate it into their classrooms. The Outsiders is rated PG, and, while certainly tame by 1990s standards, might be objectionable to some parents because of language and violence, as well as its depiction of teenage drinking, fighting, criminal behavior, and family problems. In both cases, individual judgment on the part of teachers is recommended.

Young adult literature, whether in printed or visual form, is not only a powerful motivational tool but also a genre worthy of literary study. What better place for it than the secondary classroom, where often poor and unmotivated readers can be engaged by writing that speaks directly to their needs and concerns while addressing issues of universal human importance. If we view literature not as discrete categories labeled "good literature" and"popular entertainment" (or, as many put it, "art" and "trash") but as a continuum beginning with fairy tales and fables and culminating in prose and poetry that captures the full range of adult experience and insight, we can see that young adult literature not only is worthy of study in its own right, but also forms a necessary bridge between the literary worlds of children and adults. The wandering heroes and heroines of young adult literature have finally found a home -- in the English classroom.


Brown, Joy Gould. Double Exposure: Fiction into Film . New American Library, 1985.

Cormier, Robert. The Chocolate War . Dell, 1974.

Hinton, S.E. The Outsiders . Dell, 1967.

Moss, Anita, and Jon C. Stott. The Family of Stories: An Anthology of Children's Literature . Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1986.

Speare, Elizabeth George. The Witch of Blackbird Pond . Dell, 1971.

Voigt, Cynthia. On Fortune's Wheel . Fawcett Juniper-Ballantine Books,1990.

Mary Ann Tighe and Charles Avinger teach in the Department of English at Troy State University in Troy, Alabama.