The short answer, for me, is a resounding yes. But this is my blog, so I’m not going to limit myself to a short answer!
I participated in a twitter discussion about this question the other day. At the time, the question was specifically around teens and whether they should be encouraged to read classic fiction. But I think that my answer to the question applies to adults and children as well. While I’m sure there are exceptions to this (I suppose you could try to find something so dated that it has no relevant application to today. But why bother with that?) I find that most classics are considered classics because they have an emotional resonance that goes beyond their historical and geographic setting.
One example used in the discussion was Anne of Green Gables, which, if you’ve been reading this blog for a little while, you’ll know is a favorite of mine. I’ll use it as an example, but what I say is applicable of other books as well. On the surface Anne’s experience doesn’t look like that of most contemporary children or teens. She lives on an island in Canada in the early years of the 20th century. What could that have to say to a contemporary LGBT reader? Or a Latinx teen in 2019? Well, for one thing, she’s a foster child trying to create a home for herself. That desire for home isn’t limited to foster children. There are plenty of kids who don’t find the acceptance and support that they need in their family homes and seek it elsewhere. Really, what Anne is trying to find is love, acceptance, friendship, and family. Contemporary readers of all backgrounds can cheer her on as she creates that environment for herself and builds the family she seeks.
But surely today’s teens are from diverse backgrounds and experiences. Classics tend to reflect a limited demographic, you might argue. To that, I say absolutely. Historically the voices of certain demographics have been privileged to the exclusion of others. Unfortunately that is still true today to some extent, though there is, thankfully, more of an effort to include diverse voices contemporary literature. That’s one of the reasons that I don’t think that people should be encouraged to read only classics. I think that it’s important that contemporary fiction reflects and represents our diverse society. I would encourage anyone to read widely from a variety of authors. Some of those authors may come from similar backgrounds to the reader. Others may come from very different backgrounds.
I think that reading in this way shows us what is universal. It can allow us to empathize and make connections on that basis. A teen from a marginalized background might think s/he has nothing in common with a character from Little Women or Tom Sawyer or The Secret Garden. But while their experience of the world may be vastly different, chances are they’ve felt loneliness, grief, frustration or the drive to create a better future for themselves.
Likewise, someone from a privileged background might think that reading contemporary fiction that highlights marginalized voices and issues of privilege doesn’t offer anything relevant. But again, that’s not true. Novels like The Hate U Give and The Poet X deal with the African American and Latinx experience respectively. But a white teen might still relate to the way that the heroine of The Poet X, Xiomara, deals with body shaming, parental pressure, and lack of autonomy. A white teen reader of The Hate U Give might never have felt fear in the presence of police when they know they’ve done nothing wrong. But that same kid might still be able to relate to the pressure that the heroine faces from her family and friends, to her torn loyalties. Those commonalities can create a bridge. If a character that’s different from a reader still rings true the reader can begin to open his/her mind to someone else’s experience.
Sometimes we need to point out those commonalities. But I think that kids see them for themselves more often than we realize. The problem is that often kids and teens are told that certain books aren’t “for” them. Instead of doing that, lets give young readers (or all readers!) the context to enjoy fiction that depicts someone else’s experience. Because we all experience the world differently. But if we can teach empathy we can make that world much better for everyone.