Cliffs Notes Gets Hip to Multiculturalism

Article excerpt

SINCE the late 1950s, the boldly designed, yellow-and-black-striped Cliffs Notes booklets have been the Classic Coke of literary analysis: popular, low on protein and easy to swallow.

But a quick glance at the racks shows there's a new twist to the s ummarized versions of literary classics that have helped thousands of students rush through "Hamlet," "Anna Karenina" and "Crime and Punishment."

Cliffs Notes has become hip - diving into more current literature as high schools and colleges try to respond to the interest in multiculturalism.

There now are Cliffs Notes for "The Joy Luck Club" and the "The Kitchen God's Wife," both by Amy Tan. The latter novel is summarized as "a multigenerational focus on Chinese and Chinese-American women whose hopes are destroyed by men who devalue them."

Also available are "The Bluest Eye" and "Sula" by Toni Morrison, "two short novels (that) focus on young black women and their adolescent and adult lives as they come of age in difficult circumstances and settings." Another Morrison novel now in Cliffs Notes is "Beloved."

There are even Cliffs Notes for "The House on Mango Street," by Sandra Cisneros: "A coming-of-age collection of short prose poems (that) present the world of a young Chicano girl with a flair for language as she struggles to understand the adults around her and fulfill her gnawing need for a sense of permanency."

The irony has not escaped Cisneros.

"(They) must be longer than my `Mango Street,' " the Chicago native said in a phone interview from her San Antonio home. "I don't understand why anyone would need a Cliffs Notes on my book. It's a novel described in poetry. I tried to use very simple language. I hope that the students know that it's easier to read my book than the notes. I guess it's kind of an honor. It means I'm selling a lot of books."

Despite Cliffs Notes' inescapable reputation as a cheat sheet for students who don't do their homework, some authors and English professors are applauding Cliffs Notes' latest move as an attempt to adapt to the changing times.

But that is irksome to other teachers.

"Some of us teachers feel a great betrayal, because one of the reasons that we went to certain books was because there were no Cliffs Notes on them," said Carol Jago, head of the English department at Santa Monica High School in California who also sits on the National Council of Teachers' literature committee. …