This morning, I saw this very cool link to a word cloud that gives a kind of consensus about which books are truly must-reads. The prominence of To Kill a Mockingbird struck me as my classes happen to be just finishing it and it got me to thinking about what books high school students should read. And, well, that’s really one hell of an idea for a blog post isn’t it?
I decided that we should try to stick with reasonably short contemporary books as much as possible. Nothing turns some kids off faster than old language and page numbers over 300. So, without further ado, here is my list…
1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Why it’s good: This is the most obvious choice on the list. I’ve read some things lately which claim this book isn’t as good as many people think it is. That is nonsense. I think most criticisms of this book (Atticus is too perfect, it glosses over what the South was really like, it’s too preachy) are given by people who haven’t read it very closely (Atticus’s failings almost cost him his children, for instance). The language is beautiful and still relatively easy to understand. I’ve read it numerous times and find new layers each time.
Why high schoolers should read it: Because it is, in some ways, quite preachy. Kids often miss subtlety, and though this book has subtlety in spades, the central theme is very clear. It’s good for kids to appalled by injustice. On another level, it also opens up avenues for discussions of sexual assault and the court system. Those are two things many kids are almost totally ignorant of (a delicate discussion about Mayella will more or less insure that a reasonably thoughtful kid stops it with the rape jokes).
2. Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Why it’s good: It spawned a whole slew of coming of age books. No one can now write one of those without owing something to Salinger. It also gives us a wonderfully complex character in Holden. We are supposed to like him, and often do, but he can be terribly objectionable.
Why high schoolers should read it: Holden does almost nothing but challenge the status quo. Far too many students accept whatever is given to them without question. Passivity is the enemy of an intelligent citizenry. Additionally, it is very good for students to get to know a character as complex as Holden. They are often flummoxed by contradiction and nothing will flummox them like Holden.
3. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Why it’s good: This is pretty much THE book on religious dystopia and for good reason. Atwood is such an amazing writer (honestly, would anyone out there claim there is a better living writer? Others are certainly on her level, but better? I don’t know about that) that she makes what should be an utterly ridiculous proposition seem as real and scary as it is.
Why high schoolers should read it: This is another book about questioning, but it’s more subversive than Catcher in the Rye. This book is made to make you question your religious beliefs and those of others. America would be a better place if more people did that.
4. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Why it’s good: An African response to the 70 pages of slog that is Heart of Darkness, it’s the seminal African novel. An enormous amount of political literature was born from this book.
Why high schoolers should read it: America is the big kid on the block and every American child needs to have some idea of what it might be like to live in a nation that qualifies as the little guy. Too rarely are stories told from the point of view of the colonized. Also another book that questions the validity of imposing beliefs and structure on a people who do not desire them.
5. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
Why it’s good: OH MY GOD!! It’s a woman writing from a woman’s perspective about wanting things that society says she shouldn’t want! Clearly she does not know her place.
Why high schoolers should read it: See above. Sexism is the most rampant and ignored form of discrimination in schools. There is no better book for opening up the discussion than this one. This is far and away the oldest book on this list, but it’s also the shortest and important enough that they should be able to make it through.
6. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
Why it’s good: How does one even explain this book? It’s probably the most honest portrayal of war of any book I’ve read. Plus, it has the whole meta-fiction (is this a novel? or is it really his story?) thing going for it that lends it a particular brand of authenticity.
Why high schoolers should read it: It’s honest. No punches are pulled here and they won’t feel preached to. I’ve suggested this book to a number of kids and I’ve yet to have one tell me he or she didn’t like it.
7. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Why it’s good: Like The Handmaid’s Tale it feels eerily possible. Everything in this book is just close enough to the world as it already is. It’s also the kind of book that makes you feel cool while you read it.
Why high schoolers should read it: Everyone has a bit of the megalomaniac in them. This is especially true of many teenagers. This should go a fair ways toward dispossessing them of those notions.
8. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (technically short stories, not a novel, but cut me some slack)
Why it’s good: Well, let’s start by pointing out that it won the Pulitzer. That’s all well and good as shorthand, but why did it win? Because of the fantastic job it does of describing every aspect of a particular multi-cultural perspective.
Why high schoolers should read it: The more exposure they get to different cultural viewpoints, the better. There are a lot of kids in this country who don’t know much beyond white and black (and hispanic if you’re in the right region). It’s good to push them to think outside their sphere a bit. This will take care of that.
9. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon
Why it’s good: It’s a contemporary coming of age book. Catcher updated (sort of), but with Chabon’s wonderful prose style. I’ve written before that it has its flaws, but it so wonderfully captures the optimism and enthusiasm and carelessness of youth that I always find myself willing to overlook the flaws.
Why high schoolers should read it: Because the characters swear and have sex and get drunk and one of them is gay (GASP!). More than any book on this list, this will raise the hackles of parents. But you know what? Most kids are doing or hearing about all this stuff anyway. And many, many, many of them need exposure to homosexuality in a way that doesn’t involve religious condemnation. And it is a really good book. Also, though the characters do a lot of ridiculous things, there are consequences to their actions, so it hardly functions as an endorsement of living free of responsibility. I’ve taught this once before (I had to send notes home to get parent permission) and students really get into it because they can’t believe they’re being allowed to read this in school. Many students will find this more relatable than any other book on the list.
10. Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
Why it’s good: Multiple intertwining narratives expertly rendered. Thorough research. Beautiful prose.
Why high schoolers should read it: It’s about poor farmers. Seriously. I struggled with which book to put last on the list, and I settled on this one even though it’s a bit long (over 400 pages). There needs to be something here that represents the daily lives of a large swath of middle America. There’s just enough sex to keep kids engaged all the way through, and I think they’ll be appropriately intrigued/confused by the multiple narratives. For an urban child, this will be like reading about a foreign land. For a rural child, this will feel refreshingly relevant.
Some closing thoughts
If you look closely at this list, you will notice that there are five male writers and five female writers. There is a black man, an Indian-American woman, an Englishman, and a Canadian woman. There are stories about the rural and the urban. The rich and the poor and the middle class. There is sex (both straight and gay). There is war. There is religion and racism and many other forms of intolerance. This is not by accident. I feel bad that there isn’t something here that provides the Latino perspective. I just haven’t read anything that I feel would quite work with a high school student.
The point though, is that this list covers as much of the adult world as I can manage in ten relatively short books. Importantly, it does not shy away from anything, including sex and religion. Students need to discuss these things and they will appreciate being given enough credit to be trusted to read these books without making fools of themselves. If some of them wouldn’t get me fired, I’d teach every one of these books.