As a special education teacher for students with mild/moderate learning disabilities, I do a lot of reading comprehension support in my small group tutorial classes. I have loved reading since I was a kid, and I always feel so sad when my students express disinterest or worse, straight up distress about their reading material.
I struggled with reading as a little kid, but by the tie I was in high school I took honors-level literature. The books I was forced to read during my high school years felt dated; not that I didn’t fall totally in love with a few of them, but I found it difficult to relate to the characters in these “classic” novels, and found it even harder to navigate the often redundant plots.
When I became a teacher, I was shocked that the high school English book list we present to our students is nearly identical to the one I trudged through 10 years ago. And if I struggled in the early 2000’s as an honor student with nothing to distract me but the occasional episode of The OC, then how are today’s students supposed to fare?
I chatted with a few of my students recently to create a list of books that would hit many of the same themes as the traditional high school curriculums, but would also mix in some more modern ideas and characters. I think it’s important to discuss mental illness and sexual assault in the classroom, but most districts offer no books that cover these issues. So we added them.
I made cuts based on redundancy and readability; for example, we don’t need 5 books to hi-light the follies of Victorian England. We need one. And I firmly feel that we need more books about modern racism, rather than half a dozen about the slavery. Slavery is obviously an important and tragic era that needs to be discussed in classrooms in our country, but to only discuss that and talk not at all about the Black Lives Matter movement is doing our students an injustice. I also found that books with non-linear narratives are incredibly off-putting for students whose strength isn’t advanced literature, so all of the books on my list have chronological plot lines and communicate complicated themes in simple, readable language.
So here’s my DREAM Booklist for High School Students:
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: This is a fantastic and easy to read novel that can be hooked in to current events so, so easily. It’s super high interest and there are tons of fun classroom activities you can do. (I taught this my first year teaching, and started the unit with an in class reaping.) It’d be an AMAZING way to start off the school year.
- The Lord of the Flies by William Golding: This is a student favorite because even though the language is somewhat dated, the story is exciting and most students have seen some kind of parody on TV. It also could offer some great compare/contrast opportunities with The Hunger Games!
- The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton: This book is amazing, and it’s be a great kick-off to a multi-book unit that explores the idea of being an outsider. It tells the story of a group of boys growing up poor in the 1960’s and how their place in the world impacts their lives as a whole. It’s perfect for 14 year olds.
- The Absolutely True Dairy of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie: This book explores a different kind of outsider; the main character is a native American high-schooler with a physical disability. This book sparks great discussions on inequality.
- Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck: This short, classic novel follows two men as they work as itinerant laborers in the American south. One of the men has an intellectual disability, and the dynamic between the haves and the have nots is super interesting.
- The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas: this is a pretty new book that is about to become a novel. It follows an african-american teenage girl though the aftermath of her friend’s death at the hand of a police officer. The modern voice is super appealing to teenagers, and it offers connections to current events.
- Turtles All The Way Down by John Green: This is also a very new book with a very modern voice, but it offers one of the strongest portrayals of a character with mental illness I’ve ever read. I think it is so important to discuss trauma and mental illness in the classroom setting, and I think it should be done earlier, rather than later. It’s also a mystery, which keeps kids turning pages.
- The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky: This book was so, so impactful for my generation, and yet it has been included on almost no booklists. It explores so many topics that students often graduate high school too scared to discuss; sexual assault, mental illness, homosexuality, trauma. We need to be discussing these sorts of topics in a safe and educational setting so that we aren’t raising young people who can’t relate to real challenges in our world.
- Poetry: I don’t have a specific book in mind for this, but I think a mixture of slam poetry, Emily Dickenson, E.E. Cummins, and other talented poets whose work covers important themes would fit nicely at the end of the year!
- The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros: I read this in high school in a very, very superficial way. All I remember discussing in class was Cisneros’ use of similes and metaphors. But there is SO MUCH MORE than that in here. All students should read this in its entirety and discuss how women of color fit into our society.
- Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston: This is a challenging novel and many educators might argue that 10th graders are not ready for it. But after the simplicity of Mango Street, I think it’s good to throw in another woman-of-color voice, and the beginning of the year is a great time for a challenging novel; get it in before the kiddos burn out!
- The Taming of The Shrew by William Shakespeare: You can’t read this without pairing it with “10 Things I Hate About You,” firstly. I think this play is a nice intro into Shakespeare, and it offers a lot of interesting opportunities for discussion around expectations for females, then and now. This would offer a nice segway into some more discussions on women in society.
- Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson: This novel walks through the aftermath of trauma and the silence that women are still working to break. This would lead to some amazing discussions about the #metoo movement and what it means to women today.
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte: So, I recognize that boys hate this one but I fee that we need to slip at least one true classic in here and when taught correctly, this book is awesome. When taught incorrectly it is a total drag and we need to avoid that as educators. Jane is a strong lady and discussing her character should lead to some awesome discussions.
- We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: This little piece of non-fiction would be a great ending to a year-long discussion on feminism in today’s society. I think it’d also tie in nicely to a speech writing unit since the book started as a Ted Talk.
- I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou: I read this in high school and remember feeling emotionally drained once I’d finished it. It’s an amazing- if challenging- novel thay all students should read at some point during high school, and it connects right back to our women in society theme.
- A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens: This is a classic that kind of needs to get taught. I loved this novel growing up, but I know that not many students felt the same. I think a great teacher could easily connect it into a year-long discussion on revolution and global politics.
- Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi: I love the idea of continuing to discuss the positive and negative impacts of revolution through 11th grade, and this graphic novel would be a fun break after the wordiness of A Tale Of Two Cities. It tells the story of a young girl growing up just before and during the Islamic Revolution.
- I Am Malala: Once again, this novel offers perspective about what’s happening in the Middle East. It connects nicely to a discussion on global politics. Plus, Malala is awesome!
- The Diary Of Anne Frank: I like the idea of comparing this to Malala’s book, and it provides a nice connector into some more historical stuff on the horizon.
- Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand: I am currently reading his and it is so, so compelling. It takes place during World War 2, so it loosely connects to our global theme. This is also a great book for young men, who might need to be drawn back in after two books told from young female points of view.
- The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien: I read excerpts from this as a junior in high school and it absolutely shattered my soul. This novel tells the stories of a group of young soldiers during the Vietnam War.
- Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safrom Foer: This is an amazing novel that literally changed my world when I was 18. The writing is lyrical, the characters are so, so intense, and I think everyone should read it before going off to college. The exploration of how war and terrorism shapes individuals is communicated in such a way that even a cynical, phone-obsessed teenager is left feeling pretty darn woke.
- Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Since we spent all last year discussing war, I think it’s only appropriate to start with some fun poems before the senioritis kicks in.
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: I love this novel. It is a classic, the writing is stunning, and I think a discussion about class is appropriate as students begin the emotional journey that is the college application process.
- To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee: This is a nice, easy, and compelling novel that stimulates great conversation around race and class. All students should read it during high school, and I like the idea of having seniors read it because by this part of the year, they need a simpler book as college app and SAT season is upon them.
- Animal Farm by George Orwell: And another easy one that relates back to that class discussion, and will help all those seniors not totally crumble as those early application deadlines approach.
- Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell: This is a total shift from that theme of class, but at this point in a student’s educational career I believe it’s okay to be a little more free-flowing about the book list. This book discusses what it takes to be successful, which is so, so interesting.
- Death of A Salesman by Arthur Miller: This play tells the story of a man who is not successful, at least not in the way he dreamed of. Exploring this idea as college acceptances and rejections roll in could be really helpful for students struggling with their results!
- The Odyssey by Homer: I think that the Odyssey is a super fun read when done right, and it could be linked into the question of what it takes to be successful. Right? It could totally be linked! Odysseus has to slay all sorts of monsters to achieve his goals!
So…there you have it! My student’s and my DREAM Literature collection for 14-18 year olds:) I know there would probably need to be more poetry and short stories and such, but I stuck to mostly novels for this list. Let me know if you have further suggestions in the comments below!
Now You Tell Me…
- What’s your favorite YA novel?
- What books would you have deleted from your high school reading list?
- What books have stuck with you since high school?