There are many books we first encounter as required reading in high-school. I think that’s a real shame, because we would get so much more out of them if we came to them later in life. I’m seeing that a lot with books from my original reading list that I never had to read before this blog (even though they’re high-school syllabus standards); The Catcher In The Rye is a good example. That said, I can concede there are some classic books that are perhaps best suited to high-school students.
I should say at the outset that I’m generally opposed to enforced reading. I think the best way to foster a true love and appreciation for reading and writing is to allow kids to read and write what interests them. If a kid wants to read poetry or sci-fi or graphic novels, and write book reports on their favourites, then we should let them. Who cares if other kids are reading something different? It’s school, not a book club. Still, if we’re going to insist on required reading, here are five books that I think you should read in high-school (or should have read in high school, if you’re of a certain age)…
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos
I can already hear the shocked gasps: “But it’s all about sex! We can’t let kids read inappropriate things like that!”. And to that, I say this: The Great Gatsby, ubiquitous in high-schools, is all about conspicuous consumption, crime, and violence. Why are we so much more comfortable letting our kids read about someone getting shot than someone getting laid?
I thought The Great Gatsby sucked, and I’ve made no secret of that fact. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is an infinitely better book. It’s funnier, it’s more insightful, it’s more clever in its use of language and dialect. Loos did far more interesting things with perspective in narration. It’s set in Jazz Age America, just like Gatsby, but it would give kids a much more nuanced view of that period and it would teach them more about life and literature (see above). Plus, it’s a lot more fun! Read my full review here.
Diary Of A Young Girl by Anne Frank
I read Diary Of A Young Girl for the first time in high-school, and I’m so, so glad I did. I think it was a key moment in my empathic development. Reading about a girl to whom I thought I could relate (roughly the same age, bookish, introspective), in the midst of such atrocity and fear, taught me a lot at a very pivotal time. Granted, it might be a bit much for some teenagers, especially those at the younger end of the age bracket, but if they can handle The Book Thief then they can handle Anne Frank’s real-life account. In fact, those two books would make for really good paired reads. It would generate some great in-class discussion about our different perspectives on WWII and what we can learn through both fictional and non-fictional accounts.
Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin
This is one I’d like to suggest in place of The Catcher In The Rye. As I mentioned earlier, I loved the Salinger book, but if we’re going to be assigning coming-of-age books to teenagers we need to make them representative. All too often, assigned high-school texts – Catcher among them – feature straight white teenage males, somewhere on the spectrum from middle-class to transitory poverty. Even though they’re so common in literature, those characters only reflect the lived experience of a relatively small segment of the population. Go Tell It On The Mountain is one of many, many alternatives to those stories, and it’s a good one (especially as it would seem James Baldwin is disappearing from classrooms – bring Baldwin back!). Baldwin’s semi-autobiographical bildungsroman tells the story of a young black man in 1930s Harlem, and it explores complex intersectional identities in race and religion.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Firstly, all current high-school students should read Fahrenheit 451 because it’s still disturbingly relevant. Forces of oppression are still working to keep us mollified, keep us sedated, and keep us quiet – and this book is a great vehicle to teach and discuss that reality. Secondly, given the depth and breadth of dystopian fiction out there, I worry that if they come to this one too late in life – as I did – it’ll be ruined for them. Fahrenheit 451 reads like an intro-to-dystopia book, as far as I’m concerned. It’s not as complex as other, later works that high-school students are likely to encounter as they enter adulthood. Heck, even some of the most recent young-adult offerings – like The Hunger Games – are far more weighty; Fahrenheit 451 is just too short to build a world as complex and multi-layered as a series that stretches over multiple books. Often, I’ve found, when someone says they love Fahrenehit 451, they read it for the first time in their teens and it blew their minds. I say let’s keep that tradition alive. Read my full review here.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is a collection of short stories, so it won’t be particularly laborious for teens who find reading tough. Holmes is a pervasive pop-culture figure, so this book could be considered his “origin story”, a gateway to hundreds of other books and films that feature the tough-talking private detective. The mysteries that he investigates are fun, never too gory or terrifying. And it’s a particularly good book for would-be budding writers, because there’s a lot to be learned from Doyle’s economy of language and the way he sets up a twisty story. Even though I didn’t read this one in high-school myself, I’m sure if I had I would have loved it. Read my full review here.
I want to reiterate that I think it’s crucial kids be able to seek out and choose their own reading material. This post is not a list of commandments, and I wouldn’t expect that every teenager would love and appreciate all (or even any) of these books. Still, if I’m thinking back on my own reading life, and the books that I wish I’d read or books I’m glad I read in high school, these all rank really highly. What books do you think you should have read in high school? Tell me in the comments (or join the thread over at Keeping Up With The Penguins on Facebook!).
And while we’re talking coulda-woulda-shoulda, why not check out this list of books that will help you sort out your life?