Revamping High School Reading Lists
It’s not necessarily a new opinion that high school reading lists are outdated. It’s also a blanket statement in a lot of ways. There is value to the books that are being read — even the oft-maligned Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby.
However, I also think that high school reading lists have long needed an update. It’s been almost a decade since I was in high school, and yet students in 2021 are reading the same books I read. My father pored over Of Mice & Men decades before I did. And while I think there is certainly value to some of these books, I don’t think it’s rewarding to have every kid read the same material, to the point that successive generations are linked by readings of Romeo and Juliet or Huckleberry Finn.
So, partly as a thought exercise, I wanted to revamp the high school reading selections by pulling from some of my favorite books and writers. So, here are a few books I think could be woven into the high school reading curriculum.
To preface, there are a few books I would keep that are currently included in high school reading lists. These include: 1984, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Color Purple, and The Old Man & the Sea.
THE STEPFORD WIVES by Ira Levin
It’s remarkable to me that this book isn’t read by high schoolers. It’s a fantastically simple story, with complex themes of toxic masculinity and misogyny. Levin’s prose is simple, crisp, and drenched with dry humor. And the horror story itself is a great lesson in tight plotting and character work.
In other words, The Stepford Wives is the perfect blend of taut storytelling and educational depth. It has something to say, but it also is accessible to all types of readers.
ON WRITING by Stephen King
This seems like a no-brainer to me. On Writing isn’t just a fantastic tool for young writers, but it also has an important story to tell about the power of books. Not to mention, Stephen King’s writing is always engaging and accessible. While I know he prefers that this book be found by interested students — to have it checked out of the library rather than assigned by a teacher — I think this book could be an invaluable tool for high schoolers.
THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson
Another example of beautiful prose, great storytelling, and deep thematic resonance. While The Lottery is often read in high school classrooms, I think The Haunting of Hill House would be a more valuable and engaging read. As with many of the best books and stories ever written, it is designed to pull you in, to engage you as a reader first and foremost. But there is so much underneath the surface of this haunted house tale that you can show younger readers the power of theme and motif afterward.
AMERICAN GODS by Neil Gaiman
I have always believed that high school reading lists should incorporate more genre work — from horror to fantasy, to sci-fi, and beyond. American Gods is a perfect choice because Gaiman is a storytelling master, weaving fantasy and horror together into a compelling tale that also feels sophisticated and literary. In this way, it engages all types of readers, from those who prefer literary qualities (prose, thematic resonance, etc.) and readers who want a story that is entertaining and accessible.
EDUCATED by Tara Westover
Few memoirs have entranced me quite like this one. On top of being a compelling story, I think Westover’s memoir has an important perspective about the value of different learning styles. Not all students learn in the same way, and few books in English classes address the varied ways younger readers and writers approach this medium. Educated, therefore, is not just an engaging story, but also a great tool for students who may feel lost, who engaged these books from a different perspective.
PARABLE OF THE SOWER by Octavia E. Butler
It’s always sad for me to hear how underrated and under-read Octavia Butler’s work is. Not only was she a fantastic author, but she crafted some of the most important and beautiful sci-fi stories ever to grace the printed page. Much in the same way I think Toni Morrison should be a staple in high school classrooms, Octavia Butler deserves a spot, too. Like other entries, her stories are engaging and entertaining, while also offering powerfully important messages and subtexts. There is plenty to discuss, in other words. And while there certainly are some challenging aspects to this particular book — violence, for example — I don’t think that should be a reason to keep it out of classrooms. After all, violence is a staple of the current high school literary lexicon, from Lenny’s tragic downfall in Of Mice & Men to Gatsby’s murder, to the over-the-top story that is Romeo & Juliet.
BELOVED by Toni Morrison
This is certainly a challenging book in every regard. However, I think it’s also a rewarding reading experience, one that shows the beauty of the written language and offers a perspective as to the capabilities of narrative storytelling. Few books explore character in the way Beloved does, too. So, while students may balk at the literary qualities, I think it could also be an eye-opening experience for a lot of people who may not traditionally gravitate toward Morrison’s work on their own.
BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME by Ta-Nehisi Coates
This is a short book but it packs a powerful punch. It expertly and heartbreakingly explores racial issues with personal prose and an appropriate rage. Ta-Nehisi Coates is also just a wonderful writer; I think any of his books would make a great addition to a high school reading list. However, if I had to choose one, it would be this book.
A BOOK OF THE STUDENT’S CHOOSING
One of the most distinct memories I have of high school was when, as a sophomore, my teacher rolled his eyes when I wanted to do a presentation on The Shining rather than Macbeth. Not to say Macbeth is bad (while I generally am not fond of Shakespeare, I think Macbeth is one of his greatest plays) but The Shining robbed me of sleep. Not just because of the horror, but because I had to keep reading. I needed to find out what became of Danny Torrance. I stayed up at night with a flashlight to finish that book, pretending to be asleep whenever my parents walked by.
That was the first book that showed me the joy of reading, the excitement of a good story. And I think everyone experiences that type of book at some point in their life. They just have to find it.
That’s why I think students should be able to pick one book to read on their own. Doesn’t matter what it is, who it’s by, why they picked it. They should have the freedom to find and read a book they truly love.
Because, if there’s one thing I think current high school English classes lose, it’s that love of reading. When so much time is focused on the academic qualities of Fitzgerald, or Salinger, or Shakespeare, we lose the simple fact that reading should be fun, especially for teenagers.
With this list, I hope that that joy can be returned to the classroom, while still allowing for some academic insight.