Monday, March 20, 2017

My Reading Life: What I Wish I Would Have Read In High School

 The title is a bit of a misnomer. There are some books that I read in high school that were amazing: To Kill A Mockingbird (read in 10th grade), The Great Gatsby (read in 11th grade, and which I super hated at the time and think high school is too early to really appreciate it). But there were also some clunkers: Of Mice and Men (read in 9th grade), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (read in 12th grade). High school is such a heady time, hormones and emotions running high, and the right book at the right time can instill a lifelong appreciation for books and the worlds you can explore through them. If I was redesigning the standard-issue high school curriculum (which I know doesn't really exist, my in-laws are teachers), here are the three works I would want everyone to read each year

Freshman Year

Romeo and Juliet: I read this one freshman year, and I think that's the perfect time to read it. Romeo and Juliet is a bonkers play, you guys. Fighting in the streets! Romantic obsession! Sex! Death! It's a story about teenagers being crazy and stupid and perfect for 14 year olds.

1984: In terms of actual reading comprehension level, this is very understandable for a teenager. Some parents would probably freak out because of some very mild sexual situations, but they need to chill out. This is a great novel to inspire kids to start to think critically about political and media manipulation (especially in this new age of "alternative facts")

The Hunger Games: I think recently popular lit gets overlooked on school reading lists, but I think this would actually go great with 1984. The language is a bit more modern but touches on similar themes about government control, and features a badass female heroine.

Sophomore Year

To Kill A Mockingbird: This literary classic was on my own 10th grade reading list, and I think that was a great time to have read it. Scout is a fantastic heroine, and lessons this book imparts about standing up for what's right and empathy for others are powerful at any age, but especially around this time.

The Perks of Being A Wallflower: This story, about the tight bond that develops between flawed teenage outcasts, is sensitive and powerful. As much as parents would love to pretend otherwise, teenagers do have sex lives and sexuality, and this novel speaks to those developments in a way that will ring true for 15 year-olds.

Speak: On the dark side of that idea about teenage sexuality is the reality that sexual assault is a real risk during these years. The book is incisive and witty and can help girls understand that unwanted sexual attention isn't their fault...and boys understand the importance of consent. 

Junior Year

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn: The story of Francie Nolan is one about overcoming the odds, mostly because of a love of reading and school. Francie lives through some pretty tough stuff and manages to stick it out, and I know when I was 16, I was pretty sure I had it pretty bad myself, so this book will bring both perspective and an example of triumph over obstacles.

The Catcher In The Rye: I really think this book speaks most powerfully to teenagers, who are obsessed with the idea of being real, the idea that adults are fake. By the time I read it, in my early 20s, I mostly wanted to give Holden a hearty smack across the face and tell him to snap out of it. But for a 16 year-old, the sense of aimlessness and feeling like you should know what you want from your life even though you totally don't is very identifiable.

Fahrenheit 451: Our world today has more easy distractions than ever, making the relevance of this novel, about the importance of books and reading and how easy it is for these things to fall by the wayside, even more obvious. This book will likely not speak to every 11th grade student, but for those who make the effort to understand it, it would be richly rewarding.

Senior Year

In Cold Blood: Truman Capote's masterpiece about a shocking murder in Kansas is a fantastic way to work with 12th graders about style. It was one of the very first non-fiction novels, and is perfectly paced and plotted. The appeal of a story is about the way it's told as much as anything else.

A Brave New World: This fits right in with the 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 suggestions earlier along the way about the ways that the powerful can subdue the masses through social control. This one is, for my money, the most mature of the three I've picked and as you're about to send kids out into the world, one that I'd like to have fresh in their minds.

Lord of the Flies: I think I actually read this in 11th grade, but it works fine here too. Finding and trying to fit into groups is a big part of the teen years, which continue into college, and the power of those groups to influence their members is something that's good to put into 17 and 18 year-olds minds as they get ready to really experience life outside the home for the first time.


  1. Oooh - interesting list. Love this! And I did my junior year term paper on In Cold Blood. I think my teacher was baffled that's what I chose, but at least she let me run with it :)

    1. I love In Cold Blood so much...I read it for the first time and college and have re-read it several times. Even when you know the story it's still so good because Capote's writing is so solid