I thought I saw an article on Medium about what kids really should be reading in high school. Maybe it wasn’t medium, because I can’t find the article now, but it got me thinking about what books I have read that I felt had more important messages to today’s kids than what I had to read, or even worse still, what my husband had to read when he went through high school eleven years before I did.
First, here’s a sample of what I was assigned to read in high school:
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Romeo and Juliet
The Giver, Lois Lowry
Lord of the Flies, William Golding
The Great Gatsby, F.Scott Fitzgerald
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett
The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
Mercifully, we were at times allowed to choose from a list, and these are some of what I chose:
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou
Pride and Prejudice (but it honestly was beyond me then), Jane Austen
Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow
Billy Bathgate, E.L. Doctorow
Book of Daniel, E.L. Doctorow
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe
The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
Darkness Visible, William Styron
Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
Animal Farm, George Orwell
Also I started reading Nero Wolfe novels and Richard Brautigan, both courtesy of my father.
Lots of white people and white people perspectives, lots of heteronormative perspectives, not a lot of empathy gathering understanding from other perspectives. I would say not a lot of addressing illness and disability, other than The Bell Jar and Darkness Visible, but I read both of those on my own steam and due to an early interest in mental health. And I think any reader of my blog sees titles that I have since revisited, the merits of which I believe I have discussed in the past and will do so again when I tackle more re reads.
Today’s world is full of everyone’s perspectives and they are all important, and I believe heading into the world with some awareness of others perspectives as well as an openness to them is the best start possible. I found that in college it wasn’t a knowledge of the white canon that helped, it was an openness to other worlds beyond what I had experienced myself. Which wasn’t a whole lot.
In making this list, my goals are to expose kids to many perspectives, gain empathy, appreciate complexity and develop a healthy skepticism. So what would I assign?
Challenger Deep, Neal Shusterman
There is absolutely more mental health awareness than there was when I was in school. I remember there may have been one kid who had been rumored to have spent two weeks inpatient, but I didn’t know why, and it was all very hush hush. One kid in the 800 I attended high school with that I heard possibly went. Nowadays, kids can name multiple classmates who have gone inpatient for an acute mental health need. They cover mental illness in health class. Kids are more open to talking about what they go through and often let their friends know that they see me. But this book brings into living color the reality of what a psychotic break is, and what it’s like. I don’t know what they are like firsthand but I have studied and known/treated people who have had them. And I believe that people growing up to work with mental health or the public or when making policy decisions. If I ran the world, this book would be required reading.
Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi
Like I said when I reviewed this book, it’s important because it talks about those of African descent in our country in more than just the time there was slavery and those trying to escape. Racial issues in our country continue to be forefront and are based on a long history. One that we can hopefully grow from. I remember learning about enslavement, and the Civil War, and then Martin Luther King and protests for equal treatment, but this book brings to life what these things meant in real life to real people. As I listed, I did read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and that helped open my fifteen year old mind, but it was chosen from a list and we could not have duplicates in the class. And it was one woman’s story. Homegoing is the story of many. Like in the previous selection, I have not experienced these things, but I understood them better when I read this book. It broadened my mind further, and I have had graduate classes on privilege and diversity.
Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides
Likely I would do excerpts from this one, as it is well written but wordy. I can see where it would be tedious to teenagers, and I want them to hang in there with the message this one has. Gender issues are forefront right now, and although the hero of this story is not trans per se, but intersex, it still brings up important points on the meaning of gender. If I had read something more recently that was about gender issues it could replace this one, but I think empathy and more understanding toward people who are not cis would be helpful.
Dune, Frank Herbert
Okay, a white dude writing sci-fi. I loved Dune, by the way, but I am adding it here because it is my experience that young minds who are getting into a world full of information through which they need to make informed decisions need to appreciate the complexity that comes with power and political issues. There are always numerous facets to why something went the way it did or why it is the way it is, and young (and older minds too I guess) tend to simplify issues and take stances based on limited views, or lacking the appreciation that their view has limitations and doesn’t mean the same to someone else who may need/want something different.
Ghostland, An American History of Haunted Places, Colin Dickey
I love a ghost story, so why would I recommend a book that kills our fundamental American ghost stories? Because it talks about facts and how facts have changed based on our viewpoints as Americans. To be skeptical of stories that seem fundamental. This talks about the darker side of our collective history and sometimes ways of thinking. The side that we don’t get tested on. Most, if not all of the places/stories mentioned in this insightful read are stories I already knew about from TV shows and this book presented the other side to them, showing me more about who we are as people than a good scary story. So think about why a story exists and is presented like it is.
Also, I would like kids to read one book that is super intimidating due to its length, just to learn that it isn’t as bad as it seems. Anna Karenina was one of those that I was intimidated by, and then increasingly gratified when I was making it through and enjoying it. I surprised myself. And I think that’s a valuable experience in creating a lifelong reader and the beginnings of an intelligent consumer of knowledge.
I have not read Freshwater, The Power, or Born a Crime, but they might be added to a sequel on this post after I read them. And I also have to say I think the current YA market does a great job in meeting these goals as well, all sorts of issues and perspectives communicated through stories.
I also need a moment to say how much I hated that my high school constantly chose Shakespeare for the drama requirement. One of my friends reminded me that the class begged our junior year English teacher to do something different, hence Waiting for Godot. Shakespeare was base entertainment. It would be like kids in high school four hundred odd years from now having to read Fifty Shades.