Donovan Reads High School Required Reading List

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

Julius Caesar

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Agree/disagree?

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Mythological Figures Who Get Personalities

All right, so I had to admit at the end of last year that I hadn’t read any 2018 books and 2019, with a different stage of noveling, would afford me the chance to pick up on what I left off.  All the book covers that I ignored, even though they were in my face.

Did I mention I finished the third draft of my novel and it will be sent out?  And now I need to work on getting my other stuff out there?  So I shouldn’t be binge reading, but here we are.

A Book of Mythology or Folklore:

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Circe, Madeline Miller

Characters in mythology and fairytales are one dimensional creatures.  They are only meant to be vehicles in stories, creating explanations for the natural world.  This leaves them ripe for re-tellings where their stories, personalities, and vulnerabilities can be fleshed out.  They can have reasons other than jealousy and control.  They can be people.  Circe is made to stand out with empathy, something she is mocked for among the other immortals with whom she struggles to belong, but make her endlessly appealing to the reader.

I had to peek at Wikipedia to polish up on the Circe from Greek mythology.  I did some humanities in college, reading bits of the Aeneid, and I can recognize elements of the Odyssey and the Iliad.  I like that her story is filled in, about how she went from being born of immortals to a witch on an island, how she was scapegoated and rejected, and how some of the animals on her island were her friends, not just men transformed into pigs.  And Wikipedia says ‘displeased her’ and in the book they were men intending to rape her, and maybe this is in the original stories, but if it is not, I commend this change. I love humanizing a historical/mythological/fairy tale character.  To show how they may have possibly been misunderstood.  Women in that time and place, even immortal ones, needed to wrestle and cage any freedom that wandered into their path.  I can see how this is timely with women gaining more power in this age.  We will root for our sisters working on the same thing across the ages.  Fortunately now we don’t have to have potions and incantations to do it.

Other than enjoying the story, because I love me a witch with a decent character arc, I liked the pacing changes of this one.  Circe is immortal and will have huge inconsequential stretches of time and then other focused periods of interest. I liked how she could speed it up and then slow it down, although sometimes she would be slowing down something I really wanted her to speed up, but that was my own discomfort, not her lack of artistry.  Circe was still finding herself in the longer stretches of time and her solitude.  She was still figuring out her place in the world where she seemed to be born into all the gray areas.  But when time needed to slow down, Miller did it in a way that wasn’t obvious, but that I noticed when I started to worm with the intensity and wished I could just find out what was going to happen in the scene.

The good thing about my reading multiple books for each category, other than it being an excuse to binge read when I should be writing, is that often I have books I have owned forever that fit these categories, so two birds with one stone.  This one I have had almost two years now, waiting for its chance:

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Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller

Again, Miller turns one dimensional historical figures human under her astute pen.   This is about Achilles but through the viewpoint of his long time companion, Patroclus.  Achilles is much more than a warrior in this book.  I forget these boys are supposed to be raised in Sparta, which my education has told me was mostly about churning out warriors.  Which seems to be the opposite of empathic creatures.  But although Achilles is aware that his main function is to be a warrior, he is many other things, the warrior piece only being apparent when he goes to fight in the Trojan War.  And even then he struggles with the trauma of war and doesn’t want to kill unless he has to.   Even then he sees others as whole people rather than shadows only to be categorized based on if they gratify or frustrate his needs, which often happens when men are raised only to be weapons.   He is loyal to his one lover, does not take others, and assures that Patroclus is treated as an equal to him, even though he is not.  And Patroclus is empathic to Achilles as well, respecting him and loving him apart from, and before he came into, his glory.

These qualities made the men appealing and I rooted for them all the way and I didn’t read Wikipedia to know exactly how it would end.  The prophesy of Achilles’ dying after he kills Hector is discussed way before the end, but I wanted to see him win up to that point.  However, I thought on multiple occasions how there was no template in these men’s lives to be so kind and loving, to know how to treat each other and be in a healthy, monogamous relationship since they were teens.  Keeping a healthy monogamous relationship alive through the greater part of your life isn’t only work but insight and skill, and I don’t know where these guys would have gained the skills they show in how they treat each other.  Neither one’s parents had a healthy marriage based on equal power footing; neither of them were made via a consensual encounter.  But they don’t know how to be angry with each other in a world that runs on anger and power.  Maybe it is only in the fact they know themselves to be pawns, despite the power that Achilles has, and some ways they betrayed one another were inevitable and not personal, and they both understood that.  Maybe Achilles’ mother,  as formidable and controlling as she seems to Patroclus, helped him to become the human, multidimensional man that he is. These are famous warriors, and in the book they are empathic toward slave women and loyal to one another above all else.

I may think these men’s personalities are a bit implausible based on their contexts, but I don’t know if any other book could have hooked me through a retelling of the Trojan War.  I knew some of it but I don’t so much care about stories of war, as any reader of mine can probably tell.  But I was hooked on this all the way through because of the strong character/human element.  Kudos to Madeline Miller.  I can see why she’s one of the big writers out there.

I realized near the end of filling this category that I also desperately need to read American Gods, which was put on my radar more than ten years ago and is a popular show, and I have wondered multiple times when it would be my time to read it.  I even recommended it to a friend who read it and is now telling me to read it.  The time must be coming.

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