Required Reading in High School {Discussion}

Discussion Post

I was actually kind of a nerd in high school, so I didn’t really mind required reading in most circumstances, but I know that most people hate and/or hated it.

I have to admit that there were a few books that I didn’t enjoy (thank god for SparkNotes! 😉 ), but I also discovered a few of my all-time favorites (like The Sound and the Fury) that I might not have read otherwise. It also helped give me an appreciation for classics. I probably wouldn’t have read anything by authors like Jane Austen or Emily Brontë if it weren’t for being introduced to that genre through school!

But I do think that high school required reading needs an update. So many teenagers hate it…why force them to read something that’s going to affect how they view literature for the rest of their lives? I do think that classics are an important part of the curriculum, but there needs to be some kind of a balance.

We don’t want to give kids the impression that all books suck, so there needs to be something in the list for everybody. Besides just making sure there’s a balance between classics and more modern books, there also needs to be a balance in other ways — like with gender, race, sexuality, religion, and setting.

While thinking about this subject, I decided that it might be kind of fun to develop my own dream curriculum for high school required reading, so I picked out a couple of books that I think would be good, with options for grades 9-12. For each grade, I chose two classics and two modern books, a mix of female and male narrators, at least one book with an international setting, with a variety of different topics and eras in each grade.

Grade 9:


The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2005)

Setting: WWII-era Germany

Themes: Human rights, Religion, Importance of Literature and Education, Friendship

Reasons for Inclusion: Child narrator, important historical time period, interesting narrator


To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)

Setting: 1930s Alabama

Themes: Human Rights, Race, Family Dynamics, Importance of Education, Morality

Reasons for Inclusion: Child narrator, readable classic, historically significant subject, both male and female characters


The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein (2008)

Setting: Modern-day Seattle, Washington

Themes: Animals, Relationships, Mortality, Illness, Life Philosophies, Friendship, Family Dynamics

Reasons for Inclusion: Lots of discussion topics, great kid-friendly book, very readable, interesting narration style


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1390)

Setting: King Arthur’s Court (mythical)

Themes: Chivalry, Relationships, Persistance

Reason for Inclusion: Fun easy-to-read classic, contains fantasy elements like some modern YA literature

Grade 10:


The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (1999)

Setting: 1990s Pittsburgh, PA

Themes: Sexuality, Growing Up, Abuse, LGBT, Relationships

Reasons for Inclusion: Hot-button issues, relatable to teens, “modern” classic, epistolary narration


The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

Setting: 1922 New York

Themes: Social class, Relationships, Wealth, Morality

Reason for Inclusion: Readable classic, both male and female characters, has recently become more popular because of the 2013 movie


Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Setting: 1930s California

Themes: Friendship, Human Rights, Social Class, the “American Dream”

Reasons for Inclusion: Readable (and short) classic, creates compassion for people who suffer from mental/developmental disabilities


A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Setting: Late-20th-century Afghanistan

Themes: Religion, Women’s Rights, Friendship, Relationships, Morality

Reason for Inclusion: International setting that isn’t in Europe, showcases a very different type of culture, modern popular book/author

Grade 11:


The Cider House Rules by John Irving (1985)

Setting: 1920s-1950s New England

Themes: Religion, Abortion, Relationships, Human Rights, Addiction

Reasons for Inclusion: “Modern” classic that’s very readable, lots of discussion topics, takes place over a large span of time


The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (2012)

Setting: Modern-day Indiana

Themes: Illness, Mortality, Relationships, Literature

Reasons for Inclusion: Popular modern book/author, relatable for teenagers, good example of macabre humor, male and female main characters


The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963)

Setting: Early-1950s NYC/Boston

Themes: Mental Illness, Gender Roles, Pain, Emotional Growth

Reasons for Inclusion: Readable classic, female author/protagonist, unreliable/unlikable narrator


Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

Setting: Early-20th-century Japan

Themes: Women’s Rights, Sexuality, Social Class, Growing Up

Reason for Inclusion: Features a very different culture from the US, modern popular book, relatable heroine

Grade 12:


The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (1929)

Setting: Early-1920s American South

Themes: Sexuality, Family Dynamics, Mental Illness

Reason for Inclusion: Different narration styles, includes both female and male characters, exciting storyline, unlikable and unreliable characters


Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2012)

Setting: Modern-day Missouri

Themes: Death, Criminality, Perception, Relationships

Reasons for Inclusion: Unlikable/unreliable narration, popular modern book/author, intriguing mysterious storyline


Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847)

Setting: Gothic-era England

Themes: Paranormal, Relationships, Family Dynamics, Interestion Narration Style

Reason for Inclusion: Good balance of female/male characters, romance between Catherine & Heathcliff is discussion-worthy, the paranormal aspects are a good link to modern YA literature, female author


The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick (2008)

Setting: Modern-day Pennsylvania

Themes: Mental Illness, Relationships, Family Dynamics

Reasons for Inclusion: Unreliable narrator, may get teens interested in psychology, became a popular movie (kids might be intrigued about the book if they’ve heard of/seen the movie), modern male narrator


What do you think of my choices? Which books would be on your dream curriculum? What required book did you HATE in high school? Were there any that you actually enjoyed? What’s your opinion on how required reading should be set up?




17 responses to “Required Reading in High School {Discussion}

  1. I have had at least 1 book every year of my high school and I have only read 1 in full. It was tomorrow when the war began. I loved it. I find it so hard to read classical novels, it’s just so hard to connect with the story and the characters but i cannot read any classical novels.

    • I think that classics are definitely an acquired taste, but really, anybody can read and like them! You just have to pick the right one for you (which, admittedly, might be harder than it sounds…but it’s out there!). That attitude is exactly what I’m trying to prevent! Poor kids these days are being taught to hate classics because they have such bad experiences with them in high school. But they so aren’t as bad as they seem! I’m sure I sound crazy, but I really believe that classics — the right classics — can be fully appreciated by anybody 🙂

  2. Oh man, it would be INSANE trying to analyse Gone Girl…that book is totally effed up haha

    I actually really liked most of the required reading books from high school- A Fine Balance is quite amazing. Also Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and The Elegance of the Hedgehog 🙂

    • I’ve heard of The Elegance of the Hedgehog! One of my non-blogger friends recommended it to me, but I haven’t had a chance to read it. I didn’t realize that was a “school” book!

  3. This is part of what I’m working on with my PhD — giving new life to HS English texts, especially in terms of both diversity AND how the texts are analyzed in class (for example, one can do a queer reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight — I just read an article about it!). The problem I’ve come up against is that a surprising number of English teachers are dead set against modifying their text choices. It’s really sad, actually. They laugh at me like I’m crazy for suggesting they drop a few classics in favor of fresh titles.

    The other issue is how the curriculum is set up. It’s not open ended, but instead focused on American lit one year, British lit in another, and World Lit in another. So that does restrict teacher’s choices, and it can be very hard to work diversity (especially diversity of setting!) in to a topic like British lit! But it can be done, and it should be done. I liked your choices of 50/50 split on classics and modern novels!

    • I was thinking of that while I was making my choices…that curriculums are actually set up for different locations depending on grade level. So I knew that my list wouldn’t really work as a real basis for actual teaching.

      But I think how it’s set up now is actually part of the problem! I doubt it will be changed anytime soon (like you said, a lot of education professionals are set in their ways), but I think that doing American Lit/British Lit/World Lit has a lot of limitations. I think it should be focused more on reading level and maturity, while also trying to include a mix of diversity in location, gender, etc. at the same time. That way a 9th grader won’t have to be forced to read a certain book because it’s “American Lit” (for example) and then get stuck hating it simply because they’re too young to understand the content. And by not shoving everything from one category in at once, it would ward against boredom. I mean, really, how many British classics in a row do you think kids really want to read?

      It’s definitely important to include books from the US, Great Britain, and “the world,” but I don’t think teachers should have to do it by grade level. I’m sure it’s more complicated than it seems…it would not be an easy thing to fix or change, and I’m sure there are arguments as to why the current setup does work. But it seems to me like the English education system in general needs a huge upheaval.

  4. Ohhhh you’ve got my teacher brain whirring Miranda! I’d love to insert The Book Thief into my World Lit syllabus… I think I might actually be able to get some thumbs up from my students at that point. And I completely agree about To Kill a Mockingbird; it’s one of my favorites. I’d love to teach Perks or TFiOS, but teaching at a Christian program leads to some issues as far as “overly exposing students.” It’s the one aspect of my job I wish I could change, but I guess there are ways to work around it 😀

    One that I loved from my required reading in college is Zenzele: A Letter for My Daughter by J. Nozipo Maraire. It is, to this day, one the most powerful and perspective-changing novels I’ve ever read. I think I’ve read it at least three times now, and every time I just get so fired up and passionate about the issues it addresses.

    • What books do you teach at your school? I went to a Catholic school, so I know what you mean…there are definitely certain restrictions at different schools, depending on how open minded they are. I guess this list was my “in a perfect world” curriculum haha. But hey a lot of those classics I mentioned were at some point in time banned in schools…maybe in 50 years, teachers really will be including stuff like Perks in their lesson plans!

      My whole plan going into college was actually to be a high school English teacher. My senior AP English class changed my life, and I’ve always been super interested in reading, and my mom’s a teacher so it made sense. But I ran into some bureaucratic problems at my university that stopped me from being able to complete the program (UGH!), so I had to major in regular English instead. But maybe one day I’ll go back and get a teaching degree and teach one day…who knows! It’s definitely something I could see myself doing.

      I’m going to check out that Zenzele book right now! I’ve never heard of it, but you’ve got my attention 🙂

      • Well I was actually pretty surprised because when I sent in my book lists for next semester, they allowed me Huck Finn, Great Gatsby, and Romeo and Juliet! So my reading will be fairly well rounded this year, I think. But I wasn’t allowed to teach The Giver last year in my world lit class… that was a bit of a disappointment :/

        Can we just skip ahead 50 years when people aren’t all into book banning please???

      • You weren’t allowed to teach The Giver?? Why? Because it’s not the “the world,” since it’s dystopian?

        I had to read The Giver as required reading! In 9th grade, I think. Ooh Great Gatsby. That’s awesome 🙂 Your books actually sound pretty well-rounded. Well except for the fact that they’re all male authors…but what’re you going to do, they’re classics lol

      • Because the kid saw his grandpa in the bath and it was “incestual”… And I actually have To Kill a Mockingbird for American lit, and Pride and Prejudice for British lit! But yeah not a lot of female authors 😦 I was thinking of adding in some poetry to fill up those empty spaces. Dickens is fairly innocuous; I think her poems will be okay 🙂

      • Ummm…oh my god. But what about that Noah scene from the Bible?! That’s basically the same thing! Ahhh. Stuff like that makes me want to punch people.

        But that’s awesome that you’re doing To Kill a Mockingbird and Pride and Prejudice!! I wish we’d gotten to read P&P in school.

      • Yeah I had to bite my tongue when they told me that haha.

        I’ve had so many of my future students complain about P&P! I’m so excited for it though, so I’ll make sure we have fun with it 😉

  5. One of my big issues with required reading is that there isn’t enough diversity. Or, at least there wasn’t when I was in high school, which was a lot time ago. I can literally count on one hand the number of books written by women for my whole high school career. That is not acceptable. And we read very few books about people of different races/ethnicity/religion.

    What I really wish that high schools would do is, 1 update their reading lists to make a diverse selection of books. and then 2. have a list of options that each student can chose from. I think kids end up not liking required reading a lot is because they have no choice in the matter. I mean, maybe there will be two books a year that every student has to read together, but then otherwise, why can’t their be options?

    • I like your idea about options. But at the same time, I think it would be really hard to teach that effectively. For me at least, when I was in high school, besides summer reading, the teachers actively taught the books. Like, you’d have to read the book by a certain date and we’d have a few weeks of lesson plan surrounding the book. Discussions, maybe a paper, possibly watch the movie version together, etc. If the kids aren’t reading the same books…that very much limits what the teacher could actually do with them in class. But I think that your idea would work really well for summer reading. We had choices for that at my school, and I really appreciated being able to pick and choose which books I’d read over the break.

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