The Ultimate Unassigned Reading List for High Schoolers
December 18, 2019
Supplement the classics your teen reads in class with this selection of fascinating and well-written page-turners.
As an educator, one of the most difficult challenges I’ve faced over the years is hooking reluctant readers into good books. Even convincing avid readers to tackle certain titles poses obstacles.
Anyone taking the time to gaze at a high school reading list will probably notice that it is heavily laden with classic, heavy-weight titles. Nothing inherently wrong there. But it begs the question if such a list, regardless of its merits, is well-tuned to the intended audience.
An English teacher myself, I can tell you this: Most of what high school students are asked to read is bleak, sober, realistic fiction that nearly always leaves out any mention of drugs, sex, or rock ‘n roll. Kind of like getting nothing but a plate of steamed lima beans for every meal, with no promise of dessert.
Below is a list that offers a bit more variety than is usually seen in a standard English classroom. While not intended to replace the lists that exist already, perhaps it may provide more colorful food for thought.
“One Trip Across" by Ernest Hemingway
When Hemingway is taught, it’s usually one of two selections: “Old Man and the Sea" or one of his more obtuse short stories. Say, “Hills Like White Elephants." While these certainly show off certain of Hemingway’s skills, they are also among his duller and more purely intellectual endeavors.
“One Trip Across" is a novella length work that later became the first part of the novel “To Have and Have Not." The story revolves around Harry Morgan, a fishing boat captain paid to smuggle a group of Chinese immigrants into the U.S. Harry already smuggles liquor and other contraband in order to make ends meet, but the risks of smuggling passengers is far greater.
“One Trip Across" showcases much of Hemingway’s brilliance, as well as an exciting, fast-paced, and hard-edged story. The type of tale more likely to engage the teenage mind.
“The Martian Chronicles" by Ray Bradbury
If Bradbury is taught at all in the classroom, it is usually “Fahrenheit 451." A fine novel, it more or less clubs you to death with its message.
A better selection is “Chronicles," which offers a more epic, layered, and inspiring storytelling. A mix of shorter tales set on Mars, “Chronicles" showcases the best of Bradbury’s talent: his ability to tell simple, exciting stories; his gift for allegory; his unique talent for blending science fiction and fairy tale; and his clear but melodic sentences. “Chronicles" also leaves much more to be discussed, and far more possible interpretations.
“The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread" by Don Robertson
Coming of age stories are perennially popular in the high school classroom. While there’s nothing glaringly wrong with “Catcher in the Rye" or “To Kill a Mockingbird", neither are half as funny or quite as compelling as Robertson’s short novel about nine-year-old Morris Bird III and his crosstown journey to see his best friend, Stanley Chaloupka.
Set in Ohio in 1944, Morris Bird’s story is one of friendship, bravery, redemption, and horror. For little does Bird know that when he sets out with his wagon all alone, he will step out into one of the greatest industrial disasters in American history: The explosion of the East Ohio Gas Company’s Cleveland tanks.
“Death With Interruptions" by Jose Saramago
Portuguese writer and Nobel Prize winner Saramago has a literary style all his own, one that may at first seem daunting for high school age students. Lacking paragraphs and relying on commas as the only punctuation, Saramago may seem like a poor choice for the average classroom.
In fact, Saramago’s work opens up a wealth of discussion about storytelling and clear writing. More than that, Saramago is an exceptional storyteller. “Interruptions" is the story of Death, who decides she is tired of all the killing she has done over the years. Instead of continuing on with her bleak duty, she gives it up. And, consequently, from that moment forward, no one, anywhere, dies. Shortly after that, Death falls in love.
“Tortilla Flat" by John Steinbeck
“The Grapes of Wrath" is one of my favorite novels. Ever. But let’s face it: it’s all wrong for high schoolers. What part of the Joad’s story will your modern teenager connect with? Little, I’m afraid. Worse, it provides only one side of Steinbeck, a side that, while utterly brilliant, is also perhaps his least fascinating.
“Tortilla Flat," however, is a marvelously funny story of a group of paisano bums in Monterrey. Steinbeck’s paisanos are good-hearted misfits, often inebriated, simple, and yet profoundly wise. On display here are Steinbeck’s fine writing, his robust humor, compassion for humanity, and unique vision of life.
Funnier and more accessible than “Grapes," this slim novel is a far better place to start for teenage readers.
“The Pursuit of Love" by Nancy Mitford
While the romantic adventures of Jane Austen are better known today, British writer Nancy Mitford covers the same ground with a greater degree of biting wit. She is also more accessible for modern audiences, making her work a fine choice for the classroom.
“Love" follows the comic misadventures of the Radlett family, specifically young Linda Radlett, who grows up and falls in love repeatedly, first with a Tory politician, next with a dashing communist, and at last with a French duke.
“Love" is a great novel in the middle ground: Appealing because of its romantic plot, but comic and zany enough to capture a broad audience.
“The Night Country" by Stewart O’Nan
Ghost stories are shortchanged in high school classrooms. Which really is a shame, given the array of truly excellent ghostly tales written over the years. “The Night Country" is one such tale told from the point of view of three teenage ghosts who have returned Halloween night, one year after the fatal car wreck that ended their lives.
O’Nan walks a tight line, allowing his specters to see how their deaths have impacted friends and family in their small hometown, but also giving them a mission they must complete within 24 hours. A rare story whose moral is clear but never touted in your face, “The Night Country" tells in fine, elegant prose a tale of loss, tragedy, friendship, family, and how to pick up the pieces when your life is shattered.
“The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven" by Sherman Alexie
Best known for his YA novel “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," Alexie burst onto the literary scene with this first book, a collection of interconnected stories about life on the Spokane Indian Reservation.
Alexie’s characters face the gamut of modern struggles: alienation, racism, alcoholism, cancer, car accidents. But what Alexie does best is hone in on the struggle with identity, the pull between who we are in the present and who we’ve been in the past. His viewpoint, as an American Indian, gives him a unique perspective, one that echoes powerfully in this collection.
“The Body" by Stephen King
Many teachers avoid King because he is popular and divisive. One of the most heavily banned authors in America, he is also one of the most beloved. Though much of his work would simply be too difficult to teach (too long, too graphic, too complex), “The Body" is a short novella about the coming of age of four young boys in a small town in Maine.
The premise is simple: Young Ray Brower went missing days before, and King’s protagonists learn that he is dead, hit by a train miles outside of town. The authorities are not yet aware of this fact, and if the boys hurry, they can hike along the train tracks overnight and see a real dead body.
A bit morbid, but King tells his tale with compassion, gravity, humor, and a deep sense of tragic loss. When the boys finally confront poor Ray Brower, they have overcome a host of misadventures, and coming face to face with death affects them in ways they had not anticipated.
“Appointment in Samarra" by John O’Hara
O’Hara was considered the finest writer of his generation. Unfairly overlooked today, O’Hara wrote clear, swift-moving prose and had a keen understanding of the social life of small town Americans. “Samarra" is generally thought of as his masterpiece.
The novel covers the three-day breakdown of Julian English, a well-off car salesman in Gibbsville, PA who makes a series of social blunders that ruin his reputation and lead to his suicide. O’Hara is intent on studying how people are hemmed in and controlled by social mores and the moralizing opinions of others.
While much of the novel may seem dated to today’s teenagers, the prose style is engaging, O’Hara’s people talk like real people, and the frank assessment of living up to the expectations of one’s peers should ring true to any high school student.
“The Haunting of Hill House" by Shirley Jackson
A slender novel, “Hill House" is a serious contender for being the best haunted house novel ever written. Jackson’s approach, like all her work, eschews gore, violence, and bloodletting for quieter disturbances of the mind. “Hill House" is ultimately an unsettling book, one that leaves few answers and all the more questions.
But simply being a novel of “quiet horror" wouldn’t mark a book as a masterpiece. No, it’s the quality of Jackson’s writing that is really the draw here. She crafts a brooding story about a group of young adventurers who choose to stay overnight in a “haunted house" to see what they might discover, and she does so in fine, sharp, intelligent prose.
“Hill House"’s softer approach and female protagonists will likely endear it to high school girls, while it’s more disturbing edges and creepy effectiveness ought to speak to high school boys.