I’ve always loved to read. I was the kid in high school who, when we watched the film adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 12th grade English, insisted that I read the book first. So, for those few days that the rest of the class watched the movie as a group, I literally scooted my desk out into the hallway with the paperback instead.
Major eye roll, I know.
Given my education, I’ve often wondered how my love of reading began. This is because the offerings in my middle school and high school English classes were pretty limited and far from interesting. And I gather that many people have had similar learning experiences. This is why, about 20 years and a few English degrees later, I’ve compiled a list of the 15 books I wish I had read in high school. I hope the list will come in handy for those young people who, like me in the 90’s, have an inkling that they love literature but lack sufficient guidance as to what to read next.
1. Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889)
At some point during our school years, most of us are assigned either Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Huckleberry Finn, in particular, is thought by many to be the greatest American novel of all time for (among other reasons) its considerations of race, identity, and morality.
Yet, there is more to Mark Twain than these two novels. Twain was an incredibly prolific writer, penning not only novels, but also journalism and travelogues, essays, and memoirs. Twain stands out among the greats for his truly singular wit and insight into the human condition.
A lesser known (but no less incredible) novel of Twain’s is A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which tells the story of Hank Morgan who, after receiving a blow to the head, is transported back in time to Arthurian England. At its simplest, the novel is a fun tale of adventure set in a time and place of enduring interest. At its more complex, it challenges our assumptions of history. Are we really that much smarter or advanced, Twain asks, than people from centuries past?
2. Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979)
In a field historically dominated by white men, Octavia Butler, an African American woman, was a pioneer and a powerhouse of science fiction writing. Her most famous book, the haunting novel Kindred, combines elements of sci-fi (e.g. time travel) with elements from the tradition of the U.S. slave narrative, to tell the story of a young African American writer forced to shuffle between her present, 20th-century life in Los Angeles and that of a pre-Civil War Maryland plantation. A groundbreaking, genre-bending novel that explores serious issues of slavery and prejudice, Kindred remains as important today as ever, and it would be great for introducing such issues to high school students due to its exciting and thought-provoking approach.
3. Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845)
Octavia Butler’s Kindred is a literary tour de force. Yet, it fits under the category of speculative fiction, or fiction that stands in some way outside of reality. For a real-life account of what it was like to live as a slave, nothing compares to Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Douglass’s Narrative tells the story of his being born into slavery in Maryland in the early 1800s, the many abuses he both witnessed and suffered within the institution of slavery, and his eventual escape from slavery to freedom. At turns starkly brutal and lyrically beautiful, Douglass’s memoir is a reflection on freedom, (in)humanity, literacy, and truth. Although the history of slavery in the U.S. is often taught in high school, such lessons are often limited and rarely told from the actual voices of the enslaved. While Douglass’s memoir is not the first slave narrative, it is certainly the most famous.
4. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952)
Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man follows an unnamed Black narrator who has chosen to live in an underground lair beneath a bustling city, a symbol for the social “invisibility” he has long experienced throughout his lifetime. Drawing from Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground and highly influenced by Ellison’s own mentor Richard Wright, Invisible Man is a lyrical and philosophical exploration of common issues faced by African Americans in the early 20th century. It is a wonderful read for high school students since it highlights the lasting oppressions experienced by African Americans post-slavery—most of which remain relevant still today.
5. James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)
A classic of high school reading lists is J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. This novel is often a favorite of teens, too, since they can so easily relate to the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, as he questions many of society’s conventions. But there’s no doubt that Salinger was inspired by another book, James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in which the reader similarly follows young, Irish college student Stephen Dedalus (Joyce’s literary alter ego) as he rebels against his upbringing. It’s a coming-of-age novel perfect for high school students, since it deals with many of the quintessential questions young people ask, including those involving their schooling, their religion, and their place within society at large.
6. Short stories (especially by women)
The curriculum of many high school English classes tends to privilege the novel. Short stories (especially those often anthologized in textbooks) tend to be assigned, as well. Often-anthologized short stories are usually classics, and for good reason. But there’s so much more out there—especially by women writers—where the unique art form of the short story is concerned. Masters of the genre include Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Walker, Margaret Atwood, Jamaica Kincaid, Alice Munro, and Ann Petry. In our current moment, a rich and diverse range of short story writers is also producing incredible work. The anthology Rotten English (2007), for instance, presents a collection of international short stories (as well as poetry, essays, and novel excerpts) written in “non-standard,” vernacular English, exposing readers to the myriad ways authors continue to re-think language itself.
7. Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning (2020)
Another extraordinary book that reflects upon the nature of language is Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings. In this collection of autobiographical essays, Hong plumbs—with humor and unique insight—her complicated feelings of racial identity. A native of Los Angeles’s Koreatown, Hong describes her experiences growing up as a child who was seen as not speaking English “correctly,” yet relates how these same experiences of coming to own what she calls “bad English” led to her becoming the dynamic artist she is today. An intimate exploration of Asian American identity and one’s relationship to words, Minor Feelings is a powerful offering for high school students, whether they can relate to Hong’s experiences or engage with an experience other than their own.
8. Tommy Orange’s There There (2018)
Much of the U.S. history and accompanying American literature taught in high school gives young people a limited, often romanticized, and ultimately inaccurate way of thinking about indigenous cultures. A prime example is James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, which presents native peoples as inherently “one with nature” and essentially part of the past. Cheyenne and Arapaho author Tommy Orange’s debut novel, There There, provides an alternative, corrective view of indigenous cultures to the one typically taught in high school. The book follows a cast of 12 characters from Native communities living in 21st-century Oakland, California as they deal with issues including addiction, depression, and cultural dispossession. In its consideration of modern-day indigenous peoples and their relationships to urban life, Orange’s There There refuses the limiting designations often promulgated in high school, showing readers how indigenous cultures have survived and thrived into the present day.
9. Contemporary poetry
The poetry that is typically taught in high school often leaves students disliking—or, worse—feeling alienated from it. But this is because the poetry that is typically taught in high school tends to be older, with archaic-sounding language that students find un-relatable. When I was in high school, I didn’t really understand that people still wrote poetry. And I think that many young people still don’t know that there is a thriving contemporary poetry world with many interesting writers doing interesting things. A few popular poets writing today are Ocean Vuong, Danez Smith, Sam Sax, Kaveh Akhbar, Donika Kelly, Terrance Hayes, Tracy K. Smith, Natalie Diaz, Katie Ford, Jenny Xie, and Layli Long Soldier. Literary journals are a great way to keep up to date on the latest in the poetry world. A few of the most popular literary journals out there include The Paris Review, Ploughshares, and Poetry.
10. Quality horror
When I was in high school, I was drawn to horror as a genre. Unfortunately, though, I didn’t really know where to turn for good literary horror content. I only knew of Stephen King, whose work was admittedly too mature in its subject matter for a teen. In school, we read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the occasional Edgar Allan Poe short story. Yet, as with the poetry that is typically taught in high school, these authors felt remote and almost ancient.
High schoolers who are similarly drawn to this genre should know that there is no shortage of powerful, artful horror literature out there. Some iconic examples include Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, which is widely considered the quintessential haunted house story, and Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black which, although written in the 1980’s, reads like a classic of the genre akin to Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. For more contemporary horror offerings, check out this list of 100 Favorite Horror Stories from NPR.
11. More nonfiction
Many high school students tend to associate nonfiction with academic textbook writing. I know I did. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized the category of nonfiction encapsulates everything from journalism, to memoir, to travel writing, to lyrical essays, to self-help guides, and more. There is quite literally a type of nonfiction writing for anyone and everyone’s interests. And, I think, if students were exposed to a wider range of nonfiction early on, they might find their own personal niche within it. To begin exploring this vast, diverse literary genre, high school teachers and students should look to what’s published in popular literary magazines such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic. Another great source for quality nonfiction is The Best American Essays. Part of The Best American Series published by Houghton Mifflin (which also includes titles such as The Best American Mystery Stories and The Best American Food Writing), The Best American Essays is a yearly anthology of magazine articles published in the United States.
12. Graphic novels
We’ve discussed how poetry can be alienating for high school students. The truth is, for many young people, just about any kind of literature can feel alienating, regardless of the genre. In a world that is currently so dominated by visual media, a solid introduction to literature often needs to come with the help of visual media. Graphic novels are a wonderful option in this case since, by definition, they blend visuals with literary narrative.
Though similar in ways, graphic novels are not to be confused with comic books. Graphic novels tend to be longer, non-serialized (i.e. standalone) books that combine text and illustrations in a comic-strip format to tell a story. And although there is incredible variety among graphic novels, some truly tend toward high art.
Examples of highly lauded graphic novels include Maus (1980), which relates the experiences of author Art Spiegelman’s father as a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor, and Watchmen (1986), a genre-defining (and interrogating) graphic novel about a disgraced group of former super heroes. There is also a 2017 graphic novel adaptation of Kindred, which adds striking visuals to Octavia Butler’s already stunning story of history, race, and the treatment of women.
13. Magical realism
Much of the literature taught in high school is either from, or inspired by, the British realist tradition. This means that such literature attempts to detail real people, places, and things in as truthful a manner as possible. Yet, there are many other styles of writing out there—writing styles that, in many cases, appeal more to teenagers’ naturally imaginative natures than does British realism. One such style is magical realism.
In magical realism, writers don’t attempt to detail real people, places, and things in as truthful a manner as possible. Rather, they create compelling worlds that combine reality with fantasy. Gabriel García Márquez, a Nobel Prize-winning Columbian author, is widely considered the “father” of magical realism. His stories give one the feeling that anything can happen at any moment. In his short story, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” for example, an odd, angel-like figure falls from the sky one day in the middle of an otherwise normal village.
The events of magical realist stories are often as interesting as anything seen on television or film. And in a world with so much compelling content competing for our attention, it would behoove high school teachers to capture their students’ interests with literature from rich, exciting traditions such as magical realism. Contemporary writers who write within this tradition of magical realism include Aimee Bender and Kelly Link.
14 The Very Short Introductions series
By the time I reached graduate school, I had the feeling that my education had been lamentably pointy rather than well-rounded. I had been lucky enough to craft an education that was catered to my specific interests. However, I felt like I had missed out on the opportunity to think through other, essential subjects and ideas. This is where Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introductions series comes in. With over 700 titles covering an incredibly wide range of topics—everything from Accounting and Alexander the Great to Volcanoes and Zionism—the Very Short Introductions series is a great way to fill in any gaps that might exist in your knowledge. Was The Spanish Civil War not covered in your high school history class? Want to know more about Black Holes or Behavioral Economics? The Very Short Introductions series has informative, literally pocket-sized books on just about any topic about which you’re itching to know more.
15. A grammar book or two
Words come somewhat naturally to me. And by the time I graduated from high school, I had intuited many of the rules of English grammar. Yet, I didn’t understand why I made the choices I did when speaking or drafting a sentence. For better or worse, I had made it through school without a proper course (or even a proper lesson) in grammar. Years later, I now understand that knowing these rules is beneficial to communicating effectively. Perhaps more importantly, though, I understand that knowing these rules can help one to more effectively break the rules.
If, like me, your education in grammar is lacking, you’re in luck. There is a whole field of authors who write books to teach grammar skills in easily-digestible and even (if you can believe it) fun ways.
Two such examples are Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation and the oeuvre of Mignon Fogarty (a.k.a. “Grammar Girl”). A former BBC radio host, Truss mixes humor and practical instruction in Eats, Shoots & Leaves to highlight the importance of proper punctuation. A former professor of journalism, Fogarty has published three essential books on grammar. Her first print book, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, made The New York Times bestseller list in 2008, and the audiobook version was named one of Oprah Magazine’s “must-hear audiobooks” in 2009.
Still looking for reading ideas? Check out The Best American Nonrequired Reading. Part of The Best American Series and edited by Dave Eggers and others, this is a yearly anthology of fiction and nonfiction selected by high school students.