Mandatory reading isn't always everyone's favorite kind of reading. Everyone has that one book that they remember slogging through in high school English class (and usually that book was The Scarlet Letter). But, as many problems as I have with Nathaniel Hawthorne, I do have to concede that forcing kids to read books is actually a pretty solid educational strategy. Books introduce kids to a whole slew of new ideas. Books put a human face on issues that can be difficult to understand. Sometimes, kids even realize that they like reading. So here are a few books that should be mandatory reading at school, because sometimes we need a break from The Catcher in the Rye.
I was always that nerd who liked reading Shakespeare and whatnot in high school—I mean, I took the elective class on James Joyce senior year. No one made me do that. But I understand that the so-called "high school canon" really isn't for everyone. So many kids don't see their own lives reflected in the vague struggles of Holden Caulfield or Hester Prynne. Quite a few high school reading lists could do with a timely face lift. Here are just a few books that would make a great addition to any syllabus:
1'The Handmaid's Tale' by Margaret Atwood
I'm shocked that this one isn't already at the top of every high school reading list. I only just read it for the first time this month, and (as everyone has been saying all year) it's depressingly relevant. 1984 and Brave New World are frequently read in high school, but somehow Atwood's chilling warning about the dangers of fascism in league with right-wing fundamentalism doesn't make the list nearly as often. Maybe the story of Offred and her fight to survive in a patriarchal dystopia a little too on the nose for our current political climate? Whatever the reason, it's not too late to start reading The Handmaid's Tale.
2'Citizen' by Claudia Rankine
Citizen is, quite simply, a masterpiece. Rankine combines prose and poetry to create something entirely new. Her work would introduce students to non-traditional writing structures, as well as confronting them with the reality of racism and police brutality in America. Especially today, when kids are able to watch YouTube videos of American police officers murdering innocent people, this is a deeply resonant piece of writing for high schoolers, as well as every other American citizen.
3'The House of the Spirits' by Isabel Allende
The House of the Spirits weaves together stories from three generations of women. There's the otherworldly Clara, who seems to have been touched by some sort of magic. There's her daughter, Bianca, whose forbidden love threatens to tear the family apart. And finally there's Alba, the beautiful, revolutionary young girl bent on creating a new future for herself. Allende's celebrated novel is a must-read for everyone, but particularly for any young woman who finds herself caught in the web of love, family, and politics.
4'Persepolis' by Marjane Satrapi
Yes, sometimes graphic novels belong on the mandatory reading list. Persepolis especially strikes the perfect balance between being an engaging, funny read, and very accessible to kids, and being a heart-wrenching story of growing up in the middle of a war. Any kid who only has the haziest idea of what's going on in Iran should read Persepolis immediately, because Satrapi's narrative is both educational and deeply universal.
5'The God of Small Things' by Arundhati Roy
I didn't read this book until college, and I was almost mad that no one had made me read it sooner. Arundhati Roy is a genius. The God of Small Things is about twins who live in Kerala, southern India, and about their mother and her forbidden lover, and about the untimely death of a child. But it's also about every human society on Earth, and the unwritten laws that govern who is allowed to be loved, and by whom, and how much.
6'Parable of the Sower' by Octavia E. Butler
Some schools shy away from assigning anything with even a whiff of science fiction about it, because surely literature cannot contain both aliens and meaning at the same time. But Octavia E. Butler's novels are a masterclass in combining speculative fiction with complex literary ideas. In Parable of the Sower, we are confronted with a future of economic and ecological ruin, where one young girl's strange ability of hyper-empathy might be humanity's only hope.
7'Americanah' by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Americanah is about everything from young love to the politics of hair. It's the kind of novel that sucks you in with its narrative and sneaks in some cultural commentary on the sly. Adichie's novel is certainly up there with high school staples like Jane Eyre in terms of a coming of age narratives, but more relevant to the modern day complexities of race, gender, and long distance relationships.
8'The Woman Warrior' by Maxine Hong Kingston
High schoolers are often forced to read memoirs and autobiographies, but few of those memoirs are as kick ass as The Woman Warrior. Maxine Hong Kingston ties in the Mulan myth with her own childhood in America, and boy is the original story of Mulan so much more than the Disney version. This book manages to weave a real childhood with ancient mythology and make it all compelling.
9'The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian' by Sherman Alexie
When I was in school, we never would have been allowed to read anything that could even remotely be considered "YA" fiction. But Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian would have meant so much to me as a teen. It's the story of Junior, a young cartoonist, who leaves his school on the Spokane Indian Reservation for an all-white high school out in farm country. The result is a hilarious, real, beautiful piece of writing for any reader who's ever suffered through any amount of high school.
10'Angels in America' by Tony Kushner
Angels in America is a play, yes, but the script is well worth reading. Tony Kushner manages to capture the grim reality of the AIDS epidemic through a fantasy of angels, mormons, and Republican politicians. Every kid going to school today should know the backstory of the current healthcare debate in America, and Angels in America gives a raw, unwavering voice to one of the most tragic chapters in American history.