11 Books That Should Have Been Required Reading In High School

by Melissa Ragsdale

Here's a fact that usually surprises people who know me: I hated high school English class. It's shocking considering that I ended up getting a B.A. in English, and I now write for Bustle's Books section.

But I just couldn't get into my high school English classes. Don't get me wrong, I had some amazing teachers. But most of the books that we read were straight-up boring, and the time that we spent prepping for AP exams and state standardized testing was torturous. Looking back now, I also realize that most of our curriculum was centered on books by cis, white, straight men — which is a huge problem. Maybe if we had been able to change up the reading list, I would have been much more engaged.

To be clear, I will always argue for the value in an literary education. Learning how to read critically, have informed discussions, and write with clarity are absolutely essential to becoming a fully-engaged citizen in this world. Reading opens you up to new ideas and viewpoints outside of your own, and it helps you make sense of your own experience.

Now that I'm an adult, with close friends who teach high school English, I can more clearly see the challenges that English teachers are faced with. Teachers are superheroes, y'all. They work hard day-in and day-out to give their students a meaningful education. They often have both hands tied behind their back by the rampant BS of our educational system, and still manage to make a difference in the lives of their students. In short, we need to support English class and the amazing people who teach it.

But sometimes, I like to daydream about what books I would teach if I were a teacher with unlimited control over the reading list. Here's what I would choose:

'Persepolis' by Marjane Satrapi

Wouldn't it be great to teach graphic novels in English class? It would definitely have engaged me as a teen. This memoir about a young woman growing up in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution is incredibly moving and thought-provoking, and guaranteed to start important conversations about activism, world history, and politics. Plus its coming-of-age themes will resonate with any high schooler.

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'Between the World and Me' by Ta-Nehisi Coates

When I read this book last year, my first reaction was, "They need to teach this in schools." The winner of the National Book Award, Between the World and Me is a letter from Coates to his son that lays out the harsh realities of what it means to be a black man in America today.

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'Sister Outsider' by Audre Lorde

I first read Sister Outsider as part of a college English course, and gave me the tools to think critically about privilege and my place in this world. In this collection of her essays and speeches, Lorde writes thoughtfully and candidly about intersectionality and identity, particularly her experiences as a queer, black woman.

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'Juliet Takes a Breath' by Gabby Rivera

I loved this book as an adult, but I know it would have been twice as meaningful to me if I had read it as a teenager. The book follows Juliet, a Puerto Rican lesbian from the Bronx, as she travels to Portland to intern with a feminist author who has been her longtime idol. Juliet grapples with many of the same issues of identity that I've struggled with throughout my life, but the book also offers a window in the experience of someone very, very different from me in many respects. As a young person, it would have been so impactful to read about someone with a very different background going through some of the same experiences.

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'Go Tell It on the Mountain' by James Baldwin

It's sort of a crime that my high school education had zero James Baldwin. In this semi-autobiographical masterpiece, Baldwin chronicles the life of a 14-year-old boy living in Harlem in 1935 as he makes important discoveries about his identity.

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'Eliza and Her Monsters' by Francesca Zappia

Mental health was never addressed at my high school, and it should have been. In this book, readers follow Eliza, a teenager who has a large internet following thanks her fan fiction. But IRL, she is actually a loner with severe anxiety. When a new boy comes to her school who is a fan of her work, she befriends him without revealing her true identity. This book is hella cute, while at the same time shining some much-needed light on what it's like to live with depression/anxiety.

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'Midnight's Children' by Salman Rushdie

I went to a high school with a large Indian-American population, and yet we didn't read a single book by an author of Indian heritage or featuring Indian characters, which is, in my opinion, a glaring oversight. India's history is at the heart of this glittering masterpiece, in which the children who were born at midnight the day of India's independence possess special gifts. Rushdie plays with the conventions of storytelling at every turn, so it would be a great opportunity to open up a discussion about writing craft.

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'Bright Lines' by Tanwi Nandini Islam

This is one of my favorite books, and I would love to dig into it with some literary analysis. Set in Brooklyn, this is the beautifully-written story of the Saleem family, during a summer filled with explorations and awakenings that have long-lasting consequences.

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'milk and honey' by rupi kaur

I was lucky enough to take a creative writing elective in high school where we got to read a wide range of contemporary poetry, but then I would go to English class and the poetry assignments there fell completely flat. Even though this book came out long after I graduated, I know this beautiful and emotional read would have resonated with me entirely as a teen.

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'Brooklyn, Burning' by Steve Brezenoff

I would love to live in a world where we could talk frankly in high school about the performative nature of gender. In this short but sweet read, Brezenoff doesn't use gender labels for either of the two main characters. This book asks you to think critically about what markers you use to determine your gender and how gender fits into our understanding of other people.

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'If I Was Your Girl' by Meredith Russo

Speaking of gender, high schoolers need to be reading books by/about transgender and non-binary people, period. When I was in high school, I don't think I read a single one. This book is a great start. When I Was Your Girl is the story of a girl starting out at a new school, where no one knows she was assigned male at birth.

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