5 Classic Books We Should Skip In High School — And 5 To Read Instead
There are certain books that, even if you didn't personally read them in ninth grade, you associate with high school reading lists. You know the type: strong moral character, conducive to in-class discussions and take-home essays. They're seemingly always dog-eared, even if they're brand new, and there's the expectation that somewhere, on some page, will be notes, in pencil, about literary tropes. But are there classic books we should skip in high school? And if so, what do we read instead?
Now, before we go any further, I want to be clear — I'm not saying that we should never, ever, not once read these books that for generations we've deemed mandatory classics. You should read them. We all should, probably, but on our own time. Because books that are specifically chosen for classrooms, for high school students about to venture forth into the world with their new minds and shiny hopes, should carry in them the potential for disagreement, for arguments, for debates, for shifting perspectives, for lessons learned and beliefs questioned. They should simultaneously be familiar and very, very new. They should show a diverse set of protagonists. They should be written by a diverse set of authors. They should reflect the world we're currently navigating.
And when the word "classic" is synonymous with white male writers writing about white male protagonists, then we need to take a step back and consider what we mean when we say "classic"... and why.
'To Kill A Mockingbird' by Harper Lee & 'The Underground Railroad' by Colson Whitehead
Scout Finch is, truly, a favorite literary character of mine. But if we're looking at the larger reason for reading Harper Lee's 1960 novel about an Alabama town cleaved apart by a racially-charged court case, then perhaps shifting our lens to a work like Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, which explores the effects of slavery on Black communities beginning before the Civil War through today.
'The Great Gatsby' by F. Scott Fitzgerald & 'Behold the Dreamers' by Imbolo Mbue
Both The Great Gatsby and Behold the Dreamers tackle the same core element: the American Dream's trap door. Both are notably "accessible," welcoming the reader inside. But Behold the Dreamers, which takes place in 2007, focuses on more contemporary elements of the same concept — immigration, the financial crisis of the early aughts and the aesthetic nature of capitalism.
'Catcher in the Rye' by J.D. Salinger & 'How to Set a Fire and Why' by Jesse Ball
Angry, jaded, disillusioned teens, slogging through a world they think they've already figured out. Salinger brought us Holden; In How To Set Fire and Why, Ball brings us Lucia, whose father is dead, whose mother is in a mental hospital, and who makes her way through the world armed with licorice, a lighter and an increasingly, uh "burning" desire (SORRY I HAD TO) to set the world ablaze.
'The Scarlet Letter' by Nathaniel Hawthorne & 'Here Comes The Sun' by Nicole Dennis-Benn
Both of these books explore sexuality for women - the ways women interact with it, the ways in which it's forced on us and the tendency of the world around us to villainize the women who refuse to follow the rules of decorum. But Nicole Dennis-Benn's incredible debut novel, Here Comes The Sun, addresses sexuality specifically for Black women, for poor women and for sex workers.
'Romeo and Juliet' by William Shakespeare & 'Don't Call Us Dead' by Danez Smith
Please don't @ me for saying Romeo and Juliet should be retired. It's a beautiful book, it's a beautiful play, Shakespeare is a genius. But if we're asking the current generation of students to explore the power of love, its warmth and its pain, and what it means to give and receive kindness, then Danez Smith's devastating poetry collection, Don't Call Us Dead, which opens the imagining of the afterlife for Black men shot by police, is going to be more relevant. Truly.