Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Ricochet Book List, Teen Edition

 

Inspired by recent higher education posts by Rob and Claire, as well as by a long ago one by Peter regarding appropriate and entertaining books for teens, I wonder if Ricochet can come up with books that American middle and high school students must read in school? We can assume there would be a decent teacher, but not a great one. We should assume students of all backgrounds and of average intelligence.

For starters, I wonder if I’m the only dolt on here who had the following problem: I was asked to read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn before I knew anything about slavery, Animal Farm without grasping the most basic forms of government, The Scarlet Letter without really “getting” adultery, and Romeo and Juliet with only a modicum of understanding of my own English, much less that from 400 years earlier.

I was supposed to have digested these, among too many others, before high school. I read them as an adult, so I can appreciate their “classic” status. But I have also had to teach these same works to 12- and 13-year-old students of all abilities, and I feel that these choices for this age quite simply – and quite quickly — turn students away from reading.

How can we solve this puzzle? What are 5-10 books we should expect middle and high school students to 1) understand, 2) learn some useful history from, and 3) learn a life lesson from?

As Claire might say, please justify your choices.

There are 61 comments.

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  1. Profile Photo Member

    If you miss <em>Cathcer in the Rye</em> while in your teens, you’ve miised something important. I tried to read it again years later and couldn’t get into it.

    • #1
    • July 28, 2010, at 1:35 AM PDT
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  2. Mel Foil Inactive

    In Cold Blood, Slaughterhouse 5, Dr. Zhivago….

    • #2
    • July 28, 2010, at 1:58 AM PDT
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  3. Profile Photo Member

    I would agree that “Catcher in the Rye” is a good start. It’s easy to understand, entertaining, and it is still able to connect with teenagers (such as myself) all these years later.

    When I was a a freshman in high school, they made us read “Great Expectations,” which at the time seemed boring, arcane, and pointless. I’ve gone back and read it, and now I enjoy it greatly. But perhaps it’s not a good choice for a freshman in high school.

    The best bet to get teens to read would be to assign shorter books, like “Fahrenheit 451” and maybe “1984.” However, some shorter book should be avoided. Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” is very short (about a hundred pages long, if memory serves), but incredibly boring and tedious. I had to read that one in either sophomore or junior year, and have resented Hemingway ever since.

    • #3
    • July 28, 2010, at 2:02 AM PDT
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  4. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor

    I might disagree with the premise. I’m not sure it’s important fully to understand what you’re reading to get something out of it. Case in point: I read Animal Farm at the age of five. No, of course I didn’t understand it. I really liked it, though, because it was about talking animals, and what five-year-old (especially me) doesn’t like talking animals? My father explained that in fact it was about something called “Revolution,” I accepted this pleasantly as five-year-olds do. But somehow enough of that book’s real message got into my head that later, when I began to understand the word “Revolution,” I was able to match it, emotionally, with Boxer’s fate–quite an important association, I’d say. And still later, when I returned to the book and read it through adult eyes, it had the feeling of an old friend. It was already a part of me. The greatest works of literature can be appreciated on many levels. You don’t necessarily need to have committed adultery to appreciate The Scarlet Letter, literature can also be the means by which we learn about adultery.

    • #4
    • July 28, 2010, at 2:03 AM PDT
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  5. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor

    Although I myself learned about adultery by reading a purloined copy of Valley of the Dolls, at the age of eleven. I learned a lot from that book, actually.

    • #5
    • July 28, 2010, at 2:08 AM PDT
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  6. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor

    Okay, To Kill a Mockingbird fans, you win: You were vastly more sensitive teenagers than I was. One quick point: Shakespeare’s plays should never, ever be taught as a books to be read. They’re meant to be watched. Of course kids don’t get them if they just read them. Find the most spectacular and visually compelling videos ever made and show them on the biggest screen you can find, with the volume turned up to eleven. In an ideal world you’d take them to watch a great performance, but few stand up, say, to Lawrence Olivier’s Othello. I mean, check this out: The language? On its own, too difficult for any 12 year old to read and understand. But if they watch this, they’ll grasp it perfectly, and seriously, if this weren’t Shakespeare, we’d never let them watch something like this, would we? Also, if the kids aren’t simply fascinated by the revelation that Olivier is actually a white guy, I’ll be astounded.

    • #6
    • July 28, 2010, at 2:16 AM PDT
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  7. Profile Photo Member

    Catcher in the Rye, Huck Finn, Romeo and Juliet, Of Mice and Men didn’t turn me away from reading at all (and most of them came between 13 and 15). The trick is to not only tell the kid to read the book but also to teach the context of the language and social history. I don’t think I really had a complete grasp on the history of slavery in the US when I read Huck Finn (14?), but it helped encourage me to learn more on the subject.

    Moby Dick and The Scarlet Letter, on the other hand, tried mightily to make me hate the written word. Moby Dick for its cumbersome prose and the Scarlet Letter for its equally cumbersome and heavy-handed symbolism. I know it’s heresy, but I might ditch those for something more contemporary. Or maybe just more Shakespeare.

    If you want to teach kids to love reading, though, there should be a second list of things that are good and insightful but chosen mostly because they encourage the kid simply to enjoy reading. The geek in me reaches for his Heinlein collection at a moment like this…

    • #7
    • July 28, 2010, at 2:17 AM PDT
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  8. Profile Photo Member

    Claire, around the time you were reading Valley of the Dolls, I had pinched a copy of The Prince from one of my dad’s friends. I have to admit, if I had a kid that age, I’m pretty sure I would prefer they read Valley of the Dolls…

    • #8
    • July 28, 2010, at 2:20 AM PDT
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  9. Profile Photo Member

    Oh, I forgot: I commented the second time to agree that I think the premise is flawed. If you teach kids to love reading–and, miraculously, my parents did just that with me–then what they read will lead them to discover and understand new things.

    I had (and have) a voratious appetite for the written word and I’ve learned more from reading everything from your own Victor Davis Hansen to Paul Theroux to Sean Stewart to Fareed Zakaria. Understanding everything isn’t a prerequisite and never was–reading always included an aspect of exploration to me.

    For that matter, agreeing is entirely optional. The writing that has challenged my beliefs and assumptions, even when I don’t end up agreeing with the author, will always be my favorite. This isn’t something that I learned as an adult; I’ve carried this with me since my real addiction to reading started when I was around 10.

    • #9
    • July 28, 2010, at 2:27 AM PDT
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  10. Profile Photo Member

    How about Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey? If we’re talking about middle school students, they’ll identify with and learn from Dorian’s obsession with looks. They’ll learn about Victorian society. And they’ll learn that decadence and excess lead to tragedy and death.

    PLUS it can’t hurt to have them internalize some of Wilde’s brilliant wit.

    • #10
    • July 28, 2010, at 2:36 AM PDT
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  11. Palaeologus Inactive

    Lowry’s The Giver is a good, brief, understandable story. So is the fast-paced Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. Both are about dystopias in which the family has been intentionally undermined as a competing source of authority. Both are quite fun.

    • #11
    • July 28, 2010, at 2:40 AM PDT
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  12. tabula rasa Member
    tabula rasa Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I raised five children, and none of them ever complained about To Kill a Mockingbird. Also, although I didn’t read it until I was an adult, My Antonia is a beautiful book that some teens will take to.

    For fun, there is no better funny writing going on today than in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. And there won’t be many more as Pratchett has been diagnosed with a rare form of early-onset Alzheimers.

    • #12
    • July 28, 2010, at 2:43 AM PDT
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  13. tabula rasa Member
    tabula rasa Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    On the negative side, don’t even let Moby Dick in your house or your kids may never read again. About every ten years or so, I give Moby another try. I haven’t made it yet even though I’ve now read War and Peace and The Brothers Karamazov. I think maybe Mellville wrote Moby Dick for octogenarians.

    Two more positive recommendations: Gulliver’s Travels works on different levels. And if you want your kids to read stories that are good on their own, but which are also filled with Christian symoblism, have them read The Chronicles of Narnia.

    • #13
    • July 28, 2010, at 2:51 AM PDT
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  14. Mel Foil Inactive

    I think most of Dickens would be enjoyed by young people (including boys.)

    • #14
    • July 28, 2010, at 2:53 AM PDT
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  15. The Mugwump Inactive

    I try to introduce literature to my students as part my history curriculum. We read The Good Earth with Chinese history, for example. When I teach American history, I usually introduce The Red Badge of Courage with the Civil War, and Grapes of Wrath for the Great Depression. For government and economics I insist on Atlas Shrugged. Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse fits nicely into a unit on comparative religion.

    I have found that a significant number of today’s kids are simply non-readers, and it distresses me. I’ve had 9th grade students ask me for definitions of simple words like “infantry” and “pilfer.” My response is usually to indicate the row of dictionaries at the back of my classroom. The kids on the other hand who constantly carry a book of their choosing for pleasure reading tend to be the ones who score highest on the SAT’s.

    • #15
    • July 28, 2010, at 3:19 AM PDT
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  16. Ursula Hennessey Contributor
    Ursula Hennessey
    Claire Berlinski: I might disagree with the premise. I’m not sure it’s important fully to understand what you’re reading to get something out of it. Case in point: I read Animal Farm at the age of five. No, of course I didn’t understand it. I really liked it, though, because it was about talking animals, and what five-year-old (especially me) doesn’t like talking animals? My father explained that in fact it was about something called “Revolution,” I accepted this pleasantly… somehow enough of that book’s real message got into my head that later, when I began to understand the word “Revolution,” I was able to match it, emotionally, with Boxer’s fate.

    Claire, do you really think you were/are the typical American 5YO or teen? I realize I am a dolt, as I said, compared to you. No doubt about that. I’m asking us all to think about a bright 12-year-old from, say, the South Bronx. An ESL student. What might reach them?

    • #16
    • July 28, 2010, at 3:29 AM PDT
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  17. Ursula Hennessey Contributor
    Ursula Hennessey
    Claire Berlinski: You don’t necessarily need to have committed adultery to appreciate The Scarlet Letter, literature can also be the means by which we learn about adultery. · Jul 27 at 2:03pm

    Did I say that?

    • #17
    • July 28, 2010, at 3:30 AM PDT
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  18. Diane Ellis Contributor

    I really enjoyed reading Rousseau’s Emile as a sophomore in high school. It’s an introduction to the big nature vs. nurture questions of life, and really pushes readers to consider the essence of human nature (i.e. are we in essence good, or are we flawed and fallen creatures?). The writing is on the dense-ish end of the spectrum, but because the main character is a child (and eventually a teenager and young adult) it’s manageable for high school aged students.

    • #18
    • July 28, 2010, at 3:41 AM PDT
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  19. Ursula Hennessey Contributor
    Ursula Hennessey
    David Jones: Oh, I forgot: I commented the second time to agree that I think the premise is flawed. If you teach kids to love reading–and, miraculously, my parents did just that with me–then what they read will lead them to discover and understand new things. · Jul 27 at 2:27pm

    I guess, as a former teacher of middle school boys on all parts of the spectrum — inner city, privileged, neglected, coddled, dyslexic, ADD — I know that these “traditional” books, and others like them, are turn offs. Perhaps the top third of the class, at most, gets something from them, if not everything. True, for you and me, David, our stable, educated, and involved parents prevented us from giving up on books altogether. But many, many American parents don’t like reading themselves. What books can we choose to convince their children, often in the middle and bottom groupings, that reading is worth pursuing?

    • #19
    • July 28, 2010, at 3:49 AM PDT
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  20. Ursula Hennessey Contributor
    Ursula Hennessey
    Judith Levy: A Separate Peace totally blew me away when I was in high school. I happened to finish reading it on a plane — this must have been coming back from our school choir’s trip to England — and I remember sitting in the plane seat, clutching the book and just sobbing. And sorry Claire, I loved every word of To Kill A Mockingbird, and so did my friends who were also assigned it in high school. To this day, when I think of Scout looking up at Boo Radley and saying “Hey, Boo,” I get goosebumps.

    I’d definitely put some Agatha Christie on the list — Murder on the Orient Express, or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, or the ABC Murders, or any one of many others. Her stuff is brilliantly plotted, easy to read and very satisfying. It’s so accessible that it’s very commonly used in the teaching of ESL, so I’d imagine it would also be useful for young native readers of English. · Jul 27 at 11:46pm

    The Agatha Christie idea is a great one! I’d never come across that on a middle school curriculum, but you’re right — it belongs there!

    • #20
    • July 28, 2010, at 3:53 AM PDT
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  21. The Mugwump Inactive

    What books can we choose to convince their children, often in the middle and bottom groupings, that reading is worth pursuing?

    As much as I hate them, I prefer “graphic novels” to nothing at all.

    • #21
    • July 28, 2010, at 3:56 AM PDT
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  22. Ursula Hennessey Contributor
    Ursula Hennessey
    Peter Robinson: For boys? Huckleberry Finn is a wonderful story of escape and adventure and thumbing your nose at grownups. Tom Sawyer, too. …I myself loved C.S.Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia when I was still in (as I recall) fifth grade, reading them as animal stories; only when I re-read them when I was in junior high did I figure out that they were Christian allegories. (Claire’s right: if the material is any good, it can be appreciated on a lot of levels.) Jul 27 at 7:29pm

    Yes, yes, of course, books can be appreciated on many levels and I totally get how a first reading can provide a baseline that allows for a richer experience later. However, I also think there are some poor choices out there that can turn off readers. In fact, in teaching (mostly boys) for the past 7 years, I have seen it happen a number of times. It’s truly sad to watch someone who loves to read become frustrated and dark about books. It happens. Certainly, parents’ influence and encouragement is key. But also, choosing the right book at the right time can make a big difference.

    • #22
    • July 28, 2010, at 3:57 AM PDT
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  23. Ursula Hennessey Contributor
    Ursula Hennessey
    Claire Berlinski: Shakespeare’s plays should never, ever be taught as a books to be read. They’re meant to be watched. Of course kids don’t get them if they just read them. Find the most spectacular and visually compelling videos ever made and show them on the biggest screen you can find, with the volume turned up to eleven. Jul 28 at 2:16am

    I agree, but I would add that having the students performing it themselves — even in a casual classroom setting — can have the same result. The best moment in my teaching career was having my South Bronx 6th graders act out Romeo and Juliet. It was truly magical as they worked on the blocking and the gestures, I feel certain the experience turned a few onto Shakespeare forever. There are now Shakespeare plays for schools that have more accessible English on the left page and Shakespeare’s on the right page. This allows teachers to “assign” a reading of an act, say, one night and then have the students perform it, with the “proper” English during class the next. I’ve seen this work quite nicely in high school, as well. Works especially well for struggling students.

    • #23
    • July 28, 2010, at 4:05 AM PDT
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  24. Judith Levy Contributor

    Ursula, re your having your 6th graders act out Romeo & Juliet: if you haven’t yet, you might want to read Phillip Lopate’s essay “Chekhov for Children”, in which he describes his experience mounting a full-length production of Uncle Vanya with a dozen ten- to twelve-year-olds at P.S. 90 in New York in 1979. The essay is in Lopate’s collection Against Joie de Vivre (and isn’t that an awesome title?!).

    • #24
    • July 28, 2010, at 4:23 AM PDT
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  25. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Ursula Hennessey

    Claire, do you really think you were/are the typical American 5YO or teen? I realize I am a dolt, as I said, compared to you. No doubt about that. I’m asking us all to think about a bright 12-year-old from, say, the South Bronx. An ESL student. What might reach them? · Jul 27 at 3:29pm

    No, not typical, but not so precocious that Animal Farm seemed to me anything other than a cute book about talking animals. My point is that you can appreciate a book on many levels, and don’t necessarily need to understand it to enjoy it or profit from it. Anyway: The surest way to get anyone of that age to read any book with fascination is to forbid it. Insist that the themes are too adult and that there’s far too much sex and violence in it. Give them the boring copy of To KIll a Mockingbird (has that book ever been read with pleasure?) and tell them they may not under any circumstances read anything by Roald Dahl until they’re 18. Hide the Dahl. They’ll find it.

    • #25
    • July 28, 2010, at 4:41 AM PDT
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  26. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Ursula Hennessey
    Claire Berlinski: You don’t necessarily need to have committed adultery to appreciate The Scarlet Letter, literature can also be the means by which we learn about adultery. · Jul 27 at 2:03pm
    Did I say that? · Jul 27 at 3:30pm

    Well, yeah, sort of. I mean, I guess the only way to truly get adultery is to commit it … but I’m totally satisfied with the exposure to the subject I’ve received from literature.

    • #26
    • July 28, 2010, at 4:43 AM PDT
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  27. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I agree with The Picture of Dorian Gray, but not with Catcher in the Rye (though I have yet to meet someone who disliked it, as I did). I also wonder about Slaughterhouse 5. Vonnegut is a brilliant author, but that novel is one of many he wrote that are artful but empty. It’s based on the lie that the bombing of Dresden was a pointless massacre and other hippie complaints. Still, Vonnegut’s style is worth exploring, I suppose.

    I recommend this collection of Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories. The subject matter will keep kids interested as they learn to appreciate the eloquence of 19th-century British fiction. Stories by Charles Dickens, Bram Stoker and Ambrose Bierce are included.

    They also appreciate this brilliant, quirky murder mystery. Never again will Edgar Allan Poe and Davy Crockett work together.

    • #27
    • July 28, 2010, at 4:48 AM PDT
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  28. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor

    Judith, this is bringing back happy memories of hanging around in your room and acting out Henry V … remember that?

    • #28
    • July 28, 2010, at 4:49 AM PDT
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  29. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member
    Aaron Miller:

    They also [might] appreciate this brilliant, quirky murder mystery. · Jul 27 at 4:48pm

    Typos are infinitely more annoying in a discussion of books.

    • #29
    • July 28, 2010, at 4:52 AM PDT
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  30. G.A. Dean Member

    I’m not sure that the true “classics” are always the best for required classroom reading. I’m thinking instead about the books that got my teens talking and debating in the class and at the dinner table. Indeed if helps if the book is a bit flawed or limited, as learning to read critically is a worthwhile goal.

    As mentioned above, Animal Farm fits the bill, as does Lord of the Flies. My kids may not have fully appreciated the analogies but they sure knew that some crazy stuff was going on in those stories. “1984” is another, not only for its warnings but also what it got wrong. Catch 22 was a hit with my daughter; my son preferred Band of Brothers. Ender’s Game has been a point of much conversation in the family, but that’s as much as reflection of my own fondness for the book.

    Pratchett, mentioned above, is a favorite with my kids, and each of his books satirizes some element of the modern world. Might as well add Douglas Adams; my kids love the satires. From my own teen readings I would add Kesey, especially Sometimes a Great Notion.

    • #30
    • July 28, 2010, at 5:22 AM PDT
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