My third daughter has just started her senior year in high school, with one of her classes being Advanced Placement English literature. She told me that she and her classmates get to choose some of the books they will read over the course of this school year and showed me a list of about 80 books that are mostly what I would call “classics” that are typical for high school or college reading, plus a few newer books that weren’t around when I was in high school. I’d say most of the newer books seem to have been chosen to represent writing from other countries and cultures. (The books are listed with the author’s name and then the author’s country/ethnicity in parentheses.)
Being an avid reader myself, I have plenty of insight to give my daughter about the list and what I think is good and that she would enjoy and learn from. Honestly, right away I just scratched right through Faulkner and Hemingway and Melville. I read several of those authors’ books and was bored silly. I won’t dispute that they were “great writers,” but there now have been PLENTY of other great writers since them. Can’t we include those and cut back a bit on these “Great American Writers”?
One note: I think that some of the newer book choices on this list, limited as these inclusions are, were decent choices. But I was full-on scratching my head over someone’s decision to include The Memory Keeper’s Daughter among maybe 10 or 15 “newer” books. I did read that; it was popular when it first came out as what I would call a “book club choice.” Have I heard of anyone reading it since? Nope. I can only imagine that it was included because a character has Down syndrome. But can we not find other recent books that include someone with a disability, and in this case, not as a plot point that’s intended to pull at heartstrings in what I call a cheap shot?
I know Shannon Hale, a bright and amazing writer and wise observer of many current goings-on, has written about this topic before (in addition to repeatedly talking, rightly so, about how we need to do better to encourage boys to read books that have female protagonists and stop referring to “girls” and “boys” books), but I haven’t been able to find any of her recommendations in my Google and Twitter searches so far today. So until I do, I will just reinvent the wheel a bit and make a list of some excellent books that would be great not just for showing the authors’ excellent skills with the pen (… or keyboard) but that open up windows into parts of the human condition that haven’t been explored in the older books.
(Note: I have reviewed these on my website, Rated Reads, with detailed information about the books themselves, plus content information. Links are included for those on Rated Reads. Most of these are “mild” or “moderate” rated for their content, though a few are “high”.)
- The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Not only is this book a page-turner as a mystery and gothic story, but it provides readers with some insights into post-civil war Spain, which many kids will never learn about in history. The writing is glorious; the notion of a “Cemetery of Forgotten Books” where books people have forgotten about are lovingly kept will thrill anyone who loves books.
- The Unwind series, by Neal Shusterman. These YA novels are sophisticated and thought-provoking and sure to spark conversation. The premise? Society has decided not to allow abortions but to allow parents to choose to “unwind” their young teens if they are unsatisfactory. These kids are killed humanely and their parts donated to those who need them. What’s particularly appealing to me is that the books don’t seem to have a particular agenda; they simply explore a strange “solution” that a society has come up with regarding the contentious issue of abortion.
- Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer. This nonfiction account of a year that was particularly deadly among climbers of Mt. Everest is gripping and educational. If you have kids who think nonfiction is boring, wait until they read this. I was skeptical myself, but it hooked me so much I’ve read five or more other books on related topics. An excellent example of narrative nonfiction.
- The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield. Because this is simply the best gothic book of the past 50 years. Sure, read Rebecca and Wuthering Heights, but Setterfield’s novel has yet to be matched since its publication in .
- The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman. This is another nonfiction book that is written in a format that is easy to follow. It teaches readers a bit among the Hmong culture, the language and beliefs. It’s particularly useful because it shows the clashes of American and Hmong culture (not to mention how even English-speaking Americans often do not have adequate communication with those in the medical profession) and how the grave misunderstandings left a young girl dead. These are the kinds of books we need to read more of in the U.S.
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. Oooh, more nonfiction. All of the nonfiction books I’m referencing are easy to follow and compelling reading. Here, readers get to learn about medical research and how little autonomy blacks were given in their own medical care in past decades. There’s culture issues, medical issues, genetics … all fine reasons to recommend this book.
- The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson. My last nonfiction. This book may seem long and daunting, but it’s compelling. The author explores the history of migration of blacks from the South to the North and West from 1915 to 1970, making a huge change in the “face of America.” She uses the device of focusing on a few individuals and telling their stories in detail to represent the larger migration of 6 million people. Excellent research and writing.
- The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. This slim novel has been published in many languages and sold millions of copies in the past 25 or so years since it was first published. It’s a sweet fable that allows the reader to think about the meaning of life and to follow one’s dream. It’s a nice choice for students because it is short and accessible, rather than daunting in length or topic.
- Anything by Amy Tan or Lisa See. I’ve read quite a few books by these two authors, whose novels explore the experiences of Chinese women, either wholly in China or as migrants to America, and often through several generations, showing the changes that come about through new and different opportunities.
- Any of Dear Martin, The Hate U Give, I’m Not Dying with You Tonight. These are young adult novels written about topical issues that blacks are facing, from a teen perspective, in our current culture/environment. I admit I am woefully under-reading in this genre.
I'm a book reviewer, editor, and writer with four daughters and tons of projects always keeping me hopping. I blog at Life and Lims and run the book review site Rated Reads.