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When I think back to my own high school English classes, which are over 25 years old at this point, I generally have very fond memories of them. I loved the books we read and the enthusiasm of my teachers, and some of my books remain my favorites to this day. They introduced me to authors I had never read before, like Zora Neale Hurston, Barbara Kingsolver, and Carson McCullers. But there were plenty of “classics” we read that were downright boring and seemingly out of place. I know that some books are supposed to be part of the “canon” or things we “must” read, but there comes a time when you have to ask yourself, when is it time to revamp the reading lists? When do we look at which voices we are (still) reading and who is missing from these lists? What forms and styles of writing are we missing and how can we relate them to current learning?
No one ever asked me about the classics I read. No one thought me a better reader or writer just because I read A room with a view Where My Anthony. We read a few classics in my high school classes but I missed many others, perhaps more relevant (1984, The best of worlds, The bluest eyeand Fahrenheit 451 come to mind) and ended up reading them for myself, years later. I’m not saying get rid of the classics. Harper Lee remains one of my favorite writers, and now we have the added benefit of discussing the problematic elements of his works and not ignoring them; I was introduced to some of my other favorites like Faulkner, Steinbeck and Hurston in high school. But I think we could update the playlists. Different writing styles and formats could help divide the curriculum and pique students’ interest. It doesn’t have to be one or the other – it can and should be a both/and situation.
Some schools do it well. I was impressed with the summer reading that local public schools do near my home. But in conversation with others, while there are some improvements in diversity and varied formats (graphic novels, poetry), many of the books are still the same, years and decades later. If life and literature are constantly changing, shouldn’t curricula be too?
I thought about my high school English classes and the books I read, and that’s what I’d like to see incorporated into English class reading lists. This is by no means an exhaustive list; I could add dozens more, easily. Authors like Flannery O’Connor, Sarah Broom, bell hooks, Nikki Giovanni, Audre Lorde, Joy Harjo, Julia Alvarez and Yehuda Amichai. But I could go on forever. I have divided this list into three sections — non-fiction, fiction and poetry — and I tried to choose books that I enjoy not only for their language and history, but also ones that can help introduce students to different writing styles and genre elements.
The best we can do by Thi Bui
Graphic novels and memoirs tend to be overlooked in literature, especially in schools, but for hesitant readers or students with learning difficulties, graphic novels can help fluidity and commitment. Bui’s graphic memoir weaves history and personal history about fleeing South Vietnam in the 1970s with her family and their journey to build a new life. This would be a great book to examine how the graphics memory form works.
Erosion: attempts to undo by Terry Tempest Williams
Terry Tempest Williams is an acclaimed writer and environmental advocate, and his writing also provides an opportunity to discuss current and environmental events and how to write about them. In this collection of essays, she explores both the erosion of public lands and that of our democracy. The climate crisis, public land ownership issues, big oil companies, and personal stories are all in these essays, making this a perfect book to learn about different aspects and writing styles.
The first collection of reviews from a living rock critic by Jessica Hopper
Criticism wasn’t a form I was introduced to until college, and I think that’s a shame. Ideally, I’d like to see English lessons covering a range of writing styles, books, and genres. Criticism is an important genre, and learning to read it and think critically about what you’ve just read is an important tool – you could say it’s desperately needed right now. This book is an accessible and relevant book for high school students to do just that.
Kinship by Octavia E. Butler
Butler is a science fiction stalwart – she was the first female science fiction writer to win a MacArthur Fellowship (the “Genius Grant”). Although I love his parable books, I think this might be a better introduction to his work. Through Dana’s time travel, the story explores racism, slavery, misogyny, and white supremacy in both the past and present, providing ample opportunity for discussion of literature and social justice. , in addition to explorations of Butler’s craft.
Sabrina & Corina: Stories by Kali Fajardo-Anstine
I’ll be honest: short stories have never been my favorite. But as I read more, I realized it probably had to do with the execution of the stories and the style of the writer. This collection would be a great way to explore how short stories can work. Fajardo-Anstine created a cast of Latin characters of indigenous ancestry, tied to place as quasi-character, exploring personal and community stories. You could spend months dissecting each story and its craft, but even choosing one of the stories would be a great option for an English class.
The mountains sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai
Historical fiction can elicit moans from many people, I think because they have the memory of vapid old historical novels. This novel is set during the Vietnam War and is an immersive, multi-generational tale of connection, love, and family. This is a look at the interpersonal impacts of the conflict on the Vietnamese people and individual families. It would be a perfect exploration of historical fiction and different ways of approaching the genre.
Black girl, call home by Jasmine Mans
Mans is a poet of the spoken word, and with the way these words fall on the page and draw you in, it’s no surprise. The young black and queer woman is examined in these poems, writing about feminism, family, sexual violence, community, and much more. The poems encompass a range of emotions, and Mans writes with an honesty and insight that will leave you reading poems over and over again to settle around you so you can better understand them. It would be great for teenagers to see how accessible poetry can be, especially those who are intimidated by it.
If They Come for Us: Poems by Fatimah Asghar
Asghar’s collection of poetry explores what it’s like to be a Pakistani Muslim woman in America, without a mother or father. Sexuality, race, history, intergenerational trauma: it’s all in these poems, but there’s also joy and strength, acceptance of identity and exploration of loss. These poems are raw and muscular, personal and urgent – this collection highlights the power that poetry can have and the different forms it can take.
Bluets by Maggie Nelson
I never really read poetry until I read Maggie Nelson, and this book showed me the versatility of poetry, the crisp yet lyrical prose, the hybrid poetry/memory/meditation style, and the complexity of ideas all together and changed my vision of poetry. . If I had something like that in high school, I might have started reading poetry much earlier. Nelson is a brilliant writer, and this is a good place to start with her.
If you’re looking for other books to read that shake up traditional reading lists, check out this article that explores women of color who should be added to the literary canon, and this article with high school reading suggestions, which is a bit more old but still full of wonderful recs!