In a previous post titled How to Get Kids to Read, I mentioned how many people commented to me that their kids hate to read. Then I had a discussion with a friend about what constitutes a Classic or which books deserve to be called the greatest book of the 20th century, or one of the greatest books of all time. As a result, I decided to read or re-read some of these books as part of my 2013 New Year’s Resolution. All this got me to thinking about why many high school kids hate reading and what books are actually on high school reading lists. Maybe there is a connection.
I performed an Internet search on high school reading lists. Here is a sample of what books I found:
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Live from the Battlefield: From Vietnam to Bagdad by Peter Arnett
Queen Eleanor, Independent Spirit of the Medieval World: Biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine by Polly Schoyer Brooks
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Benito Cereno by Herman Melville
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Well you get the idea. There are also the typical works by Hawthorne, Shakespeare, Austen, etc. Of course this is not representative of all schools, but I am guessing that most high school reading lists are similar. Do you know what works are not on there?
Enclave by Ann Aguirre
Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake
Hush by Eishes Chayil
Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler
Legend by Marie Lu
Ashfall by Mike Mullin
Delirium by Lauren Oliver
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
Divergent by Veronica Roth
Blood Red Road by Moira Young
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Matched by Ally Condie
City of Bones by Cassandra Clare
What is the difference between the first list and the second? The second is a recent list of most popular young adult books. That means these are books young adults enjoyed most. So why aren’t these books on high school reading lists?
It must be that books on List 1 have many more discussion opportunities of significance than List 2, right? Wrong. I have read 5 books on List 2 and trust me, there are many, many opportunities for meaningful discussion as well as test and essay questions. So that can’t be the answer.
Love stories and triangles. The classic tragic love story must be missing from List 2. I can respond to that with one word- HA! We’re talking about novels geared toward teenagers here; do you really think there aren’t going to be love triangles and romantic drama in these books? HA, I say!
It must be that there are social issues addressed by the books on List 1 that are not in those on List 2… Well, no, that’s not the case either. Both lists address same or similar issues set against a background of the time in which they were written. For example, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird would appear on List 1. Many will say that Mockingbird addresses the issue of racism. While I agree somewhat, I don’t think that is the primary or enduring issue. But I’ll get to that in a minute. A couple of the books I read on List 2 address the issue of a subjugated class of people set in a dystopian future, which is the topic du jour of young adults right now.
I don’t get it.
Allow me to digress a bit, and I promise this is relevant.
A friend and I recently had a discussion about Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. He did not think it deserved to be considered one of the best works of fiction of the 20th century, thus securing it a spot on many a high school’s reading list. While I don’t know whether it should be considered one of the best of the 20th century, I disagreed that it was overrated. Now I am not going to give you discussion topics or questions from high school/ college exams or book groups. I am going to tell you why I think it is a phenomenal book and absolutely not overrated.
Remember, this is my opinion and what I took from Mockingbird.
To Kill a Mockingbird takes an extremely controversial issue and portrays it through the eyes of a child. A black man is accused of raping a poor white woman. Atticus takes the case knowing there will be repercussions. I propose that as adults, we tend to make things much more complicated than we need to, whereas children see things in their most simplistic form. We look at this situation and see the injustice of it, the racism, the environment, and so on. Scout, Atticus’ daughter, looks at the situation and sees a man who needs help and her father giving it. She sees her father doing the right thing… period.
Obviously, there is a plethora of issues in this book and it is interesting to think about how they might all tie into one universal theme- or not. But the genius of the book is that an adult will read a story about a child witnessing and, in essence, translating controversial and complex adult issues. As adults, we understand the complexities and shades of grey that accompany most life experiences, but appreciate the truth in the simplicity of Scout’s point of view. Maybe if more adults possessed the ability to see things as a child might, we would not have quite as many problems in the world.
Do you think a teenager would get that?
Believe it or not, I remember what it was like being a teenager. I had a great memory and used it frequently to ace tests. A master at BS (and I’m not talking about a Bachelor of Science), I willingly confess that many of my essays were successful exercises in BS, even in college. I read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school and remembered absolutely nothing. That’s how much of an impact it had on me.
I remember Dune.
Reading and discussion is extremely important. But during school, through high school, shouldn’t the priority be getting kids to enjoy reading? Is that better accomplished with Don Quixote or Divergent? What is the point of making kids read Pride and Prejudice when they will forget all of it once they pass the exam?
When my daughter was in first and second grade, the books she read were determined by how many points each book was worth on the Reading Counts quiz. After second grade, we moved her to a private school where they don’t care what she reads; all they care about is that she reads. There are a few required books, but other than that, she reads whatever she wants. And since there is no point requirement, she can read books like The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan, which is 576 pages long. She’s not reading 10 books a week like she was in second grade (she’s in fourth now), but she read a 576 page book ALL BY HERSELF. Let that sink in for a minute.
I have always leaned toward the traditional curriculum and was even hesitant when my mother recommended sending my daughter to a Montessori school for preschool and kindergarten, so I always just accepted that classics should be required reading in high school. However, after re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird and revisiting Mem Fox’ Reading Magic and Jim Trelease’s The Read Aloud Handbook, I seem to have had a literary epiphany of sorts-
Maybe our kids should be reading The Hunger Games and Ender’s Game in middle and high school so when they tackle Classics in college or personal life, they will enjoy, appreciate and remember what is so great about them.