Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Books That Should Be Required Reading for Teenagers

This is a toughie. It's been years and years since I've been around teenagers and their reading ways. But what the heck, I'll give it a go.

Top Ten Tuesday is the Weekly Meme hosted by the gals at THE BROKE AND THE BOOKISH. Each week we're give a different topic on which to post our Top Ten picks. This week it's Top Ten Books That Should Be Required Reading for Teenagers.

I'm going to assume that by the time they're teenagers, most kids have read the Harry Potter books and possibly Lord of the Rings, so I'm leaving those off the list. I'm not an educator so these are all just personal choices.  Several of the books on this list are books that influenced me as a teenager.

1) The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

2) The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark

3) To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

4) The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

5) Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

6) 1984 by George Orwell

7) The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

8) Anne Frank: The Diary of A Young Girl- non-fiction

9) Is Paris Burning? by Larry Collins and Dominique La Pierre - non-fiction

10) The Territorial Imperative by Robert Ardrey - non-fiction

Off the top of my head, I'd also add: THE LIGHT IN THE FOREST by Conrad Richter, BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE by Dee Brown, a good biography of Lincoln and a good bio of Jackie Robinson and maybe the new book, BRANCH RICKEY, by Jimmy Breslin. Rickey was the man who signed Robinson for the old Brooklyn Dodgers, thus breaking the all white color barrier in Major League Baseball.

You'll notice I only included one heavyweight - Shakespeare - and at that, the one play I believe that teens might instinctively relate to if approached in the right way. I didn't include Dickens or any other complex literary classics because I think most teens are just not ready for that sort of thing.

In my own personal opinion, forcing classics on teens is the worse thing that can happen, it makes them skittish - sometimes permanently. I'd add the classics to a selective list and then let the kids who are intrigued enough, able enough, choose from there.


  1. Even though I think it is a brilliant idea for young people to read great literature, I wouldn´t prescribe the best classics too early. Too many students have left school determined NEVER to read Shakespeare again.

    But if I could nudge them gently, Harper Lee´s masterpiece would also loom high on my list, together with Shakespeare. Another must is Charles Dickens, and I´d also try with Jane Austen for young girls.

  2. I tell you the truth, I think the subtlety of Austen would be lost on young teens. I also think Dickens, unless the kids have a bit of working knowledge of the 19th century (doubtful) is also lost.

    It all really depends on the particular teens' reading level as well. And maybe even on the particular teacher. It's such a hard thing to judge.

  3. Yvette, if I were asked about a great book that would get kids (middle school and up) interested in traditional mysteries, I think I'd recommend Ellen Raskin's "The Westing Game." It's a finely-crafted, carefully clued mystery, full of twists and surprises as a young girl becomes the only person able to solve the complex mystery of which this "game" is a part. If you haven't read it, I heartily recommend it to adults as well!

  4. I went to a Catholic HS and we were given a reading list of about 25 books that were mostly classics every summer and required to read 10 off the list. I'm sure that many of the books I read I would have never picked up myself, so I can't say I regretted being required to read them. Having a choice in the matter did help.
    We read one Shakespeare play a year, and of course I loved R&J, but The Merchant of Venice had a greater impact on me than all the rest! I can still recite many passages from it.

  5. Les: Thanks for this title! I've never heard of it. (Well, what else is new?) Sounds intriguing. I will definitely look for it.

  6. Pat: We were given lists too, Pat. I went to NYC public schools in the fifties when they were still great.
    We read everything. Classics included. But I remember particularly disliking Dickens then. And it colored my view of his work for many MANY years.

    Many people dislike ETHAN FROME by Edith Wharton but I LOVED it. I still read it every now and then.

  7. Definitely some good titles I need to check out. Gatsby and 1984 are great books. Like you commented on my blog - it's less about what kids are reading as long as they're reading!

  8. Two Bibliomaniacs: Precisely. As long as they're reading. That's why Harry Potter was such a boon to reading. I say, bring on more Harry Potters. :)

  9. Some people are down on Romeo and Juliet, but I think it is the perfect Shakespeare play for teens.

    Come visit me at The Scarlet Letter.

  10. LBC: I agree. It helps also if they have a good teacher to go along with the play.

    I'll drop in today. :)

  11. Great choices. I would add something along the lines of GIOVANNI'S ROOM with a more young adult bent to it. I'm sure they exist. Also THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET and RAISIN IN THE SUN are definitely required for all teenagers. Too much "dead white guy" literature is still being taught and contemoporary youth can't relate to it anymore no matter how good the teacher. It's a new world these days. Women writers, the voice of Black America, Latino America and gay America should be included in all high school reading classes these days.

  12. THE WESTING GAME is a book aimed at elementary school aged kids. Hardly a book for modern teens. It's clever, but a bit too cutesy for teenagers IMO, even if it did win a children's literature award all those years ago. I forget which one.

  13. I agree that a nice esoteric blend is to be preferred. I have nothing against dead white guys who wrote brilliant things. I'm not sure I agree with you on that. These men (and women)helped us understand some basics which are still at work today. Some things never change. "The best ideas are common property."

    I think some of my choices were rather esoteric as well. :)

    I've never heard of THE WESTING GAME and I'd still like to take a look. It sounds interesting to me.

    Not all teens are equally sophisticated or have the same reading level as you well know.

  14. Great list!

    I would suggest also:
    The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
    Any book by Toni Morrison, including Beloved, however, I hear a favorite among teens is The Bluest Eye
    Books by Julia Alvarez, Esmeralda Santiago, Sandra Cisneros, Junot Diaz

    Maybe even a few mysteries, like a Sherlock Holmes, nothing like starting them early. (I started reading these when I was a teen-ager.)

  15. +JMJ+

    My own list is really heavy because I decided to err on the side of the literary canon. But I do agree with you that a wrong approach to the classics at such a time of life can be disastrous--and schools so often take the wrong approach to everything.

    But I'd still substitute Romeo and Juliet with my own choice of A Midsummer Night's Dream. There are teenagers there, too--and they fall in and out of love with as little rationality as their counterparts in Gossip Girl. =P

    That reminds me . . . I once had a teacher who sold Twelfth Night to a room full of teenagers. (My party girl classmate who doesn't read anything if she can help it, pivoted in her seat and whispered to me, in the middle of class, "This play is my life!") It's not one of my favourites, though, so I don't know if I'd also teach it.

  16. JMJ: MIDSUMMERS NIGHT DREAM would be a good choice, I agree. Either/or. They both need a good teacher to go along with them.

    TWELFTH NIGHT, I'm not familiar with. Or if I was, I've forgotten.

    I'm for any play or for that matter, any book that gets kids reading. But hopefully something more than a vampire book or Hunger Games would be included.

    An aside: If a vampire book is wanted than why not DRACULA by Bram Stoker?

  17. Latecomer here, but I have to echo in favor of Ellen Raskin. I still reread The Westing Game (a favourite) and The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel), both books I read for the first time when I might not have been ten - and I'm now in my early 30s!

    Also I tend to think that Twelfth Night is a bit underrated. I may not go for it over Midsummer when dealing with teenagers, but still an excellent piece of dramedy.

  18. Thanks for piping up for Ellen Raskin, Kate. :)

    I will be looking for this book soon as I get a chance. I will, occasionally, read things I may have missed the first time around.

    It's never too late. Especially when it comes to reading.


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