High school reading lists get a modern makeover

Find out what recent bestsellers are taking their place next to classics at schools across the US.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

"It was the best of times; it was the worst of times." Charles Dickens's famous line in "A Tale of Two Cities" could be used to describe what is probably hitting home about now for millions of American high school students: Lazy summer days cut short by the frantic rush to finish required reading lists before school starts.

"Most teens spend the summer doing whatever, and then cram the reading in during the last two weeks," says 2007 high school graduate Henry Qin of Boston.

Precious summer minutes spent poring over Shakespeare or Nathaniel Hawthorne may seem less than appealing to teens, but some experts say there is a slowly growing trend to infuse more modern literature into summer reading. As a result, the revered literary canon, which includes such classics as "Hamlet," "The Grapes of Wrath," and "The Scarlet Letter," may be due for a shake-up. Glance at high school summer reading lists across the United States and you are likely to find more recent authors such as Alice Sebold, Walter Dean Myers, and even Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong alongside Dickens and the Brontë sisters.

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"The natural evolution of these lists is that they expand and include voices that are underrepresented," says American Library Association (ALA) president Loriene Roy. "If you don't include authors like Amy Tan or Virginia Woolfe, what does that mean? A lot of discussions have come up over the last 20 years over what one needs to know. [The question is], 'Who do you bump off?' "

Summer reading lists vary widely. Some high schools require books and even give essay assignments to be completed by the first day of school. Mr. Qin of Boston still remembers his frenzied rush to finish Victor Hugo's "Les Misérables" before his high school freshman year.

"I didn't understand why we were reading it," says Qin, who will be a freshman at Duke this fall. "Summer reading is a good thing if and only if there's a context for it. I don't like the idea of just handing us a list. If you say, 'Read these books,' tell us why."

Other schools choose a more flexible model and present students a list with choices often recommended by local librarians. But what is clear: Cementing one's status on a required reading list is no easy feat, as librarians or summer reading committee members must argue to bump a classic for a book with undetermined longevity.

Practical concerns such as budget and time cause administrators to resist including recent young adult literature, or literature geared toward 12- to 18-year-olds, on required lists, says Beth Yoke, executive director of Young Adult Library Services Association, which is the fastest growing division of the ALA. But Ms. Yoke says she sees a trend to include more diverse literature in required reading. "Kids want books that they can identify with," she says. They want to see an African-American character, or a Muslim character, or a strong female character."

Yoke says that it often takes at least a generation for a new young adult book to make required lists.

"If you're doing required reading in schools, you've got to buy a bazillion copies of these books and you have to have developed the lesson plans of all that supplementary material," she says by telephone. "Teachers have been teaching 'To Kill a Mockingbird' forever and a day, and they don't want to have to develop all new materials."

In addition, educators feel that classics still have important lessons to teach, even if they are from different time periods. Betsy Ginsburg, a librarian who edits a recommended reading list from the Houston Area Independent Schools Library Network, says a variety of summer reading is crucial for intellectual breadth. Schools, she says, should keep classics on lists since they frequently relate to students' curriculum and capture a time and place in history.

For the most part, reading lists are still heavy on classics. But consider the differences between reading lists from the 1960s and those in the 1980s. Of the nine most commonly taught books in public high schools in 1963, only one (the 1938 play "Our Town") was written in the 20th century. By 1988, the 10 most commonly taught novels in public schools included four books from the 20th century: "The Great Gatsby" (1925), "Of Mice and Men" (1937), "Lord of the Flies" (1954), and "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1960).

But not all novels take a generation to catapult to required summer reading lists. Some new staples in summer reading lists: "Life of Pi" by Yann Martel, "The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini, "Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time," by Mark Haddon, "Monster" by Walter Dean Myer, and "The Lovely Bones" by Alice Sebold.

"Ten years ago, these reading lists didn't have new books like that," says Alleen Nilsen, Arizona State University English professor and co-author of the textbook Literature for Today's Young Adult. "These are really popular new books."

So what catapults "Life of Pi" and "The Lovely Bones" to the elusive reading list club? Both are bildungsromans, or stories of young people coming of age. Ms. Nilsen says this theme is crucial for reading list inclusion, as youth need to feel a connection to the literature.

J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye" is an example of a long-lasting bildungsroman. The 1951 book was widely panned for its controversial subject matter, but it soon won the hearts of American teens.

"That was a book done for adults, but kids loved that book," Nilsen says by telephone. "Every year there are like 10 books that get compared, and it's like, 'Oh, this is the new "Catcher in the Rye." ' Of course, none of them ever are. But they're in that style – the flip, honest kid that's critical."

Nilsen says she understands why teens are frustrated with heavy assigned summer reading but says she's encouraged by the modernization trend. Her own granddaughter has chosen to read the young adult award-winner "Monster" rather than a difficult classic.

"It used to be, no matter where you were in high school, you got this list of classics that the value was to talk about them with other people, not to read them yourself," she says. "We're taking this lesson from the [physical education] teachers. Rather than making kids do these things they hate, they're letting them choose what they want to do, so that when they're adults, they'll keep exercising. Summer reading is the perfect time if we want to get kids to read the rest of their lives without us sitting over their heads and telling them what to read. Let them ... just lose themselves in a good book."

What students are reading

High schools are updating their summer reading lists to include books focused on modern themes. Here's a sample pulled from high school websites across the nation.

University Heights, Ohio:

"Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" by Barbara Ehrenreich

"A Hand to Guide Me" by Denzel Washington

"Bad Boy: A Memoir" by Walter Dean Myers

"Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass" by Frederick Douglass

Lexington, Ky.:

"The Pearl" by John Steinbeck

"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" by Maya Angelou

"The House on Mango Street" by Sandra Cisneros

Torrance, Calif.:

"Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Brontë

"Night" by Elie Wiesel

"To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee

Buffalo, N.Y.:

"Speak" by Laurie Halse Anderson

"Breathing Underwater" by Alex Flinn

"Bless Me Ultima" by Rudolfo Anaya

"The Old Man and the Sea" by Ernest Hemingway

"Tuesdays With Morrie" by Mitch Albom

"Life of Pi" by Yann Martel

Dallas:

"Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger

"The Bean Trees" by Barbara Kingsolver

"Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" by Mark Haddon

"Lord of the Flies" by William Golding

"The Audacity of Hope" by Barack Obama

"Freakonomics" by Steven Levitt

Atlanta:

"The Heart is a Lonely Hunter" by Carson McCullers

"Native Son" by Richard Wright

"A Bend in the River" by V.S. Naipaul

"The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini

Old Bridge, N.J.

"Angels and Demons" by Dan Brown

"The Bell Jar" by Sylvia Plath

"It's Not About the Bike" by Lance Armstrong

"The Lovely Bones" by Alice Sebold

"The Hobbit" by J.R.R. Tolkien

"A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas Adams

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