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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 Amy BrittainContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / August 8, 2007

"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.

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"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.

"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."

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


"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


"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