While many teens gravitate toward the latest vampire novel, many educators would like to see their students read literature that maintains a high reading level or language fluency. Many high schools provide students with a list of classic texts that have stood the test of time, and students learn about history, creative writing and philosophy by reading, discussing or writing about great works of literature.
Reading American novels is one way to get high school students interested in reading because many of these stories revolve around characters or situations to which teenagers can relate. "The Outsiders" by S.E. Hinton is a coming-of-age novel about a group of adolescents searching for their individual identities, while “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky investigates teenage relationships. American literature can also teach students a great deal about the country’s history. Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” and Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22” approach World War II from a comical standpoint, “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck revolves around a family during the Great Depression, and Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” investigates slavery and life in the South before the Civil War.
Stories from around the world were written down long before much of the classic American literature began to emerge. Works like Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey” teach students about Greek and Roman culture, while also providing an epic story. Still other works from around the globe rival the popularity of American novels. Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” is one of the top 10 books of all time, according to J. Peder Zane and the 125 leading writers he polled for his book "The Top Ten." Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” and Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” both made it onto BBC's Top 21 books from The Big Read series, and they are two highly renowned books written by women. World literature has also produced some of the best works about dystopian societies, including “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley and “Animal Farm” by George Orwell.
Poetry and Drama
In addition to novels, collections of poetry and dramatic plays are common components of a high school English curriculum. According to "Ovations," the University of San Antonio's fine arts magazine, reading and discussing works by William Shakespeare is often required for high school English students because of their rich language and timelessness of their themes. Other plays for high school students include “Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Beckett, an absurdist play that symbolizes the human condition and was voted the most significant English play of the 20th century by the British Royal National Theater, and “Oedipus Rex” by Sophocles, a classical tragedy written by one of Athens' greatest playwrights. Students can gain a broader understanding of poetry through compilations, which often include classic works from Emily Dickinson, John Donne, John Keats, Langston Hughes, Edgar Allen Poe and Robert Frost.
Biography and History
High school students might enjoy first-hand accounts of historical or life events. “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank is one such biography seen on reading lists like the Arrowhead Library System's College Bound Reading List and Pearson Education's Suggested Reading for High School. Some more modern biographical works include “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou, a coming-of-age biography about an African American author; “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” by Malcolm X, which follows the life of a controversial historical and religious figure; and “Go Ask Alice” by Anonymous, a personal narrative about a troubled teen girl.
- Lexington Public Library: 50 Books to Read in High School
- Pearson Education: Suggested Reading for High School
- The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books; J. Peder Zane; 2007
- BBC: The Big Read: Top 21
- University of San Antonio's Ovations: Why Do We Still Care About Shakespeare?
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Sophocles
Cara Batema is a musician, teacher and writer who specializes in early childhood, special needs and psychology. Since 2010, Batema has been an active writer in the fields of education, parenting, science and health. She holds a bachelor's degree in music therapy and creative writing.