A high school English teacher on 5 books every teen should read

Guest post by Ashley Lauren

The Huffington Post ran a piece about the five books every high school student should read before going to college. It was a pretty good list, and I agree that most of those books are incredibly important for teenagers, but I couldn’t help but think, if I had five books to give my students that they HAD to read, what would they be?

Here is what I came up with:

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

This classic coming-of-age novel also made it to the HuffPost list, and I couldn’t agree more. Even though Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury was the most formative book of my pre-high school life, Catcher is the most formative of my young adult life. In this book, Holden Caulfield fails out of his fancy prep school (and not for the first time, either), and decides to blow off his final exams (because he’s failed anyway), and explore New York City on his own. He is lonely and depressed because of the previous death of his little brother, and he searches for human contact in every place he can think of to find it, only to realize that, before anyone can help him, he has to help himself.

This book is important for teenagers because many of them identify with Holden on a deeply personal level. So many teenagers either are Holden or know someone who is, and the book can be used to teach compassion, understanding, and the effects of depression on the youth of America. It’s as timely now as it ever was.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Like Catcher, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a coming-of-age novel about a teenage boy, but this one has a modern twist on it. Charlie, a shy and maladjusted high school freshman, has suffered many traumatic events leading up to his first day of high school. His best friend has killed himself, his favorite aunt has passed away, and he has suffered countless other injustices, making him turn inward.

When he starts high school, though, he befriends several seniors who show him the world of parties, music, and the perks of being an individual rather than fitting in with the crowd. Perks is a great read for teenagers, especially young high school students, because everyone feels like they don’t quite fit in at some point in their lives, and hearing that it does, in fact, get better can be empowering for students of any age.

Columbine by Dave Cullen

Students are going to school in a post-Columbine world. They have to do lockdown drills and, frankly, live with the fear that this might happen at any time. In order to help prevent fear it is vital for students to know what really happened at Columbine High School that fateful day in April 1999. Furthermore, many of these students are too young to remember the Columbine tragedy in any detail because today’s high school freshmen were only two years old at the time.

Reading this book will give them perspective on the tragedy they might not otherwise get from teachers, parents, or urban legends. On top of that, Columbine discusses important issues the media had while covering the tragedy. Columbine teaches us important lessons about media literacy, and brings to the forefront some great talking points about what we can — and can’t — believe from the media. In an age of constant media bombardment, this book is especially important for teenagers.

Reality Bites Back by Jennifer Pozner

Similarly to Columbine, Jennifer Pozner’s Reality Bites Back discusses media literacy, but in a much different way. Reality Bites Back looks at reality television, which is ubiquitous in our society. When my students tell me they don’t watch reality television, I ask them how they avoid it because it is literally everywhere. In an age where students are shown reality television shows, and also are sold some product or service at every turn — including within the very shows themselves — it is vital for students to know what they are actually consuming when it comes to media.

Reality Bites Back breaks down the issues with reality television, from gender and race issues to product placement and the way media companies trick us into thinking these shows are popular. In this day and age, with television a major source of information for our students, this book should be on every bookshelf.

A Raisin in the Sun

Even though it’s a play and not technically a book, A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansbury is one of my all-time favorites. Based on Hansbury’s own experiences with racism and sexism in the 1950′s, this play depicts a Black family of five living in a cramped, two-bedroom apartment in Chicago. They experience a windfall in the form of an insurance check because of the death of the family’s patriarch. Everyone has plans for this money, which brings in interesting and important notions of class and race, and how the two were tied together for much of our nation’s history.

When one of the female characters wants to use the money to go to medical school, there are also issues of sexism brought to the forefront. This play has important messages regarding discrimination in our society that students need to know before they leave high school, and it is also important to note that this sort of thing wasn’t happening all that long ago in our history — and still continues today in many cases.

Now you’ve read my picks. What are yours?

Comments on A high school English teacher on 5 books every teen should read

  1. I must second the recommendation of Frank Portman’s “King Dork” for those who despised “The Catcher in the Rye.” “King Dork” is hilarious, and if you (or your teen) love music, it will immediately engage you. Here’s an excerpt from the dust jacket: “..[Tom]…finds himself in the middle of several…conspiracies and at least half a dozen mysteries involving dead people, naked people, fake people, ESP, blood, guitars, monks, witchcraft, the Bible, girls, the Crusades, a devil head, and rock and roll.”

  2. One of the most life changing YA novels I’ve read is a recent one by John Green called The Fault in Our Stars. It was published in early 2012 and has already been introduced onto a lot of American high school reading lists (or should be). It’s a very constructive and honest way to introduce teenagers to the concept of chronic sickness and how it relates to love and death.

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