I think we all read at least some of the same short stories in high school English class. “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson or “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury or “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin. Throw in some Kate Chopin, Edgar Allen Poe, maybe James Joyce or Nathaniel Hawthorne or Mark Twain and you’ve covered the majority of what I read through junior high and high school. No modern short stories for high school readers to be found.
For decades, these stories have been on the reading lists of teenagers everywhere. And they’re good short stories. Honestly, they are. Good for teaching voice or theme or pacing in bite-sized chunks, just hard enough to challenge students without frustrating them to the point of quitting. I still think about Omelas and the woman in the wallpaper and the one day of sunlight even now. They’re good and they serve the purpose they are meant to, whether students get annoyed or not.
But they’re not very contemporary. They don’t necessarily account for modern events, perspectives, or context. Many of them, while reading, feel too removed from the modern day to really connect to them. And they’re mostly written by white men and women.
So, for a little variety and newness for your reading list, here are 15 modern short stories for high school English class.
“Synchronicity” by John Keeble
In a world where environmental strife is rampant in the form of multiple droughts, fires, and the dying of the natural world, farmers-out-of-modern-time Ward and Irene give advice to the narrator of the story about the running of their own farm. As they do, Ward tells the narrator the story of his brother-in-law Leland and the contrasting way his family was coping with the environmental issues. This is a great option to teach subtext, dynamics, and action vs. inaction in characters.
“Moments Earlier” by Kate Doyle
A friend group of four is left shattered after one of their members, Kelly, suffers a cardiac incident and falls down the stairs. The short story jumps between the different members of the group, exploring how they feel and what they do after Kelly’s fall and the aftermath. Because you get the perspective of the three different characters dealing with the same incident, this is a great option to use for studying character, their relationships, grief, regret, and the inciting incident plot point.
“Chance Me” by Caitlin Horrocks
A father and his 15-year estranged son visit potential colleges together in this short story. The dynamic between the father and son, and the flashbacks to the father’s time in a cult-like living situation with his son’s mother, are excellent ways of teaching students about character and dialogue. Though not much happens, the story is engaging and interesting, and will likely resonate with kids soon to be going on their own visits to college and re-evaluating their relationships with their parents.
“What the Dead Man Said” by Chinelo Onwualu
Set in a future plagued by climate change and AI implants, a woman returns to her home city for her father’s funeral. While struggling with memories of a sexual assault as a child and how her community and family isolated her in the aftermath, Azuka speaks to a manifestation of her dead father. She asks him questions and confronts his turning away from her as a child. Use this to teach setting, the way fiction can be an outlet for grief, and speculative fiction. An exercise suggestion: have students write a dialogue with a ghost of their own.
“A Contract Overseas” by Mia Alvar
A young Filipino girl discovers her love for writing while her brother takes a contract in Saudi to provide for her, her mother, and his girlfriend who is pregnant with twins. Her brother writes home, often sending friends with money for the family when they come to visit. When her brother gets himself into trouble, the money to put her through school and to provide for the rest of the family is threatened. This one is excellent for teaching the way characters can propel plot with beautiful prose.
“A Ride Out of Phrao” by Duna Nayeri
A Persian woman leaves America after being unable to hold down a job. She joins the Peace Corps in Thailand where she gets a job teaching children how to speak English. She notices one boy who shows up to school with bruises and seems to have no mother figure. And when her daughter comes to visit, the two have a complicated relationship. This one’s great for teaching setting, community, and mother-daughter relationships.
“You, Disappearing” by Alexandra Kleeman
The apocalypse is slow in this second-person narrative about the things of the world disappearing in seemingly random patterns. One day, your car keys, the next your pet cat. The narrator’s relationship, under the stress of the “disapocalypse” falls apart, and their memories start to go, too. Add this to your syllabus for teaching second-person narratives, metaphors, and how to balance brevity and detail.
“The Janitor in Space” by Amber Sparks
A woman works as a janitor on board a spaceship, cleaning up after astronauts in the night. As she cleans, she thinks about her old life on Earth, her time in prison, and her relationship with God. As astronauts come and go, she sinks into the shadows as much as she can. This is a quick read, chock full of description and detail for students to sink their teeth into.
“The Hawk” by Jules Chung
A mother and her adolescent daughter find an injured baby hawk on the side of the road. With glimpses into the daughter’s struggle growing up and the mother’s with understanding her daughter and their Korean identity, the pair try to determine what to do to help the injured animal. This one is a great way to teach word choice and the way seemingly unrelated incidents can add to a reader’s understanding of theme.
“Such Great Height and Consequence” by Kelsey Norris
For a lighthearted, laughter-inducing short story, this one is great. A statue is removed in a public park in Aberdeen, leaving an empty concrete slab. Residents of the town begin to rent out time on the platform, using it for whatever they wish as long as it is lawful. With funny footnotes tacked on, this one’s great for teaching unique ways of telling story. Try reading once without the footnotes and once with to show how asides/additional information can change a narrative or perhaps give students their own pedestal to use as they please (within class rules, of course). Do take note: this one has some cursing. It might not be appropriate for all ages.
“When the Tide of Misfortune Hits, Even Jelly Will Break Your Teeth” by Porochista Khakpour
A man with a laundry list of bad luck goes to see The Spiritualist, a woman in town who is said to be psychic. Through her instructions, he gets the money, family, and occupation he was missing in his miserable life before. But, eventually it all must come to an end when she predicts illness and death in his future. This one is rife with imagery to dissect and ambiguity to show students the ways in which literature, and life, isn’t as clear-cut as we may wish it was.
“The Deer-Vehicle Collision Survivors Support Group” by Porochista Khakpour
A couple in a tumultuous relationship moves from New York City to an isolated part of the United States for a job. After purchasing a new car, they decide to take a trip to their old city in the hopes that it will help things between them. A collision with a deer while driving, through, sends things in a different direction. This one has great tension and an unexpected plot.
“Standard Loneliness Package” by Charles Yu
A man works at a company where people can pay to have other people experience bad things for them. Funerals, medical procedures, quitting their jobs. In some instances, people sell away their whole lives. The narrator is working towards a Normal Life, but the ones at the second-hand shop keep selling before he can save enough money. This one is a great way to teach emotion and how to choose the right POV. Try having students write the story from another character’s point of view to see how that might change things.
“Open House on Haunted Hill” by John Wiswell
From the perspective of an uninhabited house, the short story follows the events of an open house. The house notices a young father and his daughter and tries to get them to move in. The point of view allows the reader to witness conversations with the realtor, small acts of kindness between the father and daughter, and makes you root for the house despite its “haunted” nature. Great for teaching unique points of view, like inanimate objects, while still making them easy to connect to understand and emotional. Fun idea: listen to LeVar Burton read it on his podcast LeVar Burton Reads.
“My Country is a Ghost” by Eugenia Triantafyllou
A woman must leave behind the ghost of her mother as she immigrates into a new country. There, she gets a job washing dishes and shrinks away from those who have the privilege of keeping their ghosts with them. She worries about losing memories of her mother now that she isn’t there any longer to remind her of things like old recipes and stories of their past. One day, she meets a man at the restaurant who tries to help bring her ghost back. This one is great for teaching allegory while demonstrating the importance of community and connection.