Over the past 50 or so years, the required reading list in U.S. high schools has had few modifications. Most of the books that students are reading now are the same that their parents read. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, there are so many incredible, culturally important works of literature that are being published and are either offered as a bonus read, or neglected from the curriculum altogether.
This list is based on my own reading and is not complete. I intend this list to be supplemental to current reading lists. I did my best to not include books that are currently on high school reading lists, but as lists can vary greatly, there may be a book or two that are currently recommended or required in high schools. Regardless of your age, I think these books are great starting points for research and discussion on the themes they explore.
As with many works of literature, these books deal with heavy topics that may be triggering to some readers. I urge to do further research to determine whether these books are for you.
The Laramie Project by Moises Kaufman and Tectonic Theatre Project
The Laramie Project is a radically important piece of drama lit that was created as an act of healing for the town of Laramie, Wyoming after the murder of Matthew Shepard. Using interviews with Laramie residents, Kaufman and his theater crafted this raw portrait of mourning. Created at the cusp of the digital age, The Laramie Project was and continues to be groundbreaking, exposing intolerance and grief alongside each other in small town America.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
This sweeping family saga spans over three centuries, following two sisters and their descendants. In 18th century Ghana, Effia is married to an Englishman and living the life of luxury. Meanwhile her half-sister, Esi, is imprisoned below Effia’s feet. Esi is sold into slavery and stolen away to North America. Effia’s family sees generations of warfare and British colonization. Esi and her descendants live out their lives enslaved, surviving the American Civil War, the Jazz Age, and the present day. Homegoing explores ancestral pain through alternating points of view, and visceral prose, creating a masterful book to be cherished and studied.
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
Set a mere five years into the future, Parable of the Sower presents a world that could easily become our reality. Blockaded cities, critical water shortages, disease, war, and drugs have destroyed Los Angeles. When Lauren’s family dies and their “safe” compound is destroyed, she sets off. With hope in her heart, Lauren forms a new religion that she calls Earthseed, inviting fellow refugees to join her. Dystopian and bleak, Parable of the Sower remains hopeful and revolutionary.
The Poppy War by R.F Kuang
Although a fantasy, The Poppy War is based on modern Chinese history, specifically the Second Sino-Japanese War and The Nanking Massacre. For students studying World War II, The Poppy War could be the work of fiction that gives context to their studies. Rin, a young peasant girl, is admitted to a prestigious military school where she soon discovers a wealth of power inside of her that could change everything. Just as Rin begins to learn to control her powers, Rin realizes she may be her people’s last hope as war boils to the surface again. In addition to the graphic horrors of war, The Poppy War also deals with colorism, poverty, addition, self-harm, and lust for power.
There There by Tommy Orange
Like a woven blanket, There There is the multifaceted, interconnected story of 12 members of Native communities. All traveling towards the Big Powwow in Oakland, each character faces their own shattering reality. There There is multigenerational, connecting the young and old, with big, terrifying questions of existence and otherness. Tommy Orange uses his experience growing up in Oakland, connecting music to his heritage, creating a rhythmic beat out of the short chapters.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
The most important person to modern medicine never even gave her consent for her cells to be studied. Journalist Skloot explores Henrietta Lacks’s life, from her family’s history to her troubled childhood to the illness that killed her. With the help of the Lacks family, and especially Deborah Lacks, Skloot uncovers some of the mystery of what happened to Henrietta and how she became an immortal cell in a medical lab, known as HeLa. Devastating and full of more questions than answers, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a vital read.
Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Part essay, part intimate letter, Between The World and Me was written for Coates’s teenage son about what it means to be Black in the United States. Using his own experiences and historical references, Coates explains how racist violence has been woven into American culture. Between The World and Me is bleak, harsh, and cautionary. This is not the letter you want to write your children, but it is the letter that we need to read and discuss.
What book would you add to a high school reading list? Are there any from your high school days you would want to read again? Required Reading from School is Worth Rereading as an Adult. Conversely, do you think it’s time to let go of some of the classics? Is it Time to Retire To Kill a Mockingbird from Required Reading Lists?