I’ve seen a lot lately about using YA (Young Adult) literature to help get students more interested in reading. I have mixed feelings about that–I primarily teach juniors, and my mindset is that I should be preparing them to be adults, not preparing them to be children. After all (as I often remind them when they’re being immature), in less than two years, they’ll actually be adults. Why not guide students to read things that will introduce them to the world they’ll soon be entering and living in for the rest of their life, instead of pandering to what is currently comfortable but which will be obsolete in a matter of months?
I’ve tried many different strategies for engaging young people with worthwhile literature over the years. While most of the stuff I offer fails big time (Alas, I’m looking at you, Stranger In A Strange Land, Catch-22, and A Farewell To Arms), some titles tend to make solid connections year after year. Here are twelve perennial winners:
- Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. I’m continually surprised by how many high schoolers haven’t even heard of this. It always scores a new fan, though.
- Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale. Even before the Hulu series, this one was a big hit, especially with feminist students. Two years ago, when one student was researching things about the book for a presentation after finishing it, and she learned that a trailer for the upcoming series has just been released, she made us all watch it. She smiled from ear to ear. That’s an extreme example, but still, kids who read this tend to dig it.
- Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes. This dark nostalgia-fest is easier going for those who struggle with reading. The details and the themes tend to resonate.
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night. Everyone reads Gatsby in class and everyone loves it, but time and again, when students pick this one for other reading projects, they universally tell me how much they enjoyed it.
- Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House. While some teens are disappointed by the lack of gore, most of them get the creepy psychological vibe here, and it’s a quick, easy read. Never had a kid read this and regret it.
- Cormac McCarthy, No Country For Old Men and/or The Road. Man, kids like Cormac McCarthy. I’ve had several good conversations comparing and contrasting the book and movie versions of these with teens. They don’t always get the deeper ideas he wants to impress, but the violent plots do certainly get them ready to think about them.
- Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye. Probably the easiest of Morrison’s works, this is still timely in regards to race and sex issues.
- Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita. Like other titles here, this one uses its scandalous appeal to communicate wonderfully deep ideas and style. The shocking sensationalism is always a hit; students may not even know that they’ve been educated by a classic!
- Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood. Like McCarthy in that her style brings deeper ideas to pop consciousness, but even more than being violent, kids just find her attractively weird. In a good way.
- Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar. What teen won’t relate to this, in some way, sometime? Bonus: if you’re expecting to see Catcher in the Rye in this list, forget it: you might be surprised by how many teens hate it, seeing Holden himself as a phony. The Bell Jar is where it’s at.
- Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels. Generally, this one is favored by young men who want to avoid anything too soft or fancy in their reading–ROTC types always love it. As with every title on this list, I’m happy to connect every type of student to something worthwhile for them to study, enjoy, and be enriched by.
- Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five. Ditto from the last entry. The multi-genre weirdness of this one tends to rock readers a bit, but it’s a worthy and rewarding ride!