reading on a tabletI’ve been sitting on this fabulous post from Book Riot for a few days because I wasn’t sure I was smart enough to respond to it. The several contributors, all Book Riot regulars, pose an intriguing question: what contemporary books would you add to the high school reading curriculum to round out the classics-laden choices being taught already?

As a book-lover—and a teacher—I have struggled at times with the question of what the high school English curriculum should do. I was horrified when my then-16-year-old brother told me his class had foregone the original Shakespeare in favour of a graphic novel adaptation. As a supplement, sure, graphic novel away. But instead of?

I supposed—and perhaps this assumption is more open to debate than I once thought it was—that the goal of high school English was to expose students who might not study literature later to the key works of the literary canon. It was like history to me. You can’t say ‘well, we will study the history of the United States as a subject, but leave out slavery because we’d rather do something else.’ You have to study the key events, whatever they might be. And, for a student who may not study literature later, I felt that you had to cover the high points, boring or not. They could read Harry Potter for fun, couldn’t they? Nobody was stopping them from reading other books on their own time…

But lately, I have been changing my mind a little, and this Book Riot post came at the perfect time. I have been encountering more and more people like the Beloved, who claims he actually liked to read for fun—until school ruined it for him. And the way they ruined it was not so much that they made him read boring, dated stuff. It’s that they didn’t give any value to the things he did care to read about. If they had done more biography, more non-fiction—well-written, literary non-fiction if they must, but still—more stories about sports and adventure—well, maybe high school English wouldn’t have been the last literature he ever read. Maybe they could have covered the classics in perhaps a less comprehensive format and left time for literature which really did engage the students. Maybe they could have validated for these young adults that there was merit in the stuff that actually spoke to them.

So, with that in mind, what contemporary books would I add to a high school English curriculum? I don’t claim to be as knowledgeable about the breadth of potential choices as the Book Riot folks, but I scanned my Calibre library for 5-star reads and found a few contenders.

The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier: The novel’s intriguing premise is that following a person’s death, they resume their lives in a way-station of a city where they remain as long as there is a person alive who still remembers them. The book is not explicitly a YA novel, but it offers many intriguing discussion points for that demographic, about the connections we make with other people, and the memories we choose to retain of them.

The Winter of Our Disconnect by Susan Maushart: This memoir of the author’s self-imposed six-month technology embargo (complete with teenage conscripts!) is hilarious, finely crafted non-fiction, but also presents research on how our brains process technology, and the social ramifications of its usage, that will be food for thought for the cellphone-addicted youth of today.

Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi: An alien species who happens to be hideously unattractive contacts a Hollywood PR agent for help in ‘coming out’ to Planet Earth. This is a hilarious send-up of the whole Hollywood machine, and offers a gentle way in to exploring notions of beauty, and the whole media spin machine.

Nickel And Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich: This exploration of class and economy in America reads like a novel, and remains relevant even a decade after its publication. Plenty of roads to discussion here, and perhaps a not-so-subtle object lesson for kids in why getting an education is so important.

Fire Watch by Connie Willis:  I loved ‘To Say Nothing of the Dog,’ which is set in this same universe of time-travelling historians, but it was perhaps a bit long for study in a high school. The titular novella of this collection offers a taste of it, as well as an introduction to the educational merits of really well-done sci-fi.