A High School American Literature reading list looks fairly similar across the United States, but that doesn’t mean they should stay the same. Read the list below and decide for yourself if things need changing.
My take on the 11th Grade English Reading List
Like the American classroom, the list for American Literature hasn’t changed much. The study of the American Dream in 11th grade remains a stronghold for American Literature. The reasoning behind American Literature being taught in the 11th grade is because students learn about American History in their history courses congruous to Am. Lit, which makes sense to a degree. They don’t always learn about the same time period and are quite often learning about war in history, while learning about more modern times in American Literature. It still does make sense for students to learn American Lit. at the same time as American History if it works with their schedules. The High School American Literature Reading List is listed and summarized below. It includes some of the most popular reads. Although it is a great list of books that I love, it is also time to change the reading list for the current high school American Literature classroom.
High School American Literature Reading List: A Raisin In The Sun
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansbury: A Raisin in the Sun is one of the most heartbreaking plays to read. It is about a family that is trying to catch a break, and when they finally do, it is at the expense of Walter Sr. (the grandfather’s death). The break they catch is the check they will receive from the insurance company for his death. Each member of this 5 person family has dreams of what they want to do with the money. Beneatha wants to be a doctor, Walter wants to open a liquor store, Mama wants to buy a new home etc. All of the characters crave the dream so badly that when it falls apart, there is an anger and bitterness that changes each of them forever. The message is that during this time period (post civil war) it was near impossible for African Americans to get ahead. They only experienced “dreams deferred”.
High School American Literature Reading List: The Crucible
The Crucible by Arthur Miller: The second of two plays that are often taught on the reading list for high school American Literature. The Crucible captures the horrifying time period of the Salem Witch Trials. The idea of radical religious paranoia didn’t begin with terrorists today. It began years ago, and one example of an intolerant, radical religious group, was the Puritans. Perhaps the most terrifying point of these events is that they were spear-headed by children and continued because of these children. One of the standards for American Literature is to look at the different cultures and contributors to American society, and the Puritan ideals are still prevalent in literature and in religious practice today.
The Great Gatsby
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby is a contributor to American Culture stemming from the roaring twenties. During this time there were the rich separated from the poor and not a lot in between. If you were poor you stayed poor. The story is told from the perspective of an average Joe named Nick who becomes obsessed with the mysterious Great Gatsby. The Great Gatsby moves into town with the intentions of stealing his prior sweetheart, Daisy, away from her husband Tom. This plan fails miserably when James Gatz (Great Gatsby) is shot and killed in the end due to a misunderstanding. At no point do we see the Great Gatsby happy, which began the thought process that money doesn’t bring happiness. The most important contributor to American culture is the advancement of women’s rights.
The House on Mango Street
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros: The House on Mango Street is on the High School American Literature reading list, but doesn’t get chosen as much as I believe that it should. It is a book about a young Latina woman whose family moves to a poor neighborhood in a house on Mango Street. The young girl experiences many abuses that are told in a manner as though they are commonplace and these things like being sexually abused happens frequently in poverty stricken neighborhoods. The House on Mango Street contributes to the creation of Latino and Latina American culture which is much different than African American or white culture. For this reason, I believe it should be frequented more often than it is.
High School American Literature Reading List: Huckleberry Finn
Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain: is an American classic. Although it frequents most of what would be considered the best high school American reading list, it is one that probably isn’t as necessary to teach anymore. I know some of you are probably getting angry at me, but if the aim of the standards is to analyze how different events in history added to the American culture, it just doesn’t fit the bill. In fact at a certain point it becomes downright silly and ridiculous. The major authentic part of the book is the use of the “n” word during this time period in the South. I do not believe the book should be removed from the list for this reason because, it is an awful word, the students hate hearing it, and the point of using it is for them to see how demoralizing it really was. Mark Twain put the word in because it was a reality and it is uncomfortable and it’s supposed to be uncomfortable. I do however, love the book, and think it can be revisited on a college level reading list where it is more appropriate to study higher schools of thought. Mark Twain was very far-sighted and there are many scenes that should be studied and revered at the college level.
High School American Literature Reading List: Their Eyes Were Watching God
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston: I’m going to just say straight out that although I absolutely love this book, I do not think high school level students can appreciate or follow it. To put it quite frankly, they are bored to tears. The story is about a young woman who doesn’t have much choice in a post civil world gets married twice. The first husband she is married off to by her parents and doesn’t love, and the second she runs off with named Teacake who she is madly in love with. The story shows the struggles, trials and tribulations as an African American, specifically an African American woman during post civil war time. The scene where there is a storm is one of the most beautifully written scenes in literature and can be studied independently. Teacake, the love of her life dies from rabies in the end leaving her alone.
Beloved by Toni Morrison: This is another one of my favorites, but I will state what I mentioned above, I don’t think it is a novel that can be appreciated or digested by students. In the beginning a mom slits her babies throats in an attempt to save them from what she thinks is white men coming to take them into slavery. She has lived such a horrific life that she believes it is better to show her children mercy by killing them. This is a lot for high school level students to process, or connect with even a little. There are a lot of deeply sexual metaphors, such as the cherry blossom tree that aren’t appropriate to get into as a high school teacher, and this book should be left for the college level.
What I would Teach Instead
Typically in an English class, you have time to teach 6 novels per year, three per semester, one per every six weeks. This provides a proper amount of time to analyze the text, write an essay, practice academic skills, learn content and relate it to the American Dream. I would teach: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, A Raisin in the Sun by Loraine Hansbury, The Crucible by Arthur Miller, Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas, and The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden. There are eight on this list because the Crucible, Brown Girl Dreaming and A Raisin in the Sun are much shorter.
These are my reasonings. We include The Crucible because we have to show where Puritan influences arose from and the dangers of radical religious ideals. I would include the Great Gatsby because it is important to see the women’s movement and how it contributes to American culture. A Raisin in the Sun is important to the struggle of the African American, but doesn’t end there because there has been such a greater struggle for this particular group of people over a long period of time. For this reason I would add parts of Brown Girl Dreaming, the Hate U Give, and Long Way Down to show how the struggle continues. I have included The House on Mango Street. to include the Latin American Struggle. There is so much to this book that I believe it covers a vast amount of issues, and themes that contribute to the Mexican American culture. In addition there is a book on this list called The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden. My reasoning for include this book is because it is about a young girl who lives with her mother, two brothers, and one baby sister in a trailer that belongs to her mother’s abusive boyfriend. The story takes a look at what it means to be at a poverty level and how you are beholden, like her mother, to a less than desirable situation. The story shows how those living in a trailer with multiple siblings have additional adult responsibilities and for this reason do not do as well academically.
Best High School American Literature Reading List
Do not get me wrong, I love the classics, and I love every single book on the list above. I own them all even some collector’s items. But, just because they are the best books for American Lit. doesn’t necessarily mean they are the best fit for today’s American Lit student.
Let me know what you think in the comments below. What American Lit. books do you teach? and what books would you love to teach if your district was willing to spend the money?
For more book selections, read a blog post on Books to Read for Teens