5 classic books we should skip in high school – & 5 you should read instead

There are some books that, even if you haven’t personally read them in ninth grade, you associate high school reading lists. You know the type: strong moral character, conducive to class discussions and take-out essays. They are apparently still dog-eared, even though they are brand new, and you expect somewhere on a page to have notes, in pencil, about literary tropes. Corn Are there any classic books we should skip in high school? And if so, what do we read instead?

Now, before I go any further, I want to be clear – I’m not saying that we should never, ever, not once read those books that we have considered for generations to be mandatory classics. You should read them. We all probably should, but at our own pace. Because books that are specifically chosen for classrooms, for high school students about to venture out into the world with their new minds and bright hopes, should carry with them the potential for disagreement, argument, debates, changing perspectives, lessons learned and challenged beliefs. They must be both familiar and very, very new. They should show a diverse set of protagonists. They should be written by a diverse set of authors. They should reflect the world in which we are currently navigating.

And when the word “classic” is synonymous with white writers writing about white male protagonists, then we need to step back and think about what we mean when we say “classic” … and why.

“To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee and “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead

Scout Finch is truly one of my favorite literary characters. But if we examine the main reason for reading Harper Lee’s 1960 novel about an Alabama town torn apart by a racist court case, perhaps we can turn to a work like Colson Whitehead The Underground Railroad, which explores the effects of slavery on black communities from before the Civil War until today.

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‘The Great Gatsby’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald & ‘Behold the Dreamers’ by Imbolo Mbue

Both Gatsby the magnificent and Here are the dreamers tackle the same central element: the trap door of the American dream. Both are notably “accessible”, welcoming the reader inside. Corn Here are the Dreamers, which takes place in 2007, focuses on more contemporary elements of the same concept – immigration, the financial crisis of the early years and the aesthetic nature of capitalism.

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“Catcher in the Rye” by JD Salinger and “How to Light a Fire and Why” by Jesse Ball

Angry, jaded and disillusioned teenagers, roaming a world they think they’ve already understood. Salinger brought us Holden; In How to set it on fire and why, Ball brings us Lucia, whose father is dead, whose mother is in a mental hospital, and who makes her way through the world armed with licorice, a lighter desire and increasingly “burning” world on fire.

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“The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne and “Here Comes The Sun” by Nicole Dennis-Benn

Both of these books explore women’s sexuality – the way women interact with it, the way it is forced upon us, and the tendency in the world around us to vilify women who refuse to follow the rules of decorum. But Nicole Dennis-Benn’s incredible debut novel, Here is the sun, addresses sexuality specifically for black women, for poor women and for sex workers.

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“Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare and “Don’t Call Us Dead” by Danez Smith

Please don’t @ me for telling Romeo and Juliet should be retired. It’s a beautiful book, it’s a beautiful play, Shakespeare is a genius. But if we ask this current generation of students to explore the power of love, its warmth and pain, and what it means to give and receive kindness, then Danez Smith’s devastating collection of poetry , Don’t call us dead, which opens the imagination of the afterlife for black men shot by police, is going to be more relevant. Truly.

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About Marcia G. Hussain

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