• Your High School Reading List

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in ABCs of Writing     Comments 45 comments

    Discussion question: If you taught (or do teach!) high school English, what books (say up to five) would you assign your senior class, and why? What books do you remember reading for class in high school, and did any of them have any kind of significant impact on your life? Have you reread any of those books as an adult, and how did they hold up?


    I remember studying A Farewell to Arms as a senior in Mrs. Johnson’s English class and really enjoying it — how the constant rain is almost its own character, all the dialogue-underneath-the-dialogue. At times Hemingway’s dialogue is so subtle that I missed major plot points, and class discussion would be a revelation. (What? Catherine is pregnant?! How did I miss that?)

    Over the years I thought about the book every now and again, but I didn’t reread it until early June in Portugal, when I ran out of books and had to choose from the limited selection of titles in English at a Lisbon chain.

    It held up, more or less. It’s not an earth-shattering book, but though the love story struck me as flawed this time, I appreciated the scenes on the front lines much more than I did as a kid.

    Still, I wondered… of all the incredible, potentially life-changing novels one might assign outgoing high school students, why this one?

    I can’t ask. Mrs. Johnson died long ago.

    And when I try to remember other books she assigned that year, I can’t think of any. Hemingway’s is the only one that comes to mind. Is that because my memory is flawed and/or I had already mentally checked out, or is it because Mrs. Johnson chose shitty, uninspiring books?

    Likely the former, but who knows.

    So I asked myself: If I were teaching high school English, what books would I assign my students, and why?

    And now I’m asking you: If you were teaching high school English, what books would you assign your students, and why? i.e., what would you hope would be their takeaway for each one?

    What books do you remember from English class, and did any of them have a significant impact on your life? Have you read any of them as an adult, and if so, did your opinion of them change?

    Let’s chat about it below.


    WriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is fiction editor at the Texas Observer and co-host of the Yak Babies podcast, and has written about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a 2019 writing project that you’d like a little help with, take a look at our book coachingprivate instruction and writer’s block counseling services. Join our mailing list and get a FREE writer’s diagnostic, “Common problems and SOLUTIONS for the struggling writer.”


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    Ava ciliberti

    “Snow Falling on Cedars”, David Guterson , “The Bluest Eye”, Toni Morrison , “The Road Less Traveled”, Scott Peck

    Barbara Mealer

    My high school did have a reading list for those of us who were college bound. (we had tracks so you could choose college, business or trade) It consisted of 100 books. We were required to read 10 and do reports on them. Those reports had to be quite thorough and somehow they knew if you used the cliff notes. I can remember reading the ‘Red Badge of Courage’, ‘The Scarlet Letter’, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, 20000 Leagues Under The Sea’, The Bridge over the River Kwai’, ‘From Here to Eternity’, ‘Gone with the Wind’, and a couple of others… Read more »

    Barbara Mealer

    We had books that we read as a class and discussed like one of Dickens, the Great Gatsby and so forth. These were the required outside of class where we turned in reports which only the teacher read. I loved to read, so it wasn’t difficult for me to read the ten books from the list. Others had major issues with reading that many books and choose their books based on the number of pages. Little did the know that in college those ten books…that was almost the amount you had to read for your classes in one months..lol.

    Joe Miragliuolo

    I think my best reads from my high school era (a long time ago) came from recommendations of peers: one from my older sister “Catcher in the Rye” and the other “On the Road” came from a friend.

    Greg Bullen

    On the Road is great and I am currently re-reading it, but I just cannot get past the language in CITR, though I have read it. To me the language is distracting. That said, I am a real square.

    Joe Miragliuolo

    Thanks. Will do. And yes, as a retired teacher, I agree there are best times, but I’m not sure there aren worst times.

    Joe Miragliuolo

    I’m not sure I got the full depth and breath of these at the age I was, but it made my next read a few years later that much richer.

    Julie Farin

    As a high school English teacher I would assign:
    The Great Gatsby – themes are timeless
    The Scarlet Letter – evolving role of women
    A Catcher in the Rye – controversy it caused
    The Age of Innocence – Old NY society

    Michael Goins

    A Lesson Before Dying, Gaines. Used it in college English classes for years and in the time I spent in a school for Autistic kids and kids with emotional issues. Great discussions and it helped them with both empathy and understanding the consequences of their actions.

    adrienne leslie

    I would and did assign Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Odd, because I’m a sucker for love (Not romance) stories. But, we were studying Ancient Rome and… he was an ancient Roman. My class was grade 6- gifted. We spent the first day discussing the cobbler who teases Marullus with a play on words, “I am a mender of bad soles.” The students loved the little nobody who dissed the patrician. My preteens already knew about kids who self inflict and were captivated by Portia who was a cutter’way back’ in 44 BC. We ended, not with an essay, but small groups… Read more »

    Barbara Mealer

    We had to read Hamlet. At the time, I found it totally boring. Sort of like Chaucer. My guess is it was the language since most of it didn’t make much sense to me at the time.

    adrien leslie

    With all the madness, Hamlet should have been more engaging. It wasnt for me either. But I enjoyed Chaucer. A better teacher, perhaps…

    Carol Bro

    Good question. Several books come immediately to mind, although there are so many more, including the ones already mentioned here. My list would include: To Kill a Mockingbird. So many good lessons in it, but the one that ultimately stuck with me is: Everybody deserves to be treated with respect. The Diary of Anne Frank. To be able to see positives amidst the cruelty of a world gone so utterly mad is a very special gift. Her story haunts me to this day, and yet I don’t remember it as a horribly depressing book—mainly I suppose due to the inimitable… Read more »

    Elizabeth Brent

    Carol, I love your picks! Sadly, I have taught high school and middle school for many years and where those books have not been required reading, when I have suggested them to students they tell me that they are boring. The classics these days must compete for kids attention with YA books which are much more direct and action packed.


    Your first two are probably on a list of a lot of teachers, both essential, IMO. I have not read Tuesdays with Morris but will now put it on my list!

    Carol Bro

    Susan: Darn Auto-Correct! It should have been Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom.


    Hi Dave. My high school lit education was dismal, but I did read then, and was touched by, Shakespeare’s MacBeth and Julius Caesar, and Hawethorne’s Scarlet Letter. I’ve read much Shakespeare since and have only grown in my appreciation of it. I have not read Scarlet Letter since, but I still remember lines from it, so I expect I would enjoy the read. Students in my “Get a Clue” high school lit class would read: 1. Henry V (Shakespeare) to show them the class nature of warfare. 2. Lord of the Flies (Golding) to remind them of the pyshcopathic nature… Read more »

    Sid Kemp

    I have two suggestions. First, I read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” in high school. I was not impressed. Since then, I have read two other Hawthorne novels and many short stories, and I now see that, as far as I can tell, “The Scarlet Letter” is one of his worst works, and also his least relevant for an audience any time between the 1980s and today. I would suggest “The Blythedale Romance” with a discussion of the idea that what we call hippie communes existed in Hawthorne’s own generation. Or, if the students are ready for a serious dialog… Read more »

    Gregory Hamilton Bullen

    My top five would be 1. This Side of Paradise 2. To Kill a Mockingbird 3. Tom Sawyer 4. Great Expectations 5. Heart of Darkness … I would also include Animal Farm and Tess of the D’ubervilles … All of these had a powerful if not always positive impact on me in high school and college and I remember them and the thoughts and emotions they engendered very well.

    Elizabeth Brent

    AS a former high school English teacher, I had the opportunity to assign reading – but sadly, I did not really have the opportunity to select the books. The curriculum was pretty much set when I joined the staff. Often, a teacher’s choices are bound by what books have already been purchased and are in the book closet. It is very expensive to purchase a couple hundred copies of a book, so schools tend to stick with the same titles for a long time. When I taught senior English, we read The Color Purple (not my favorite), Slaughter House Five,… Read more »

    Janet Schwartz

    As an educator for grades 4-9 math and/or language arts who no longer is in the classroom, I found this topic more than a little intriguing because as a student the only book I read, out of the many I was assigned, was Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I was not and still find that the classics are not necessarily my favorite. However, I have read many books that give me chills and cover the same time periods that were covered in school. My books that I would want students to read as seniors are The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto by Mitch… Read more »

    Kevin Wozniak

    “Catcher In the Rye” saved my sanity at age 14. Some of the parallels to my life were uncanny…an epiphanous experience…

    Kevin Wozniak

    I did read it again within the last 5 years. It was sort of like a time capsule of a particular moment, or an old photo…


    I would want to go back and re-read these first before I assigned them because they’re very “sixties”, but these issues have come around again. Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo. I can never ever since then think about war without imagining exactly how it impacts individuals. Also interesting because Trumbo was later blacklisted. I would hope kids reading it now would think twice about guns and war. Five Smooth Stones by Ann Fairbairn was my favorite novel when I was 12, but I would have to go back and read it with an adult eye. It was about… Read more »


    Do you have an actual pile and not a list? I do, but it keeps falling all over the floor. Quite a difference in styles in those two books, I wouldn’t mind reading your Brooklyn book, but my pile is too big. Let me know if there are any trees in Selby’s book.

    Kevin Wozniak

    Ok David, those are just a bit different…

    Kevin Wozniak

    I LOVED Heart is a Lonely Hunter in my teens and 20s. So real…so empathetic…so cognizant of people’s pain…then I reread it in my 40s…such a tearjerker… so over the top…but considering she was only about 23 when she wrote it, it was a remarkable achievement. I thought the central premise of troubled people projecting their emotions on to the mute (named “Singer” fer chrissakes) was brilliant. The book was brilliantly executed, but a teenager’s sensibility.

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