It’s no secret that it can be hard to read books assigned for school. Sort of like when you are about to do the dishes, and your mom asks you to do exactly that. All motivation is gone. Reading for an assignment just isn’t as fun as reading whatever you want recreationally, so it can be hard to get into a new book. There are, however, a select few well-known novels that, when given a chance, can become your new favorite read.
Lord of The Flies by William Golding
Lord of the Flies was not only the first book to really stick with me but also the first school-assigned book to do so. It tells the story of a group of schoolboys whose plane crashes on an island. After realizing all the adults on the plane were killed, they are faced with survival with only the help of each other. Things inevitably become chaotic as groups are formed, and certain boys get lost in leadership.
For many kids, myself included, this novel is the earliest introduction to what humanity is capable of. It explores themes of civilization, human nature, and religion, many of which children in middle school have not yet been exposed to. It was also the first novel many kids would read that they were expected to discuss and analyze. There is no denying that for many students who didn’t like to read, it was the first novel that had us fully engaged in the story and the discussion going on.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
This one may be a little obvious, but it’s popular for a reason. The novel is narrated by Nick Carraway, who recently moved to West Egg, a “new money” part of New York. His cousin is Daisy Buchanon, who lives in East Egg, a part of town considered “old money.” Nick eventually meets his neighbor, Jay Gatsby, a man who throws parties at his mansion every Saturday night and also has a complicated history with the married Daisy.
This is a favorite among both teachers and students. It’s a novel that is rich in analytical potential and features a lot of symbolism in relation to the American Dream as well as the class system. It also features a lot of drama, with romance and tragedy surrounding Daisy and Gatsby’s story. And Nick’s observational style of narrating allows the readers to feel like flies on the wall among the rich of New York.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
While a very famous book, Little Women isn’t taught in schools quite as much as the previous two. It is, however, a great read for many students who only read for class. It follows the March family, specifically the four sisters Meg, Jo, Amy, and Beth. Starting in 1860 and following the family over many years, each of the sisters goes on a journey of self-discovery and their societal roles.
This is a great one for students because it is very easy to become attached to at least one of the March sisters. Each of them is unique in both their qualities and flaws, which makes them all the more relatable. The novel explores themes of love, womanhood, and morality. While heartbreaking at times, it is ultimately a feel-good novel that leaves you with a strong feeling of catharsis.
Night by Elie Wiesel
This is one that not everyone may have read, but those who did never forgot it. The novel is a memoir of Wiesel’s time in Auschwitz and Buchenwald during World War II. It’s a short read that documents Wiesel and his father’s experiences during the Holocaust.
The Holocaust is always an important part of education in both history and English classes. This is, for many, the first Holocaust story told in a first-person narrative that students read. So, it stuck with me and many others because of the intensity of the story and the attention to detail. While reading this, the Holocaust becomes less of a story from long ago and more of the recent horror that it truly was. It is not a novel you would call a favorite, but every student feels its impact.
The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton
The Outsiders is the story of two rival juvenile gangs in Tulsa. The poor East Side gang is known as the Greasers, and the rich West Side gang is known as the Socs. The story mostly follows Ponyboy, a member of the Greasers. It is a story of violence and heavily discusses the difference between social classes, but it is also a story of family and boyhood.
The Outsiders is very different from Little Women, but similarly, both novels encourage their readers to develop emotional attachments to the characters. It is a novel that explores the struggles of kids living in poverty, which is a very real issue for many children. It explores themes of empathy, preserving childhood innocence, and honor. It is definitely a tearjerker, and every kid who reads this book forever remembers the phrase “Stay gold, Ponyboy.”
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
The Catcher in the Rye isn’t one that I read in school, but I know it’s a pretty well-studied book. It is also one of the earliest novels published that heavily focuses on mental health. It follows Holdren Cauldielfd, a prep school student who was recently expelled for failing his classes. He leaves school and returns to New York City, where he is from. Avoiding his family, he spends time in the city meeting new people and seeing old friends while simultaneously making decisions that suggest he may be suffering from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder caused by previous traumas.
I imagine this is a favorite because, like Little Women and The Outsiders, it depicts realistic struggles experienced by teenagers who go through many of the same things. At first glance, Holden may seem easy to hate, but as you learn more about his past, you learn that he isn’t as blamable as one would like to believe. The novel explores themes of mental health, genuineness, sex, and self-isolation.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Before it gained popularity for the well-known Hulu adaptation, The Handmaid’s Tale was often taught in schools. It is a dystopian story that documents the oppression of women in the US after it was overthrown by a Christian theocratic regime. It explores the presence of women in a society that seeks to not only oppress but also use women for the sake of childbirth. The novel follows Offred, the handmaid of the commander, and Serena Joy.
The Handmaid’s Tale is one of many books banned in recent years for its statements on feminism and women in society. It is a significant novel for students to study. It allows students to explore dystopian themes and compare the society depicted in the book to the one we live in now.
Each of these novels offers something extraordinary for the education of middle and high school students. They teach students how to analyze character, symbols, how they interact with one another, and their plots. They also offer students who don’t enjoy reading as much a story that will grab their attention, whether they find themselves relating to certain characters or wanting to fight for what is right alongside them.
While more than one of the novels on this list has been under fire in recent years for depicting too graphic or adult themes, that is all the more reason to teach them in a safe environment where productive discussion can be had.
To learn more about the banning of school-assigned books, click here.
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