Everyone in high school has to face it at one point or another: the dreaded book reading assignment. While the reading itself is perfectly fine for many, the additional annotating, contextualizing, exams and essays kill that first-read experience. Here are some books often assigned to high schoolers that are not only less dull when read as an adult, but significantly more meaningful and enjoyable.
Animal Farm by George Orwell
Animal Farm is the first of many on this list using cute talking animals as placeholders for real people to educate youths about the state of the world. As such, it’s certainly a story where much besides the main concept of “talking animals running a farm” is pretty much lost on high schoolers. A teen could understand the concepts, but there’s something to be said about the weight of personal experience.
Animal Farm is one of the most popular books assigned to teach students about the era of history in which it was written. But due to the heavily analytical nature of this specific class reading, the actual story beats can get a little lost in the context. Reading Animal Farm as an adult, you’re aware that besides having a poignant message, it’s also just a well-told story. The way the farm is devolving faster and in more extreme ways, despite most of the non-pig characters having good intentions, is realistic and makes for a dramatic plot.
Read more about the prevailing significance of Animal Farm in this Bookstr article.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Lord of the Flies is one of the few with a pretty exciting plot that would theoretically keep a teenager’s attention. It’s about a troupe of boys alone on an island, struggling to survive and form their own little tribe. The way every attempt at order gives way to brutality is a surprise to say the least.
But while this may have been an enjoyable read in high school, the reader’s age certainly has a huge role to play in how they interpret the story. Observing a bunch of children battle for dominance and tear each other apart is far more disturbing as an adult. Besides the gut-wrenching humanity of seeing childhood innocence corrupted is the recognition of maturity in the boys’ actions. The pull of barbarism and the desire for power when stripped of society’s expectations speaks to monstrosities anyone is capable of. It’s a deep-seated terror toward ourselves and others that any adult could relate to.
Watership Down by Richard Adams
“Oh hey, a book about cute little bunnies that have their own society. Sounds like an easy read.” That’s what most kids are probably thinking when they’re given this book to read in class. Where the book may lose its young readers is when the fairytale nature unravels into a very dark plot. Murder, betrayal, dictatorship and war are all major themes at play. It’s also a fairly long story that makes room for dramatic tension, losing a teen’s attention.
Like a number of allegorical children’s literature from the mid-20th century, Watership Down deals with philosophical and political themes topical to a world ravaged by systematic oppression. It’s focused primarily on the individual citizens of a dystopian society. Reading Watership Down as an adult is an exercise in empathy for oppressed peoples of the past as well as the present. But hey, it’s still kind of fun that they’re all cute bunnies, right?
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
This classic piece of American literature is a staple of every high school English class. There’s a mundane nature to it’s story, focusing less on the hijinks of a little girl and more on the faults in our legal system. To a teen trudging through the rather long book, which escalates into an equally-lengthy court trial, the whole thing seems pretty dull.
The topics this southern gothic tale brings up are as important as they are difficult to talk about. Rape, social injustice, poverty and racism are critical issues of the modern world. Atticus Finch is Lee’s embodiment of lawful integrity, refreshing if unrealistic to the cynical adult reader. The tenderness of the very human relationships in this book heighten the stakes. To Kill a Mockingbird inspires in the reader hope for a more just world, where friends and neighbors aren’t wrongfully condemned.
My Antonia by Willa Cather
Another unexciting read for high schoolers, My Antonia focuses more on the themes of the story than any overarching plot. It is the sort of book that fits perfectly in a classroom environment, especially when discussions of prose are in play. Consisting of the day to day adventures and drudgeries of early settlers in Nebraska, a teen’s investment in this would be hard won.
That same mundanity is what’s magical about My Antonia as an adult. There is vivid detail in describing the idyllic childhood romps through the wilderness. The majesty of the untamed West is shared by two children growing up together, surviving through thick and thin. The simple beauty of childhood friendships, as well as the terrifying beauty of nature, is almost meditative for an adult. Without the need to contextualize and meet deadlines, a high schooler might find this quite an enjoyable read.
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
When it comes to classical literature, there are few instances where a high schooler can relate. The story of a selfish woman who romantics her provincial reality is not particularly intriguing. Combined with the ornate language of this 19th century novel, teens often grow tired of the cyclical nature of Madame Bovary.
Plenty of people perhaps know or have known someone who reminds them of Madame Bovary. This protagonist always has her head in the clouds, desperately seeking the poetic drama that only exists in fiction. As an adult, the detrimental effect of selfish people driven toward unrealistic lifestyles is seen far too often. The absurdity of Bovary’s delusions is certainly entertaining, especially when this kind of behavior is all too common.
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Now, this pick is a bit of a cheat. The Giver is one of the few assigned high school readings that has consistently been a favorite among students. There are plenty of good reasons why. The protagonist is young and has a relatable perspective. The magical realism is poignant and easy to understand. The pacing of the story maintains interest, even among young readers. It is a predominant icon of dystopian YA fiction for good reason.
But the overarching theme of attempting perfection through ignorance is perhaps more effective as an adult. Especially with issues of grief, many understand the constant internal struggle of wondering if ignorance is preferable to agony. Similarly, the idea of being colorblind is especially topical in discussions of race. Rather than desiring to see everyone as the same, Lowry’s message focuses on the beauty of individuality. Selfhood and its pursuit is at the core of dystopian fiction, something both adults and teens are grappling with.
These are only some of the books that are surely far more impactful as an adult. It just goes to show that there is no perfect way to make literature exciting and impactful to kids. But there are plenty of assigned readings that do inspire a love for books at an early age. One thing is for sure: these books will be inspiring young and old readers for decades to come.