In honor of November being National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo, learn more here) we asked some Fusion English teachers to tell us their top books every high schooler should read. For some, it was an easy choice, for others it created much inner turmoil, but they were able to battle it and make a final choice. (Click on any teacher’s name to learn more about them!)
Here’s their list of books every high schooler should read:
I think every (mature) high schooler should read Maggie, A Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane. Although there are some adult themes, I think reading a story about the struggle of immigrants (specifically Irish) in the early 1900s should be taught to each student. In this book, readers see strong imagery about tenement homes and how severely one’s environment impacts them. Not only do these themes resonate with readers, but the language is beautifully harsh and vibrant. Crane, a naturalist writer, uses concise yet descriptive imagery to paint the slums of early 20th Century New York. He presents straightforward literature with subtle symbolism which forces one to read carefully. His writing also teaches students that the use of strong verbs can greatly add to the description, not inundating their writing with adjectives and adverbs. Also, it’s about 60 pages—how awesome is that?
English, History, and French Teacher
My book would be The Phantom Toll Booth by Norton Juster.
It’s a fun book that takes readers on a journey with a boy and a talking dog in an imagined world. The duo encounters several obstacles along the way that are created by language. The use of language and how the main character thinks are the protagonists in this story. At one point, the main character “jumps to conclusions” about a situation, and the dog and boy end up on an island of “conclusions”. It is dull and boring. I love this book because of the message it sends on the power of language and thought. Every high schooler should read this to understand what they say on social media is powerful, and how they think about themselves, situations, and others will influence where they go.
English, Psychology, and English Electives Teacher
Fusion The Woodlands
My choice: Into Thin Air by John Krakauer
Genre: Literary Non-fiction
I love teaching this book! There are any number of lessons in this story that students relate to their own lives: knowing your limits; testing yourself; working solo vs working in a group; pitfalls of blind trust to leadership; importance of understanding the motivations of those in positions of authority; journalistic bias and perspective; whether to speak up when things fall apart; survivor’s guilt. Students enjoy reading Into Thin Air because it is fast paced, adventurous, tragic, and full of flawed heroes. I wish every student would read it because it keys them into the art of storytelling and the power of non-fiction.
English Department Head
History, Journalism, and Wellness Teacher
The Alchemist by Paul Coelho
The message is perfect for young people – all about believing in and following your dreams and trusting yourself. It is rich with symbolism and historical references, so you can easily pair it with nonfiction sources and develop great cross-genre or reflective projects. Every student I have ever met loves it. It’s easy to get them interested in it if you show them celebrities on video talking about the impact the book made on them. It is the most widely-translated novel in the world and Coelho is a fascinating writer.
English, History, Life Skills, Yoga, and Songwriting Teacher
Fusion Miracle Mile
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Part of me thinks that this is an obvious and somewhat clichéd choice, but I like to incorporate it into my English classes for several reasons. It is an interesting novel in many ways (and Vonnegut is an eccentric and talented writer). I find that students really buy into the book and, often, have never read anything like it – the tone, themes, narrative devices, and style are SO complex (while still being totally accessible). Also, it is Vonnegut’s way of processing his experience of the firebombing of Dresden. The ways in which he creates a fictional context for a very real (and horrific) event leads to fruitful discussions about writer intent and responsibility. It can be tied into History lessons, and it is a great choice for collaborative projects (English/History). I also find that many students really like Vonnegut’s style and voice – which makes it a great jumping off point for other works by Vonnegut. I often teach the short stories Harrison Bergeron and occasionally 2BRORB, especially if Vonnegut resonates with a student. It is also a great way of introducing primary and secondary sources as it doesn’t fit clearly into either category despite the fact that one would tend to think a book written by a Dresden survivor would be a primary source – the absurdity of the narrative makes us question whether or not unreliable narrators can still be considered primary sources. In short, there are many ways to access this novel – everyone relates to the book differently, but that makes it a perfect choice for individualization. (And it’s a great book.)
English Department Head
Fusion Walnut Creek
I wish I could narrow it down to one!
I have to first pick my all-time favorite book in literature (read: NOT just for the pleasure of reading), The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I choose this book because it opened my eyes as a teen to the myth of the American Dream. This book was the first introduction I had to the idea that the American Dream is not truly attainable for everyone because our dreams sometimes conflict with others’ dreams. It taught me that the more one wants, the more one tends to be let down in life. These are sad lessons, I know, but I feel that they are important ones for students to understand in order to grow to be informed, critical, and emotionally healthy members of society.
I have to pick a second one, though, because I feel that there is so much more beyond just the idea of the American Dream and hopes for the future. Looking back into the past is much more important for us because we learn from it and hopefully, we learn not to repeat the mistakes made by others, a sign of true wisdom. It is for this reason that I also choose Night by Elie Wiesel. The (apparently partially fictional – interesting controversy if there ever was one, in my opinion) account of a survivor of the concentration camps during the Holocaust is horrific, yet is written simply and directly.
So many other wonderful suggestions, but I consider those to be two of the most important books in my own life. Different students will take different meanings. I hope that your students find something meaningful to their own lives!
Kaci E Champion
English and History Teacher
Fusion Houston Galleria
The play in two-parts, Angels in America, by Tony Kushner, is the piece of literature I feel every high school student should read. I first read this play my senior year in high school, and although I was not fully capable of grasping its total magnitude (I’m not sure that I ever will), that did not diminish its effect on me. The play deals with relationships and the importance of community, set against the backdrop of the early days of the AIDS epidemic in the United States. Other issues explored are Reagan era politics, environmental decay, religion and tradition, and identity. While the references and sophisticated language employed might be difficult to grasp by all students, the inventive and contemporary use of magical realism allows readers to become immersed in the world of the play. This masterpiece is a bold reminder that no one should die a “silent death,” and that connection is the only way that we can save the world. I will end with my favorite quote from the play: “Nothing’s lost forever. In this world, there is a kind of painful progress, longing for what we’ve left behind and dreaming ahead. At least I think that’s so.”
Oscar D. Lugo
English, Spanish, and Film Teacher
Fusion Los Angeles
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
Snow Crash is a great book for every high school student to read for a number of reasons. It is super accessible in terms of the writing style since it is modern literature but the content is also something that every student can find interesting. It relates various historical and social science topics in a way that is accessible and interesting. If a student loves science fiction or dystopian literature than it is even more right up their alley. Personally, Snow Crash is one of my favorite novels because it presents a very realistic possible future while also have a super awesome protagonist (aptly called Hiro Protagonist) and a fast-paced story.
Language Arts and English Teacher
Fusion Los Gatos
My book of choice is Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. Adolescence is a time when many search for spiritual guidance and as a teenager, this book was always a profound re-read for me. I always wonder how much was lost in translation since the original publication language was German. Here’s a quote below to pique your interest:
“When someone is searching then it might easily happen that the only thing his eyes still see is that what he searches for, that he is unable to find anything, to let anything enter his mind because he always thinks of nothing but the object of his search. Searching means: having a goal. Finding means: being free, being open, having no goal.”
Homework Café Teacher
Fusion Walnut Creek
The Odyssey (attributed to Homer)
The original adventure story, The Odyssey includes something for everyone: shipwreck, close escapes, monsters, travelogue, friendship, true love, political intrigue, and subterfuge. It helped define our ideas of the hero and the quest, and speaks to us about ways human nature has not changed since the 8th century B.C. Bonus: it has a happy ending. Just as G.K. Chesterton wrote in the 20th century that we read fairytales not to know that there are dragons, but to know we can slay them, we read The Odyssey not to realize people have always faced challenges, but to be encouraged that people have—since antiquity–overcome them.
English and History Teacher
Fusion Mission Viejo
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.
This book is a Young Adult book and an incredibly beautiful story of an orphan girl living in Nazi Germany during World War II; Liesel Meminger is the central protagonist and her kindness, inherent goodness, and love cannot be taken away by the horrendous war and the Nazi extremism. The narrator of the book is Death and Zusak’s unique narrative makes it an unforgettable WWII story, standing out from all the other fiction and nonfiction WWII books that I have ever read. It is not a happy book and it will make you cry often, but it will leave you with a sense that human kindness will win out and defeat cruelty and evil in our world.
History and English Teacher
Have a book that you think should have made the list but didn’t? Make sure to tell us in the comments below!