an alternative high school reading list

I believe stories are the smoke amongst our bones. They are the sound you hear at night when the whole world is asleep - the endless hush of a river or a tide or someone whispering. Stories are the voice of the universe's soul.

The good stories, I mean. The real ones.

Tell me you teach teenagers, and one of the first things I'll ask you is what stories you want them to read. It shows me what you believe and what you hope they too will grow up believing. But so many high school reading lists are very proper, aren't they? Proper as in, supposed to be good; as in, gleaned from public school lists; as in, what we think we ought to read to be intelligent. How many of those books would you yourself really enjoy reading? And how many young people would find them relevant to their own lives (unless lectured on how they were)?

The following list is not complete, since I have chapter three of Deep in the Far Away to distribute tonight. Also, I've only included books I myself have read. Mainly, it is just to give an idea. Having taught high school students, I was so dismayed to see them view "school texts" as being educational and their own favourite books as not worth serious consideration. And yet get them started talking on Catch-22, or Greek myths, and you will discover a great energy for thinking and wondering within these young people. One of the best sessions I ever had was with two bright, articulate young men where we forgot about the assigned topic and I just let them teach me about the books they loved.

My own instincts are always to allocate classic books. I relished my lit degree course, reading everything from ancient poetry to modern Eastern European novels. I love excellent books. I also utterly revile so much of the Young Adult dross available today, where the hardest question a heroine has to answer is which boy she will pick. But I also know not all teenagers are book nerds, and it benefits them hugely to be given books they can connect to on a real and personal level. There are some spectacular modern books which can truly engage the hearts, souls, and minds of young people, and educate them about life too, and I think we can welcome these books into any good literature curriculum.

an alternative reading list for high school

history of human dreaming
Indigenous myths and legends
All the old fairy tales
The stories of Camelot
Ancient stories from your own culture

the struggle for idealism
Utopia, by Thomas More
The Giver and its sequels, by Lois Lowry
The Crucible, by Arthur Miller
Watership Down, by Richard Adams
Animal Farm, by George Orwell

development of self in context
The Picture of Dorian Grey, by Oscar Wilde
Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen
Dragonsong, by Anne McCaffrey
On the Jellicoe Road, by Melina Marchetta
Froi of the Exiles, by Melina Marchetta
Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka
A Separate Peace, by John Knowles
The Outsiders, by SE Hinton
Dune, by Frank Herbert
My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George
Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett

developing a philosophy of living
Walden, by Henry David Thoreau
Wise Child & Juniper by Monica Furlong
So many more books could go here, depending on your own ideals

Hamlet, by Shakespeare
The Hobbit, by JRR Tolkien
The Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien
Quintana of Charyn by Melina Marchetta (sequel to Froi)
Blackout & All Clear by Connie Willis
Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey
The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner
Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

philosophy & social commentary
The classic philosophers, for discussion
How to Read a Book, by Mortimer Adler
Equal Rites, by Terry Pratchett (feminism and prejudice)
Moving Pictures, Terry Pratchett (the movie industry)
The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde (art for art's sake)
Women Who Run With the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Unwind, by Neal Shusterman
Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
Feed, by MT Andersen

I could go on for hours. This list is really just an introduction to the idea that teenagers can receive a profoundly soulful and thoughtful education through all different kinds of books, not just the old classics which make High School Reading lists decade in, decade out.


  1. Such a great list (and shoo whee, thankfully, I've actually read many of them, many of them, actually, in high school!)... Some I haven't read, I'll have to look into it.

  2. Hello,

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  3. Thank you for this list! I was actually thinking I should look for a list, for myself, actually, as I'm reading LOTR and thinking I should go and read other classics.
    Here (Québec) we learn French as a first language, and there's so little book to be read by sec 5 (16 yr old) I think all in all I read 3 asked by the teacher, only!
    Luckily for myself, I liked to read and didn't wait on the teachers....
    Thanks for this list. I will look into it with great attention. I think I'll start with Dune, since it's one of my mom's favorite and I have it here at home already!

  4. I finally got a moment to read this. What a *wonderful* list. I love your categories. I think my oldest will too. :)