The Book Order

Thank you for all of your thoughts and memories from high school English days. When I’m not teary over leaving my current students, I’m positively fluttery about my new job — kind of like breaking up and embarking on a new relationship. Teaching is heady business.

Here’s my preliminary book order for next year — 3/4 is adopted from the teachers I’m replacing; 1/4 my prerogative. Thought you might like to peek:

American Literature: Juniors
Essays from the Norton Nonfiction Anthology
Thoreau’s Walden
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening
Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter
Nella Larson’s Passing
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby
Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye
Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath
Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire
Poetry (plenty of modern selections)

Senior Trimester Elective: Women in Literature
Wharton’s House of Mirth (summer reading)
Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God
Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper and other stories
Cisneros’ House on Mango Street
Cather’s O Pioneers
Perhaps an Amy Tan

Senior Elective: Contemporary Literature
Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying
Speigelman’s Maus I & II
Vonnegut’s Galapagos
Roth’s American Pastoral
Stories by Flannery O’Conner and Alice Munro


  1. Reading your book list leaves my heart all a-flutter. There’s something so magical about great literature. I just got American Pastoral and plan to start reading it tonight. How fun to see it on your list!

  2. You’ll have to let me know what you think — it’s one of the books I “inherited” and I haven’t read it yet!

  3. Deborah–curious…why O Pioneers vs. My Antonia? Just wondering…

    I love Hundred Secret Senses if you’re looking for a non-joy luck club Amy Tan. What are you thinking?

  4. american pastoral is a great read. and disturbing. do you ever use roth’s short stories? he has some great ones. and if you need more suggestions for contemporary (more truly contemporary than faulkner, munro, and o’conner), i’ve got a whole list of good stuff that would be worth teaching and would work for seniors.

    at some point it could be fun to use hawthorne’s the blithedale romance rather than the scarlet letter. although i understand that the scarlet letter is rather standard and probably shows up on a lot of standardized tests, etc. And do you have works you plan to include from pre-1840’s america? it could be interesting to teach a captivity narrative (either whole or in part; doing it in part could allow you to eliminate some of the sermonizing that happens in them if you think students would get bogged down in it). A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (by mary rowlandson [fancy that]) is a fantastic read. there’s also some great pre-1800 american poetry (i particularly like phyllis wheatley).

    i noticed that your women in lit class is all american. is that required? or just how it ended up? (just curious.) it could be interesting to include some louisa may alcott. not necessarily the domestic fiction, but some of her more sensationalist stories (i think there’s a collection of them out there somewhere). they’d be a nice look at some of the work the “scribbling women” of the mid-19th century were doing to support themselves. anne bradstreet and phyllis wheatley would add an 18th century component, too. just a few poems from each would be enough.

    just a few thoughts. if you can’t tell, i get all excited about planning lit curriculum. 🙂

  5. The only (kind of) contemporary YA book I see there is The Bluest Eye. (Actually, I see House on Mango Street too, which I haven’t had a chance to read yet.) I didn’t have computer access when you posted the original request, but I would hope you would use as many contemporarily written books as you can, within the strictures of your curriculum. You’re always writing about your students’ connections with literature on your other blog, and I hope you continue to use that same idea in connecting teens to relevant literature. High school English is so traditionally about the classics–classics that are sometimes so hard to parse out (especially, as I’m sure you know, for your reluctant readers). Much as I love Flannery O’Connor and much as I have fond memories of my senior project on Evelyn Waugh, I would have loved to read something that wasn’t depressing and/or about something that had nothing to do with my life.

    Shannon Hale posted several really great posts about the subject over at her blog, with more suggestions for possible books in some of the posts.

    Much as I think it’s awesome that you asked for suggestions from everyone’s teen years, most people who are adults today didn’t have the richness of the current YA market to choose from. Yeah, there’s the Gossip Girls and such, but I’m sure you’re also well aware of books like Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson (oh how I *wish* I had read this in high school–such layers to this book, and it is the perfect high school story), Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, Speak, The Gospel According to Larry, Nothing but the Truth by Avi (oh, how this could be used for the politics in a school), A Step from Heaven by An Na, anything by Helen Frost for your poetry unit (especially the one about the little boy who was lynched, the name of the book has escaped me at the moment), Keesha’s House by Helen Frost, Jack Gantos’s Hole in My Life…

    … and don’t get me started on fantasy. 😀

    Speaking of which, don’t shy away from fantasy. Fairy tale retellings by Donna Jo Napoli or Robin McKinley, for example, could make a great project on how American writers retell old tales into uniquely American tales.

    Of course, other teachers might have covered these in previous years, but there are some really great recently-published YA, beyond poetry, that I hope you’ll include in your curriculum.

    Aside: I don’t know if you know, but the publisher I work for has a “reluctant reader kit” free for librarians and teachers that I’d be glad to send you. The main information is available free online, too,“>here (scroll down to the bottom of the page to the header “Reaching out to Reluctant Readers.”

  6. Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

    Maralise: One word: Alexandra. She is a heroine close to my heart — I’ve wanted to teach this book for years, and so when I saw an opening . . .

    Amelia: So when are you going to start teaching high school English . . . ! I’m not a big fan of most pre-1840s American lit (Bradstreet and Wheatley aside). It too often copied relentlessly from across the sea, without probing the new American experience. The American Renaissance poets (Dickinson/Whitman/etc) and regionalists (e.g. Twain) are at the heart of my passion for American literature. And twentieth century is just so rich — I wish it were a four-year course. Hence my focus on American women’s voices in 12th grade — a chance to build on their American lit experience.

    Contemporary Lit is a bit of a misnomer, given the pre-chosen readings (aside from Roth). It’s more about Modern American lit, with Faulkner as anchor. I’m adding Munro and O’Connor as foils for Faulkner (American/Canadian Gothic) — and to add women’s voices. In future years, I’ll have more room to play around here.

    Stacer: You know what a fan I am of good YA lit! Thanks for the link. I’ll have the most room to plug these in my ninth grade writing courses — which have no text but could easily include reader response journals to their choice of books. I’ll be packing and transferring my big classroom library in the next few days . . . The course catalog had already been published when I was hired, but next year I hope to propose a senior elective on contemporary children’s literature. I’m also teaching a senior creative writing course on the anti-novel — and while a lot of the focus will be on Beckett etc., I also intend to pull in some YA lit that plays around with breaking literary conventions (prose poem novels, multiple narrators, etc). I’d love suggestions on recent books you know of that break with convention in form, content, or narrative style.

  7. Oh, and Amelia. If you have the name of a good Alcott short story, pass it along. Might be interesting to do with Gilmer, since they were contemporaries.

  8. That’s a good question, and one that I’ll have to think about. But as far as the slippage between reality/the truth/breaking the 4th wall and the world of the story, both Avi’s Nothing but the Truth and The Gospel According to Larry by Janet Tashjian are great examples of an unreliable narrator.

    Nothing but the Truth is especially interesting because it’s done with multiple viewpoints not just of people but of different sources. The idea is that a boy is suspended from school for refusing to say the Star Spangled Banner (or was it refusing to stand for the National Anthem?). There aren’t just two sides to the story–there are several, and the reader has to parse out who’s telling the truth, or if anyone is.

    The Gospel According to Larry is one of those framed books, that start out with an author’s note purporting that Larry came to her with this manuscript, etc. I don’t know if her site is still up… just checked, and it’s still there, but it’s changed ( Anyway, the site goes with the books that “Larry” (which is a pseudonym for the main character, whose name I’ve forgotten) is really the one who wrote it, and that the controversy really happened, etc. It’s about how this kid becomes this anonymous internet guru for environmentalism/minimalism and how his life is ruined because of it. Very interesting book.

  9. for other early american options, you might consider “rip van winkle” or “the legend of sleepy hollow” by irving. they definitely have an american feel to them. there’s james fenimore cooper, too, but i’m not a big fan. i really think the wealth of pre-1840 american literature lies in essays, sermons, political writing, and other non-traditional writing. it is interesting to see the ways in which americans co-opted british lit, however. for instance, most american abridgements of clarissa dwell on the right of the daughter to rebel against the abuse of power on the part of the parents (especially the father), which makes sense given that americans were involved in and recovering from a revolution against an abusive monarch and that monarchy was often explained in terms of divinely-sanctioned family structures.

    and now you see why i probably won’t ever teach high school. i always want to do more with my lit than i could get away with in high school. 🙂 but i’m sure glad there are intelligent, dedicated women (and men) like you and some of my other friends who do take on the challenge of high school english.

    on alcott, you should pick up the collection behind a mask sometime. i think it has either four or five of her thriller stories, varying in length from 50 to 100 pages each. it’s been a long time since i read them so i can’t recommend a specific one, but they’re a great deal of fun. there are three or four other collections of her thrillers that i don’t have. i think madeleine stern edited several of them.

  10. I love so many books on your list…hope your students do too. Glad to see O Pioneers on there…I like it. Think it would make a cool opera. (The Grapes of Wrath has recently been made into one. A little pedagogical integration there for you…:)

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