Monday, July 18, 2011

Top Ten Books Every Teenager Should Read: The English Teacher Weighs In...

This week's Top 10 from The Broke And The Bookish challenged me mightily, and I want to tell you why: I'm an English teacher (and many other things as well), and the longer I teach, the more I feel that a cavalier answer to this question could be quite damaging.  Why?
  • Although all of us continue developing throughout our lives, teens follow particularly unpredictable and varied paths of psychological and intellectual development.  This broad spectrum of skills and behaviors makes recommending any single tome problematic at best.
  • Each teen comes from a different family, cultural, and religious (or non-religious) background, and these combine to influence readiness for increasingly mature or diverse or challenging content.
  • Many teens are regularly in crisis about one aspect or another of their lives, and while the right book at the right time can offer solace and wisdom or even simply a much-needed temporary escape from their turmoil, even a book "every teen should read" can be an unwelcome catalyst or escalator for intense emotional dramas at this stage in their lives.
All that said, here's what I think every teen - every human being who graduates high school on this planet at this time - should read, and read critically, and think about significantly, and talk with others - preferably non-like-minded others - about, and commit to returning to at least once a decade, preferably more:

1.  The founding documents of her or his country, especially those that set the guiding philosophy, structure, and ethics of his/her government.  Understanding the foundations allows each citizen to support, critique, and even strive to revise the fundamental ideology of that citizen's country.

2.  The foundational texts of all major world religions.  Without understanding, there is zero potential for true dialogue, let alone collaboration or peace.

3.  The major artworks of every major world culture.  Yes, I hold that artworks are texts, and that they're produced in cultural contexts - even when they fight against them - and that great art from every culture inspires awe and transcendence.  It's a gateway to understanding.

4.  The seminal stories (myths, folktales, fairy tales) of major world cultures.  (See above for rationale.)

5.  The most beautiful and powerful poems of major world cultures.  (See above for rationale.)

6.  The great films and plays of major world cultures.  (See above for rationale.)

7.  At least a few of the works - of whatever genre - that his/her parents, siblings, and other relatives treasure.  The teen needn't love these or agree with them, but - again - knowledge may at least lead to understanding.

8.   Twilight.  Kidding.  So kidding.

I know, I'm begging many questions: What's a major world culture?  What's beautiful?  What's powerful?  What's great?  How much analysis is necessary to understand a text? These questions are up for debate, no doubt, and so worth consistently, vigilantly discussing and revisiting and adjusting every year, every month if possible.  Every parent, teacher, and friend of teenagers should be doing that, if we really care about them.

And, I know that minority opinions can be incredibly liberating, often surpassing the dominant ideas in a culture. But I'll wager that the strongest foundation for responsibly championing any idea - minority or otherwise - is understanding the dominant cultural forces.

But beyond the "should reads", and perhaps more importantly, we must help teens determine the "next great read" for each of them, individually.  It's our obligation, I suspect, and not an simple one - be we teachers, parents, friends, siblings - to help teens learn how to make wise choices on their own personal reading paths, and to know when & how to seek out conversation and support when they happen upon a challenging text that they can't quite process on their own. 

I'm sure there's more to add, and I'm hoping you're going to help me out here... So tell me what you think, what you'd include in the above categories, what else I should consider.

Many thanks as always to the provocative and fun prompts offered every Tuesday at The Broke And The Bookish.  If you have a moment or two, do hop over there to see what they - and scores of other bloggers - have to say about this matter.

MFB, humbly,


Casey (The Bookish Type) said...

I love the way you approached this. You make some really great, thoughtful points. I know I wish a lot of this had been required reading when I was growing up -- I think I'd be a more rounded person for it. Tackling it on your own makes it hard to get other viewpoints.

Christine said...

Thank God for #8 being a joke... I almost de-followed ;)

Karen said...

I like the fact that you have given a list of broad subjects rather than specific books. I have to admit that I regret not reading more books by Scottish authors (something I am correcting) and so I definitely agree with those lists. I didn't feel comfortable listing books that teens should read either. Instead I created a list of books that were important to me as a teen.

Jan von Harz said...

Love the way you approached this too, and agree with many of the points you make. I included mythology in my list also.

As the Crowe Flies and Reads said...

You are so right--this is *not* the list I was expecting from you, but I think it's absolutely brilliant. Well done, indeed!

Tahleen said...

This was a great way to approach this week's topic. I was also not a huge fan of listing 10 books that "every teen should read," even though it's my week on TB&TB. It's almost like we're stereotyping teens, and I'm finding that more and more with each list I read this week. It's very presumptuous to just list 10 books without thought of who we're recommending them to. I tried my best to pick 10 books that I feel will help teens, specifically American teens since that's my lens, navigate the teen years.

literarymusings said...

I love how you responded to this response for the top ten list. I am also a fellow English teacher (at least trying to be, I've been subbing for two years and just had an interview). I have spent about 5 hours on my list because I keep wrestling with these same issues.

Jordyn said...

I really like some of your points here. Though I did choose specific books I only ended up listing seven because I do find naming ten books EVERY SINGLE TEEN should read is problematic -- for the same reasons you mentioned.

My top 10 list this week.

Laurie said...

Casey - I agree: The conversation around the works I suggest is so important that I think reading them with peers and a well-informed, relatively agenda-free adult could offer quite a lot of depth and growth for all concerned.
Christine - Whew! Dodged a bullet that time.
Karen & Jan - Thanks, and I'm looking forward to your lists too.
Thanks, Crowe, on all counts.
Tahleen - Actually thought your list was wonderful and that you rose to an almost impossible task with grace.
LitMusings - Can't wait to see your list, colleague.
Jordyn - Already hit your blog and found a few possible TBRs for me and my students' independent reading: thanks!

Anne Bennett said...

Very thoughtful response. It is vital that we, in a culture, have some things in common, a cultural literacy, things and ideas that we can draw on for collective wisdom and understanding. Your list of musts really gets to that and is culturally and ethnically sensitive. Thank you.

*New Follower

Anne Bennett said...

Woops! I was already a follower. Which makes me a double follower, I guess.

Brenna said...

I enjoyed reading your response to this prompt. I think you bring up many valid points that are important to consider when suggesting books to teens.

literarymusings said...

I hope you don't mind, I copied your blog post into my blog after posting my own list. I gave you credit of course. I think you just hit the nail on the head for a response to this.

kaye said...

perfect answer. I had a hard time with this topic because I didn't feel qualified to discuss literature I thought should be required--that is a tough call. But I like how you put it, that allows a lot of room for choice in those guidlines. I ended up listing some of my favorite YA reads and listing them as recommended and not required reading. Do you mind if I put a link to your post? Kaye—the road goes ever ever on

Laurie said...

Thanks, all. I enjoyed your responses as well, and I'm honored to be quoted or linked on your blogs.

LBC said...

I took a more autobiographical approach to my answer because I don't know that there are any books that teens should be required to read, but I do think they should be required to read, something (maybe without sparkly vampires). I also think that we all change so much throughout our lives that books that were awful at one point, are awesome at another - like the Scarlet Letter was for me.

Come visit me at The Scarlet Letter.

Laurie said...

Ha! I don't remember Edward as quite so sparkly in the book as he was in the movie, but perhaps that's showbiz?
And an excellent point, L: The books do not change, but as we do, they sometimes shift somehow. And I so agree that many books we embrace with passion - whatever our age - just happen to respond to our own individual needs and situations of the moment. Hence my primary objective, which is to help teens choose their own reading paths.
Off to visit you.

Tahleen said...

Laurie, thank you so much. That means a lot to me and I'm so glad you think I succeeded. :)

Anonymous said...

Your list is very different from the others I've read, and is extremely compelling.

While I wonder about a teen's ability to read all of these great texts and grasp even a tiny bit of what they're trying to convey, I applaud the idea that we should be pushing students to stretch their boundaries.

I think that about half of the books I was required to read in high school went right over my head. And that's okay, because I'm starting to revisit some of them now. But the ones I did enjoy have left imprints on my life, and have truly affected the reading choices I have made since then. I'm glad I had teachers and family who could help me discover new stories.

Thank you for your great list, and I'll be subscribing directly. Happy reading!

Red said...

I know I'm way late commenting on this, but I wanted to say yours is my favorite answer to this prompt. It's easy to list out books that we liked or think are good for teens to read, but your list is the best one to get teens to, as you say, discover for themselves what their great reads are.

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