Great Books for High School Kids

October 18, 2004 1 min read

A Teachers’ Guide to Books That Can Change Teens’ Lives
Edited by Rick Ayers and Amy Crawford
(Beacon, 240 pages, $15)

In this age of inclusion, “What to teach?” is a much harder question to answer than it once was. Thank goodness we have Ayers and Crawford, English teachers at Berkeley High School in California, to offer guidance. They not only provide a detailed list of great books for teenagers, summarized in trenchant paragraphs, but also helpfully categorize them under such headings as “Culture and Survival” and “True War Stories.” Essays by eight gifted teachers on their classroom experiences with works such as Huckleberry Finn and Song of Solomon fill out the volume; they provide keen pedagogical insights while refusing to gloss over teaching struggles.

A wise realization guides the selection of texts, namely that it’s false to assume that “teenagers want to read about themselves in every book they open....In fact, most adolescents favor books that offer experience far from their own.” Hence, while some selections do capture the darker side of human nature—something teenagers can relate to almost too easily—there is no constant drumbeat of despair.

Humor is in abundance among the books cited (e.g., David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day), as are spiritual journeys (Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony). The list ventures everywhere geographically, from the Russian tundra to Jordan (the works of Nicolai Gogol and Laila Halaby, respectively). And the Western classics aren’t neglected: Ayers covers Aeschylus’ The Oresteia with his “at risk” students, who understand only too well the tragic cycle of revenge.

—David Ruenzel