21 Books That Every High School Needs To Teach Their Students (2023)


by K.W. Colyard

21 Books That Every High School Needs To Teach Their Students (1)

There's been a lot of debate in recent years over what books should be included in students' English curricula, but I think we can all agree that there are some books schools need to teach their students. Reading fiction increases empathy, an all-too-rare quality these days. At a time when hate crimes have reached a five-year high, reading diverse books has become more important than ever.

If we can educate our way to a stronger, more considerate populace, its through our language arts programs in the public school system. Many of the 21 books on the list below are already part of school reading lists, but others speak to important social and political issues currently left untouched in U.S. classrooms. Stories of immigrants, LGBTQIAP+ individuals, Muslim and Jewish communities, and people are disabilities are sorely lacking in the school canon. Often, the so-called diverse fiction on school reading lists is told from a white, male, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, and/or Christian perspective, as is the case with books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Wuthering Heights.

Don't get me wrong, the books in the canon are there for a reason. But many of the books that aren't included on many high school reading lists have been excluded for reasons like sexism, racism, and homophobia. If we want to eliminate those prejudices in schools — and we do — we have to actively combat the biases that reinforced bigotry through publishing.

Check out the 21 books schools need to teach their students below, and share your juvenile must-reads with me on Twitter!

'Beloved' by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1987 novel, Beloved, centers on Sethe, an escaped slave who, when confronted with the possibility of recapture, killed her two-year-old daughter to spare her the horrors of plantation life. Years later, Sethe and her small family live free in Cincinnati, but a revenant called Beloved, presumed to be the ghost of her dead child, haunts the house.

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'Juliet Takes a Breath' by Gabby Rivera

Things are looking up for Juliet Milagros Palante. She's just secured an internship with her favorite feminist writer, Harlowe Brisbane, and she's eager to escape her life in the Bronx, where her family can't accept the fact that she's not straight. But life with Harlowe in Portland, Ore. isn't quite what Juliet hoped it would be, and now she's forced to navigate the minefield that comes with meeting your heroes.

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'The Joy Luck Club' by Amy Tan

In 1949 San Francisco, four Chinese immigrants begin a mah jong group, the titular Joy Luck Club. Decades later, all four founders have American-born daughters, one of whom, Jing-Mei, has been asked to take her late mother's place in the mah jong group. But when Jing-Mei learns that her mother's twin daughters from a previous marriage are still alive in China, she must wrestle with her conflicting feelings about meeting them and breaking the news of their mother's death.

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'Go Tell It on the Mountain' by James Baldwin

James Baldwin's semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel centers on John Grimes, a sensitive boy growing up in Depression Era Harlem. On his fourteenth birthday, John tries to sort out his feelings about his father, a violent Christian minister, who he feels does not love him.

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'I Am Malala' by Malala Yousafzai

Following orders from the Taliban, an assassin boarded Malala Yousafzai's school bus in 2012, and shot the young student in the head. Although she was critically wounded, Malala survived. In 2017, she began attending Oxford University, pursuing a degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics.

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'The House on Mango Street' by Sandra Cisneros

Sandras Cisneros' 1984 novel, The House on Mango Street, centers on a young Latina teen named Esperanza, who dreams of living somewhere other than Chicago's Mango Street, even though it is the only place her family has remained for long. But as Esperanza explores her time and place in a series of poignant vignettes, readers learn that getting out isn't as easy as willing it to happen.

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'Plague of Doves' by Louise Erdrich

Five decades after he and his friends were wrongly lynched for the murder of a North Dakota family, Mooshum tells tribal stories to his mixed-race granddaughter, Evelina, who is reconciling with her white and Ojibwe heritages. But that murder mystery remains unsolved, and its aftershocks continue to rock the tiny town of Pluto, ND, even half a century later.

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'The God of Small Things' by Arundhati Roy

Forbidden love abounds throughout The God of Small Things, as one woman falls in love with a Roman Catholic priest, another with a man from outside her caste, and several marry westerners. Arundhati Roy's Booker Prize-winning novel winds around the lives of Estha and Rahel, fraternal twins whose family lies broken and crumbled in nearly every corner.

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'The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian' by Sherman Alexie

Another coming-of-age novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian centers on Junior, an aspiring illustrator, who begins attending the local public school after learning that textbooks on his reservation are woefully outdated.

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'The Reluctant Fundamentalist' by Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist tells the story of Changez, a Pakistani man who finds himself feeling increasingly nationalistic and anti-American when he notices how people who look like him are treated in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack.

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'The Bell Jar' by Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath's only novel, The Bell Jar traces the youth of Esther, a young woman who gets her start in the literary world through a magazine internship. But when the stress of life in the city begins to take its toll on her, Esther grows depressed, and seeks treatment for her mental illness.

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'Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus' by Dusti Bowling

Narrated by Aven, a 13-year-old girl who was born without arms, Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus follows its young protagonist as she settles into a new school, making friends with Connor and Zion, two shy boys with disabilities of their own, who help her solve a mystery at her parents' amusement park.

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'The Hate U Give' by Angie Thomas

Starr has two lives: one in her poor neighborhood, the other at her majority-white prep school. When she watches a police officer kill her childhood BFF Khalil, Starr must choose between telling the truth about what happened and keeping on the good side of her school chums.

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'The Complete Persepolis' by Marjane Satrapi

Told in two parts that are united in this volume, Marjane Satrapi's powerful graphic memoir traces her life from her childhood during the Iranian Revolution, to an adolescence spent in France, to her return home after college.

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'The Secret Side of Empty' by Maria E. Andreu

With straight-As and strong relationships, M.T.'s life is almost perfect, but only she knows that her life as it is now won't last. Her status as an undocumented immigrant will prevent her from attending college, and if anyone ever finds out she isn't legally a U.S. citizen, her family will be deported. And as if M.T.'s secrets weren't already hard enough to keep, the National Honor Society wants to send her abroad — the one place she absolutely cannot risk going.

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'Every Falling Star' by Sungju Lee

The son of a former North Korean official, Sungju Lee spent years living on the streets of one of his country's northern provinces, following his father's fall from grace within the ruling party. In Every Falling Star, Lee recounts the details of his life in the DPRK, the circumstances of his parents' abandonment, and his escape to the south, where he learned exactly what happened to his parents years before.

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'The Chosen' by Chaim Potok

Set in Brooklyn during the mid-20th century, Chaim Potok's The Chosen centers on the friendship of two young men. Danny Saunders is the top student of a Hasidic rebbe, while Reuven Malther comes from an Orthodox Jewish family. Brought together by fate, Danny and Reuven reconcile their doctrinal differences as they navigate adolescence and the trans-Atlantic horrors of the Holocaust.

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'A Thousand Splendid Suns' by Khaled Hosseini

Rasheed uses Mariam's childlessness as an excuse to abuse her, and when Laila — young, unmarried, and pregnant — comes to live under their roof, he jumps at the chance to propose. Laila gives birth to a daughter, and then a son, but she and Mariam must stick together in order to survive Rasheed and the ever-present Taliban forces.

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'The Grapes of Wrath' by John Steinbeck

There's no one to blame when the Joads are kicked off a piece of land that they have farmed for generations, but do not own. Not the nearly penniless owner, nor the men who come to tear down their home. Hearing of bountiful jobs in California, the family pack up their vehicle and travel west in search of a new life.

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'The Story of My Life' by Helen Keller

Born in Tuscumbia, Alabama in 1880, Helen Keller lost her sight and hearing as a toddler, and went uneducated for the first seven or eight years of her life, acquiring fingerspelling as a language system when Anne Sullivan, who was blind herself, came to Keller's home to teach her. Keller recalls the events of her early life in this 1903 memoir.

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'Night' by Elie Wiesel

A short, powerful memoir about the author's time in Nazi concentration camps, Elie Wiesel's Night follows his family through Auschwitz and Buchenwald in the mid-1940s.

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