Diversifying the HS Canon

This week in YA Highway‘s RTW:  In high school, teens are made to read the classics – Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Bronte, Dickens – but there are a lot of books out there never taught in schools. So if you had the power to change school curriculums, which books would you be sure high school students were required to read?

I have a soft spot for classics, so this question is tough for me to answer.  Even in high school, I mostly enjoyed the assigned readings.  That’s probably why I majored in English.  But I admit that the high school canon is mostly limited to the stories of old, dead white people (mostly men), and that’s just not a fair representation of the diverse literature available.  Also, since the stories are often set in prior centuries, it can be difficult for young readers, thus failing to cultivate a love of reading.  So, here are a few books I’d add to high school classrooms, just to diversify and modernize things a bit:

  1. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  2. The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer (Great segue into discussing the ethics of cloning.)
  3. Persepolis:  The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi
  4. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak  (Tie-ins with studying WWII history!)
  5. Holes by Louis Sachar (Oh, the symbolism…)
  6. The Princess Bride by William Golding  (See?  Reading can be fun.)
  7. Princess Academy by Shannon Hale (which is not as fluffy as it sounds, I swear.)
  8. Monster by Walter Dean Meyer
  9. Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta
  10. The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood  (Because we could use a serious discussion about misogyny.)
  11. Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger
Share My Wisdom:


  1. Heather says:

    Great choices!! I thought about adding Persepolis to mine, but I already had a graphic novel as my first choice so it seemed … unacademic (and writing that here now seems so wrong!) But you have great choices here, including some that I know are definitely being studied (my local high school has The Handmaid’s Tale on their list, and I believe The Book Theif, as well.)

  2. Angelica R. Jackson says:

    I’ve heard good things about all of those, and even read a few. Handmaid’s Tale might be a hard sell for high school (and I know Absolutely True . . . has been challenged a number of times) but in my mind that makes it a perfect opener for discussions. The Gate to Women’s Country is another one that raises some good points about the roles of women in a dystopian society.

    And I have to ask–is your use of “cannon” over “canon” deliberate? Because it kind of fits . . .;)

    • Crystal says:

      Haha… yes, “cannon” was TOTALLY deliberate. Absolutely. *Blushing and editing now*

      But I do think that books are often challenged because they make people uncomfortable, and that’s exactly the kind of book that triggers important discussion.

  3. Kris Atkins says:

    We were THE HANDMAID’S TALE in my AP English class. And I read Walter Dean Meyers’ FALLEN ANGELS, which was terrific as well. I like your whole list. Lots of good stuff on there for teens.

    • Crystal says:

      Thanks 🙂 And it sounds like you had a pretty good HS reading list. Better than mine, for sure! I loved my English teacher, but she’d been in the game for a long time so I think she was set in her ways–including which books she assigned.

Leave a Reply