Since I have mostly avoided reading classics all my adult life, naturally I am just the right person to pick out an appropriate high school curriculum. One that would have a chance of turning kids onto reading rather than off; or, at least, that is the plan. Yet still a curriculum that involves classics.
What could we choose?
1) The Lord of the Flies, fine, because it’s horrible but part of American culture and I guess it is not a bad idea to be familiar with it, but mostly because it would be interesting to contrast with Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens. Or so I hear. I have not read the latter, but I’m looking forward to it. BUT! Though I haven’t read Bray’s book, I would not want to risk suggesting any such message as Boys Turn Savage, Girls Pull Together, because ugh. Therefore, also Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky. That one strands both boys and girls in a survival situation, plus there is a lot to discuss at the end.
Ah, and in the same unit, how about
Are any of these stories as good as Lord of the Flies considered as literary works? Ah, good question, class! Let’s discuss literary quality and see if we can figure out why Lord of the Flies is part of the canon in the first place. (Me, I think it’s largely because people really do have the (deeply mistaken) notion that Depressing = Depth.)
As a quite startling perk, I find that Infinity Hold is actually part of a trilogy. I had no idea. Now I am absolutely dying to read the sequels. The two sequels are Kill All the Lawyers and Keep the Law, and I see both are available on Kindle. Yay!
2) I would be perfectly okay with assigning both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. But maybe just one and then students who like it can read the other? While we’re at it, let me just mention that a decent school library is an awesome thing.
Anyway, what to assign to read as companion pieces? How about Delia Sherman’s The Freedom Maze? Tom Sawyer is set in about, what, the 1840s or thereabouts? AndThe Freedom Maze is set in about 1860, with the frame story taking place in 1960. What else would make a good companion piece? How about Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede? That would give students a look at fantasy settings and how they can riff on real historical settings. I trust the school library would be able to find room for a good handful of Patricia Wrede’s other books, too.
3) What do you think of 1984? I think if you must assign a horrible dystopia where a boot stamps on the human face forever, then for heaven’s sake, let’s also assign a book where the horrible repressive government gets torn down and a more hopeful future is at least glimpsed. You could hardly do better than The Hunger Games. The whole trilogy, because you must reach the end or you don’t get that contrast. I had quibbles with the ending, but it’s a great series overall, plus can you imagine the debates that would ensue at the end? Also, you can contrast Mockingjay with, say, For Whom the Bell Tolls. Both are about both the brutality and the necessity of war.
4) I’m more or less keen on including A Tale of Two Cities, because I’ve heard good things about it but have never actually read it. If we’re going to assign that, then maybe Tell the Wind and Fire by Sarah Rees Brennan? That’s supposed to be a retelling of A Tale of Two Cities. I really loved The Demon’s Lexicon trilogy. While we’re on subject of classics and retellings, I didn’t like Moby Dick one bit, but I’m inclined to at least look at it before reading China Mieville’s Railsea, which is supposed to be something of a retelling. Also in the same category — and here I’ve read both — we have Sharon Shinn’s Jenna Starborn, which is a retelling of Jane Eyre. What do you all think? A classic plus a retelling equals fun for all? Or twice the turnoff for students who aren’t keen on the original?
5) Gulliver’s Travels. I don’t remember if that was assigned in high school, but I know I read it at some point, and liked it. If we’re going to assign satire, though, clearly we should also assign modern satire — eg, Terry Pratchett. I would vote for Making Money, which is one of his most satirish satires. Other votes?
6) What about Jane Austen? Would that be an example of tl;dr? Or would a reasonable proportion of high school students get into something like Pride and Prejudice? I think Austen’s language is beautiful and I enjoy her writing. But the movie version of Sense and Sensibility is so good, and shorter than the movie version of Pride. My suggestion is, watch the movie of Sense and Sensibility, then read the book, the reach for a different kind of comedy of manners — for example, Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton. Or Sorcery and Cecilia by Wrede and Stevermer. Or Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint. I can see all three appealing to a broader base of high school readers than Austen.
7) I know a lot of people are probably now growing up with the movie version of “The Lord of the Rings” as the definitive version. I would be inclined to assign the books. Especially since I just read Tom Shippey’s books on Tolkien. There’s a lot in those books. I wouldn’t want to destroy them for readers by diagramming every sentence, but I can see students having a fruitful discussion about the differences between the Shire and Rohan and Gondor, about free will and “fighting the long defeat” and just how happy was that ending, anyway?
8) Shakespeare’s plays are fine. But include as many comedies as tragedies, and for heaven’s sake, be sure and watch them instead of just reading them. I vividly remember reading “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and thinking it was the stupidest play ever written. When I actually *saw* it, I thought it was great. This experience has stuck with me. Plays are meant to be seen. I know, kinda obvious. But then why make students read “Hamlet” rather than watching it?
Okay, that’s eight, that’s plenty. Weigh in in the comments if you’re so inclined! If you got to design a high school curriculum, which commonly assigned books would you keep, if any, and what would you add to balance them?