10 Books every teen should read

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Teenage girl reading on the steps
The classics are still a great choice for all teens to read
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I once passionately asserted that in order for teens to learn how to read good literature, they had to first possess a fairly sophisticated vocabulary and store it alongside their in-depth knowledge of critical analysis and timeless universals brimming in their personal literary toolbox. Words such as "diction," "irony," and "indirect characterization" needed to flow effortlessly from their lips before they could attempt to understand the likes of Faulkner or Shakespeare.

It wasn't until my third year of teaching English to high school sophomores that I realized how stressed out kids were getting over the literary lingo. So stressed, in fact, that they couldn't enjoy the book! Every day, I diligently planned lessons, activities, diatribes - all with the goal of working towards gaining knowledge, filling the pail! Until a scruffy, long-haired boy who often missed my 7th period announced, sighing, "THIS is why I hate reading!" Some kids grumbled; other nodded their heads, glaring at my impressive characterization chart on the overhead projection screen. Hate reading? Hate reading! I wanted them to love reading, but my approach was allwrong. I wasn't lighting the fire.

After that episode, I started questioning my students a lot more. Never mind what I thought, forget what the critics felt were the primary themes… why did you like the book? What did it make you think about? Who was the most memorable character? Why? If you were writing the test, what would be a good quote to identify? Slowly, the kids opened up to me. By the end of the year, they were requesting we finish listening to Lord of the Flies on audiotape. They'd complete the study guide for homework, no sweat. They just wanted to get to the end of the chapter before the bell rang. Did Piggy die? Kids instructed other kids to "shut UP!" and settle down so we could start the tape. My only requirement on reading days was that they read along in their books with the audio - and let me stop the tape to discuss key scenes, as I deemed necessary. Agreed. One of my main focuses now involved encouraging a love of literature. Read whatever you want: newspapers, Sports Illustrated, comic books. It improves your speed, fluency, and vocabulary, and promotes a lifelong habit and love of learning. Then, occasionally, you'll feel ready to tackle the classics… and here are just a few.

1. Lord of the Flies by William Golding. This classic allegorical novel provides a biting commentary on group dynamics and Darwin's survival of the fittest theory. Set on a desert island, a group of English boys are stranded after a plane crash and left to govern themselves.

2. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey. A compelling story set in an Oregon asylum, this novel depicts how people cope with being institutionalized. The narrator, a schizophrenic American Indian called "Chief" Bromden, describes the antics of a cheerfully rebellious man named Randle Patrick McMurphy, who has been sent to this mental hospital from a workfarm prison. When I taught this novel, students described it as being a real page-turning with many twists and turns.

3. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. This is a heartwarming, semi-autobiographical coming of age novel that tackles the issues of racism and stereotyping through the eyes of the protagonist, a young girl named Scout whose father, Atticus Finch, is the defending attorney in a controversial court case in the 1940's.

4. Romeo&Juliet by Shakespeare. This is a very accessible Shakespearean play for young teens. Although they may not understand all of the puns and archaic idioms when reading it alone, the primary conflict and universal themes of love, honor, duty, family rivalries, and destiny are as relevant today as they were in the 17th century. Students love watching the 1968 version and comparing it to the 1996 Baz Lurhmann production.

5. The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Originally published in 1899, this novel describes one woman's struggle to fulfill her potential in a patriarchal society that expects woman to solely fulfill their roles as wife and mother. Once considered highly controversial, this short novel exposes teens to social issues as well as gender roles and expectations.

6. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. An easy read, this novel is a classic story of young brothers growing up on the wrong side of the tracks. Though its characterization, The Outsiders encourages teens to think about stereotypes and the definition of family.

7. Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger Loved by teens and adults alike, this novel is still dubbed controversial but is also onsidered one of the most famous literary works of the 20th century. Holden Caulfield, the protagonist, tells his story in first person and conveys his experiences after being expelled from Pencey Prep.

8. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston. This novel, told in an extended flashback, takes place in the early 20th century and is set in central southern Florida. Teens will enjoy the realistic black Southern dialect. Janie Crawford, the main character, reflects on her life, which has three major periods corresponding to her marriages to three men. "Their Eyes Were Watching God is a multi-layered novel, which garnered attention and controversy at the time, but remains one of the most important books revealing the origins of black culture and heritage".

9. A Child Called "It": One Child's Courage to Survive by Dave Pelzer. This is a disturbing autobiography depicting the harsh reality of child abuse. Dave Pelzer explains how he was brutally beaten and starved by his alcoholic mother, who played tortuous games that nearly left him dead. Teens who have told me they read this book confessed it changed their lives, but is probably more appropriate for older teens considering the topic.

10. MAUS: A Survivor's Tale by Art Spiegelman. Because it's a graphic novel, students find it a refreshing, enjoyable read. It depicts the Holocaust through a new perspective.

In addition to these 10 books every teen should read, I would encourage teens to experiment with different genres. They should sample different types of writing and see with which genres they connect. They were certainly read literary novels, such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, in school; however, a teacher may never assign a mystery novel. No science fiction books, for example, are mentioned here. Many of my students have told me that science fiction is their favorite genre. I would recommend starting with Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles. Teens also enjoy, as many adults do, identifying with the protagonist; for that reason, I also suggest selecting a variety of autobiographies. For those who enjoy reading horror, try picking up nearly any book by Steven King, particularly The Shining.

So now that summer is quickly approaching, why not select a few of these 10 books every teen should read and enjoy a few relaxing days experiencing a riveting plot or touching tale?

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