School Reading Lists Favoring Easier Books?

Every few years – the Harry Potter series and The Hunger Games trilogy being the most recent examples – a book comes along that publishers/critics herald as a gateway to a love of reading. Children are reading again, they say breathlessly, and this love affair with the written word will stay with them for a lifetime.

Sadly, even when a blockbuster book does turn children into readers, these children don’t often seek out challenging works. They stick with what’s comfortable, instead of moving on to more stimulating novels. And now, NPR reports there’s evidence that these lowered expectations are reaching classrooms.

According to NPR, almost all of the top 40 books read in grades nine through 12 last year were below grade level. In addition to reading easier material outside of class, many works by the likes of Sophocles, George Bernard Shaw, the Brontës and Edith Wharton are falling off required reading lists.

On a personal level, I can’t imagine that this bodes well for how this generation interacts with culture. An improv and acting coach of mine used to say, “No art can happen when you’re comfortable,” and while she was referring to making art, I have to think at least part of that applies to consuming it. How else will they broaden their cultural horizons?  If they’re not challenged, how will they be compelled to create art of their own?

I can’t think of any kid who’s going to pick up Moby Dick on their own (and if I’m wrong, I want to meet that kid), and as a high school senior I was occasionally bored by the various chapters on whaling. But after reading an article related to the book’s backstory months ago, I sought out a free version for my Kindle app, happy to revisit it. I wouldn’t have bothered were it not for my exposure to the book in school.

Thankfully, the same NPR story includes an interview with students who have read Romeo and Juliet and The Odyssey for class. Sure, the language proved difficult, but, as student Tyler Jefferson said, “It gives us a new view on things.”

What do your students like to read? Do you find resistance to the classics in favor of new, flashier storylines? Or are they game for a new experience?

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