For most students, reading required books for school has become an unfortunate and often dreaded chore.
I don’t know what it is about some high school English teachers and professors assigning awful books for coursework, but it seems to be a regular occurrence. For many students, reading books at school is their main exposure to literature, so having an unpleasant reading experience can unfortunately turn them off reading forever.
While I have been forced to read some particularly dreary literature, fortunately my educational experience has also been marked by some moving books that taught me about life, history and human nature.
Below is a list of some of the novels I read for school that I still think about to this day. As a current university student, I look forward to exploring more worlds of fiction and non-fiction and perhaps add more works to this list.
1. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby is one of the more popular novels on this list. It is also one of the most read books in secondary school classrooms across North America.
The novel was published by prolific American author F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1925 and follows the misadventures of Jay Gatsby, a mysterious millionaire who hosts grand parties from his New York mansion. Written from the perspective of the character Nick Carraway, the story explores themes of social class and gender relations in the 1920s.
I enjoyed the novel because of Fitzgerald’s criticism of the American Dream — where Jay Gatsby transcends his poverty and low social class at birth to become a massively wealthy and esteemed figure, only to be ultimately killed and discarded everyone but Nick. Gatsby’s tragic fate exemplifies the fleeting nature of material wealth and social status.
2. Birdie by Tracey Lindberg
Birdie is a novel following the story of a young Cree woman from Northern Alberta, Canada, who moves to a town called Gibsons in British Columbia. She pursues her dream of meeting her childhood crush — an Indigenous man who had a role on the Canadian television show, The Beachcombers, despite being given few lines. Throughout the novel, which is often non-linear and written in a sequences of dreams, Birdie struggles with the realities of being a mixed-race Indigenous woman in Canada. She also recounts moments of abuse and trauma she experienced growing up, which comprise gut-wrenching scenes.
However, the novel is more than a narrative solely focused on tragedy. Rather, Birdie finds comfort in the relationships and friendships she forges with her female relatives and co-workers. Some of her experiences transcend the boundaries of race, leading the author to deliberately explore the universality of some aspects of the female experience.
Birdie showcases moments of joy and healing, producing a well-rounded book that allows readers to better grasp the challenges faced by Indigenous Canadians — and in particular, Indigenous women.
3. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
The Glass Castle is an autobiography that won critical acclaim from readers and was subsequently adapted into a movie starring Brie Larson. The author, Jeannette Walls, remembers her unconventional childhood spent with an artistic mother and an alcoholic father who promises to build them a glass castle.
The book initially characterizes Jeannette’s childhood as an exciting series of adventures, but also reckons with the instability she and her siblings face because of their parents’ lack of employment and personal trauma. Even though Jeannette later harbors resentment for the many precarious situations her nomadic family forced her into — she also emphasizes their profound empathy and love for one another. Jeannette’s later life as a successful reporter serves as a foil against her parents.
4. How to Steal a Dog by Barbara O’Connor
Although this book could be classified as children’s fiction, it contains themes that can resonate with people from every demographic. It was the first novel I read that exposed me to the challenges endured by those in poverty and sparked a desire to better understand homelessness.
How to Steal a Dog follows Georgina Hayes, a young girl whose family has been evicted from their home and are subsequently forced to sleep in their car. Eventually, Georgina notices a poster advertising a financial award for those who find a lost dog, spurring an ingenious plot to steal a dog so she and her family can return to their old lives.
The book evokes empathy for families, children and individuals facing homelessness. Since the narrator is a young girl, the novel lends a unique perspective to the realities of homelessness in North America — including the systemic discrimination often endured by unhoused individuals.
5. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Speak is a book most current and former high school students can relate to. It tells the story of high school freshman Melinda, who battles mental health issues, isolation and bullying at the hands of her former friends. While the main catalyst of Melinda’s hardships is not explicitly stated at first, memories and trauma from one fateful night when she was sexually assaulted are revealed throughout the narrative.
Speak is a pertinent read because like many of the other books on this list, it evokes empathy for individuals who are frequently misunderstood or overlooked by society.