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As much as I loved reading as a kid, I didn’t always enjoy what the teachers made us read. I hated reading anything from the Victoria era so much that I didn’t pick up another book from that period until college.
Sometimes, I’d get teachers that had an excellent eye for relevant stories. Ones that we could tie into today and enjoy as we read them. All of these teachers deserved medals for their great taste in books.
1: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
My fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Fitch, read this book to us every day after lunch. I liked the way she read the book. She knew how to inflect her voice to keep you paying attention while she read.
The story is about a black family, the Logans, living in Mississippi in the 1930s. It shows their life and the problems they face every day. Jim Crow era in the South was not a pleasant place to be.
I grew up in a very conservative, mostly white, Northern Michigan town. We knew about Martin Luther King and slavery, but we didn’t get taught much about black history beyond those two points. We knew there was a lot of inequality until Martin Luther King.
It’s not that the school was bad. Every teacher I had who taught racism in school seemed passionate about ending it. I think it's hard to understand it when you're on the privileged end of it.
This story was the first time I heard a book with a black protagonist. Instead of telling us how people lived in those times, we could listen to the story from a character experiencing it. It sank in how hard Cassie Logan’s life was in Jim Crow-era Mississippi.
A few months ago, I found out Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry was a book series. I plan on getting my hands on the rest of the books in the future.
2: Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
We had to read this book in seventh grade. My teacher liked mentioning the book’s symbolism, but it wasn’t why I got hooked on it. It was the first story I read with a sad ending.
Bridge to Terabithia is a story about a boy who wants to be the fastest runner in the fifth grade. He makes friends with the new kid, but she ends up beating him in the school race. Eventually, they become friends and create an imaginary world together called Terabithia.
In college, I found out Bridge to Terabithia was a banned book because of the ending. Parents worried it was too much for their kids to handle, so the schools wouldn’t put it on their reading lists.
After we read the book, my teacher gave us a project to create imaginary worlds. Because of that project, my friends and I went through a stage where we wrote our own stories about adventures in a fictional world. Of course, this was when Sailor Moon was popular, so it was a combination of Bridge to Terabithia and Sailor Moon.
And that’s part of why someone getting thrown into an alternate universe is one of my favorite tropes in stories.
3: That Was Then, This Is Now by S.E. Hinton
Everyone knows about The Outsiders. I had to read that book in seventh grade. That Was Then, This is Now was another book by S.E. Hinton in the same world but with different characters. My eighth-grade teacher had us read it.
That was Then, This is Now is set in the same city and high school as The Outsiders. Ponyboy even makes a small appearance in the book! However, the protagonist in the story is semi-affiliated with the Greasers.
Two friends who grew up together are going through high school. But there is a drug problem in the school. When a younger friend of theirs goes missing, the protagonist needs to make a tough choice.
The ending sparked a debate between my classmates. The teacher asked us what we’d do in the situation, and we argued about it. A small number of the kids were mad at the protagonist for the choices he made. It was a fascinating insight into my classmates’ thoughts.
4: Animal Farm by George Orwell
People like to talk about 1984 as the ultimate Orwell book. And they’re right to an extent. 1984 is an important book to read, especially in these scary times. However, I always thought Animal Farm was a better story. I was a freshman in high school when I had to read the book. It was easier to see the slow changes that made the farm what it was.
The story is about a group of farm animals that get sick of being owned by men. So they revolt, chasing the humans out of the farm and take it over for themselves. The pigs learn to read and write, deeming themselves into the new leaders. Over time, the pigs become more and more corrupt until they’re no different than the humans they chased away years ago.
One of my favorite projects we did involving the book was to write a new ending for the story. The lead pig, Napoleon, was the designated bad guy. Mainly because he used dogs to banish Snowball. Most people’s endings involved Snowball coming back.
Except I don’t think Snowball being the leader would’ve changed the story much. He did agree to the pigs having more apples than the rest of the farm, meaning Snowball was as corrupt as Napoleon.
5: Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut
I’m cheating a little bit with this story because Harrison Bergeron isn’t a book. It was a short story in a textbook. I can’t remember what year in high school I read it. I think I was a freshman.
The story takes place in a dystopian future. Everyone and everything in the world needs to be average so no one can have better treatment than someone else. Women need to wear masks to hide their true beauty. Everyone needs to be weighed down with weights, depending on their strength. If someone is a deep thinker, their thoughts get interrupted by a loud crash every twenty seconds.
A couple is sitting down for the evening to watch TV. Their son, Harrison, interrupts the evening’s performance to tell the world to stop hiding their differences and celebrate them.
I don’t think I need to go into too much detail about why I loved it. The society has ways to make people equal, but they’re still not there. The ending was one of the more depressing ones on the list, too.
It’s easy to blow off the required school reading. But without some of these reading lists, I wouldn’t have had access to some of these stories. You can still grasp what the school wants to learn even with a different story.
Not all required reading has to be boring. If you get a teacher that shows works other than what’s on the list, you’ll find yourself more interested in reading than you expect.