To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee's 1960 paean to the South is one of the most beloved American novels ever written. Some of that is due to the 1962 classic film adapted from it, which stars Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, a small-town lawyer who also happens to be the most upstanding and sympathetic father ever.
With its competing subplots about a black man on trial for allegedly raping a white woman and the children's attempts to learn about their reclusive neighbor Boo Radley, the novel is perfectly structured to provide half a dozen lessons about history and acceptance and injustice and compassion. No wonder it's the staple of all middle-school staples. Happy 50th, Mockingbird!
Of Mice And Men
The plot traces the journey of George and Lennie, two migrant workers in California farm country. We meet them after they've been forced to leave their previous ranch in a chain of events chalked up to Lennie's odd behavior. Upon arriving at their new farm, owned and run by a character known simply as "The Boss," George and Lennie once again find themselves in crosshairs. The strong and complicated bond between the pair forces George to take weak Lennie's life into his own hands.
Along the way, their pursuit of the American Dream (and the attendant prospect of land ownership) falls by the wayside, the victim of a harsh economic downturn, a freak accident and mob hysteria.
A Separate Peace
One of the great coming-of-age tales, A Separate Peace is also one of the darker novels assigned to teenagers. The plot revolves around two roommates at Devon, a New England boarding school, during the summer and winter of 1942. The narrator, Gene, an introverted, studious Southerner, recalls his relationship with his best friend Phineas, known as "Finny," a charismatic, gregarious athlete.
The novel chronicles the boys' maturation as the war encroaches further and further into their lives. While Knowles' tale of the journey from innocence to experience has been described as depressing, his capture of youthful emotion, surprising maturity and reactions to life's great tragedies make it a must-read during those awkward teenage years.
The Catcher in the Rye
Published in 1951, Catcher has long been a literary touchstone for alienated high school students. Main character Holden Caulfield is the ultimate whiner — everyone's a phony, everyone's a crumbum, and the only person who is really worth a damn is his little sister.
Holden roams around New York City for a couple of days, gets into bars, dances with older women and gets beaten up while trying to procure a lady of ill repute. While it may seem like the boy is just drifting, that sounds like living! "I can't really feel bad for this rich kid with a weekend free in New York City," said one teacher, paraphrasing some of her students. But despite the generational gap, this book won't be leaving classrooms anytime soon.
This classic tale of an animal revolution gone rogue is George Orwell's allegorical take on Stalinism. Under two pigs named Snowball and Napoleon, a group of farm animals overthrow their drunken human caretaker and establish a new community based on seven commandments, including the tenet that all animals are equal.
Soon after, Snowball and Napoleon engage in a power struggle to control the farm, with Napoleon emerging on top. He quickly turns Snowball into a scapegoat for a failed windmill project and kills any animals who appear to have an allegiance to his opponent. As time passes, the swine adopt human traits, soon wearing clothes and walking on two legs. Before long, the lowly farm animals can no longer distinguish between the pigs and the people.
Lord of the Flies
The book begins when a plane carrying a group of British boarding-school students crashes on an isolated island. The boys (in the truest meaning of the word; the oldest is 13) establish a working society, with Ralph as their charismatic yet humble leader. Order breaks down as Ralph battles with Jack, the leader of the school's choir, and the entire group slowly descends into chaos.
The end, a brutal literal and figurative shattering of humanity, has served as the book's chief teaching point and mark of contention for half a century. Often seen as a cautionary tale about the breakdown of civilization, the book details "the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart" and the horrific possibilities that lie within us all.
The Great Gatsby
Every school takes a field trip to Long Island, New York, at some point, visiting the Roaring '20s as only F. Scott Fitzgerald could write them. Thanks to its evocative setting, rich themes and masterly prose, The Great Gatsby has secured its standing as a reading-list staple as well as one of the greatest American novels ever written.
Here, the moneyed East meets the modest Midwest, and Fitzgerald's memorable characters — Jay Gatsby, Daisy and Tom Buchanan, Jordan Baker — perpetuate a lavish lifestyle that, alas, doesn't offer much of a life. The enigmatic Gatsby has the best parties, but it's Daisy he really wants. He may have no shortage of party guests, but he's sorely lacking in funeral attendees. Narrator Nick Carraway is witness to the glitz that ultimately reflects emptiness, not success.
A Farewell to Arms
When Ernest Hemingway combined his "consciously bald" style with his experiences as a World War I ambulance driver, the resulting novel was an immediate success. Published in 1929, A Farewell to Arms not only revisits the conflict that had ended just a decade earlier; it also tells of romance.
Sadly — not that dutiful American-lit students would expect to be cheered up by Hemingway — the love story isn't any less tragic than the war. Lieutenant Frederic Henry and English nurse Catherine Barkley have to face the fact that death can make its presence known off the battlefield as well as on.
The Scarlet Letter
Nathaniel Hawthorne's best-known work opens in Puritan Boston, with young Hester Prynne on trial for adultery. Because she refuses to name the father of her infant daughter Pearl, Hester is ostracized by the community and forced to wear a scarlet piece of cloth in the shape of an "A" on her chest — an enduring symbol throughout the book. This central conflict is the basis for all the themes the novel examines: sin, repentance, moral purity, forgiveness.
The tersely written play spares no human frailty — and few characters — on the battlefield of 11th century Scotland. Whereas decisiveness, the lack thereof and revenge drive the other Great High School Shakespearean Play, Hamlet, ambition and personal morality are at the center of the plot of Macbeth.
Upon losing his wife in the fray, Macbeth delivers his epic "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" soliloquy, which captures the sensation of despair as well as any other verse in the English language.