If you were 16 again and ordered by teachers to read this summer, what titles would you be unlocking on your Kindle or Nook?
Think The Hunger Games, not The Great Gatsby, and The Help, not The Odyssey. Today's high school reading lists lean toward popular contemporary books and away from the canonical titles that are more likely to be studied during the academic year.
See also: 21 classic novels that are still worth reading
Summer reading was mostly a voluntary pursuit when people who are now 50+ were whiling away summers. (See page 3 for more about high school reads circa 1963.) These days, however, summer reading is an assignment.
Lists of suggested titles and requirements vary widely according to school, grade and course level, but there is a common goal: to cultivate a lifelong love of books. As Steven Heller, communication arts teacher at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill., put it: "If you require the old classics over the summer, you'll drive kids to SparkNotes."
We studied reading lists from around the country and found the following books among the most common inclusions. There's a good chance your child or grandchild will be cracking one of them open this summer, so why not read along? A good read is a good read, no matter what your age.
The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak (2006)
A young girl living in Nazi Germany during World War II steals books and shares them with neighbors as well as with the Jewish refugee hiding in her foster family's basement.
The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver (1998)
A Baptist family travels to the Belgian Congo in 1959 for missionary work, kicking off this sprawling story told over three decades in Africa.
The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien (1990)
Vietnam veteran O'Brien based this stirring collection of intertwined short stories on his own war experience.
The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan (1989)
In San Francisco, a close-knit group of women — four Chinese immigrants and their American-born daughters — gathers for a regular game of mah-jongg over a span of 40 years.
The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold (2002)
A murdered teenager watches from the afterlife as her family struggles to deal with her death and her father hunts for her killer.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon (2003)
The novel's 15-year-old narrator with an autism spectrum condition is also its protagonist, searching to unravel the mysterious death of a neighborhood pup.
The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini (2003)
A young boy in Kabul lives through a tumultuous period in Afghan history, from the fall of the monarchy to the rise of the Taliban. Hosseini's follow-up, 2007's A Thousand Splendid Suns, is also a popular summer reading list choice.
The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins (2008)
The dystopian, futuristic tale of a 16-year-old girl competing in a televised battle to the death in what was once North America.
Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell (2005)
The pop scientist examines the wisdom of spontaneous decisions.
Next page: Life of Pi and 10 other books high schoolers may be reading this summer. »
All the Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy (1992)
The first novel in McCarthy's Border Trilogy follows a young Texas cowboy who drifts across the Mexican border after his father's death.
Friday Night Lights, by H.G. Bissinger (1990)
A year in the life of the Permian Panthers high school football team illuminates the lives of residents in a tiny, football-obsessed Texas town.
Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser (2003)
An unflinching piece of long-form investigative journalism examines the practices and proliferation of the American fast food industry.
Wintergirls, by Laurie Halse Anderson (2009)
A teenage girl comes to terms with her eating disorder and the resulting strained relationships with family and friends after her best friend dies of bulimia.
The Help, by Kathryn Stockett (2009)
Racial fissures of the early 1960s in the Deep South are revealed and explored in this story of African American maids in Mississippi and the privileged white women for whom they work.
Will Grayson, Will Grayson, by John Green and David Levithan (2010)
This novel of two identically named teenagers living parallel, briefly intertwining lives explores themes of identity, sexuality and friendship.
Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer (1996)
The true story of Christopher McCandless, an idealistic young college grad who hiked on his own into the frozen Alaskan wilderness, with deadly consequences.
Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen (2006)
An elderly man living out his days in a nursing home recalls his life as a veterinarian for a traveling circus in a story about the human heart, and the bond it can develop with animals and people alike.
Life of Pi, by Yann Martel (2001)
After a cargo ship full of zoo animals sinks at sea, an Indian boy is trapped on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger — or is he? A meditation on, among other things, religion and spirituality and how they fit into modern life. Winner of the 2002 Booker Prize.
The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd (2002)
During the civil rights movement of the mid-'60s, a young white Southern girl goes on the lam with her family's African American housekeeper, hoping to solve the mystery of the mother who abandoned her.
Room, by Emma Donoghue (2010)
A woman and her 5-year-old son are held captive in a tiny room in which young Jack, who narrates the story, has lived his entire life.
Next page: The books you read in high school — or were supposed to have read. »
Flashback: The Most Frequently Taught Novels in 1963
Fifty years ago, summer reading lists were rare.
But if you were a high school student at the time, you probably pored over a few of these novels in English class — they were the most commonly studied works of literature in American high schools in 1963 and the books changed little through the next decade or two.
How many of these books were you assigned? How many did you actually read?
- Macbeth, by William Shakespeare (1623)
- Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare (1623)
- Silas Marner, by George Eliot (1861)
- Our Town, by Thornton Wilder (1938)
- Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens (1861)
- Hamlet, by William Shakespeare (1603)
- The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane (1895)
- A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens (1859)
- The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)
- Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen (1813)
- The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare (1600)
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain (1884)
- The Odyssey, by Homer (unknown, written approx. 700 B.C.)
- Oedipus The King, by Sophocles (unknown, written approx. 430 B.C.)
- Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare (1597)
- Return of the Native, by Thomas Hardy (1878)
AARP Facebook Fans Remember Their Summer Reads
We asked AARP Facebook followers to reminisce about the books they devoured as kids.
- Many, like Christina Hutcheson Carson, remembered the Nancy Drew series. "We had a Bookmobile that drove up to our school … Couldn't wait to get my hands on Nancy Drew."
- Carol Blum read Nancy Drew, too, but also a popular series about nurse Cherry Ames.
- Karen Carlson White was among several who recalled The Secret Garden, the Louisa May Alcott books, and The Little House on the Prairie series.
- Suzanne MacEwen added "The Bobbsey Twins series," and "every fairy tale I could get my hands on!"
- Dave Morris recalled The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Cross and the Switchblade and Great Expectations.
- Lisa Schielke said, "Every Pippi Longstocking book."
- Amy Richardson Mabry thinks fondly of Summer at Buckhorn because it "was read to us by our mom every summer."
- Who could forget Lassie Come-Home? Not Diane Sliger.
- And who could forgetThe Red Pony? Not Kathleen Katz.
- Frances Hollifield Wilson reminded us of Raggedy Ann and Andy stories.
- Rickey Garrett recalled The Borrowers and To Kill a Mockingbird.
- Sherry Goodman Hughes must have read nonstop as she included Rifles for Watie, Red Sky at Morning, Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones and Abraham Lincoln biographies.
- Charlotte Grace Gibson remembered The Pilgrim's Progress.
- Pat Norton-White added The Black Stallion to our list.
- Tim Loftus added The Lucky Starr series by Isaac Asimov.
Austin O'Connor writes on entertainment and lifestyle topics for AARP Media.
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