By Patricia Mazzei, McClatchy Newspapers
Along with “The Great Gatsby,” “Jane Eyre” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” newer books are popping up on high-school curricula and summer reading lists — and they aren’t exactly your grandmother’s traditional picks.
At Cypress Bay High School in Weston, soon-to-be 12th-graders taking rigorous Advanced Placement English may tackle “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” over the summer.
Rising seniors in honors English at Miami Palmetto Senior High in Pinecrest will be reading “The Kite Runner,” and incoming honors juniors at Miami Beach Senior High will take on “The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.”
“Are the classics still there? Absolutely,” said Karen McNeely, an English teacher at Cypress Bay. “Are new titles appearing? Yes.”
The bastions of world and American literature — Sophocles, Shakespeare, Steinbeck — are still the bread and butter of most high school English classes. But newer titles, including popular bestsellers, have crept into courses as well.
To what extent is hard to say, said Arthur N. Applebee, a professor of English curriculum and teaching at the State University of New York at Albany, who has studied the most frequently read works at U.S. high schools.
“New books are always coming onto the list, usually either because teachers are trying to reach out and engage students’ interests or they want to include some contemporary literature,” said Applebee, director of the Center on English Learning & Achievement. “But those titles vary from place to place.”
His 1993 national study, the most recent survey of its kind, found that the most frequently taught works in high schools in 1988 were remarkably similar to those taught in 1963. A 2007 study by the National Endowment for the Arts found that the percentage of 17-year-olds who do not read for pleasure doubled from 9 percent in 1984 to 19 percent in 2004. Another NEA study published in January was more encouraging, showing that the number of adults 18 and older reading literature jumped 7 percent from 2002 to 2008 — the first increase in 26 years.
Newer novels that make it into the classroom tend to be coming-of-age stories and works from other cultures, Applebee said. There has also been a notable influx of books by women and minority writers, particularly in literary anthologies.
Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou are widely read, as are Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” Sandra Cisneros’s “The House on Mango Street,” and novels by Amy Tan, who told the story of a Chinese family’s immigrant experience in “The Joy Luck Club” and also wrote “The Bonesetter’s Daughter.”
It was an immigrant’s story that attracted Samuel Brown, an English teacher at Miami Beach High, to 2007′s “Oscar Wao.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Junot Diaz shifts from New Jersey to the Dominican Republic — and the narrator writes in Spanglish.
“I think that book will surprise some students as an example of American literature,” said Brown, who will be teaching the book for the first time this year. “It’s very relatable to the experiences of a lot of kids that I see.”
At Palmetto, language arts head Andrea Spivak looks for modern novels that ask big, sweeping life questions or help teens understand the historical context of the world they live in. Enter “The Kite Runner,” written by Khaled Hosseini and partly set in Afghanistan under the Taliban. It also got an Oscar nomination and rave reviews after it was made into a film.
“We have to meet the intellectual and emotional needs of a changing generation,” Spivak said. “We have to keep our kids involved.”