The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
One summer, I found this book in my mailbox. The note inside the cover—signed by a former student—claimed that many of the life lessons I tried to teach my seniors the previous year had already been covered by Coelho’s worldwide megahit. She was right and I immediately added the novel to my syllabus. A quintessential quest book, it always hit hard with eighteen-year-olds about to leave home for the first time in search of their “personal legends,” and it got them talking openly about life’s crossroads.
Native Son by Richard Wright
Education is sometimes painful. I’ve heard it said that great art “disturbs the comforted and comforts the disturbed.” It also gives a voice to the voiceless. When I first added Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man to my American Literature syllabus, it was the only novel written by a black author on the list. Almost immediately, a parent confronted me and asked if reverse racism had forced me to teach the novel. My students were primarily white and many of them could have easily been labeled privileged. Invisible Man made them feel what I would call a healthy level of discomfort and sparked extremely productive and honest classroom discussions that sometimes spilled over into dinner conversations at home. Wright’s Native Son is equally unsettling, as it too focuses sharply on unfair racial and class divides that, even today, are too often criminally ignored. Both are first-rate reads by great American novelists.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
I taught this book annually; it was always beloved by a few young women and equally despised by a few young men. The former illuminated a hunger for more women voices in my American Literature class and the latter proved just how threatened some young men were by one woman’s honest perspective. I initially taught The Bell Jar because it’s a terrific book by a gifted writer and poet, but it didn’t take the young me very long to understand why its place in American literature has been cemented; there is unfortunately still a need to combat unfair gender bias a half century after Plath’s suicide. The novel also offers the opportunity to talk about mental health and therefore pairs well with The Catcher in the Rye.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
One of the best teachable moments I had during my stint as an educator came when a homophobic slur appeared on the picture of Oscar Wilde that hung in my classroom. Since I considered my room a safe haven for all students, regardless of sexual identity—also, I’m an Oscar Wilde fan—I openly shared my disappointment and concern until a student with whom I had a very positive relationship finally confessed to the crime and apologized to the class. He and I talked privately about why he wrote what he did. He was not evil. I don’t believe he hated gay men or even understood the implications of what he had written. He was uneducated. While he needed to be held accountable, we also needed to hold our community accountable. His failure that day was our failure. The works of Tennessee Williams and Oscar Wilde have routinely appeared on American high school reading lists, but have we always been completely honest with our students about what prompted these authors to write the plays and novels we’ve canonized?
Story by Robert McKee
Years after I graduated from a Creative Writing Masters of Fine Arts program, my writing friend, Liz Jensen, told me to read Story. I spent much of my early writing life floundering, trying to “find my voice.” No writing class or teacher can explain how to hone your voice or message. You cannot be taught your personal identity, but you can learn story structure and begin to understand what stories do. If I were teaching creative writing now, my students might begin by reading Story. It’s a crash course on how to get your personal storytelling revolution started.
Matthew Quick is a former English teacher and the author of The Silver Linings Playbook, The Good Luck of Right Now (now in paperback), and the upcoming Love May Fail. Here are some of his favorite HarperCollins titles for classroom use.
Go Ahead, Teachers, Change Thousands Of Lives!
By Matthew Quick
Much like Mr. Vernon—the teacher hero in my latest novel, Love May Fail—at the ripe old age of twenty-three I was hired to teach high school English and given a key to the book room. This eternally dusty place was populated by thousands of school-board-approved paperbacks stacked and waiting to be cracked open by teenage hands. With said magical key in my possession, I had the awesome super power of creating a reading syllabus for hundreds of young people.
Here are a few titles off the HarperCollins list that I have taught or would definitely now teach.