Beyond 'To Kill A Mockingbird': Here Are 7 Other Books That Should Be Taught In High School

by Elaine Roth
Originally Published: 
Besides 'To Kill A Mockingbird,' These Books Need To Be Taught in High School
@ElloEllenOh/Twitter and Ed Robertson/Unsplash

In English classrooms across the country the go-to book for teaching about racial injustice has been To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. A quick refresher for those of us for whom high school English is a distant memory (*hand raised*), To Kill A Mockingbird is about a white lawyer’s defense of a black man against a false rape charge, told from the point of view of a white child.

It’s an important novel. Not only does the novel address race, but it also speaks to the themes of class, gender, and tolerance.

But in 2020, against the backdrop of racial protests and a nation that is, hopefully, beginning to understand the true meaning of white privilege and anti-racism, is it really the best choice?

Maybe. But white students are still in the heart, mind, and shoes of a white character. Black students are still not seeing their perspectives on the page. Their lived experience is still not centralized, still happening in a character that doesn’t have a voice.

Simply because something has always been done or taught, isn’t a reason to continue with it, and it’s time to add new books to English teachers’ classrooms and curriculum. Books written by black authors. Books with black protagonists. Books in which the white man isn’t the savior at the end.

And there are so many amazing options from which to choose. We Need Diverse Books is a great resource for schools and teachers looking to connect their students with diverse books and authors.

Scary Mommy gathered up just a few suggestions high schools should add to their curriculums.

The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter lives in two very different worlds: the first, her poor, predominantly black neighborhood, and the second, her fancy, predominantly white, prep school. When she witnesses the fatal shooting of a childhood friend at the hands of a police officer, the delicate balance she walks between her two lives is no longer possible.

(On a personal note, this book was the last book my husband read before brain cancer took the best parts of him, before he died. He read it in his hospital room, with a bald head and an IV with an experimental drug dripping into his veins. This story and the depth of truth and heart in the writing spurred one of the last truly meaningful conversations I ever had with my husband. He couldn’t stop raving about this book, and I will never stop recommending it to everyone I know.)

All American Boys, by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

A single extreme act of police brutality forever changes the lives of two boys, Rashad Butler and Quinn Collins—one black, one white. Rashad wakes up in a hospital room, and Quinn saw how he got there. Told in alternating perspectives, Rashad finds himself as the symbolic figure to the community’s response to police violence, and Quinn is forced to understand what he saw and how it fits into the larger story of a town divided by racial tension.

Dear Martin, by Nic Stone

Seventeen-year-old Justyce McAllister is Yale-bound after graduation. He’s also the only black student at his white prep school. One night, Justyce and his friend Manny are stopped by a police officer, who draws his gun and shoots Manny. In the fall-out, it’s Justyce who is blamed for the murder and goes on trial. Tackling the themes of police brutality and racial inequality through the lens of both victim and witness, this book brings the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. into the modern era.

Sing Unburied Sing, by Jesmyn Ward

Winner of the National Book Award for fiction, a Time Magazine Best Novel of the Year, and A New York Times Top 10 of 2017 book, Sing Unburied Sing is an essential contribution to American literature. It’s the story of a thirteen-year-old biracial boy, Jojo, his baby sister Kayla, his aging grandparents, and his drug-addicted mother who has visions of her dead brother. When his white father is released from prison, Jojo’s mother takes him and his sister across the state, in a journey through Mississippi’s past and present.

Monster, by Walter Dean Myers

Written in alternating style of screenplay and journal entries and with a focus on racism, justice, and crime, “Monster” is the story of sixteen-year-old Steve Harmon who is on trial for murder. He is accused of acting as the lookout during the robbery and shooting of a Harlem drugstore owner. As a way of coping, Steve transcribes his real life trial into a script, scene by scene, until eventually he can no longer tell who he is and what is the truth.

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson

Though not a novel, Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, is a collection of poems about growing up in the 1960s and 70s in South Carolina as a black girl, with the lingering memory of Jim Crow laws and the growing Civil Rights movement.

The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison

Though it’s not as contemporary as the other books in this roundup, no list of books that explore the issue of race would be complete without Toni Morrison. “The Bluest Eye” is the story of black, eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove who prays daily to for the blond hair and blue eyes that she believes will make her beautiful, and will help her fit in. The story is tragic and heartbreaking and the writing will leave you breathless.

Books teach empathy. Books are important ways to see yourself reflected as a part of the larger world, and also to put you in the heart and mind and shoes of a character who does not think like you and does not see the world like you do. In effect, books help you know there’s a wider world than the one you’re living. Which is an important lesson to learn in high school English classrooms, and everywhere else.

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