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How to Plan a High School Reading List

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The OCD tendencies that I only half-joke about possessing manifest in the oddest ways. Sometimes it’s the way I arrange my groceries on the conveyor belt for check out. Other times, it’s school planning. I’m not sure if the best title for this post is how to plan a high school reading list or how a person with OCD tendencies plans a high school reading list.

My poor family has learned not to attempt to help me put groceries on the conveyor – or, at least, to just pass the items to me and let me put them where I want them. All the frozen stuff has to go first, followed by meat, followed by dairy. Then, produce, followed by canned goods, and so on. It makes sense because all the cold foods need to go in the cooler bags together so they stay cold.

These three tips will help homeschool parents develop a framework for how to plan a high school reading list.

In the same way, I like for my reading list to make sense by grouping similar things together. Doing so makes school more efficient – as efficient as having all the canned goods in the same bag when it’s time to put groceries away.

Study American lit with American history

I love learning history through literature, so it just makes sense to study American lit alongside American history. As we work our way though our country’s history, we’ll read classics such as:

The Deerslayer by James Fenimore Cooper

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

The Chosen by Chaim Potok

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

We’ve got two years before we hit American history, so the list is a work in progress. And, just for the record, I was not required – therefore, I did not – read a single one of those books when I was in high school. I plan to rectify that by reading them alongside my kids.

Study world lit with world history

In the same way, we’ll be studying world literature along with world history. I’m not sure I’m going to be able to convince Josh to read any of the Bronte sisters’ works, but his list will include the following:

Mythology by Edith Hamilton. I am fascinated by Greek mythology and this is one of the few books I clearly remember from my own high school experience.

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Animal Farm by George Orwell

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Lewis Stephenson

This, too, is an incomplete list. As much as possible, I’m planning to approach history and literature with the structure that I learned to love so much when we used Trail Guide to Learning. We’ll spend six weeks on a topic or period in history, World War II, for example. During that six weeks, we’ll read at least one related literature selection and one biography.

Pair modern lit with movies

Finally, I  like Lee Binz’s advice not to focus solely on the classics. Throughout the kids’ high school years, I’ll pair modern literature with its movie adaptation mostly because it’s going to be fun, but also because these books can provide the start of some amazing rabbit trails. This semester, Josh has been reading The Maze Runner and we saw the movie when it came out. Megan read and watched The Fault in Our Stars.

Before we saw The Giver, I read the book with the intention of assigning it to the kids. I didn’t like it, though, and the kids weren’t any more impressed with the ending of the movie than I was the ending of the book, so I didn’t ask them to read it.

I’m keeping a running list of movie/book combo possibilities such as:

The Harry Potter series

The Lord of the Rings series

The Twilight series, which, incidentally got Brianna interested in Shakespeare. If we do this one, I also want to have the kids read Bram Stoker’s Dracula. There is also a series of Twilight-themed vocabulary books by Brian Leaf that she really enjoyed,

The Help

The Enders Game

The Book Thief

Life of Pi

The Secret Life of Bees


Percy Jackson

Where the Red Fern Grows

There are endless choices when it comes to books made into movies. Just of out of curiosity, I’d like to conduct an informal poll. I prefer to read the book first because it usually helps the movie make more sense. Brianna likes to watch the movie first because it drives her crazy when the movie deviates from the book, as it always does.

What about you? Do you prefer to read the book or watch the movie first?

There are a number of ways to plan high school lit courses. However, pairing literature with history and using popular books as a jumping off point for further study makes sense to me. It worked well the first time around with Brianna, so I’m refining the process for Josh and Megan’s high school years.

How do you like to plan reading lists for high school?

This post is linked to Finishing Strong: Homeschooling the Middle and High School Years.

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  1. I’m a book first kind of gal. In my opinion, watching a movie first limits your imagination as you read the book (you have the movie’s pictures already in place for characters and situations).

  2. I used to read the book first. However, three books I am interested in reading have come from movies I have seen first. Now it’s just a depending on what I do first. Most of the time I read the book first.

  3. I’m a book first girl. In fact I often skip movies based on books entirely. We enjoyed The Giver but have no plans to watch the movie. For my less keen reader though watching the movie first can often lead to reading the book. As for reading lists I often wing it. Some years our history programme has a lot of literature included. Other years I throw a list of books at the kids and just let them pick from that . Next year we’ll probably focus on geography so I’ll probably try and tie some of the reading suggestions in with whatever countries or regions we are studying. Since there are so many great books to be read anything but let them choose within guidelines. This year for instance my son had to do 1 play, 1 modern novel, 1 older classic, several stories, 1 movie, several poems plus some other things. He got to pick the titles but had to run them past me first.

  4. book first. I’ll warn you they really ruined the Percy Jackson books when they made them into movies, they did not change the names to protect innocent characters in that adaptation.

  5. I’m usually a book first kind of person. Normally I like the book better. We recently started using the Kindle Whisper Sync, where you purchase the kindle book and the audio together. It’s a great option for books that are difficultly worded.

  6. I’m torn. I LOVED loved loved The Book Thief in book form. I rarely get to touch pages, so this was an audiobook for me. I travel and work in the field as a nurse, so I like to listen from house to house. But the movie, for me, was such a disappointment. I wonder if I’d love the movie had I not read the book first.

  7. Book first for me, usually. Recent example: I read The Help, then watched the movie. The movie was great, but it left out so much from the book! This leads me to ask, how do you feel about strong language in books/movies? The Help had a lot of foul language throughout. I’m not sure I would put that on a list for my kids to read. Then again, many great books do have rough language. How do you handle that? My daughter doesn’t want to read any book with any bad words.

    1. For me, it depends on the maturity of the kid and the overall value of the book. When I was a kid, my step-dad let me watch my first Rated R movie (which probably would be PG-13 by today’s standards). It was The Breakfast Club. I was 16 and he thought that the message of the movie outweighed the language and some of the other negatives of the movie. I wouldn’t let my kids read a book filled with language if it had no redeeming qualities. Like you mentioned, many of the books that we consider classics and are required reading for many high school students contain objectionable language.

  8. ***I realize this is an old post, but I couldn’t stop myself from chiming in. 🙂 ***

    ANSWER TO POLL: I normally prefer to read the book first. From conversations with others and my own experience, I’ve believe that people, ordinarily, enjoy the story more through the format they experience it first, be it the movie or the book. If I’m going to invest time over several weeks to read a book vs two hours to watch a movie, I’d rather enjoy the novelty of the story while reading the book, and with the additional richness of details that only a book can provide.. Some of the more recently released books from movies, like Room and The Glass Castle, I’ve been avoiding watching until I can read the book first, but I haven’t found the time yet TO read the books, so I may just give in and watch the movies instead to at least experience the story in some form.

    RECOMMENDATION 1 : A truly WONDERFUL example of a movie that sticks closely to the book is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, and its Alfred Hitchcock directed, Academy Award winning, counterpart. Much (most?) of the movie dialog is lifted straight off the pages of the book, and I only noticed one plot difference in the movie compared to the book. That difference is a major one, which would be a spoiler to list here, but I understand now it was necessary in order to comply with the Hollywood Production Code in effect at the time and avoid altering the plot in other, more complicated, and ultimately less satisfying ways. I highly recommend them both!!

    RECOMMENDATION 2: My favorite author as a teen and young adult was Robert Cormier!! Although often dark and thematically mature, I will forever remember the sensation of closing his book, I am the Cheese, which I’d checked out of my 7th grade teacher’s class library, and thinking, “Ah… THAT is what a book can do.” Although I loved reading at the time and had devoured the first 50 books in The Baby-Sitters Club series, I’d read NOTHING up to that point that moved me like I am the Cheese. It was truly a gift, and I went on to enjoy After the First Death, We All Fall Down, and The Chocolate War, among others. Highly recommend these books for mature teens who ready for them.

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