The worst and best assigned books to come out of Conant English classes through my junior year

Alexa Orlowski | Conant Crier

When you think of high school English classes, what is the first thing that comes to mind? If you’re anything like me, you probably thought of assigned reading, aka when your teacher introduces a book that you and your entire class have to read whether you like it or not. Additionally, you have to participate in uncomfortable seminars, put together lengthy presentations, or write the dreaded essay.

Over the years, I have come across some real pageturners: books that left me on the edge of my seat, books that have me sobbing over the pages because they’re so emotional, books that I keep thinking about long after they are finished because they make me wonder. I have also come across absolutely bland books: books that have me prying my eyes open so that I can finish my assigned reading for the discussion tomorrow, books that have me questioning why English classes are so important, books that I have actually fallen asleep over. 

I have compiled a list of the five best and five worst books that I have had to read for my Conant English classes, from honors freshman English to junior AP Lang. Each list is ranked from 5 (lowest) to 1 (highest), and each book includes a link to its page on Goodreads, which includes detailed summaries of each book, real customer reviews and ratings, and a list of similar books to check out. 

Before I get into the ratings, I just want to note that these are all just my opinions. There is not one book on this list that is inherently bad; they are just books that do not align with my personal preferences in literature. Feel free to love, dislike, or have absolutely zero opinions on any of these books! 

***Also, slight spoiler warnings for these books, although my descriptions do not go too in-depth into the stories and rather recap basic information. 

Top Five Let Downs

5. Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson

This book comes from junior year AP Lang. The memoir follows a young black man named Bryan Stevenson who graduated from Harvard with a law degree and eventually founded the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), an organization that “works to end mass incarceration, excessive punishment, and racial inequality” (

Stevenson is able to tell a lot of different and diverse stories of racially-oppressed individuals who had been unfairly tried for crimes as well as people who had done nothing wrong at all. The main story that persists through every other chapter of the book is about Walter McMillan, a man who was placed on death row for a crime that had no incriminating evidence against him, just the word of an unreliable white man who claimed to have seen it all. 

There were some parts of this story, especially the parts in which McMillan’s story was being told, that were absolutely riveting. Not only was the story interesting in a way that has you on the edge of your seat in anticipation to see what might happen to the “character”, but the material sparked a fruitful, ethical discussion that can change the way students view the legal system.

However, the chapters not about McMillan or any other tried individual were incredibly boring. Stevenson makes sure to include chapters solely about the history of certain laws or practices that are undoubtedly important for readers to understand. However, when you’re up at midnight the night before a written quiz and happen to fall asleep on top of the book because you didn’t sign up to read a law textbook, it can be difficult to stay invested. 

Despite this disconnect, I would say it is important this book is taught inside the classroom. The conversations about this book in terms of racial equality and the morals of certain procedures in the courtroom are very valuable ones to have and can shape a generation of high school students to be knowledgeable about their own justice system and to be able to stand up for what is ethically correct. 

  1. How The Word Is Passed” by Clint Smith

This book can be best described as a tour through historical monuments and landmarks, with historical roots that lie deeper than are usually detected among common society. Smith uses a combination of his own experiences, historical facts, and interviews with tourists/experts to piece together a story of racism in America.

His message, one of breaking free of an oppressing social cycle and spreading awareness of the injustices that have plagued black people for centuries, is an important one for students of today. Smith’s book delivers this message to the audience in a way that is concise, and allows readers to apply it in different ways throughout the country, history, and modern society. 

I read this book as my summer reading assignment going into junior year AP Lang. While the book was a fantastic medium for introducing SOAPSTone organizers and the basics of rhetorical analysis, it fell short at keeping my attention. 

It is not this message that put “How The Word Is Passed” on this list, however, it is more his writing style. 

I find that I “click” with a book’s material when it is provided in a way that is very matter-of-fact. Since Smith had a lot of contextual and ethical ground to cover, his message could not be laid out simply, which caused a bit of disconnect between me and the material. 

Although this book is on the list of “worst” books, it is still a book that is worth reading in a high school classroom setting for its complex and relevant societal messages. Relevant topics like these must be discussed amongst students in order to create a society that is open to diverse perspectives and not ignorant of the past. 

  1. Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare

Probably the most commonly read and classic Shakespearean literature of all time is “Romeo and Juliet”. A story of star-crossed lovers, whose love is forbidden by their feuding families, and whose lives end in heartbreak and despair. 

An interesting choice for a freshman English class.

Strangely enough, I first read “Romeo and Juliet” in sixth grade during Shakespeare club, where a group of eight sixth graders gathered in a tiny closet-like room to read Shakespearean literature in our free time. 

Although my reading skills were not advanced enough to understand the heavy themes throughout this story in sixth grade, they were easy to understand by the time I read it as a freshman. 

Due to the play format of the novel, the students took turns reading from different parts out loud to the class, which, for a very shy and introverted freshman, felt agonizingly terrifying. I had the same feeling when our summative assessment was to get into groups and act out part of a scene in front of the class. Thankfully, my class did not have to memorize our lines (thank you Ms. Sall) because I might have cried if we had to. 

The non-applicability of the story to the lives of high school freshmen combined with the public speaking aspects of the unit made the book incredibly unlikable. I do not think that it is necessary that high school students read “Romeo and Juliet”, although the heightened difficulty of the old English style might prove to be enriching to younger students. 

  1. Inherit The Wind” by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee

Similar to “Romeo and Juliet”, “Inherit The Wind” is also a play. Naturally, having the sophomore English teacher closely affiliated with Conant Theatre, my class acted it out instead of simply reading it as a class or by ourselves. However, having exactly zero of my friends in the class, and being a student with social anxiety and a fear of public speaking, the experience took a toll on my opinion of the book. 

It is a story based very closely on the Scopes Monkey Trial, a historic trial in which a school teacher was tried for teaching topics of evolution to his students, which directly conflicts with the idea of creationism, which was at the time the upheld theory of human creation shared by most (Christian) Americans. The trial was revolutionary in the world of politics, as it was the first time creationism was really “tried” in a political setting and it sparked the conversation of secularism vs. non-secularism in the public education system.

This book wasn’t necessarily uninteresting, as I didn’t have much background knowledge on the trial and the character development and the sense of humor at times did not fall flat (“If it’s good enough for Brady, then it’s good enough for me”). 

However, the main thing that I did find uninteresting about the story was the lack of conversation that stemmed from it. A huge part of reading a book with your class is the assignments that go along with it and what you’re able to take away from these assignments. There weren’t very many conversations to be had about this story, and the assignments were mostly memorization-based. Because of the lack of concept building that this book can facilitate, I do not think that there is much value in teaching it in schools. 

1.Into the Wild” by Jon Krakauer

If you read this book in freshman English as your summer reading assignment or have taught this book to freshmen, you probably knew that this book would be high on this list. I have never been in a class where we read a book so notoriously resented by most of the class. Not only did this book have a main character that was very difficult to sympathize with, but it was incredibly long without a tangible lesson to take from it.

As this is a real story, I do not mean any malice towards any real people mentioned in the book; I only mean to critique the actual storytelling. 

“Into the Wild” follows Chris McCandless, a young man who went off the grid in order to live in nature with the goal of making it to Alaska. It is written from the perspective of the author, who went on his own journey interviewing the people whom McCandless came across in order to trace his steps and learn more about him and his motivations for leaving everything behind. 

This book did not inspire very meaningful conversations, nor did it have any sort of overarching message that is tangible for high school freshmen other than, “Don’t eat random plants in the woods.” Because of this, coupled with the overall consensus from the class that the book was a chore to read due to its length and slow pace, I would say that this book does not need to be taught to high school students. 

Top Five Best Reads

  1. The Odyssey” by Homer

The freshman English classic and Greek epic, “The Odyssey”, follows Odysseus, a war hero who fought alongside the Trojans (depicted in the book’s prequel, “The Iliad”) on his journey home to Ithaca through curses, monsters, and ethical dilemmas.

This book is definitely a breath of fresh air to read between “Inherit the Wind” and “To Kill A Mockingbird”, as it introduces a story that is action-packed and mostly fun, as opposed to morally ambiguous and slow.

The most interesting part of this book is that it is meant to be the perfect embodiment of the “hero’s journey”, a common story structure for literary fiction, while also representing the trials and tribulations in the life of an average person. This makes it relatable to freshman students who are getting used to huge changes and are trying to find themselves. Giving these students an interesting and inspiring story of triumph in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds will help them contextualize their own academic and personal development. 

  1. Julius Caesar” by William Shakespeare

I, too, am incredibly surprised that a Shakespearean play is on my top 5 list. 

The mention of anything Shakespeare is often enough to earn a groan from everyone in the classroom, especially in the sophomore English class with the theatre and speech teacher who was excited to have them act it out.  However, I was pleasantly surprised with how much “Julius Caesar” wasn’t too poetically complex and actually made sense. To my surprise, it even ended up being fun to see acted out by classmates.

The story follows Roman leader Julius Caesar, a man who is to this day remembered in history as a powerful battle strategist who doubled the size of the Roman territories with his skills, as well as a brilliant orator who knew how to win over a crowd well. Little does he know that his best friend and man in honor Marcus Brutus believes he will be the downfall of Rome and is planning something sinister. 

The ultimate betrayal of a best friend plotting against his own best friend echoes the famous words “Et tu, Brute?” meaning “and you, Brutus?”

Besides the themes of betrayal, this play is a good piece to read in school because of its lessons in conducting an audience (remember your ethos pathos logos!) and the corruption of a leader. 

  1. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” tells an important story of racial discrimination and ethics in medicine that incorporates good storytelling and a collection of emotional moments. 

Before reading this book, most sophomore English students were unaware of what HeLa cells were, let alone who Henrietta Lacks was. HeLa cells are biologically immortal cells that have assisted researchers in the medical field in finding cures for numerous diseases and ailments. However, HeLa cells are also the cells of a black woman named Henrietta Lacks, a woman who had children, a husband, and friends, and who passed away from aggressive cervical cancer. Her cancerous cells were harvested without her or her family’s knowledge and created into a billion-dollar industry.

Clearly, the premise of this story sparks a lot of ethical debate and causes you to think, which is a perfect book for high school students to read. Skloot does a fantastic job walking her audience through Henrietta’s life through her own experiences interacting with her family, all whilst educating them about the racial and ethical unfairness of the whole thing. So, not only is the book interesting, but it is a great way to introduce students to serious topics and debates. 

2. First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers” by Loung Ung

“First They Killed My Father” is a memoir written by a woman who experienced the Cambodian genocide under leader Pol Pot along with her entire family of six siblings and two parents. 

A big reason why this book was so interesting was that no one in our sophomore class had even heard of the Cambodian genocide before being assigned to read this book over the summer. Compared to the Holocaust, which is very rightfully well understood amongst high school students in the United States, the Cambodian genocide had never really been taught before in school. 

Loung Ung is able to bring awareness to genocide in a way that is emotionally devastating and easy to empathize with. There were many times throughout reading this book that I became emotional myself and was almost able to forget entirely that it was assigned summer reading. 

This book brings tremendous value to students, as the first-person format allows for the humanization of genocide victims through a look into what life was really like for them. Since the Cambodian genocide isn’t very well-known by students in the US, it allows them to see that genocide doesn’t stop at the Holocaust. It is easy to look at one of the world’s most devastating tragedies and believe that it is an isolated incident. Having an understanding of more horrific moments in history will make for a generation of students that is educated and will not turn a blind eye to the repetition of dark history.

And, my absolute favorite Conant assigned book of all time….

  1. A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Housseini

It is safe to say that I have never been more emotionally invested in a book than I was with “A Thousand Splendid Suns”. This is the only book that I have ever read for school that I had to physically stop myself from reading so that I wouldn’t spoil anything for the rest of the class in group seminars. The author’s method of using cliffhangers between chapters and telling the story from alternating perspectives made this book impossible to put down.

Before reading, I did not know much about customs in the Middle East, the war in Afghanistan, or the rule of the Taliban, so it is safe to say that I learned a lot from this book. Similar to other books on this list, “A Thousand Splendid Suns” did a fantastic job educating the reader about the hardships facing the area it is set in without just summarizing facts. The audience is able to see the blatant patriarchy, the horrifying parts of war, and the realities of domestic abuse completely through the eyes of the two main characters and their respective environments.

I became incredibly emotionally invested in these characters while reading their stories. When they were afraid, my heart pounded. When they lost the people close to them, I felt a heaviness in my chest as I felt their pain. When they faced an insurmountable obstacle on their journey towards freedom, it felt like I was right there with them.

I believe that every high school student should read this book. It checks off all of the boxes for a productive and insightful book to read in class. It educates students on a topic that it is likely they don’t know much about, it is engaging and interesting in terms of the overarching plot, and it leaves room for in-depth conversations that they will have to dig deep inside of themselves to participate in. 

Crier wants your opinion! 

Are any of these books your favorite? Least favorite? Do you have a completely different opinion? Leave a comment on this article below, or on our Instagram page @conantcrier under the School-Assigned Books post!

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2 Responses

  1.' Samantha Arnold says:

    I would personally rank Just Mercy in my top 5 best

  2.' PALLAVI says:

    I agree with the top 5, I actually enjoyed reading those books- especially A Thousand Splendid Suns! I also agree that Into the Wild wasn’t the best read. It definitely wasn’t that meaningful to me. Great Article!!

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