Survey the first 10 high school juniors you meet and, odds are, they’ll have an opinion on a book they have read in English class.

The story, above all else, is what does or doesn’t captivate us. The voice has to lend human understanding to the story, something its readers can understand without necessarily having shared the experiences the book relates.


As readers, we deconstruct every story. We smash them apart, hold the pieces up to the light and see through every thin shred of meaning. We wear down the dialogue and oft-quoted passages in the grooved paths our pencils follow.

Because, odds are, it’s a book that most 16- and 17-year-olds in public school have been reading for the past 50 years or more.

The messages of these classics, such as “The Scarlet Letter,” “The Crucible” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” still have power. But they have lost some of their relevance with the passage of time. The conflicts at the core of these books, female and racial oppression among them, were affected by social paradigm shifts that took place decades ago.

This is why it feels somewhat discouraging to continue to hammer these stories down. These books were and are significant contributions to literature. But do they still contribute something to our minds? Do they make us feel differently? Think differently? Or at least think about thinking differently?

There are so many voices left unheard in public school curricula. And the silence is deafening.

I have pulled three books down from my bookshelf, and each opens up to reveal brand-new voices. The first is “Cuba 15,” written by Nancy Osa and narrated by 15-year-old Violet Paz. With both Cuban and Polish ancestry, Violet struggles to understand her cultural identity and maturity as she plans her quinceañero, a traditional coming-of-age celebration. What made Violet’s story most remarkable was the spotlight it shines on a girl who is strong, intelligent and also 15 years old. Now, that challenges a few assumptions.

The second novel is “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” by Stephen Chbosky. Its earnest, urgent depiction of pain and first love embraces characters who are more human than stereotypical. This story carries immeasurable power, for the quiet truths it offers about social anxiety, abuse and the danger of keeping secrets.

The third book off my shelf is “How They Met and Other Stories,” by David Levithan. Among the short stories in the collection are a few that offer a relevant insight on gender identity, potent enough to stand on their own as stepping stones into a new territory of human perspectives, creating broader planes of thought for understanding different sexualities.

From where I’m standing, it seems like high school students have been ready for those perspectives for a long time. And while some could argue the risk of misunderstanding is great, I believe the reward outweighs the risk.

The stories we are exposed to can ripple from a class to a community, once the first pebble is dropped into the pool of accepted social truths. Books spark discussions, which spark ideas, and ideas spark change. Real, brave, unpredictable change, not the kind that can be analyzed neatly and tucked back onto the shelf to gather dust until next year.

Claire Baumgardner is a junior at West Linn High School. She is contributing a regular column to the Tidings this school year.

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