If AP English Literature is going to become a course where all learners are welcome, then some of us may need to find more engaging and rigorous books. As of now, here are the most frequently-cited books on the AP English Lit exam:
- Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (published 1952, Lexile level 950L)
- Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (published 1860, Lexile level 1150L)
- Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (published 1847, Lexile level 880L)
- Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (published 1902, Lexile level 890L)
- King Lear by William Shakespeare (published 1606)
- Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostevski (published 1866, Lexile level 990L)
- Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce (published 1916, Lexile level 1060L)
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (published 1847, Lexile level 890L)
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (published 1884, Lexile level 990L)
- Moby Dick by Herman Melville (published 1851, Lexile level 1230L)
Now obviously most AP Lit teachers branch way out from this list. But if one studied the most frequently cited titles only, they would run into several problems:
- Only 1 out o f 10 is by a nonwhite author
- None of these works were published within the last 50 years.
- Only 1 was published in the last 100 years.
Another consideration is a book’s Lexile level. It is difficult to compare a Lexile score (which rates a text’s difficulty) with a student’s reading score (which tests their reading abilities). But test data supports the trend that our students’ reading scores are dropping every year. Therefore, many of these books could be too complicated for incoming AP Lit students.
Consider Rigor + Engagement
For this reason, AP Lit teachers are challenged to find books that are healthy mix of engaging and rigorous. If a book is too rigorous and not engaging, the students won’t become emotionally invested in the story and may stop reading it altogether. If a book is too engaging and not rigorous enough, discussion becomes plot focused and students will struggle with deep analysis.
Here is a list of 12 books that you can use to breathe some fresh air into your AP Lit curriculum. I mostly use these books as independent reading suggestions, but some have even used them as whole-class reads. They certainly break the mold as “works of literary merit,” but perhaps that is just what we need right now.
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What started as a spunky young adult book is rapidly becoming a favorite among adults as well. In fact, Angie Thomas’ debut novel is becoming a common fixture in AP English Lit, even as a whole class read.
Synopsis (from Goodreads.com)
Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed. Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr. But what Starr does—or does not—say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.
Thomas’ poignant story of 16-year-old Starr Carter is more relevant today than ever. Your students won’t be able to put it down because the story is gripping, heartfelt, and so important.
Complexity lies in her challenges as she constantly has to choose between her worlds of white versus black, hate versus love, and action versus inaction. THUG uses a system of themes and symbols as well.
The Hate U Give‘s Lexile level is 590, which is very low for AP Lit. AP teachers who wish to integrate THUG as a whole class text should, to use a phrase I recently learned from teacher and author Jim Burke, “teach up.” This means to add complexity by supplementing it with other texts and current events. It may be a better fit as an independent read for a reluctant readers.
This is probably my most popular independent read. It’s so popular that I’ve bought at least three copies and I still don’t think any remain in my possession. You’ve probably heard of the movie starring Brie Larson (which earned her an Oscar in 2016), but the book is much more complex.
Synopsis (from Goodreads.com)
To five-year-old-Jack, Room is the world…. Told in the inventive, funny, and poignant voice of Jack, Room is a celebration of resilience—and a powerful story of a mother and son whose love lets them survive the impossible.
To five-year-old Jack, Room is the entire world. It is where he was born and grew up; it’s where he lives with his Ma as they learn and read and eat and sleep and play. At night, his Ma shuts him safely in the wardrobe, where he is meant to be asleep when Old Nick visits. Room is home to Jack, but to Ma, it is the prison where Old Nick has held her captive for seven years. Through determination, ingenuity, and fierce motherly love, Ma has created a life for Jack. But she knows it’s not enough … not for her or for him. She devises a bold escape plan, one that relies on her young son’s bravery and a lot of luck. What she does not realize is just how unprepared she is for the plan to actually work.
Told entirely in the language of the energetic, pragmatic five-year-old Jack, Room is a celebration of resilience and the limitless bond between parent and child, a brilliantly executed novel about what it means to journey from one world to another.
The book is fast-moving and heartfelt, drawing readers in quickly. The climax falls in the middle of the book rather than near the end, so it becomes so unputdownable. Many of my students admit to reading it in a mere matter of days.
The book employs a unique vocabulary as well as Jacob doesn’t refer to things such as “our bed” or “the plate.” Instead, he calls them “Bed” and “Plate.” This reminded me of how the reader had to understand Orwell’s system of Newspeak in 1984. There are dozens of AP-level writing prompts that pair with this book and it touches on many universal conflicts and themes as well.
The only drawback to consider is that it was made into a fairly successful movie, so watch out for students who “substitute” the movie for the book. The movie is not from Jack’s point of view, which loses its biggest level of complexity. However, that makes it pretty easy to spot who skipped the reading.
If you’re looking to infuse your curriculum with some nonfiction, Trevor Noah’s memoir is exactly what you’re looking for. I literally cannot stop recommending this book.
Synopsis (from Goodreads.com)
The memoir of one man’s coming-of-age, set during the twilight of apartheid and the tumultuous days of freedom that followed. Trevor Noah’s unlikely path from apartheid South Africa to the desk of The Daily Show began with a criminal act: his birth. Trevor was born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother at a time when such a union was punishable by five years in prison. Living proof of his parents’ indiscretion, Trevor was kept mostly indoors for the earliest years of his life, bound by the extreme and often absurd measures his mother took to hide him from a government that could, at any moment, steal him away. Finally liberated by the end of South Africa’s tyrannical white rule, Trevor and his mother set forth on a grand adventure, living openly and freely and embracing the opportunities won by a centuries-long struggle.
Born a Crime is the story of a mischievous young boy who grows into a restless young man as he struggles to find himself in a world where he was never supposed to exist. It is also the story of that young man’s relationship with his fearless, rebellious, and fervently religious mother—his teammate, a woman determined to save her son from the cycle of poverty, violence, and abuse that would ultimately threaten her own life.
Noah’s quick wit and natural storytelling abilities make this a rare uplifting book for AP. Furthermore, many students do not know nearly enough about South Africa’s system of apartheid. Therefore, natural curiosity can spur them on as well. The book has a shocking and heartfelt ending, which will ensure students won’t fall away as they read.
Born a Crime encompasses many universal themes and conflicts, especially feelings of oppression and loneliness. Noah’s discussion of the different languages in South Africa add complexity, as well as his non-chronological storytelling methods.
Some teachers shy away from nonfiction in AP Lit. However, the new CED description specifies that nonfiction is permissible as an AP Lit text, so I don’t think it should deter teachers.
Murder mystery. Coming-of-age story. Romance novel. Biological study. Where the Crawdads Sing offers so much in its pages that it can engage even the most reluctant reader.
Synopsis (from Goodreads.com):
For years, rumors of the “Marsh Girl” have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl. But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life–until the unthinkable happens.
Perfect for fans of Barbara Kingsolver and Karen Russell, Where the Crawdads Sing is at once an exquisite ode to the natural world, a heartbreaking coming-of-age story, and a surprising tale of possible murder. Owens reminds us that we are forever shaped by the children we once were, and that we are all subject to the beautiful and violent secrets that nature keeps.
Owens’ novel begins with the discovery of a dead body, then flips back and forth between the beginning and end of the novel. The suspense drives the plot, resulting in a quick read.
This is a rare book where the setting functions as a character of its own, adding depth and complexity. The dual story-telling structure adds complexity as well.
The romance factor might make it a slightly more popular pick with girls than guys, but I’ve had success with both.
This is a newer read for me, as I just read it this past June. I immediately sent messages out to my previous AP class, letting them know that it was a book many of them would enjoy.
Synopsis (from Goodreads.com):
A hurricane is building over the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the coastal town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, and Esch’s father is growing concerned. A hard drinker, largely absent, he doesn’t show concern for much else. Esch and her three brothers are stocking food, but there isn’t much to save. Lately, Esch can’t keep down what food she gets; she’s fourteen and pregnant. Her brother Skeetah is sneaking scraps for his prized pitbull’s new litter, dying one by one in the dirt, while brothers Randall and Junior try to stake their claim in a family long on child’s play and short on parenting.
As the twelve days that comprise the novel’s framework yield to the final day and Hurricane Katrina, the unforgettable family at the novel’s heart—motherless children sacrificing for each other as they can, protecting and nurturing where love is scarce—pulls itself up to struggle for another day. A wrenching look at the lonesome, brutal, and restrictive realities of rural poverty, “Salvage the Bones” is muscled with poetry, revelatory, and real.
The rising suspense of the approaching hurricane plus the deterioration of Esch’s family makes the book interesting and hard to put down. The perspective into Esch’s psyche is especially inviting for young female readers.
While the story can seem plot-focused, Ward actually integrates a number of literary symbols into the narrative. The strong narrative point of view, literary symbols, and Ward’s use of figurative language throughout make the novel plenty rigorous.
The novel does depict some sexual acts in somewhat graphic terms, so those with conservative school boards or parents may want to consider that.
I’ve had a lot of success with assigning The Glass Castle for students who struggle with finding things to analyze. It’s definitely one of my most popular independent reads.
Synopsis (from Goodreads.com):
A tender, moving tale of unconditional love in a family that, despite its profound flaws, gave the author the fiery determination to carve out a successful life on her own terms.
Jeannette Walls grew up with parents whose ideals and stubborn nonconformity were both their curse and their salvation. Rex and Rose Mary Walls had four children. In the beginning, they lived like nomads, moving among Southwest desert towns, camping in the mountains. Rex was a charismatic, brilliant man who, when sober, captured his children’s imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and above all, how to embrace life fearlessly. Rose Mary, who painted and wrote and couldn’t stand the responsibility of providing for her family, called herself an “excitement addict.” Cooking a meal that would be consumed in fifteen minutes had no appeal when she could make a painting that might last forever.
Later, when the money ran out, or the romance of the wandering life faded, the Walls retreated to the dismal West Virginia mining town — and the family — Rex Walls had done everything he could to escape. He drank. He stole the grocery money and disappeared for days. As the dysfunction of the family escalated, Jeannette and her brother and sisters had to fend for themselves, supporting one another as they weathered their parents’ betrayals and, finally, found the resources and will to leave home.
Walls’ story is so extraordinary that it verges on unbelievable. Could any two parents really be this…unique? Since it is very much a true story, readers want to continue to see how Walls gets out, a detail that they know going into the story.
This memoir relies heavily on symbolism and themes to characterize Wells’ feelings throughout the whole experience. My students have found many opportunities for writing about it, using analysis of themes, figurative language, symbolism, and other literary elements.
Once again, this is a memoir. I don’t believe that a text is any “lesser” just because it’s nonfiction, but some school’s may require fiction only in AP Lit.
I’ll admit a bias on this one, as this is my all time favorite book. I’ve never read a book that made me laugh and cry at the same time on numerous occasions. While I read it for pleasure, I’ve found several writing prompts that would work for Ove. It is a great selection for students who struggle with symbols and figurative language.
Synopsis (from Goodreads.com):
A grumpy yet loveable man finds his solitary world turned on its head when a boisterous young family moves in next door.
Meet Ove. He’s a curmudgeon, the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him the bitter neighbor from hell, but must Ove be bitter just because he doesn’t walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time?
Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents’ association to their very foundations.
I mean, come on. It’s like Up, but instead of a dog it’s a cat. And, you know, no balloons. It’s precious and wonderful. Furthermore, it works for any gender. I’ve never had a student not enjoy this book.
The book moves in and out of time, making it one you’ll need to construct to get the full story. Some dislike Backman’s style of writing, using clipped, almost clichéd phrases to open and close his short chapters. However, if you consider those as thematic or symbolic statements (which they are), they contribute to the book’s rigor.
I’m a big fan of Sandra Cisneros’ short stories. I use both “My Name” and “Eleven” in my classes for short fiction or supplements. Her book The House on Mango Street has been recommended as a Q3 text, which is a unique choice considering its structure of compiled vignettes.
Synopsis (from Goodreads.com):
Acclaimed by critics, beloved by readers of all ages, taught everywhere from inner-city grade schools to universities across the country, and translated all over the world, The House on Mango Street is the remarkable story of Esperanza Cordero.
Told in a series of vignettes – sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes deeply joyous–it is the story of a young Latina girl growing up in Chicago, inventing for herself who and what she will become. Few other books in our time have touched so many readers.
Because each chapter is a vignette, little background knowledge is necessary to understand each tale. The text feels more approachable and gets to the point quickly. Students can easily read it as one vignette per day as well, for students who need a lot of structure.
On the flip side, a short text still requires a sharp eye. It can become a challenge to write about since you have to piece the vignettes all together. The book’s unique structure and plot design makes it rigorous.
As I said, it’s a book of vignettes, so it can be a hard one to write about. I tend to rely on it more to supplement long texts as a short fiction work.
Some people consider this book too “pop fiction” for AP Lit, and that’s debatable. I wouldn’t choose this one for an in-class read, but I would definitely recommend it for independent reading.
Synopsis (from Goodreads.com):
No one’s ever told Eleanor that life should be better than fine.
Meet Eleanor Oliphant: she struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she’s thinking. Nothing is missing in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding unnecessary human contact, where weekends are punctuated by frozen pizza, vodka, and phone chats with Mummy.
But everything changes when Eleanor meets Raymond, the bumbling and deeply unhygienic IT guy from her office. When she and Raymond together save Sammy, an elderly gentleman who has fallen, the three rescue one another from the lives of isolation that they had been living. Ultimately, it is Raymond’s big heart that will help Eleanor find the way to repair her own profoundly damaged one. If she does, she’ll learn that she, too, is capable of finding friendship—and even love—after all.
Smart, warm, uplifting, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is the story of an out-of-the-ordinary heroine whose deadpan weirdness and unconscious wit make for an irresistible journey as she realizes. . .the only way to survive is to open your heart.
Eleanor’s quirky personality and Honeyman’s dark humor blend into an interesting story. It’s unlikely that students have never read a story featuring a protagonist as damaged as Eleanor. Plus, the book has a huge plot twist at the end!
This book employs a very unreliable narrator (which is part of the plot twist). That complication makes the plot harder to construct and relies more on inferences when analyzing.
I read both The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys recently and would recommend both for AP Lit. But what I noticed about The Underground Railroad more than Nickel Boys was its sensitivity and approachability. This would be a great work to push cautious or sheltered readers into upper level titles. It presents real-life conflicts but avoids graphic violence, language, or sexuality.
Synopsis (from Goodreads.com):
Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.
In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.
Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey—hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre–Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.
Students are drawn in to learn what happened to Cora’s mother, then will continue reading to see if Cora really escapes. The tragic part of this narrative is that no one who escapes slavery ever really feels free, so the threat of being discovered propels the suspense.
I love this book for exposing struggling readers to the concept of magical realism. While I wouldn’t classify this book in that genre necessarily, there are elements of just enough fantasy that can help them grapple with that difficult genre.
I know some teachers are looking for books that discuss systematic racism but aren’t slave narratives. If you already teach Beloved, The Underground Railroad may be just too similar to pair with it. Consider Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys if you want a gritty story that isn’t a slave narrative. Racism and systematic racial oppression are still major conflicts in The Nickel Boys.
I know I just lost the respect of a lot of you, but hear me out. Last year, I had a very strong reader struggling to engage with Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See for independent reading. However, she was moving through Stephen King’s books very quickly in her spare time. She approached me and asked if she could read one of his books instead. Being a huge Stephen King fan myself, we took the gamble and she read Misery. She ended up writing a high-scoring analysis on Annie’s methods of deception for her writing assessment, solidifying my opinion that Stephen King can exist in an AP classroom.
Synopsis (from Amazon):
Best-selling novelist Paul Sheldon thinks he’s finally free of Misery Chastain. In a controversial career move, he’s just killed off the popular protagonist of his beloved romance series in favor of expanding his creative horizons. But such a change doesn’t come without consequences. After a near-fatal car accident in rural Colorado leaves his body broken, Paul finds himself at the mercy of the terrifying rescuer who’s nursing him back to health – his self-proclaimed number one fan, Annie Wilkes.
Annie is very upset over what Paul did to Misery and demands that he find a way to bring her back by writing a new novel – his best yet, and one that’s all for her. After all, Paul has all the time in the world to do so as a prisoner in her isolated house…and Annie has some very persuasive and violent methods to get exactly what she wants…
Stephen King has never struggled with engaging readers. This story is gripping and Annie Wilkes is truly terrifying. Even if students are familiar with the excellent movie adaptation, things actually get so much worse in the book.
This is is probably the least rigorous of all of these books, so much so that I wouldn’t recommend for the lowest-level readers. Instead, it’s a great choice for those hard to please students, who tend to find everything so boring. Like the deception prompt from 2016, there are several writing tasks that can yield good analysis.
The Metamorphosis is my go-to when I need a 1-2 week unit for AP Lit. In the past, I’ve used with my seniors when the juniors go on their class trip in the fall. This year, I’m actually reserving the unit in case I fall ill or need to be out for 1-2 weeks.
Synopsis (from Goodreads.com):
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. He was laying on his hard, as it were armor-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his domelike brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes.”
With its startling, bizarre, yet surprisingly funny first opening, Kafka begins his masterpiece, The Metamorphosis. It is the story of a young man who, transformed overnight into a giant beetle-like insect, becomes an object of disgrace to his family, an outsider in his own home, a quintessentially alienated man. A harrowing—though absurdly comic—meditation on human feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and isolation, The Metamorphosis has taken its place as one of the most widely read and influential works of twentieth-century fiction. As W.H. Auden wrote, “Kafka is important to us because his predicament is the predicament of modern man.”
I love this book for engaging reluctant readers. One, it’s so short. Two, it’s so weird. Three, there are several interpretations and applications of Kafka’s text, which can pique curious readers’ imaginations.
Because there is no “one” interpretation, students will love discussing why Samsa is an insect. The book’s existential themes complicate the rigor of this novella.
As always, I’m constantly reading and exploring new texts to add to my AP Lit classroom library. I love having suggestions of engaging and rigorous titles to suggest to my students. To learn how I use independent reading in class check out this blog post, or this resource on Teachers Pay Teachers for ready-made resources. To see how I build engagement and rigor in the first few weeks of AP Lit, check out this blog post!