After completing so many AP Lit Skill Spotlights, it’s becoming clear to me that some texts are used more than others. Here’s my list of the top 10 short stories for AP Lit, based on three criteria: 1) application of AP Lit skills; 2) interest and engagement for readers; 3) potential analysis of universal themes and conflicts. Please note, this list is not definitive or official, it is just a list I created based on the trends I’m seeing.
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Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use”
Alice Walker’s short story “Everyday Use” explores conflicts of mother and daughter as well as themes of assimilation and identity. The text is easy to understand but gains insight and depth upon closer examination. Each time I read it I get more insight into the mother’s conflict and learn more from her narration.
“Everyday Use” is available on the website for Harper’s Magazine and is approximately a 17 minute read. I suggest using it to teach characterization, narration, or plot sequencing, but it can also be a good fit for setting or conflict. It also pairs well with Beloved or other texts with mother-daughter conflicts. For a free lesson using “Everyday Use, check out this Skill Spotlight on plot sequencing.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” is one of the most common short stories used in AP Lit. While it is on the long side, its unique point of view makes it a delight to read and discuss. My students love to argue both for and against the narrator. Her sanity is the one factor we don’t truly understand, making the whole text unreliable and scintillating.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is pretty long, approximately a 29 minute read. However, it is one that pulls in students once they reach the halfway point. I often assign it for homework and my students come in buzzing the next day, ready to discuss. It’s a good text for analyzing unreliable narration and point of view, but also for characterization, conflict, and point of view. You can read the full text on Project Gutenberg here.
“A & P” by John Updike
John Updike’s “A & P” is a great selection for a story with nuanced details. Its plot is simplistic (some may even dare call it “boring”), but upon further analysis it is filled with important details. This piece is a great story to practice analyzing literary elements like point of view, setting, narrator, and theme. It also employs a unique narrative perspective, where you feel like the protagonist is telling you the story in his high school cafeteria one day.
Personally, this story has never been a favorite of mine, mostly because I’m a very plot-driven reader. I also think it may resonate with male readers more than girls (the objectification of women in the story is definitely something to talk about). However, it is still a strong text for practicing many AP Lit skills. “A & P” takes about 13 minutes to read and the full text can be found here.
“Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway
Of all the Skill Spotlight lessons I’ve written, “Hills Like White Elephants” is by far the most recommended by AP Lit teachers for the skills in the CED. You could literally grab a skill at random and make it work for this story. I paired it with setting in this Skill Spotlight lesson.
Not only is it rich with literary elements for analysis, the story has this wonderful “What the heck?” element to it. I love watching my students discuss this story after a cold read. Most have no idea what is going on, which is exactly what you would expect. However, Hemingway’s sparse narrative style and unique choices in dialogue are an excellent opportunity to teach subtext. Once students understand the taboo topic that drives the conversation, they’re eager to read it again and analyze it. This is a story you can teach and return to over and over again throughout the year. The story is pretty short, only a seven minute read. Check out Hemingway’s text here.
“A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor
It’s rare to have a conversation about great short stories without Flannery O’Connor’s name coming up. Known as a master of the Southern gothic style, O’Connor’s texts are filled with violent situations and hard-to-love characters. While O’Connor has many stories to choose from, I like “A Good Man is Hard to Find” because of its meandering plot, analysis of juxtaposition, and its shocking ending. My students study this text in our analysis of CHR 1.A (how textual details reveal a character) and last year our discussion lasted more than two class periods! Click here to see my lesson materials on this skill.
Before teaching this text, it’s worth noting that O’Connor’s stories aren’t exactly aging well. Many of her characters are racist, leading readers to wonder if they reflect the opinions of author as well. To read more about this issue, check out this article in The New Yorker. This text is pretty long, about a 30 minute read.
Something by Ray Bradbury
Another master of the short story form is Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find a single Bradbury text that rose higher than others, so I’d just suggest including at least one. Most students read Fahrenheit 451 earlier in their high school career, but I love introducing them to his short stories as well.
The three Bradbury texts I see suggested for AP Lit the most are these:
“The Sound of Thunder” – This story mixes time travel with tourism in an exciting tale. While the plot is thrilling, it’s really the analysis of the details in this one that makes it AP-worthy. This story takes about 20 minutes to read.
“There Will Come Soft Rains” – This is my favorite of Bradbury’s short stories. I love to focus on setting and theme, which leads to analysis of conflict as well. Furthermore, it easily pairs with the poem that shares its name by Sara Teasdale. This story takes about 10 minutes to read.
“The Veldt” – Of these three, I find this story about a child’s nursery-gone-mad the most challenging. I use it to analyze plot structure and sequencing, a difficult skill to target. This story takes about 21 minutes to read. Check out that lesson here, which pairs it with another favorite, “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl.
“Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin
OK I’m going to be honest here, I struggle with teaching “Sonny’s Blues.” It’s not that it isn’t great (it’s excellent), it’s that it is LONG (it takes over an hour to read). Nonetheless, AP Lit teachers have been implementing James Baldwin’s story about this pair of brothers for decades. Another point in its corner is how frequently Thomas C. Foster cites it in How to Read Literature Like a Professor.
I’ve been looking for ways to integrate it into class and I believe it would be great for a short fiction unit. The AP Lit CED suggests 10 class periods per short fiction unit and you probably could get that many out of “Sonny’s Blues.” Baldwin’s text has dozens of applicable skills, including all of the ones about characterization, structure, and narration. Susan Barber wrote a Skill Spotlight lesson pairing “Sonny’s Blues” with NAR 4.C, a narrator’s perspective. Click here to check it out.
“Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid
Contrasting “Sonny’s Blues” is “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid. This one is as short as Sonny is long (only a 3 minute read). It’s actually for that reason that I love teaching it. I often read it aloud, then ask students to read it again immediately after. We even have time to read it a third time once we’ve assigned some AP Lit skills or themes for analysis.
Kincaid’s lyrical style in this text is poem-like, making it a challenge even if it is short. I also love picking apart the tone of the narrator, who scolds her daughter and accuses her of being a slut, all the while establishing that she does it because she loves her. Pair this text with skills that have to do with dialogue, characterization, or structure. Another strategy is pair it with a similar text with parent-child conflicts (A Raisin in the Sun and Fences both come to mind). For lesson materials on “Girl,” this short story boot camp lesson pairs it with “Everyday Use” in a study of characterization. “Girl” is available to read from The New Yorker here.
“A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner
Like Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner is another master when it comes to Southern American settings (and another writer whose views on race isn’t aging well). While Faulkner has several novels that are fixtures in AP Lit, his most popular short story by far is “A Rose for Emily.” I think it’s the shocking ending that makes this story memorable with students, but Faulkner’s style of story sequencing and his collective point of view make it rich in analysis as well.
“A Rose For Emily” is a fixture in many AP Lit teachers’ first few weeks. I actually save it for closer to the end of the year and use it as a test prep selection. Opportunities abound when it comes to teaching it. You can find lots of lesson ideas in the files on the AP Lit Facebook group as well! “A Rose for Emily” takes about 18 minutes to read and you can find the story here.
“The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin
Another popular AP Lit short story is “The Story of an Hour.” This is another short one, and frequently used at the beginning of the year. I like teaching this story because my students think they have it figured out just one paragraph in. Of course, they think, another 18th century heroine, driven completely by the life and will of her husband. Yeah, she must grieve in private, they mutter, as she’s weak. However, once she gets in front of the window and has her taboo delight in the thoughts of freedom, I see my students sit up a little straighter. Is it possible, they think, that this woman is more modern than I realized? Could she possibly be happy that she’s not just a wife anymore? If that isn’t interesting enough, it’s the sudden and ironic ending that really gets me.
I suggest pairing this with HTRLLAP if you’re using it. If not, it’s a great introductory or paired text with Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, or another 18th century text with a strong, modern heroine. It’s also great for a solo study and focusing on symbolism or plot structure. You can find “The Story of an Hour” in almost any literature anthology, or online here. It takes about 5 minutes to read.
Obviously there are many other stories that belong on this list, and I’m sure there are teachers judging me over my inclusion or exclusion of some. This is just a list I’ve formed from my own experiences in both teaching these stories and discussing text selections in the AP Lit community. Here are a few other short stories that are frequently used in AP Lit classrooms:
- “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates
- “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver
- “Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
- “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe
- “The Flowers” by Alice Walker
- “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce
- “The Rocking Horse Winner” by D. H. Lawrence
- “A Temporary Matter” by Jhumpa Lahiri
- “A Jury of Her Peers” by Susan Glaspell
- “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl
- “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin
- “Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston
- “Recitatif” by Toni Morrison
- “Araby” by James Joyce
Some of my favorites have already been listed, but here are a few other short stories I love to integrate in AP Lit and Pre-AP:
- “The Bet” by Anton Chekhov
- “Cora Unashamed” by Langston Hughes
- “Land Enough for a Man” by Leo Tolstoy
- “Charles” by Shirley Jackson
- “EPICAC” and “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut
- “Dead Men’s Path” by Chinua Achebe
- “Eleven” or “A Rice Sandwich” by Sandra Cisneros
- “I Stand Here Ironing” by Tillie Olsen
- “Eveline” by James Joyce
- “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell
Estimated Reading Times
You may have noticed that for each text I discuss, I included an approximate time it takes to read it. I used the website Read-o-Meter to find these times, which uses word counts and the average wpm reading speed to determine the time for each text. This website is incredibly useful for planning lessons and homework loads, although it obviously isn’t an exact science.