Advanced Placement Literature students and their teachers know that next May they will address a prompt that asks test-takers to discuss a literary work and how it relates to the prompt. The prompt will be accompanied by a list of books that are appropriate choices for the topic, but students are welcome to choose other works of merit that they know well enough to discuss. Obviously, the more literary books that a student has read, the more comfortable she will be in tackling next year’s prompt.
But it’s summer! Who wants to read those kinds of books in the summer? Summer is for beach reads, thrillers, bodice rippers, and melodramatic books with cliffhangers. Significance is for the school year! While I can respect those assertions, there is some middle ground.
For the list below, I chose books that are compelling enough to read during the summer and still make the “literary” cut. These are books that AP students can navigate on their own without the support of teachers, classmates, or Shmoop. Some of these books have appeared on the AP Lit test lists in previous years, so we know they are considered worthy. Some are by authors with other books that have appeared on the AP Lit test in previous years, so these are also likely to be safe. A couple of the books are by authors who have never appeared on the list, but they are clearly fair game when it comes to literary merit.
Most importantly, I picked books that are page-turners with deeply compelling characters and situations. Most of them have been best-sellers so they appeal to a wide audience. While not exactly frothy, these books are likely to be satisfying summer reads that will also make worthwhile additions to the list of literary titles that AP Lit students can draw upon next May.
My choices for the Top Ten #APLit Summer Reads are presented here in no particular order:
Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale. Set in a time when women are nothing more than birthing vessels, The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of Offred, a young handmaid who remembers how things were before.
Cormac McCarthy: The Road. A father and son travel through post-apocalyptic America trying to find their way home. Students who liked The Hunger Games and Divergent when they were freshmen are ready for The Road, a more haunting dystopian vision.
Alice Walker: The Color Purple. Set in 1930s Georgia, The Color Purple is told through letters, mostly to God, as several black women struggle to find their place in a changing society.
Cristina Henriquez: The Book of Unknown Americans. Published in 2014, The Book of Unknown Americans won numerous awards for literary excellence. It tells the story of two immigrant families, one from Mexico and one from Panama, who find themselves in Delaware trying to maintain hope in the face of discrimination and an immigration system mired in bureaucracy. At the center of the story is a riveting unlikely romance.
Khaled Hosseini: The Kite Runner. Set against a backdrop of Afghanistan’s political and cultural turmoil, The Kite Runner deals with a young boy damaged by his country’s caste system. The book’s central question is whether friendship can endure.
Kazuo Ishiguro: Never Let Me Go. Students at a mysterious boarding school are treated as special. Years later, they discover the truth behind the bonds connecting them. Never Let Me Go has enthralled several of my students.
Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird. If you just rolled your eyes over this choice, please hear me out. I’m pretty well on record as a big fan of this book. I’m also on record as saying I don’t think it’s a good choice for a whole-class novel after about eighth grade. Nevertheless, To Kill a Mockingbird has appeared on the AP Literature test list five times in the past eight years. More importantly, seniors might be starting to feel a bit nostalgic about their younger years, and those who re-read To Kill a Mockingbird will perceive it differently than they did when it was assigned to them several grades ago.
William Faulkner: As I Lay Dying. This is arguably the most challenging book on the list, but oh boy is it fun. There isn’t much plot—a Mississippi family takes its matriarch’s body for burial—but As I Lay Dying is full of quirky alternating narrators that force us to almost co-create the novel with Faulkner as we read. As I Lay Dying is also funnier that I just made it sound.
Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar. This one isn’t for everyone, but in The Bell Jar Sylvia Plath takes us through Esther Greenwood’s disintegrating mental state. A masterful example of drawing a reader into empathy with a character, The Bell Jar is disturbing and powerful.
Sherman Alexie: Indian Killer. Does “Indian Killer” mean a-killer-who-is-an-Indian or one-who-kills-Indians? Shaped as a murder mystery, Indian Killer becomes much more as it examines both prejudice in general and issues related to Native Americans more specifically. Alexie’s Reservation Blues was on the AP Lit list in 2008 and 2009, and Indian Killer is just as solid.
There you go. However, there is nothing magical about the number ten. Feel free to quibble with my choices or make other suggestions of books that are both great summer reads and high-quality literature. As always, thanks for reading.