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Essential, Not-To-Be-Missed Literature

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I am putting together a plan for my dh, should he have to continue homeschooling my dc without me. My dh only reads nonfiction and has no interest in literature. I would like a list of literature books that a reasonably well-read student should have read/listened to by high school graduation. I would like to break the list down into about five "must-reads" per year. After this year I will have only two school-aged children, one going into 9th grade and one going into 5th grade. Both of these children enjoy reading, so I am confident they will read above and beyond this list. However, the older one is like his dad and prefers nonfiction, and my youngest tends to enjoy modern literature (Holes; Harry Potter) and historical fiction more than classics. So, starting at 5th grade, what five books per year would you consider essential reading?


Thanks so much!

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I appreciate your desire to have the best books for your kids, but it's such a subjective request. You will likely get a whole host of differing opinions. What I have done is go to existing lists, like the AO list mentioned by a pp, research the books, and see which ones my DD would be most interested in according to her tastes. 


In reality, you're going to want books that your dc are going to want to read.  That's half the battle.  I've taken suggestions from others regarding the "best must-read" books before only to find that my DD hated them.  Rather than torture her by completing the books, we switched to something else. Don't waste the time and money I did.  Get your dc's input now.


There are literally thousands of books that will be mentioned as "must reads" and "great books". Your dc can't read them all.  Look at the lists, glean from them which may be most interesting to your dc. Then, give them your refined list, and ask them which of those books they think they would enjoy reading in the course of their remaining school years (including summers if they have them off).  Give them a minimum number of books they must choose. Just remember, if the student doesn't like the book, it's going to be an uphill battle to get them to finish it, or to engage with the material. It will be a wasted exercise.


You can find reading lists through any of the major curricula providers mentioned here or just do a Google search for: (I've provided some examples for you)

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pages 7-8 from Book by Book by Michael Dirda


“Once in a class of graduate students,†recalled the distinguished Canadian Robertson Davies, “I met a young man who did not know who Noah was.â€

What should a person know of the world’s literature? It has always seemed obvious to me that the great patterning works ought to lie at the heart of any structured reading program. By “patterning works†I mean those that later authors regularly build on, allude to, work against. There aren’t that many of these key books, and they aren’t all obvious classics. Here’s the roughly chronological short list of those that the diligent might read through in a year or two. For such famous works you can hardly go wrong with any good modern editions, though the Bible the Authorized, or King James, Version is the one that has most influenced the diction and imagery of the English prose.


The Bible (Old and New Testament)

Bulfinch’s Mythology (or any other account of the Greek, Roman, and Norse Myths)

Homer, The Iliad and the Odyssey

Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans

Dante, Inferno

The Arabian Nights

Thomas Malory, Le Morte D’Arthur (tales of King Arthur and his knights)

Shakespeare’s major plays, especially Hamlet, Henry IV, Part One, King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the Tempest

Cervantes, Don Quixote

Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe

Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels

The fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson

Any substantial collection of the world’s major folktales

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Lewis Caroll, Alice in Wonderland

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes


Know these well, and nearly all of the world’s literature will be an open book to you.

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You might look at the online discussion classes offered by Center for Literature (Adam Andrews).  They cover 8 - 9 works per year and they usually have an elementary level, a jr. high level (7th - 9th), and then World Lit, American Lit, British Lit.  It would be a great way to cover lit for a parent who might not want to read and discuss all that.  A month to read each work would not be overly stressful.  The classes themselves could be used, or you could mine their lists to make your own book lists.  



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Another very short list, easier than the Dirda list.


Classics of Children's Literature 2nd, 4th, 5th and 6th.

John W. Griffith and Charles H. Frey


Charles Perrault (1628-1703)

The Sleeping Beauty in the Woods

Little Red Riding Hood

Blue Beard

The Master Cat, or Puss in the Boots

Cinderella, or The Little Glass Slipper


Mme le Prince de Beaumont (1711-1780)

Beauty and the Beast


John Newbery (1713-1767)

Mother Goose Rhymes

I won’t be my father’s Jack. Three wise men of Gotham. There was an old woman. Ding dong bell. Little Tom Tucker. Se saw, Margery Daw. Great A, little a. High diddle diddle. Ride a cock horse. Cock a doodle doo. Jack and Gill. Hush-a-by baby. Little Jack Horner. Pease-porridge hot. Jack Sprat. Tell tale tit. Patty cake, patty cake. When I was a little boy. This pig went to market. There was a man of Thessaly. Bah, bah, black sheep. There were two blackbirds. Boys and girls come out to play. Dickery, dickery, dock.


The Brothers Grimm

Jacob (1785-1863); Wilhelm (1786-1859)

Snow-white. The Frog Prince. Hansel and Gretel. Rumpelstiltskin. Mother Hulda. The Bremen Town Musicians. Aschenputtel. The Fisherman and His Wife. The Brave Little Tailor. The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids. Rupunzel. The Robber Bridegroom. The Almond Tree. The Sleeping Beauty.


Hans Christian Anderson (1805-1875)

The Snow Queen: A Tale in Seven Stories. The Little Mermaid. The Princess and the Pea. The Tinder Box. The Little Match Girl. The Swineherd. The Emperor's New Clothes. The Steadfast Tin Soldier. The Ugly Duckling.


Peter Asbjornsen and Jorgen Moe

(1812-1885); (1813-1882)

East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon

The Three Billy-Goat's Gruff


Edward Lear (1812-1888)

A Book of Nonsense

There was an Old Man in a tree. There was an Old Man in a boat. There was an Old Person of Philoe. There was an Old Man of the Dee. There was an Old Man who said, “How.†There was an Old Man who said, “Hush!†There was an Old Person of Bangor. There was an Old Man with a beard. The Owl and the Pussy-Cat. The Dong with a Luminous Nose.


Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

A Christmas Carol


John Ruskin (1819-1900)

The King of the Golden River


Carlo Collodi (1826-1890)

The Adventures of Pinocchio


Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888)

Little Women Part 1 only,

up to chapter 23 Aunt March Settles the Question.

Part 2, the later chapters were originally another book.


Lewis Carroll (1832-1898)

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland


Mark Twain (1835-1910)

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer


Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924)

The Secret Garden


Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)

Treasure Island

A Child's Garden of Verses


Joseph Jacobs (1854-1916)

Tom Tit Tot

Jack and the Beanstalk

The Story of the Three Little Pigs

The Story of the Three Bears


Molly Whuppie

Lazy Jack


Master of All Masters


L. Frank Baum (1856-1919)

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz


Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932)

The Wind in the Willows


James M. Barrie (1860-1937)

Peter Pan


Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)

The Jungle Book

Just So Stories


Beatrix Potter (1866-1943)

Peter Rabbit

The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin


Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957)

Little House on the Prairie


L.M. Montgomery (1874-1942).

Anne of Green Gables.


Jack London (John Griffith) (1876-1916)

The Call of the Wild


Margery Williams Bianco (1880-1944).

The Velveteen Rabbit.


A. A. Milne (1882-1956)



C. S. Lewis (1898-1963)

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe


E.B. White (1899-1985).

Charlotte’s Web.

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The Mark Twain book that is essential is Huck Finn, not Tom Sawyer


otherwise we are in agreement :)

I understand the suggestion of Little House on the Prairie, but I tend to prefer Little House in the Big Woods if just one will be read.


I also would prefer Huck to Tom.

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I think you should make a list of books that YOU loved at various ages, and write about why you loved them, and also of books that have become meaningful to you over the years, not necessarily when you first read them, and how that is so.


Also, FWIW, "My Book House" would be a great intro to Western Civ for your youngest if you skip the nursery rhyme portion at the beginning.


For the King James Version Bible, I suggest finding the old 1 Year Lectionary.  These are the New Testament texts that are the most well known and most commonly referenced in literature, if you add in the Psalms, Genesis and Exodus, Ruth, Esther, Judges, Joshua, I Kings, and II Kings, which are the main historical and poetic and often referenced books of the Old Testament.





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