Middle School Reading Lists: What a difference 100 years makes!

I recently came across an interesting comparison of two middle school reading lists. The author, Annie Holmquist, compared a list from 1908 with a current list from the same state on the basis of time period, thematic elements, and reading level. The first list is packed with excellent books I enjoyed as a child (no, I wasn’t reading them in 1908!), and books that I have discovered and enjoyed in the years since. I would consider all of the 1908 selections to be delightful, engaging reading that should be well within the reach of a middle-school student. Virtually any of them would make an excellent family read-aloud.

The more recent list contains two classics and a dramatic version of The Diary of Anne Frank, rather than the book. I find it interesting that the modern reading selections seem chosen not to introduce students to some of the most fascinating times and places in history, but to wrap them in the familiar. That scarcely seems like the point of education.

Middle school reading lists: What a difference 100 years makes!

I remember my own outrage in high school literature class when I found that our reading was not Shakespeare, Austen, or Twain, but rather S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, Rumblefish, and That Was Then, This is NowThere was nothing wrong with the Hinton books — they did correspond rather nicely to the current events in nearby East Los Angeles and even in our neighborhood. They were interesting and relatable, and not even remotely challenging, and would have been great casual or summer reading and suitable for reading during a free-reading period at school. But why spend time on them in a literature class?

My personal reading journey had been a bit different than most of my peers. I spent most of my childhood and teens reading old books — books in which characters, often kids my age, talked about or dramatized scenes from Shakespeare, mythology, and other great classics.

I was tantalized by these glimpses of great literature, and had been looking forward to exploring classics such as The Odyssey, King Lear, and The Last of the Mohicans in high school and wanted to share the reading experiences of my favorite characters. Beyond that, I’d realized that there was a “great conversation” happening — an ongoing process of writers and thinkers referencing, building on, and refining the work of their predecessors — and I wanted to listen in.

I didn’t get to explore most of those classics in a classroom, but I ended up doing much of it on my own; then going still further in college as an English major; and beyond that with the Excellence in Literature curriculum. I’d be willing to bet that some of my classmates would have enjoyed the classics, too, just as today’s kids might be surprised to find they enjoy books written long before they were born.

Below is the article that sparked this train of thought. I’ll be back at the end to add another thought or two.

Here is a slightly adapted version of the article by Annie Holmquist of Intellectual Takeout.

Middle School Reading Lists: 100 Years Ago vs. Today

Annie writes, “I recently dug up a 1908 curriculum manual in the Minnesota Historical Society archives. It provided instructions on everything from teacher deportment to recommended literature lists for various grades. As a book lover, I was especially interested in the latter!”

With the exception of a few textbook-like anthologies, the chart below lists the recommended reading material for Minnesota 7th and 8th graders in 1908:

Middle School Reading Lists 1908

With such a list in hand, I decided to examine if the common accusation that today’s education standards have been dumbed down is really true. To make sure I wasn’t unfairly weighting this survey in favor of the past, I went to one of the Twin Cities metro area’s finest districts, namely, Edina Public Schools. Again, with the exception of a few textbook anthologies, the list below offers the reading options for their 7th and 8th grade students:

Edina Middle School Reading List

In examining these lists, I noticed three important differences between the reading content of these two eras:

1. Time Period

One of the striking features of the Edina list is how recent the titles are. Many of the selections were published in the 21st century. In fact, only four of the selections are more than 20 years old.

In comparison, over half of the titles on the first list were at least 20 years old in 1908, with many of them averaging between 50 to 100 years old.

Older is not necessarily better, but the books on the first list suggest that schools of the past were more likely to give their students time-tested, classic literature, rather than books whose popularity may happen to be a passing fad.

2. Thematic Elements

A second striking difference between the two book lists are the themes they explore. The first is full of historical references and settings which stretch from ancient Greece (Tanglewood Tales) to the Middle Ages (Harold, Last of Saxon Kings) to the founding of America (Courtship of Miles Standish). Through highly recognized authors such as Longfellow, Stevenson, Kipling, and Dickens, these titles introduce children to a vast array of themes crucial to understanding the foundations upon which America and western civilization were built.

The contemporary list, however, largely deals with modern history and seems to have a global focus. It touches on many current political and cultural themes such as the Taliban (The Breadwinner), cloning, illegal immigrants, the drug war (The House of the Scorpion), and deeply troubled youth (Touching Spirit Bear). In terms of longstanding, classic authors, Mark Twain and Ray Bradbury are the only ones who stand out.

It’s good for children to understand the world in which they live, but as with any area in life, you can have too much of a good thing. A continual focus on modern literature narrows the lens through which children can view and interpret the world. Would it not be better to broaden their horizons and expose them to a balance of both old and new literature?

3. Reading Level

If you take a look at the books on the modern Edina list, most use fairly simple language and somewhat limited vocabulary. There are fewer books on the list — 13 in the modern list; 20 in the 1908 list. Both lists contain tales of adventure, and the older list also contains short stories and poetry. There are books on both lists that I would enjoy reading — I’m just not sure that the modern list offers much, if anything in the way of a reading challenge for middle-graders.

Consider a brief sample of text from The Last Book in the Universe by Rodman Philbrick, a post-apocalyptic dystopian novel. The first-person narrator sounds casual and engaging and the plot sounds intriguing, but overall the book seems like a recreational read rather than something that would be studied in a classroom.

“Nobody around here reads anymore. Why bother, when you can just shoot all the images and excitement straight into your brain? I’ve heard of books, but they were long before I was born, in the backtimes before the Big Shake…”

On the other hand, consider the first paragraph of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Evangeline. This epic story poem is based on tragic story that takes place during the forced removal by the British of the Acadian people from their homeland. Literature like this is not just about what happens, but it also immerses the reader in another world — a world where the pace slows and even the surroundings evoke a sense of mystery and meaning. This is literature that has influenced the writing of many other authors, too.

“This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean
Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.”

The first example uses simple words and a casual sentence structure, while the second uses a rich, evocative vocabulary and a more complex writing format. Naturally, some might look at the second selection and say, “Good grief! How do you expect a young person to understand that?”

But that’s the whole point. Unless we give our students rich, challenging material to read, contemplate, and study, how will they ever advance beyond a basic reading level? Unless they hear and read beautifully crafted language, how will they ever learn to write? And if you look at the passage from Evangeline again — isn’t this similar to the language that J. R. R. Tolkien uses in the songs and poetry in his writings? Try reading it aloud, or listen to a brief excerpt being read by Layne Longfellow. It’s different from modern literature, but that’s not a bad thing.

Annie says, “My takeaway from this comparison? It’s fine that schools today have students read contemporary literature. But we still need to make sure that students also read good literature from the past and are sufficiently challenged.”

The preceding portion of this post titled Middle School Reading Lists 100 Years Ago vs. Today was originally published on Intellectual Takeout by Annie Holmquist and adapted here by Janice Campbell. Both the new and the adapted versions of the article are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

So what would my middle-grade reading list include?

Introduction to Literature by Janice Campbell - Excellence in Literature curriculum.Introduction to Literature, the first level of my Excellence in Literature curriculum, is designed to be used in grade 8 or 9. Students using it will read some of my favorite classics — absorbing books that are filled with adventure, humor, and even pathos. Generations of families have enjoyed these books, and the stories they tell are in their own way, timeless. References to these books still appear in more modern literature as well as in news articles and even company names. Remember Yahoo? Your student will meet the original Yahoos in Gulliver’s Travels (and perhaps guess why I’ve never wanted to have a Yahoo email address!).

  • Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne
  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court or Joan of Arc by Mark Twain
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  • Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
  • Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • The Tempest by William Shakespeare
  • Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  • Short Stories by Eudora Welty, O. Henry, Edgar Allen Poe, and others
  • Poetry by writers such as T. S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson, and John Donne

These books are very accessible to young people, though the pacing and language is different from most modern books. As you saw above in the excerpts from Evangeline and The Last Book in the Universe, there’s a difference between old and new books, and students need some of both. It’s likely to be the old books that help them build the reading skills and vocabulary it takes to excel in language studies and exams such as the SAT and ACT.

Consider building your own home library

One thing you can do to ensure that your middle-school students have both old and new good books to read is to build a home library of excellent favorites. Ironically, some of the best books can be the least expensive if you don’t mind used copies from thrift shops, library sales, and yard sales. Homeschooling families who are downsizing after the kids have graduated can also be a great source of good books — just let people in your circles know that you adopt lonely books, and you’re likely to find more than a few.

Unfortunately, you can’t count on most public libraries to stock older books. The libraries still exist, but many are selling or throwing away books faster than they can be replaced. The formerly packed shelves of our town’s local library are nearly bare in some sections, while several stacks have been removed to make way for more computers and more audiovisual resources. In the children’s section, toys and jumbo building blocks have been added — not a bad thing, but just one more thing that seems to de-emphasize reading. An acquaintance who has volunteered in the library reported that current policy is to throw away books published before 1960, and to sell any that haven’t been loaned out in three years.

Wondering what to collect? One way to begin is to gather ideas for good old and new books is by looking up middle school reading lists from classical, private, or church schools. Think about books you loved when you were young, and also check reading lists from AmblesideOnline.org, the site with the free K-12 Charlotte Mason curriculum.

As C. S. Lewis advised, “after reading a new book, never . . . allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.” Education is, after all, intended to broaden historical and literary horizons; not to entomb students in the comfort of the familiar. Remember — that a middle school reading list could be the gateway to a lifelong love affair with great books!


“Every age has its own outlook.
It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.
We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.
And that means the old books”

C.S. Lewis, from his introduction to On the Incarnation by Athanasius

NOTE: Students using my American Literature curriculum will get to study Evangeline in its historical and cultural context, which makes it even more interesting.

Other articles you may enjoy:

Print or eBook for Literature Study?

“The Benefits of Reading: Seven Tips for Reading More”

“Teach Literature in Context”

“Choosing Books for Boys”

Read for Fun; Learning Happens Along the Way

2 Responses

  1. Ian Cairns says:

    Dear Janice, I love your work and analysis. My son is currently 3 1/2 and my wife and I are definitely heading towards a homeschool curriculum. Whether he takes the Excellence in Literature program or not is yet to be decided. But I hope he develops a healthy appetite for quality literature, such as the books you found listed in the 1908 reading list above. I know I will keep returning to your site in order to stay briefed on the resources available. Stay safe and God bless you.

    • Hi, Ian—
      I’m glad you enjoyed the lists! Reading is one of the most important things you can do with your son, and what you choose will help to shape his appetite for wonderful books.

      There’s a quote that says a lot about the importance of great literature:
      “It’s what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” —Oscar Wilde

      Enjoy the journey!

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