Reading list for an unschooler

Once my unschooling son announced he wants to get a Ph.D. in biology I decided I had to get serious about making sure he can get into college.  I had been hard-core about not teaching the kids to read (kids can teach themselves, really). And I read over and over again that there is no reason to start teaching kids math until sixth grade, so we didn’t do math either.

The flip side of his Asperger social skills is that he’s a master of memorization. So catching up in math and science has not been difficult.

So I turned my efforts to the SAT. How would he get a good score if he is not reading or writing what school kids are reading and writing? I called an SAT tutor, and he said he can tell how well kids will do on the verbal SAT by asking them what was the last book they read.

“Oh,” I said. “What’s a good book?”

“Great Expectations.”

Finally. I understood why the advanced kids in my high school read Great Expectations. And why I couldn’t get through it. It’s hard reading. Complicated sentences.

The SAT tutor told me to call him back in three years.

In the meantime, I went searching for a reading list for my son. I went to Exeter, because it’s the first rich-kid school that came to mind.

I downloaded the list and he started reading.

First: A Separate Peace.

He told me there’s too much description and it’s slow.

I told him I just read an article about how scientific papers that incorporate writing from other fields are more impactful papers. Reading lots of different styles of writing is important for writing good scientific papers. I said, “Would you like to read that research?”

“Forget it,” he said, “I’ll just read A Separate Peace.”

At the end of the book I looked up some literary criticism because maybe we’d have some sort of conversation in the car or something. And I found that the book is not on any reading list anymore except for Exeter’s because the book took place there.

Okay. So it was a bad choice.

Next up: Lord of the Flies. My favorite book in college.

He loved it. He looked up fan fiction.

I thought that was only for Harry Potter, but it’s for everything.

There are Lord of the Flies fan fiction sites where the boys are gay. There’s one where Piggy gets revenge. There are hundreds of sites. My son thinks maybe he will write his own fan fiction for Lord of the Flies. He says, “I think they should have killed Jack right off the bat. I’ll write that.”

This is not exactly what I had planned for SAT preparation, but I’m touched that he’d do his own extended reading about Lord of the Flies. And writing.

Next he read Animal Farm. And he loved it. So I thought, I’m on a roll and I gave him 1984, and then Fahrenheit 451 and then Brave New World.

I ask him if he’s going to write fan fiction for any of those.

He gives me a horrified look, the sort of expression you get when you appropriate teen slang and sound stupid.

So I am quiet.

Then he tells me he’s not doing fan fiction, “But,” he says, “I do think we need a VPN.”


“Now that I’ve read all that speculative fiction, it’s clear to me that the core problem of our society is privacy.”

I wonder to myself, “Who is this child? And, can he get AP credit for this conversation?”

He tells me we need a VPN to protect our privacy.

I am pretty sure I remember that VPNs are for logging into company servers or something like that. But I assume I’m outdated in my knowledge. I google how why do we need a VPN and I find out we don’t.

But there is no arguing with him.

So I tell him to write a list for me of why our family needs a VPN and I tell him to find some supporting evidence because I can’t find any and also because I need some reassurance that he can write whatever he’ll need to write for the SAT.

Then I give him a fresh new copy of Of Mice and Men.


33 replies
  1. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    I loved A Separate Peace. And every time I was assigned a book report in middle school, high school, and college, I reread Fahrenheit 451 and wrote another take on it. I loved that book.

    • Tina
      Tina says:

      I, too, read A Separate Peace in high school. I hated the assigned reading, and often didn’t do it. But this was actually one book that I read and liked. I think it seems like a fine reading choice.

  2. mh
    mh says:

    Maybe try “This Perfect Day” by Ira Levin. But not “We” by Yevgeny Zamyatin. Probably too young for “A Clockwork Orange,” but it’s excellent.

  3. Shelly
    Shelly says:

    What worries me about my 15 year old son is that he hates reading anything that is not a WOW conversation. He says he wants to go to college, and I explained to him that looking at library books about space and watching documentaries were not adequate preparation for it, but he’s not shown any motivation for doing anything differently. I’m not sure what to do.

  4. Sarah M
    Sarah M says:

    Brave New World is one of my all time favorite books, but I love anti-utopian fiction. Always have. (A Separate Peace nearly killed me, though.)

    This is my favorite part of the post, ““Now that I’ve read all that speculative fiction, it’s clear to me that the core problem of our society is privacy.”

    It’s so interesting to find out what are in those brains.

  5. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    “the core problem of our society is privacy”

    Definitely follow up reading should be Cory Doctorow’s ‘Little Brother’ though might be more than just VPN wanted after that.

  6. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I recently listened to this podcast ( ) that addressed how to prepare for college entrance exams including the SAT. It’s approximately 40 minutes long. It starts off a bit slow but gets more interesting. I remember the discussion of self-directed learning and some good ideas (which I agree with, of course). There are some links and resources included on the web page with the podcast.

  7. Joy
    Joy says:

    He’d probably like Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein. It’s required reading at Command School in the military. Plus very fun. Ender’s Game is thought provoking and most genius kids like it, they identify with Ender.

    I have an English degree, and most of the classic books I read were not that good in my opinion. Let him try classic sci-fi or fantasy (Lord of the Rings, Isaac Asimov). Lots of complicated sentences and bigger words in books like those as well.

    • mh
      mh says:

      Absolutely right about Starship Troopers. My 13-year old enjoys it. Also good is “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,” although it’s a little sexier.

  8. CJ
    CJ says:

    In my private high school (in the late 80s), I read Great Expectations, A Separate Peace, Watership Down, and Of Mice and Men freshman year, along with many others. I still have all those books, notes in margins, and many left a lasting emotional mark beyond having to write a character analysis of Miss Havisham over spring break. So, it wasn’t just Exeter. :)

  9. Blandy
    Blandy says:

    School reading lists are always Gloom City. I never could figure out why comedies (except Shakespeare, which doesn’t count) are not considered worthy literature.

    I learned nearly every SAT word from Latin class and 18th and 19th century British lit. Huge Jane Austen fan, but don’t make high school boys read it. Go for Wilkie Collins, Bronte, Thackeray, George Eliot, Mary Shelley.

  10. Lucy Chen
    Lucy Chen says:

    I wanted to read Great Expectations, too, but as you say, it’s not an easy read.
    Do you have book list recommendation for a 6 year old? My son is learning to read and write by typing search terms in Youtube, and he’s not that interested in books from the school library. Thanks.

    • mh
      mh says:

      Does your six-year old read well? There’s “The Saturdays” by Elizabeth Enbright. “Caddie Woodlawn” is special. “Mrs Piggle Wiggle” is silly and fun.

      But what kids really like is David Wiesner. Mostly-wordless picture books. Let them tell YOU the story.

    • Ali
      Ali says:

      Well, it kind of depends on what your six year old is interested in. We are motivated to read when we care about the subject. Find what your kid is interested in and then start with books that touch on that.

      Do you read to him? Because that could be a way to get him engaged.

      If he’s advanced enough to put search terms into youtube, he’s probably bored by what’s on offer in the library at school.

  11. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    I was a few years older than your son when I truly started appreciating the classics. One of my favorites that has stayed with me all these years was The Hound of Baskervilles. I was hooked on classics after that one.

    Why do I always go to see what Exeter is doing for things like that, too? At least it isn’t just me, but for awhile there it certainly seemed like it was.

  12. Cáit
    Cáit says:

    The fact that you thought to look at the Exeter reading list brings up what is I think a huge issue in education: parents understanding the system and feeling confident using it. They talk about “test scores” too much over the cold reality of personal family sophistication level which matters a lot in a class stratified society.

  13. redrock
    redrock says:

    The link to the Science article is nice – not sure whether you have access to the whole article but it is about how science from different fields is included in the work presented. Not really about the writing itself – not sure whether this helps you son with the SAT though which is a whole different can of worms. In general scientific writing is not particularly “good” writing in most cases, reasonably well structured – yes, literary quality – rarely. It is also highly structured due to the specific language used in one’s discipline. If your son wants to check it out – “Writing Science” by J. Schimel gives an idea about the technical aspects (although I admit it might be a little too early to look at this one).

    For all other books – science fiction is my favourite, but then I never was exposed to the traditional literary canon in the U.S.

  14. mh
    mh says:

    For a different approach, there’s a book called “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman” written by a top physicist telling about the bad old days at Los Alamos. It’s anecdotes (and a little sexy) and perfect for teens.

  15. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I remember reading a book by Ayn Rand (The Fountainhead) while in high school. It wasn’t assigned by the school. It was a book that my Dad had laying around. What I remember is doing a lot of deep thinking while reading it. In other words, it was slow reading and yet rewarding. Some other books I read while in college for a Short Stories course was The Stranger, The Great Gatsby, Catch 22, The Bell Jar, and The End of The Affair. However, it was an American Indian Literature class that I really enjoyed. I think I was expecting literature from the Iroquois Nation as I grew up in Central NY. However, we read folklore and stories from the Hopi, Navajo, and other tribes from the Southwest. They were selected since the most art and knowledge was known about them. We also studied their culture and society in conjunction with their literary work. I’ve always enjoyed Social Studies and History so this class made a very favorable impression on me. As far as finding specific books for your son to read, maybe a good start would be to go to one or more libraries and ask the librarians for their ideas and suggestions. Mention to them his interest in biology as well as other interests.

  16. Blackwalnut
    Blackwalnut says:

    Your son might like:
    Feed, by MT Anderson
    The Circle, by Dave Eggers
    Enders Game
    Maybe Vonnegut? Or is he too young?

    A better Dickens is Tale of Two Cities
    Scarlet Pimpernel also good

  17. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    Funny post.

    I’m not entirely convinced by the tutor’s argument that a child has to be reading all the great classics in order to do well on the verbal section of the SAT.

    My son actually doesn’t read many books. He reads maybe one a month, and mostly because he’s in a book club. The books he actually reads tend to be young adult, fantasy, and/or sci-fi books, assigned for that club. His encounters with the great classics are through me reading them to him at bedtime. We both enjoy that, but I don’t believe that having a book read to you (or listening to it on tape) is the same as reading it yourself.

    What he does choose to read is mostly magazines (Scientific American and National Geographic cover to cover) and scientific articles for his classes on Genetics. And crap online about minecraft mods, of course.

    So he would clearly fail the ‘what is the last book you read’ test. Oddly enough, that was one of the questions from one of the prep schools he applied to this year; I guess I know why now. I bet “The Screaming Staircase, a month ago” wasn’t the best answer strategically.

    As part of our exploration of possibly returning to school next fall, my son took the ISEE this fall. His score for reading comprehension was in the 98th percentile. Which probably means that non-fiction reading is sufficient to develop vocabulary. Or perhaps that his “family sophistication level” is so elevated he learns vocabulary by osmosis.

    Never fear, compatriots: among the choices with which he will be presented in March is two more years of homeschooling – during which time we would focus on his passions for science, music, and math. And, quite honestly, continue to do a better job of it than any school. One of the things we are finding right now is that schools, no matter how much they cost, are all terrible for math, science, and music at the middle school level. At this point, I’m hoping he chooses to stay home.

    Obviously, I am not in a very good position to recommend a strategy for having your son read more. I have a bookshelf full of books I bought for him, read myself, and which he has never touched. The book he’s reading right now is no book (honestly, I feel like I’m confessing a grave parental sin here). But the stuff – predominantly nonfiction – he actually does read sparks his interest, leads to many good conversations, and apparently suffices to develop his vocabulary and reading comprehension.

    If I have him at home for more years, I’ll probably think I have to do something about his lack of encounter with fiction besides reading it to him at bedtime. I would probably organize a fiction writing workshop where children read a series of classic works I choose and then produce short stories inspired by, or in the style of, those works. That would be more fun and productive than mere exhortation at the sight of a bookless hand.

    Now, as to Dickens, I must agree with Christopher Chantrill and disagree with Blackwalnut. I could (and probably will) read David Copperfield several more times. Tale of Two Cities I find horrid, contrived, ham-handed, and lopsided. I’d read just about any other novel by Dickens first. You might consider Hard Times; I found it hilarious as a teenager. Tale of Two Cities I’d rather reserve for a class about the French Revolution; its merits as a political position paper outweigh its literary charms.

    • mh
      mh says:

      Bostonian, have you read Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener?” It’s critiqued as “a debt to Dickens.” At publication, it was so controversial and now reads slightly amusing, but puzzling.

    • Katarina
      Katarina says:

      David Copperfield is an experience, isn’t it?

      Despite my background in literature, I am starting to question why students need to have read every supposedly great novel. Do 6th and 7th grade boys need to prove their intellectual prowess? To whom? Why? Exposure to “great” literature is worthwhile. I think the current canon may not be all it is cracked up to be. My son has similar reading preferences to your son’s. When I look back, I didn’t enjoy the deep stuff until later in my teens and I was always a reflective and language oriented person.

      I know many wonderful people who have not devoured masterpieces. Reading “great” literature does not make you a great person, or a better person than one who does not read it.

      That said, I teach literature in a homeschool cooperative, and I enjoy developing the students’ analytical skills. We are having a soiree at my house to continue the discussions. …all dressed up and eating nice food. They said they want it cell phone free. They want to enjoy each other. We read three short stories and one novel for the whole semester. We read to savor the flavor. If I had pushed many novels, I think the response would have been different.

  18. Joyce
    Joyce says:

    Hi, Penelope!

    As a student of biology, he can read more stories about discovery and ethics: Frankenstein, Gulliver’s Travels, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Sherlock Holmes, Flowers for Algernon, To Kill a Mockingbird, Dune, Jurassic Park, Congo, Sphere, etc.

    For non-fiction, I recommend starting with T. Rex and the Crater of Doom and The Ape and the Sushi Master. Afterwards, he can read On the Origin of Species and Guns, Germs, and Steel.

    • Betty
      Betty says:

      Yes! Flowers for Algernon!

      He might try Robinson Crusoe. Also, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and Terry Pratchett if he has the sense of humour for them.

  19. HomeschoolDad
    HomeschoolDad says:

    Vocab and reading speed that’s all it tests. The only prep that works is tons of reading. As someone who teaches SAT/ACT Prep I can tell you that most tutors don’t help. Most of the gains they tout are organic, i.e. would have happened anyways. Parents hire them so they feel like they gave their kid every advantage. In my town the average child gets $4,000 of SAT prep!

  20. Janaki
    Janaki says:

    If he (or you) like Harry Potter, there is a brilliant fanfiction written in alternate universe where Harry is a child prodigy raised by a scientist stepfather. It is called Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. It’s so popular it has it’s own fanfiction.

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