Behind the Big Read: Addie Wilcox

I am currently in my final semester at Hope College where I am majoring in Secondary English Education, Creative Writing, and Classical Studies. I live in Allegan, MI, which is where I am currently student teaching, but I originally hail from Ann Arbor, MI. After this semester, I am hoping to find a teaching position in the West Michigan area and continue to be a part of the Big Read, just in a slightly different role.

Role on the Big Read team

This is my third year being a part of the Big Read. I joined the student intern team the summer before my sophomore year where I mainly focused on the podcast. Now I am the student intern team leader, and I still mainly focus on the podcast!

What is your favorite part of the Big Read and what are you most excited about for this year’s program?

I love the Big Read because it is an outlet for people to share their experiences and thoughts on society, life, and the whole human experience through the reading of one, or multiple, shared books. Because of this community-wide reading program, I am able to hear a variety of stories that I normally wouldn’t get to hear. Stories are such a central part of the human experience as most of our experiences lend themselves to the format of a story, and life itself is a story, so I love that we are able to bring stories to life through our programming.

What is your favorite genre of books and why?

My favorite genre is the “classics.” I love ancient literature, like The Odyssey and The Epic of Gilgamesh, but I also love modern classics like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Handmaid’s Tale. All classic literature has a moral argument or belief behind it that inspired the writer to create their masterpiece, something that not all literature has today. Each piece of classic literature gives me one person’s perspective on what it means to be human, often through a world that no longer exists, never existed, or is foreign to me. In this way, I love reading the classics because it is always an adventure that is often humbling, reflective, and challenging.

Behind the Big Read: Rachel Leep

Hello! I am a senior at Hope studying Secondary English Education. On campus I am also involved with dining services as a worker for Cup and Chaucer as well as Res Life as an RA! When I’m not in classes or at work you can usually find me trying to work through my apartments ever-growing list of movies we want to watch or getting coffee at one of the great coffee shops in Holland (I can’t choose a favorite). I grew up in Martin, Michigan, around an hour away from Holland, but I am hoping to move to North Carolina after graduation!

Role on the Big Read team:

This will be my second year working on the Big Read team, but this will be my first year doing in-person events since I was abroad last fall. I primarily work on the blogs for Big Read (so a lot of what you read on here comes from me), but I will also be helping at a lot of the in-person events you may come to!

What is your favorite thing about the Big Read and what are you most excited about for this year’s program?

As an English Education major, my favorite part of the Big Read program is the conversations that can be had around these books. I love a good book talk, and I have loved the participation of local schools and getting to see what the students get out of reading these books with us! I am super excited to see the creative ways that teachers can use our Big Read book this year in a new way!

What is your favorite genre of books and why:

It is hard for me to narrow down, but I have been reading a lot of historical fiction lately so I will go with that. I love history and even minored in it for a while, and getting to see a new perspective and learn new facts about these stories is awesome to me. I am currently working my way through The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which is about a Vietnamese double agent after the Vietnam War, and I really appreciate how this story lays out different perspectives and motivations for people on both sides at the time.

Behind the Big Read: Alex Goodwin

Hi everyone! I am a senior Secondary Education at Hope College, with plans to become a social studies teacher in the West Michigan area after graduation. Besides taking classes and working for Big Read Lakeshore, I also work for the Hope College branch of TRIO Upward Bound and am active in Hope’s Swing (Dance) Club. In my free time, I enjoy seeing friends and family, hosting concerts for myself in my kitchen, and rewatching Shrek and The Wedding Singer just a little too often.

Role on the Big Read team:

I am active in many areas of the Big Read, especially with developing teacher resources and helping with events. This is my first year working for the Big Read team.

What is your favorite part of the Big Read and what are you most excited about for this year’s program?

I love a good author/book talk and try to go to them as often as I can. This year’s authors and illustrators are phenomenal, and I’m very excited to help run events and interact with our special guests!

What is your favorite genre of books and why?

Historical fiction is my favorite book genre. I love how there is an element of escapism for readers, but the stories are anchored in a real time and place. I’m also fascinated by how people live across time and culture, and reading historical books exposes me to new perspectives outside of my modern everyday life. Plus, it has a lot of sub-genres. Some of my favorite historical fiction reads are A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles and The Help by Kathryn Stockett.

Revisiting Past Perspectives of the Big Read

While we are waiting to launch into our programming for our 2024 Big Read books, we want to take some time to revisit some of the pieces that have been published about our Big Reads of the past couple of years! Whether in places like the Holland Sentinel or published to scholarly databases, the Big Read has opened a platform for discussion on why a community reading project like ours can be important and essential to the people and places around us.

Check out some of our past stories and perspectives below!

“Who are Our Mockingbirds?”: Participatory Literacies in a Community-Wide Reading Program by Dr. Deborah Vriend Van Duinen and Dr. Kathryn Schoon-Tanis (2015)

Our first year of programming for the Big Read was based around To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. One activity included high school students and community members responding artistically to the question “who are the mockingbirds?” Based on the responses and the general reactions across the community to the program in its first year, Dr. Deborah Vriend Van Duinen and Dr. Kathryn Schoon-Tanis wrote this article exploring ways to interact with texts both in and out of the classroom.

Drawing on sociocultural perspectives of literacy, this Voices From the Field paper presents artifactual data collected during a community-wide reading program of To Kill a Mockingbird. During this program, over 400 high school students and community members participated in an art project in which they artistically responded to the question, “Who are the mockingbirds?” by reflecting on marginalized or oppressed people in their community. Findings suggest that there was significant variation in how participants artistically responded to the question prompt; there were differences in how participants drew on their own literacies to complete the project, how they visually communicated their ideas, and how they defined the community or audience for their work.

These findings suggest that more attention to embodied literacies, visual and critical visual literacy practices, and place-based pedagogies, is needed in both school and out-of-school contexts. Throughout the article, we provide several images of the completed individual mockingbirds as well as an image of the final collaborative mockingbird project.

“Who are Our Mockingbirds?”: Participatory Literacies in a Community-Wide Reading Program:

Vriend-Van-DuinenSchoon-Tanis_Final.pdf (

My Take: Big things for Big Read in fifth year by Dr. Russ Dykstra (2018)

Dr. Russ Dykstra shares his story of involvement with the Big Read in the first five years, going from a community member curious to learn more to helping pick out books and creating helpful resources for others to dive deeper into the books. He highlights the various local organizations that provided programming and some of the ways the Big Read took a unique approach to reading these books. You can see how the Big Read grew and evolved over the first five years, and these same hopes for the local businesses and community members to make new connections continue into our eleventh year!

My Take: Big things for Big Read in fifth year (

Post-apocalypse books teach us valuable lessons By Dr. Deborah Vriend Van Duinen (2020)

During the beginning of the 2020, many people in our community who had participated in the previous year’s book, Station Eleven, Big Read found an eerie connection between the pandemic-based contents of the book and the ongoing struggles with COVID-19. However instead of focusing on the fear and chaos, Station Eleven also has a message of hope and the ways the arts bring out humanity even in dark times.

Even though this article was written in the very beginning of COVID, this idea and the themes talked about during the 2018 Big Read became very evident as people turned to creative means during the fear of a lockdown and sickness. This article connects to one of the biggest hopes of the Big Read: that the lessons of kindness and hope that come out when we read, talk, and listen with each other will make us all stronger and better as a community.

Post-apocalypse books teach us valuable lessons (

Carrying the Stories of Las Mariposas: Literacy as Collective and Transformative By Dr. Deborah Vriend Van Duinen (2021)

Another look at how the Big Read has made an impact on our local communities in 2021, this article takes a look specifically at how literature and community based reading programs like the Big Read Lakeshore opens up avenues to talk about issues both current and historical that might be otherwise overlooked. Students and community members were challenged to think about what local issues are often neglected, and stories that had been forgotten were able to be heard.

“Literacy is often understood as the acquisition of individual skills and knowledge. In this essay, I explore different approaches to understanding literacy that focus on social meaning-making and action. Drawing on historical examples of literacy learning and my recent experiences in a community-wide reading program focused on Julia Alvarez’s (1994) In the Time of the Butterflies, I use the concept of ‘carrying stories’ to reflect on how literacy learning can be collective and transformative for self and society.”

“Carrying the Stories of Las Mariposas: Literacy as Collective and Tran” by Deborah Vriend Van Duinen (

Classics Recommendations from the Big Read Lakeshore Team

Here at the Big Read Lakeshore team, we are united by our love for books. During one of our last meetings, the topic of our favorite classic works came up, and it was awesome to see the wide variety of works that have left an impact on our team members in many ways. We decided to share some of our favorite classic books along with some similar recommendations to help you find a new read that sounds interesting to you!

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

From Maggie Hartman

Les Misérables is a 5-volume book that is almost 1,500 pages long. The story begins in 19th century France with the main character “Jean Valjean”, who was imprisoned for stealing food to feed family members. The story includes Valjean’s release from prison and return to the world. He makes the most out of his new life while his prison inspector, Javert, believes that he will forever be a criminal. As he journeys through the world, he meets many different characters with stories of their own, such as Fantine, a single mother who was forced to become a prostitute to provide for her young daughter, and Marius (and his revolutionary friends) who falls in love with Valjean’s adopted daughter, Cosette. This is a story of love, redemption and reconciliation.

I love this book because of the intricate character development and interactions. It is fascinating to re-read this book and focus on a new character each time to get a whole different experience, new themes and takeaways, and even a different understanding of the book that you already read. I have read Les Mis every single summer since 7th grade, and it is amazing every time. The aspect of the book that intrigues me the most is the idea that “good people” aren’t always good and “bad people” aren’t always bad. The purposeful mix of these attributes in the story makes each character so rich to read about and it makes me think about the world we live in now. People aren’t all good or all bad and, in this book, Hugo gives a very unique perspective on this fact which still relates to the world today!

Similar Recommendations:
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy *Very similar to Les Mis and my personal second favorite
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871)

From Deb Van Duinen

Considered by some to be the greatest Victorian novel, Middlemarch follows the lives of ordinary people in a fictional rural England town in the 1800s. The characters, flawed as they are, wrestle with various issues, including politics, religion, art, romance, marriage, and a fast-changing world.
I love this book because of the social commentary, the complex characters, and how it challenges me to think about my own vocational callings. One of the last sentences in the book makes it worth the read (though you need to read the whole book to appreciate it fully): “The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Similar Recommendations:
Moby Dick by Herman Melville (1851)
Great Expectations by Charles Dickins (1860)
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)
My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead (2014)
Middlemarch and the Imperfect Life by Pamela Erens (2022)

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

From Alex Goodwin

Little Women is a coming of age story about the March sisters, who are growing up in 1860s Boston during and after the American Civil War. The novel is divided into two parts: Part One, which is a tale of childhood, family, and growing up, and Part Two, which follows the sisters into young adulthood, where they grow into independent people who experience love, heartbreak, and loss. The main protagonist, Jo, keeps readers on their toes with her often comedic (and always heartwarming) antics, while her sisters Meg, Beth, and Amy navigate growing up in their own roundabout ways. Readers of all ages have enjoyed Alcott’s most popular novel for generations, and the story boasts the unique quality of having characters that nearly everyone can relate to in some way.

I love this book as a classic because even though it was written as a contemporary novel, the themes it explores are still relevant today. As a child, I always enjoyed reading the story because there was more adventure in it than my own life. Now, as a young adult, I still love the story because some of the characters’ struggles I can relate to personally. Little Women lets readers imagine a simpler time, where letters worked as well as texting, and having a community of friends and family was really all a person needed.

Similar Recommendations:
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
Emma by Jane Austen
Eight Cousins by L.M. Alcott

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

From Rachel Leep

In Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, the young and handsome Dorian Gray makes a wish to remain eternally youthful while his portrait ages in his place. Under the influence of the charismatic and hedonistic Lord Henry Wotton, Dorian embarks on a life of indulgence and moral decay, with each sin reflected in his portrait while he remains as beautiful and pure looking as the day it was painted. Throughout the novel, Dorian’s actions lead to the ruin of several people, including himself, as he spirals deeper into a life without moral restraint. It explores themes of vanity, the superficial nature of beauty, and the dark consequences of a life devoid of ethical boundaries, serving as a critique of Victorian society’s values.

I really appreciate how Wilde was able to capture an idea that is still so prevalent in society today, almost more so now then when it was originally published. This book shows how the obsession with youth, beauty, and outside appearances can be extremely toxic, especially at the cost of truth or moral standards. In such a technologically driven society where social media has such a prevalent place, there are a lot of connections you can make to surface looks versus what the true story actually is. It is a bit of an ambiguous book, which makes every reading of it enjoyable to dive into other possible interpretations. It features tragic love, murders, and just the right amount of the supernatural to really draw you into the storyline.

Similar Recommendations:
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
The Birth-Mark by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

From Addie Wilcox

Written in 1854, Walden is Henry David Thoreau’s reflective account of his experiment in simple living, conducted over two years in a small cabin he built near Walden Pond in Massachusetts. Through this experience, Thoreau explores themes of self-sufficiency, nature, and personal introspection. He advocates for a life of simplicity and mindfulness, criticizing the materialism and societal pressures of his time. Thoreau’s observations on nature, philosophy, and the human condition are woven throughout the narrative, emphasizing the importance of individualism and the need to reconnect with the natural world. Walden remains a seminal work in American literature, inspiring readers to consider the values of simplicity and self-reliance.

I love Walden because it asks the reader to explore the deeper meaning of life, the important questions of life, and what it means to live deliberately. As Thoreau says, in his chapter “Economy,” “I mean that students should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end. How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living?” I love this quote because I order to understand life and it’s purpose, we first must live it, and not just study or learn about it.

Similar Recommendations:
Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Kimmerer
The Outermost House by Henry Beston
Into the Wild by Jon KraKauer

Why Study The Classics: An Exploration of Dr. Roosevelt Montas’ Life, Lecture, and Book

In order to answer this question of “why study the classics,” first we must define “the classics.” Wai Chee Dimock, English professor at Yale University, states in her article for The New York Times, “classics are classics because we aren’t done with them yet,” or to put it another way, classics are classics because they have stood the test of time (also, to clarify, the classics can be any type of text—written, visual, architectural, etc).

I ask this question instead of “do the classics still matter/are they still relevant” because I believe the classics are still very important and relevant, and therefore should be studied. When confronted with the idea of “the classics,” many people ask, “what sense can I make, and how, of a centuries old book” or “what value could there be in reading this and thinking about it,” and many come to the conclusion that there is no value, so therefore there is no need to make sense of it, or that they can not make sense of it, so therefore there is no value. 

As part of the NEA Big Read Lakeshore’s program in 2022, we invited Dr. Roosevelt Montas, Senior Lecturer at Columbia University, to come and talk about his book Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation. In his talk, as well as in his book, Montas discusses the importance of liberal education which hinges on the importance and study of the classics; he states, “liberal education should be based on discussion and reading of ‘important books’.” He also makes the point that traditionally the classics have only been accessible to the people with the most privilege and power, and they have then been able to maintain their privilege and power by excluding others from having access to the classics creating this perpetuation cycle of privilege and power only going to certain people. 

As an immigrant from an impoverished family, Dr. Montas understands this cycle all too well, and so when he entered college, he was determined to break it. To help combat this cycle for others, Dr. Montas directs the Freedom and Citizenship Program which introduces low-income high school students to the Western political tradition through the study of the classics. His position is that one can not have a prosperous society without everyone being educated in the liberal arts/classics, since “liberal education can never be too far from freedom.” Unfortunately, too many people have been excluded from this, and so, as Dr. Montas claims, we need to have an education system that is based on our foundation of freedom, which includes the study of the classics.  Dr. Montas states in his book, “Ancient articles of faith, for instance, like ancient myths [or, the classics in general], may strike us as simplistic and misguided, at odds with our own perceptions and certainties. Yet they often contain deep human truths, even if clothed in language we no longer understand or grounded on metaphysical assumptions we no longer share,” and some of these human truths help us answer the big questions of life such as “what is the purpose of life” and “what does it mean to truly live?” Each classic may hold a different answer to these questions or explore multiple answers, but each classic allows readers to wrestle with these questions from his/herself, and explore different answers, and even eventually come to his/her own conclusion.  In this way, the classics go beyond questions of survival and instead ask questions of purpose. Our condition as human beings brings a subjection condition of freedom: one, that you can not know what you will see if you look honestly as yourself, two, self-reflection is an act of self-transformation, and three, activity of seeing yourself and reflecting changes you as a person. You, and only you, can work out what is worth pursuing in life, and the classics help you work this out—“liberal education [aka the study of the classics] has the power to transform an individual’s life…. [It] rearranges everything you know and alters the internal proportions of your soul,” and therefore maintains freedom in our society. 

From Pages to Screen: Book Adaptations in 2024

With movies and shows like Dune and Bridgerton coming out this year, there has been a lot of talk around book to movie/ TV show adaptations. While the changes that are made to change these stories from a book into a more visual media can be controversial, there have also been great adaptations that can deepen your reading experience as well. Whether you are strict on reading the book first or like to read it after watching something to fill in the gaps and go deeper, there are a lot of movies and shows coming out this year that you can check out!

Already Out:

If you want something you can watch right away without the waiting, here are some movies and shows that are already out!

Orion and The Dark by Emma Yarlett – Netflix

Orion and The Dark is based on a children’s picture book and is centered around Orion, a young boy who is afraid of the dark. In the story he befriends Dark, a personified version of his fear of the dark, and they embark on imaginative adventures that help him overcome his nighttime anxieties.

The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin – Netflix

The Three-Body Problem is a sci-fi novel that is great if you like mind-bending and complex plot books. It focuses on scientist Wang Miao who stumbles upon a virtual reality game that reveals a terrifying truth about humanity’s future and the imminent threat posed by an alien civilization. As he delves deeper into the mysteries of the universe, Wang grapples with moral dilemmas and existential questions, confronting the limits of human understanding and the consequences of scientific discovery.

The Spiderwick Chronicles by Tony DiTerlizzi And Holly Black- The Roku Channel

The Spiderwick Chronicles is a children’s fantasy series following the adventures of the Grace children as they discover a hidden world of fairies, goblins, and other magical creatures after moving into the Spiderwick Estate.

This one might seem a bit familiar as there was a movie adaptation made in 2008 by Nickelodeon Movies and Paramount Pictures. As a reader of the Spiderwick Chronicles as a kid, I was really excited for this series and already finished the 8-episode season. It did a great job of modernizing parts of the series, but there are quite a few big changes to the plot.

Turtles All The Way Down by John Green – HBO Max

Aza Holmes, a teenage girl with obsessive-compulsive disorder, grapples with intrusive thoughts and anxiety while navigating friendships, family dynamics, and the search for a missing billionaire.

The Sympathizer By Viet Thanh Nguyen – HBO Max

Amidst the chaos of post-war Vietnam, an unnamed communist spy navigates a treacherous landscape of deception and loyalty while struggling with the complexities of allegiance and identity. As he straddles the line between his communist beliefs and his sympathy for the South Vietnamese cause, the protagonist confronts the moral ambiguities of war and betrayal.

Under The Bridge by Rebecca Godfrey- Hulu

In this gripping true crime narrative, Rebecca Godfrey investigates the brutal murder of teenager Reena Virk in a small Canadian town, unraveling the web of secrets, lies, and teenage angst that led to her tragic demise.

Coming Later This Year:

Wicked: The Life And Times Of The Wicked Witch Of The West by Gregory Maguire

In theaters November 27

Elphaba, born with emerald-green skin, grows up as an outcast and becomes the Wicked Witch of the West, navigating a world of political intrigue and moral ambiguity in the land of Oz. This retelling of the original The Wizard of Oz delves deeper into the backstory of the iconic villain, revealing her complex motivations, moral dilemmas, and ultimately tragic fate in a world where good and evil are not always black and white. This book already received an adaptation through the musical Wicked, and that could be another great thing to check out!

A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson

TBA- Netflix (possibly in July)

High school student Pippa Fitz-Amobi reopens a murder case that the police have declared solved, unearthing secrets that challenge her perceptions of her quiet suburban town and the people within it, in a thrilling journey of suspense and intrigue. She uncovers a web of lies, deceit, and betrayal in her small town, risking her own safety as she seeks to uncover the truth behind the brutal crime.

Lady In The Lake by Laura Lippman

Starting release on July 19 on Apple TV+

Set in 1960s Baltimore, this noir mystery follows, Maddie Schwartz, a Jewish housewife-turned-journalist’s quest to solve the murder of a young Black mother, uncovering the city’s secrets along the way.

Whether you choose one of these or another, watching the film adaptations to books can be a great way to spark conversations or dive deeper into the themes the directors choose to cover in these versions!

The Books That Made Me: A Personal Literary Timeline From a Lifelong Reader

By Alexandra Goodwin

Everyone has a reading story. Whether your reading journey spans weeks, years, or decades, it’s impossible to be unaffected by the things you read. I began reading at the age of six, and while the journey has not been without struggles (did anyone else neglect school or sleep to finish a novel?) I’m humbled by how my everyday life revolves around the stories I’ve read. Each of the books I share today were extremely impactful to my growth as a reader and a person. While some may be rather obscure now, they nonetheless are quality reading, and food for much thought. I hope this list may offer some inspiration for your future reading endeavors, or at least some insight into a reader’s mind.

Pre-Reader / Age 0-4

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

A lesson in unconditional love, The Giving Tree is about the changes of life and how there are some things that will always remain constant. This was one of the first bedtime stories I remember being read by my mother.

Frog and Toad are Friends by Arnold Lobel

Also a favorite of my mother’s, Frog and Toad are two best friends who do life together. There are many stories of their friendship, many of which center on themes of kindness, patience, and dealing with life as it comes.

Early Reader / Age 5-8

Please Try to Remember the First of Octember by Dr. Suess

One of the lesser-known Suess books, this nonsense story about the fictional month of Octember was my favorite book from the time I read it until I could read chapter books. The colorful illustrations are engaging even for readers who don’t understand all the words, and each time you read the pictures show something new.

The Berenstain Bears and the Sitter by Stan and Jan Berenstain

Always with a lesson in mind, the Berenstain Bears books teach kids about life: getting along with people, trying new things, and embracing the unknown. As someone who has always been wary of change, The Berenstain Bears and the Sitter showed me that what seems scary can be good. Plus, I always loved having babysitters after reading it.

Afternoon on the Amazon by Mary Pope Osborne

This book in the Magic Treehouse series is about Jack and Annie’s adventure through the Amazon rainforest. This was the first chapter book I ever read by myself, and was also the book that introduced me to the historical fiction genre. This book is part of the Magic Treehouse series, which has dozens of historical fiction stories and nonfiction guides for young readers. Over the next few years, I read almost every single Magic Treehouse book; I also realized that I loved history. (My history educator self has Mrs. Adams, my first grade teacher, to thank for this first nudge into my future profession.)

Middle Reader / Age 9-14

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Still my favorite book to date, Little Women follows a family of four girls as they grow up in 1860s Boston. The novel is split into two sections; the first is about childhood, play, and family, while the second expands to include adult responsibility, making a place for yourself in the world, and love and friendship. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found more and more to appreciate about the adventures, misadventures, and lessons learned by the March sisters. Though written over 150 years ago, many of the themes about people and the world still ring true.

Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

Surprisingly, I did not read these books until late in middle school, years after most of my peers. Harry Potter’s journey through the magical world of Hogwarts nonetheless captivated me; even though there was much fantasy and make-believe, the plot did not avoid the staggering realities of pain, heartbreak, and changing loyalties that appear for all of us in real life. (For anyone who might be wondering, I am in fact a Hufflepuff.)

They Cage the Animals at Night by Jennings Michael Burch

I don’t think I ever finished this book. Nevertheless, I have thought about it often since sixth grade English, when my class began it. It’s a memoir of Jennings, a young boy who suffers abuse while moving through the foster care system. For me, it opened my eyes to the darker parts of humanity, which I had little experience with up until that time.

Mature Reader / Age 15-18

*Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

This book is part-nonfiction, part-memoir, and details several years in the life of the author, who is a defense lawyer for criminals on Death Row. Through several case studies, Stevenson talks about not only the legal side of criminal defense, but also the relationship between him and several of his clients. This book was eye-opening, particularly because prison is such a foreign concept to many, and the prison and criminal justice system at large is hard to dissect for the average person.

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Anne Elliot is the oldest daughter of three and the most stable member of her family in Regency England. Often considered to be a classic, this story explores family loyalty, love, compassion, and putting trust in yourself. This was the first Austen novel I read as an adult, and with each reread there is new humor and commentary to appreciate.

Adult Reader / Age 19+

*Maid by Stephanie Land

Maid is a memoir about the author and her journey through several years living under the poverty line as a single mom. This book takes a hard look at the domestic cleaning service industry in America and the oft-overlooked consequences of the welfare system. This book made me realize the complexities of government assistance programs and how difficult it can be to get off of them, even with hard work. 

*Educated by Tara Westover

Another memoir, this book explores how the author overcame a sheltered and traumatic childhood to become a college graduate, even after not completing high school. Again addressing the complexities of family, Educated was a reminder that some stories are hidden, and trauma is not something that simply “goes away.”

*A Note: Just Mercy, Maid, and Educated are all memoirs that deal with complex family situations, social structures, and the relationship between private and public entities. They are meant for older readers with some life experience, but also are eye-opening to lesser-known parts of American society for young adults. I recommend these books to everyone, but particularly those interested in pursuing, or in the midst of, a career that requires interacting with people. 

A Global Library: Classics from Around the World

Books are not just stories—they are windows into different cultures, times, and experiences. While it’s easy to reach for familiar titles from your own country, reading classic books from other countries offers unique and rewarding insights. If you are interested in traveling or even just to know more about a country, choosing a classic or popular book from that country can be a great way to immerse yourself in the culture and history a bit more. If you are unsure where to start, here are some great books from various countries around the world that could be your next read!

North America:

Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo (Mexico)

A young man returns to his father’s village to fulfill his mother’s dying wish, only to find it eerily populated by ghosts and memories. The haunting narrative explores themes of loss, regret, and the intertwining of life and death.

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery (Canada)

Anne Shirley, an imaginative and spirited orphan, unexpectedly finds a home with Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert in the picturesque setting of Prince Edward Island. The book follows Anne’s adventures and her journey of growth, acceptance, and friendship.

South America:

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende (Chile)

Spanning multiple generations, this magical realist novel chronicles the tumultuous history of the Trueba family and explores themes of love, power, and political upheaval. The story blends personal drama with social and political changes in Chile.

The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas by Machado de Assis (Brazil)

Brás Cubas, recently deceased, narrates his life story from the afterlife, presenting a whimsical and satirical view of 19th-century Brazilian society. His posthumous memoir is filled with dark humor and biting social commentary, examining themes of ambition, love, and mortality with a uniquely irreverent style.

Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges (Argentina)

A collection of surreal and thought-provoking stories that explore the boundaries of reality, identity, and the nature of fiction itself. Borges’s work is known for its complex themes and innovative narrative structures.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia)

This epic novel follows the Buendía family over several generations in the fictional town of Macondo, blending magical realism with political and historical commentary. It explores themes of love, solitude, and the cyclical nature of history.


The Trial by Franz Kafka (Czech Republic)

Josef K. is arrested and prosecuted by a faceless bureaucracy for an unspecified crime, plunging him into a nightmarish world of absurdity and existential dread. The novel is a profound exploration of justice, guilt, and the human condition.

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (Spain)

A man influenced by chivalric tales sets out on a misguided quest to revive knight-errantry, accompanied by his faithful squire, Sancho Panza. This satirical story explores themes of reality, illusion, and the power of imagination.

Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Germany)

Dr. Faust, a learned scholar, makes a pact with Mephistopheles, trading his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. The story examines themes of ambition, redemption, and the struggle between good and evil.

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (Italy)

Dante embarks on a journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, guided by Virgil and Beatrice, to understand the consequences of human actions. This epic poem is rich in symbolism, theology, and moral allegory.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (United Kingdom)

Elizabeth Bennet navigates the societal pressures of Regency England while developing a complex relationship with the enigmatic Mr. Darcy. The novel humorously explores themes of love, marriage, and societal expectations.

Ulysses by James Joyce (Ireland)

Spanning a single day in Dublin, the novel follows Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus in a modernist retelling of Homer’s Odyssey. Joyce’s groundbreaking narrative technique and dense references make it a challenging yet rewarding read.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (France)

Edmond Dantès is wrongfully imprisoned and escapes to seek revenge against those who betrayed him, using a hidden treasure to change his fate. This epic tale explores themes of justice, vengeance, and redemption.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (Russia)

Set during the Napoleonic Wars, the novel follows the intertwined lives of Russian aristocrats and examines the impact of war on society and individuals. Tolstoy’s sweeping narrative explores themes of history, power, and human relationships.


So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ (Senegal)

Written as a letter to a friend, the novel recounts the life of a Senegalese woman dealing with the aftermath of her husband’s death and his polygamous second marriage. It addresses themes of love, loss, tradition, and feminism.

Weep Not, Child by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (Kenya)

In post-colonial Kenya, a young boy, Njoroge, struggles with the violence and upheaval caused by the Mau Mau Uprising. The novel explores themes of colonialism, identity, and the quest for education and liberation.

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga (Zimbabwe)

Tambu, a young girl from a rural village, pursues education despite family and societal pressures. The book delves into issues of gender, race, and colonialism in Zimbabwe’s pre-independence era.

The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt)

Following a Cairo family across three generations, the trilogy explores the evolving political, social, and religious landscape of 20th-century Egypt. Mahfouz captures the complexities of family dynamics and societal transformation.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (Nigeria)

Set in pre-colonial Nigeria, the story follows Okonkwo, a powerful warrior, as European colonizers and Christian missionaries change his community. Achebe explores the clash between traditional African culture and colonial influence.

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton (South Africa)

In apartheid-era South Africa, Reverend Kumalo searches for his missing son in Johannesburg, discovering the racial injustices that divide his country. The novel is a poignant exploration of racial segregation and the quest for reconciliation.

Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih (Sudan)

Returning to Sudan after studying in Europe, a young man encounters the enigmatic Mustafa Sa’eed, whose mysterious past reveals the dark consequences of colonialism and cultural assimilation. The story reflects themes of identity, power, and cultural conflict.


The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu (Japan)

Considered one of the world’s first novels, it tells the story of Genji, a nobleman and his romantic escapades in the Heian court. The work offers rich insights into Japanese culture, courtly life, and human emotions.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (Afghanistan)

Amir, a young boy from a privileged background in Afghanistan, befriends Hassan, the son of his father’s servant, but an event changes their lives forever. The novel explores themes of friendship, betrayal, redemption, and the impact of historical events on personal relationships.

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (India)

In Kerala, India, twins Rahel and Estha navigate a childhood filled with family secrets, societal constraints, and the tragic consequences of forbidden love. Roy’s novel deftly explores complex themes of caste, love, and betrayal.

Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin (China)

This classic Chinese novel captures the lives, loves, and tribulations of the Jia family, exploring themes of familial duty, romantic entanglements, and the complexities of social hierarchy. It is known for its rich detail and deep character exploration.

Australia/ Oceania:

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (Australia)

Sybylla Melvyn, a young woman in rural Australia, dreams of becoming a writer and resists societal pressures to marry and conform to traditional roles. The novel is a strong feminist statement exploring themes of independence and ambition.

The Bone People by Keri Hulme (New Zealand)

A reclusive artist named Kerewin Holmes forms an unlikely bond with a mute boy, Simon, and his troubled foster father, Joe. The book explores themes of love, identity, and healing, set against the backdrop of New Zealand’s Maori culture

Is There Still Value in Reading Classics?

Growing up, I assumed that when people talked about “classic” books, they meant any old book. I would hear the same ten or so talked about, mainly by Dickens, Austen, Homer, and a Bronte sister thrown in there. I loved visiting the Barnes and Noble classics table where they had beautiful bound editions of these books for a great price, and I probably have too many of those gigantic 5 or 7 novel, 1232 pages, author editions where I would have to flip through the entirely of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park to get to Emma.

What even is a “classic” book?

As I continued into high school and college, I became aware that there were more qualifications for a book to be a classic, but it was never really spelled out to me what those qualifications were. That is partially because there is no strict definition or body that decides what books are classics, but some general aspects can help us determine if a book is one or not. To be considered a classic, a book must continue to be read and relevant over a period of time, demonstrate literary and artistic quality, and have some cultural significance. This requires that these books resonate with an audience spanning generations; have universal themes that all readers can relate to; and have insightful, creative, and challenging thoughts and ideas throughout the text.

If a book no longer has any relevance to our view of its history or if current readers can no longer connect to its content, it cannot remain a classic. One of the biggest struggles I have encountered when it comes to classics is the fact that people can have a hard time connecting to them. While these stories can be brilliant and very beautifully written, there are a mass of books coming out that are connecting to audiences in a way that may seem more meaningful to the readers.

How do Students View Classics?

I had two conversations with students about reading classics in my recent education placements in local classrooms. The first one was not much of a reader but had just finished reading a popular YA book series, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder. She excitedly shared her reading journey with me and expressed how happy she was that she had found a series she enjoyed reading.

As I remained in that placement, she finished the final book in the series and needed to find another book. As I tried to help her find another book, she told me she wanted another faster-paced teen drama book, or she would probably get bored. She mentioned that she did not want to read an old book because they were always boring at the beginning. I was able to help her pick out a book that she wanted to try out, but it got me thinking about her perspective on all these “old” books.

In another class I recently had, I ran into another student reading Lord of the Flies. He had just started reading the book, and I asked him why he had chosen that one from the back of the classroom. He mentioned that he had heard of it before and had wanted to read it for a while. This student found parts of the book difficult but was also very interested in the plot lines, and we had several discussions about how he was perceiving the events throughout his reading.

While these students are very different from each other and wanted different things from their readings, I could not help but think the perspective they had going into their readings of classic books was also very different. The section of books we consider “classics” can span across many genres and writing styles, but often people have a skewed vision of this due to a limited selection of classics being talked about or taught in the same ways.

Almost everyone has experience reading classic books in high school. However, if someone has bad experiences during that time (and let us be honest, reading a book in class is very different than choosing to read it on your own) they may have a bad connotation when it comes to all classic books. The very things that make a classic book a true classic: relevance over time, relatable themes, and the craftsmanship that goes into writing them, should make these books something that everyone tries out every once in a while. One mediocre reading of one section of classics is not universally accurate for the whole collection.

How to Add Value to Reading Classics

The definition of classics and the books considered under that name are not set in stone. In the past, many beautifully written classics were not always recognized as such due to historical inequities. The canon of what is taught, honored, or considered classics has evolved significantly over the past century, and this will continue to shape our understanding of classics in the future. There are also many classic books that often go unnoticed next to more traditional or popular classics. If you are interested in exploring a new classic novel, poem, play, or short story that’s different from the ten classics listed everywhere, check out this list on Goodreads for some fresh recommendations!

The way you approach classic stories can make a significant difference in your reading experience. Exploring graphic novel editions, modern adaptations, or finding a unique text pairing to open up new conversations or connections around an older text can be fantastic ways to engage with these stories on a deeper level. While it is true that not every classic will resonate with you, you might find yourself appreciating aspects of a book that you did not expect to. Approach classic literature with an open mind, and select a book that covers ideas you’re interested in. You might just find that reading a classic can be a surprisingly enjoyable experience!