As an education nonprofit, Teach For America's been placing teachers in schools across the country for nearly 25 years, and sometimes the best exercises are the simplest: just asking people what they think.
What are the books that rocked our world? Dentist, hipster, retired army officer—it doesn't matter. We all have something that moved us, and hearing from our friends and neighbors may surprise us. It may also challenge us to refresh our thinking.
When was the last time you got so lost in a book that you tuned out your entire family? Or cried when the main character died? Or became just a wee bit crazed when the movie version got it wrong? Reading is intensely personal. And yet millions of people share these reactions all of the time, missing a subway stop because they're so engrossed, or using a sliver of bathroom light to get in a few more pages after dark. That love affair—that's really what it is, stealing moments and having a hard time explaining it—is not easily taught. There's no real way to sit someone down and say "get lost in this." It's best experienced naturally, and getting our students to enjoy it when they're young is critical.
The teenage years are a formative period, as anyone who ever wore a backpack can attest. Distractions abound. Hormones rage. And habits harden. On top of that, modes of communication today are short and getting shorter. Who calls when you can text, or writes when you can post a photo? Why read the news when you can skim a weekend summary? And when did vowels become optional, srsly? We're taking Shakespeare's "brevity is the soul of wit" so literally that we'll stop reading him.
And yet tucking into a good book is among the most advanced activities out there, catapulting you to places that no Instagram feed can reach. Far from a throwback, a love of reading will follow teens everywhere they go, unlocking possibility after possibility. In some cases, it'll change their trajectory: Allen Ginsberg, one of America's greatest poets, was inspired by reading Walt Whitman in his Newark high school. We want our teens to be the greatest writers, thinkers, and leaders of their generation, and it starts with being great readers. Nothing should get in the way of their dreams—not zip code, race, or income. Stepping into another universe can be the best way to reconsider and change your own.
On the flip side, we understand the dangers that can arise when reading skills are not embedded at a young age: nearly 85 percent of juvenile offenders are functionally illiterate. Seventy-five percent of people on welfare are at the lowest two reading levels. Some states partially base their projections for prison beds on early literacy tests. The moral and financial costs of failure are untold.
Rationally speaking then, there's no choice. Reading early and often is an essential factor to putting students on a path of their own choosing. But there's a difference between opting to read and being pulled, and it’s the irrational draw—the sneaking in a book at dinner, cradling it in bed—that we're after.
That's the stuff that lasts and why we're convening this large-scale kitchen table conversation: to hear from audiences far and wide about the title that inspired them. We want to open up our classrooms to the wisdom of these experiences, update our shelves, and ensure that our students—like all students—have access to the best that's ever been written. Tastes changes, lists evolve, but the timeless works have a way of cutting across all backgrounds. Our hope is that in 5 or 10 years, when this question is turned around to our teens, they'll be stuck in the same internal battle of narrowing down all of their favorite choices to just one. That's as much of the goal as crowning any book a winner: keeping the debate and discussion alive.
Answer this: What's the one book every teen should read?