High School Literature: Messy and Grown-Up
What’s a parent to do when a book like The Kite Runner gets assigned in school?
High school students are learning to read as adults; the high school literature canon reflects that: The Great Gatsby, Great Expectations, Lord of the Flies, Fahrenheit 451, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Shakespeare…. All of these are “adult” books in that they were written for an adult audience. And all of them contain “messy” elements: violence, bad language, sexual promiscuity, trauma, sordid family histories, etc.
And yet, the traditional high school canon did not feature books as explicitly traumatic as a book like The Kite Runner. Darkness? Yes. Messiness? Yes. We’ve got a whole series on the darkness in school book lists. Plenty of adults who have read–and enjoyed–those other “dark” books will find The Kite Runner a traumatic and disturbing read.
If your child’s teacher allows for book substitutions, ask him or her what the learning objectives are for The Kite Runner. That will help you find a suitable substitute. I’ll offer some possibilities below as a starting point.
All of these are “messy” and grapple with similar issues as The Kite Runner, but all are less graphic, less emotionally traumatic. All of these are worth reading, but please do read reviews. As you might imagine, books that are substitutes for The Kite Runner contain some cautions of their own. Titles are linked to Redeemed Reader reviews.
Note that some of these books are better suited to younger teens and some to older; The Kite Runner seems to appear on 10th grade lists and 10th graders straddle that “younger/older” teen line. You know your children and students best!
“Speak Up” Titles by Minority Authors
One of the underlying themes in The Kite Runner is the response to trauma and the need to speak up, to defend the powerless as well as to speak up in your own defense. This is played out in a family setting and also in the community. The novels below grapple with similar themes.
Forward Me Back to You by Mitali Perkins: A young woman suffers a sexual assault at the beginning of the novel and finds healing in working with a Christian organization in India that rescues girls from sex trafficking. This book introduces issues of bullying, sexual assault, sex trafficking, but none of it is as graphic as The Kite Runner. Both boys and girls will enjoy this one; one of the main characters is a boy. This book has strong Christian overtones although it is not a work of “Christian fiction.”
You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins: This story covers multiple generations of a family (similar to The Kite Runner) and also shows a contemporary immigrant experience and religious traditions that are different from the Judeo-Christian tradition. This book won wide acclaim (and we love it, too!). This is a great title for girls and their moms to read together; we included it in our Faith, Fiction, and Fellowship Read Along.
All the Days Past, All the Days to Come by Mildred Taylor: Cassie Logan (of Roll of Thunder fame) comes of age in this story. As a single young Black woman finding her own way in the 1960s, she must fend off unwanted suitors (and their physical threats) in addition to learning to stand up for herself. Key themes include the importance of family, the importance of marriage, and issues of race and identity. This title is more geared to girls than guys.
Ordinary Hazards by Nikki Grimes: A powerful, eloquent, and deeply moving poetic memoir. Grimes grew up in foster homes, had a mentally unstable mother, and was sexually abused by her step father. Traumatic scenes are handled sensitively and delicately, but they are no less powerful. This book has far more real hope than The Kite Runner and would serve as a much better introduction for students to the same themes of abuse, betrayal, family, and friendship. It is a hard read, though, and should be saved for mature readers.
“Cultural Connections” Titles
The Kite Runner is a window into the cultural and religious background of Afghanistan and the Middle East. These are books set in the Middle East and/or about Muslim characters/traditions.
Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus by Nabeel Kureshi: Kureshi’s memoir recounts his conversion from Islam to Christianity. We highly recommend this title! Readers will understand much about the Muslim faith as they enjoy Kureshi’s story.
In the Land of the Blue Burqas by Kate McCord: In a beautifully written memoir full of vignettes, McCord gives readers glimpses of the people and culture of Afghanistan through her eyes as part of a Christian NGO.
Nowhere Boy by Katherine Marsh. Ahmed, a Muslim Syrian refugee on the run, winds up in Brussels and forges an unlikely friendship with an American boy. This is a good choice for younger teens.
I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai. The teenage martyr, civil-rights activist, and Nobel Peace Prize winner adapts her story for younger readers.
It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozah Dumas. An Iranian girl in a California middle school struggles to bridge cultures in this compelling, semi-autobiographical narrative. A book for younger teens.
The Sky at Our Feet by Nadia Hashimi. The Sky at Our Feet treats the immigration issue fairly and compassionately, through the perspective of an Afghan-American boy on the run. A book for younger teens.
Shooting Kabul by N. H. Senzai. As the Taliban tightens its control on Afghanistan, a Muslim family escapes their country and comes to light in Oakland, California. As they’re adjusting to American culture their world is rocked again by 9/11. A valuable look at how those events appeared from a different point of view for ages 10-12.
Hidden Girl: the True Story of a Modern-Day Child Slave by Shyima Hall. At the age of eight, Shyima was sold by her overburdened family to a wealthy household in Cairo. Years of unremitting labor followed, even after her owners moved to the US. But in America Shyima’s life changed, thanks to the tireless efforts of an ICE agent. Best for ages 15-up.
Have you or your children read The Kite Runner? Do you have another possible substitute title? Let us know in the comments!
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