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Top tens: your vacation reading lists

By David Hawley

As a head of school, I was always looking for ways to have conversations with students that had some relationship to what they were studying. A good place to start was to ask what they were reading in their literature class. While head of a boarding school where I would often have meals with students three times a day I had lots of time for conversation.

To prepare, I would ask the teachers teaching the English (and French and Spanish too) literature courses the works they would be reading with their students and then be sure to read them over the summer. In a single IB World School, that made for a reasonable summer reading list and led to some great conversations.

As the Chief Academic Officer of the IB, I knew I could not do the same thing with thousands of schools around the world but I was curious to find out what were the most commonly read works in IB World Schools. To do this, I looked at the works chosen by IB Language A literature (in English to start) teachers in 2016.

For those not familiar with the IB literature course, over two years, students read either ten or thirteen literary works depending on whether they are taking the course at standard or higher level. They study these in different genres, some chosen from a long list of prescribed authors and works in translation. And three can be freely chosen from any literary work ever written.

This allows teachers and students to tailor their reading to their own unique contexts and interests. Ideally, the works are chosen to complement what the students are studying in their other IB courses like history or anthropology. With all this flexibility of choice and so many options, the reading lists vary dramatically from school to school and can be different within the same school when multiple sections of the literature course are offered.

Is there any pattern? Not in terms of schools choosing the same combination of books. There are about as many combinations as there are IB World Schools. There is no IB canon. Haruki Murakami reminds us that “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” We certainly don’t want that. It is through a variety of literature that you can experience and explore that final sentence of the IB mission that states the aim of IB programmes is to “encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.”

Even with all the options, across all IB World Schools, it was possible to see which works are the most commonly chosen.

Here are the top ten most commonly read works, across all genres in all IB World Schools

  1. Hamlet, William Shakespeare
  2. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  3. A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams
  4. Macbeth, William Shakespeare
  5. Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller
  6. Othello, William Shakespeare
  7. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
  8. The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde
  9. Poetry of Robert Frost
  10. Poetry of Carol Ann Duffy

The top ten most commonly read novels written in English

(excluding The Great Gatsby and Things Fall Apart mentioned above)

  1. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
  2. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
  3. 1984, George Orwell
  4. The Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
  5. The Awakening, Kate Chopin
  6. The Things They Carried, Tim Obrien
  7. Beloved, Toni Morrison
  8. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austin
  9. The Scarlett Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
  10. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
  11. The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini (tied with Jane Eyre!)

The top ten most commonly read novels in translation

  1. Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  2. The Stranger, Albert Camus
  3. Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
  4. Perfume, Patrick Suskind
  5. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn
  6. Woman at Point Zero, Newal El Saadawi
  7. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
  8. The Reader, Bernhard Schlink
  9. Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevski
  10. Midaq Alley, Naguib Mahfouz

The literature course, as described in the IB guide is: built on the assumption that literature is concerned with our conceptions, interpretations and experiences of the world. The study of literature can therefore be seen as an exploration of the way it represents the complex pursuits, anxieties, joys and fears to which human beings are exposed in the daily business of living.

These top ten lists are, of course, influenced by the location of the schools that offer the IB Diploma, about one-third of them are located in the United States and Canada. And there are many teachers whose chosen ten or thirteen literary works do not contain a single one of the works found in these top ten lists.

If you have not read any of these works, this summer/winter might be a good time to start. Even if you read them when in school, they will be a new experience for you today. Just think of 1984 and explore anew. Or choose a novel written in 1985 that seems particularly fitting for 2017: The Handmaid’s Tale. I started with one I was unfamiliar with, Woman at Point Zero and it is the most powerful thing I have read so far this year. Yes, if you choose from these lists you might have something in common with an IB student.


David Hawley is the Chief Academic Officer at the IB.

  • David Hawley

    To the person who posted great feedback in the pop-up below about being a civil rights protester in the 60s, and suggested that we add “All the light we cannot see” to the list, thanks for your feedback. Your recommendation reminds me of a memorable moment with my father, who served in World War II as a paratrooper yet rarely spoke about it. He came to visit me while I was living in Germany and we took an overnight train to Paris. We arrived in Paris when it was still dark. He opened the shades of the sleeper car and said wow, Paris with lights, I’ve never seen that before.

  • Alisha Feitosa

    This post raises several interesting questions. Thank you!

    I teach Language and Literature, and I noticed that most of the works my students study have made these lists.

    I love the quote from Murakami, and I’m starting to think that this might not be a good thing.

  • Stephen W Orbison

    This is a great list, but I would add another one of my favourites to the Works in Translation list: Allende’s “The House of the Spirits.”

  • Jennifer Owens

    Allende was removed from the PLT years ago, unfortunately.

  • Stephen W Orbison

    But one should be able to use it in Part 4.

  • Steffi

    Hello, as examiner for the German WA, I am proud to see two novels in the list originally written in German. And there is always Kafka, as you know…. Other than these novels, the evergreen plays read are Oedipus Rex, Antigone, A Doll’ s house and Chekhov (any title you can think of). Overall, look at the world represented in the list(s). So teachers out there: dare to read some Asian literature, explore more of the Middle/South American literature, there is more in the African literature and move a little bit around in time. The Language A courses allow you to explore, this is a chance you should take.

  • Erik Brandt, NBCT

    I’d like to pick up where Steffi left off…but first, thanks, David, for compiling these lists. As a DP Lit teacher, examiner and workshop leader, these lists mostly confirm what my instincts keep telling me about how educators need to be more adventurous in what they teach. Here are some thoughts on each list.

    Top 10 Most Commonly Read
    – 9 of the authors are male. Think about that.
    – All but 1 of these authors are Caucasian.
    – None of these titles would be classified as “nonfiction.”
    – There is nothing here from Asia or Latin/South America

    Top 10 Written in English
    – Why are we still using Heart of Darkness in our schools? The prominence of this title suggests that teachers are still too unfamiliar with the wealth of literature from African nations.
    – None of these are nonfiction
    – It seems the default setting for most school book lists is “darkness and tragedy.” Humor is okay. The darkness around us is already deep; we need some light!

    Top 10 Commonly Translated
    – Only 2 of these authors are female
    – What title from Asia deserves to be on this list?
    – What translated Drama text should be here?
    – It’s exciting to see a graphic novel here – but I’d like to point out that it is the only place where I see one. Where else should/could teachers be incorporating this kind of text?

    Here’s a suggestion of something that has worked well for me – and it picks up where David leaves off. If you are unfamiliar with these top 10 titles, read them! Then revisit the PLA and the PLT and intentionally select authors that you do not know and delve into their works. Go to the places where you are least familiar.
    Read with a lens of “will this work for my class?” and you will be surprised at all of the new texts you will discover.

    Happy reading!
    Erik Brandt
    St. Paul, MN, USA
    @TeacherBrandt:disqus

  • Erik Brandt, NBCT

    I completely agree, Steffi!

  • Barbara Henriques

    Does anyone know how regularly the PLT and PLA are reviewed? Who makes the decision what titles or authors are included?

  • Barbara Henriques

    I would like to see Nadine Gordimer to be included in the PLA or PLT. Her writing is amazing.

  • Mairianne

    Dear Barbara,
    Many thanks for your comment. We passed your query onto the academic team and they have provided the following answer: “the current PLAs and PLT were created to accompany the 2013 syllabus and will be replaced by a new reading list for the 2019 syllabus. Reading lists have been reviewed together with the curriculum – they are not revised independently from it. The parameters for their creation are set by the curriculum review team, and in most cases, it is the chief examiners of each language who are in charge of putting together these lists. They do so in consultation with other examiners.” I hope this helps answer your question. Many thanks, Mairianne

  • Erik Brandt, NBCT

    Barbara – Nadine Gordimer is actually on the PLA already (for English).

  • Gabrielle

    If two IB English A Language and Literature courses are being taught at the same school, do the teachers need to use the same novels/poetry or can each teacher decide for herself what she would like to teach?

  • Mairianne

    Hi Gabrielle, thanks for your comment. We have shared your question with the academic team and they have responded with the following confirmation: “there is not a requirement that two teachers in the same school who are teaching the same course – English A Language and Literature – must use the same works. Each teacher is allowed to decide which works she will use in the course. There may be, however, depending on the school context, considerations that need to be made at the school level. For example, if a student must transfer to a different teacher’s class at some point during the two years of the course, and the teachers are not teaching the same works or even if they are, are not teaching them in the same order, this could have implications for the student’s achievement and performance on assessments. Policies should be put into place so that the students are not negatively impacted by any differing literature choices on the parts of the teachers.” We hope this helps. Many thanks, Mairianne

  • Gabrielle

    Dear Maririanne
    This is extremely helpful! Thanks for your detailed and thoughtful answer. We will put these policies into place.
    Kind regards
    Gabrielle

  • Tea Siradze

    Is there any list of books for MYP Language and Literature by years (year 1; Year 2; Year 3; Year 4; Year 5)? Any recommendations are welcome. Thank you in advance.

  • Anamika Kundu

    Thank you!