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The world’s required reading list: The books that students read in 28 countries

By Laura McClure on December 8, 2016 in Interviews, TED-Ed Innovative Educators


This compilation of reading assigned to students everywhere will expand your horizons — and your bookshelves.

In the US, most students are required to read To Kill a Mockingbird during their school years. This classic novel combines a moving coming-of-age story with big issues like racism and criminal injustice. Reading Mockingbird is such an integral part of the American educational experience that we wondered: What classic books are assigned to students elsewhere?

We posed this question to our TED-Ed Innovative Educators and members of the TED-Ed Community. People all over the globe responded, and we curated our list to focus on local authors. Many respondents made it clear in their countries, as in the US, few books are absolutely mandatory. Below, take a look at what students in countries from Ireland to Iran, Ghana to Germany, are asked to read and why. [Note: To find free, downloadable versions of many of the books listed below, search Project Gutenberg.]


What it’s about: The revelations of God as told to the prophet Muhammad, this is the central religious text of Islam and remains one of the major works of Arabic literature.
Why it’s taught: “Overall, there is no culture of reading novels in my country, which is sad,” says Farokh Attah. “The only book that must be read in school is the holy Quran, and everyone is encouraged to read it starting from childhood.”


Kronikë në gur (1971) by Ismail Kadare
What it’s about: Known in English as Chronicle in Stone, this novel is told through the eyes of a child and shows how different conquering forces — Italian fascist, Greek and Nazi — ravage a small Albanian city during World War II.
Why it’s taught: Kadare is one of the most critically acclaimed Albanian writers, and was nominated several times for the Nobel Prize in Literature. This book “helps you understand vividly what World War II meant for the people who lived through those events,” says Vaitson Çumaku. “Because it’s from the perspective of a child, it also shows you that there can be optimism during hard times.”


Tomorrow, When the War Began (1993) by John Marsden
What it’s about: A teenage girl and her friends return from a camping trip to find that an unidentified foreign military force has invaded Australia.
Why it’s taught: This book “speaks to our fear of invasion and our fighting spirit,” says Beth James Waters. It also “beautifully portrays the vastness of and abundant natural dangers in our land.”


Faust (1787) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
What it’s about: In this play, a scholar named Faust makes a pact with Mephistopheles — the devil — because Faust is dissatisfied with life. The devil says he will grant Faust a transcendent moment, but in return, Faust must act as his servant for eternity in hell. Through the devil’s intervention, Faust falls in love with a beautiful young girl named Gretchen. Tragedy ensues.
Why it’s taught: It raises many vast philosophical debates, including science versus spirituality, reason versus passion, and salvation versus damnation, and “it can be interpreted in many ways,” says Barbara Paulmayer. “Faust is not as easy to understand as newer pieces of literature, so it stimulates students to think in a different way.” In addition, its plot and themes have gone on to influence many other works.

Bosnia; Serbia

Na drini ćuprija (1945) by Ivo Andrić
What it’s about: Known in English as The Bridge on the Drina, this novel sweeps through 300 years in a small town near the Mehmed Pasha Sokolović bridge. Its story begins in the 16th-century Ottoman Empire, when the bridge was built, to World War I, when it was partially destroyed.
Why it’s taught: Andrić received a Nobel Prize, and so far he has been the only Nobel Prize winner from Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia. “It is truly a timeless book,” says Martin Kondža. “Its themes and stories also apply to humanity today. The bridge acts as a dumb witness to empires being born and crushed, human lives reaching their peaks and depths, and countries being established and destroyed.”


Morte e vida Severina (1955) by João Cabral de Melo Neto
What it’s about: Known in English as The Death of a Severino, this play in verse is about the arduous journey of a man who is fleeing the drought- and poverty-stricken northeastern region of Brazil in search of a better situation and the city.
Why it’s taught: “It shows the dual conditions that the country has always presented and still presents — poor lives, inequality, ignorance, and silent people, versus a city population, with all its advantages — and the distance between these two groups,” says Andrea Rodrigues.


Under the Yoke (1894) by Ivan Vazov
What it’s about: This novel looks at a Bulgarian village under Ottoman rule and depicts a failed insurrection in the 1870s that helped trigger the country’s eventual breakaway. The large cast of characters includes villagers on both sides of the rebellion.
Why it’s taught: For one thing, Vazov is seen as the father of Bulgarian literature. But, adds Kristine O’Malley, “Being enslaved by the Ottoman Empire and the struggle for independence have shaped the national identity of Bulgarians,” making this book a perennially popular read.


The Wars (1977) by Timothy Findley
What it’s about: Robert Ross, a 19-year-old Canadian, tries to cope with the death of his sister by enlisting to fight in World War I. Beset by his own demons, he travels to France where he fights in the trenches and sees the worst of warfare — and of humanity.
Why it’s taught: “It’s an iconic Canadian novel. It’s so brutally honest in its depiction of war, sorrow, and coming to terms with an uncaring world in one’s own way,” says Karen Goepen-Wee. “This text does not tread lightly around the angst and horror of World War 1 for Canadian soldiers,” says Will Gourley.


Sub Terra (1904) by Baldomero Lillo
What it’s about: This short-story collection is about the backbreaking, impoverished, dangerous existence of coal miners in southern Chile in the late 19th century.
Why it’s taught: Sub Terra represents an important part of Chile’s history,” says Natalia Salamanca Moreno. “These stories show students a lifestyle that is completely different from theirs today, which can help them appreciate what they have now. The stories also emphasize important, timeless family values, like being thankful for your parents and their efforts.”


Analects by Confucius
What it’s about: This book is a compilation of the teachings of the ancient philosopher Confucius; it’s believed to have been written sometime between 475 BC and 221 BC.
Why it’s taught: “Teachers want students to learn good morals from the Analects, like showing respect to your parents, learning merit from others no matter their status, and using critical thinking,” says Aylee Lu. “This book remains a cornerstone of Chinese culture.”


Cien años de Soledad (1967) by Gabriel García Márquez
What it’s about: This pioneering fictional work of magical realism — known to English-language readers as 100 Years of Solitude — traces the rise and fall of a fictional Colombian town through five generations of the Buendía family, starting in the early 19th century.
Why it’s taught: Márquez is considered one of the most important writers in the Spanish language, and he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982. This novel depicts the violence that has plagued Colombia for decades, and “shows how much corruption and suffering Colombians have endured,” says Daniela Ramirez Barreto. “Yet there is something about us that refuses to give up.”


The Murderess (1903) by Alexandros Papadiamantis
What it’s about: This novella is about an old woman named Hadoula who lives on the island of Skiathos. She murders poor young girls as a kind of mercy killing, since she views their future prospects to be limited and bleak.
Why it’s taught: “It sheds light on the role of women and on gender roles within marriage; these are of great importance in Cyprus and Greece,” says Evanthia Poyiatzi. “And it makes students decide whether the woman’s behavior is ethical or unethical.”


The Days (1935) by Taha Hussein
What it’s about: This book is the autobiography of intellectual and writer Hussein, who lived from 1889 to 1973. He became blind at the age of 3 but grew up to be the minister of education in his country and is one of the most influential figures in Egyptian literature.
Why it’s taught: The book teaches students “the importance of gathering knowledge, the need to rebel against traditions and the negative effects of ignorance upon individuals in a society,” says Mahmoud Attalla.


Seitsemän veljestä (1870) by Aleksis Kivi
What it’s about: Known in English as Seven Brothers, this book is about a quarrelsome family of seven brothers and their struggles in rural Finland. They eventually grow and mature into decent members of society.
Why it’s taught: It is believed to be the first truly Finnish novel by a Finnish author in the Finnish language about ordinary people. “It’s considered the national novel of Finland,” says Jaani Länsiö. “It’s about Finnish stubbornness.”


Tagebuch der Anne Frank (1947)
What it’s about: Known in English as The Diary of Anne Frank, this journal was kept by a Jewish girl named Anne Frank as she lived with her family in hiding in Amsterdam under Nazi occupation.
Why it’s taught: “We should never forget what horrors were unleashed by narrow-thinking people,” says Charlotte Böhm.

Ghana; Nigeria

Things Fall Apart (1958) by Chinua Achebe
What it’s about: Set in Nigeria in the 1900s, this novel follows Okonkwo, an Igbo leader and village wrestling champion, his journey to power and glory, and his eventual fall when he fights back against white colonialists.
Why it’s taught: “On the surface, it’s a celebration of African traditionalism and how those ideals were washed away with the coming of the missionaries,” says Ama Y Adi-Dako. “At the heart of it, though, it is a critical look at the concept and drawbacks of African and tribal masculinity.”


Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth (1927-1929) by Mohandas K. Gandhi
What it’s about: The Indian leader’s memoir covers his life from his childhood to his early 50s.
Why it’s taught: “This book upholds the essence of living a life with dignity, which is possible only through truth and nonviolence,” says Bismi Sain.


Laskar Pelangi (2005) by Andrea Hirata
What it’s about: Known in English as Rainbow Troops, this novel is based on a true story about ten students from a remote village in Indonesia who, with the help of a pair of inspiring teachers, learn to stand up for themselves and their community.
Why it’s taught: It teaches “sacrifice, dedication, hard work, passion, brotherhood, friendship, optimism and perseverance in the face of challenges,” says Mahrukh Bashir.


Poems by writers such as HafizSa’AddiFerdowsiRumi and Khayyam
What they’re about: Love, beauty, joy and other themes.
Why they’re taught: “In Iran, the novel is a relatively newer form of literature,” says Ne Da. “But among our literary classics are abundant poets and poetry. Each poem speaks to a different value.”


Ice Man: the Adventures of an Irish Antarctic Hero (2003) by Michael Smith
What it’s about: It’s a biography of Tom Crean, an Irish boy who ran away from home at the age of 15 to join Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s Antarctic voyage. He was also a member of Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition.
Why it’s taught: “It shows that the Irish are ambitious explorers who can triumph over adversity and that through hard work, focus and dedication, everything is possible,” says Naoimh Riordan.


I Promessi Sposi (1827) by Alessandro Manzoni
What it’s about: Known in English as The Betrothed, this novel takes place in northern Italy in the first half of the 17th century. Italy was not yet a nation, and this book shows the lives of villagers living under repressive Spanish rule as well as the impact of a deadly plague that killed many people.
Why it’s taught: “I Promessi Sposi is one of the two pillars of Italian literature,” says Sofia Ramundo. “It is considered the blueprint for historical novels,” says Michela Sacchi O’Brien.


The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) by Mohsin Hamid
What it’s about: An international bestseller, this novel follows the story of a Pakistani man as he reflects on his time in the United States before and after the events of September 11, 2001.
Why it’s taught: “These books touch the unique dilemmas faced by modern Pakistanis who are struggling with fundamental ideals and trying to find their own identity,” says Vajiha Atiq.


Noli Me Tangere (1887) by Jose Rizal
What it’s about: Rizal went on to be a hero of the Philippine revolution, and his novel — the English-language title is Touch Me Not — shows life in the Philippines society under cruel, repressive, arbitrary Spanish Catholic rule.
Why it’s taught: By combining a dramatic story with an activist message, this novel has been compared to Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. It is taught to help students “appreciate the efforts of our forefathers in shaping our independence,” says John Eric Uy.


War and Peace (1869) by Leo Tolstoy
What it’s about: Following the lives and loves of five families, this epic novel begins in 1805 and continues through Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia.
Why it’s taught: War and Peace “is basically speaking about every aspect of our life: how to be valuable in society, how to be forgiving, and how to be respectful,” says Valentina Ishmanova. “I believe everyone goes through the same situations as Tolstoy’s characters Natasha, Pierre, and Prince Andrei.”


To Kill A Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee
What it’s about: A classic novel about the American South in the 1930s that illustrates how racism, sexism and injustice have shaped US history (and still cause harm today).
Why it’s taught: “We’re still dealing with racism and systematic prejudice, especially in the legal system in the US,” says Shaun McGovern. [Extra Resources: Teaching Mockingbird.]


Truyện Kiều (1820) by Nguyễn Du
What it’s about: It’s an epic narrative poem about a young woman named Thuý Kiều who is driven to sacrifice herself to save her family.
Why it’s taught: Known in English as The Tale of Kiều, the poem shows “the humanity and the beauty of my country,” says Joy Truong, who adds that she likes its positive qualities, a stark contrast to most other stories and poems which “focus on the difficulties of the Vietnamese.”

Tags: Books, Ideas, Reading List, Student, Teaching & Education, TED-Ed Community, World Cultures