Considering 'The Catcher in the Rye' | Challenging the Classics

Holden Caulfield would probably think getting nearly 70 years in the spotlight makes him a phony and a sellout. We can recognize Catcher as a touchstone while handing teenagers additional titles that speak to them today.

J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951 and has remained a syllabus staple ever since. Teachers have long loved to teach Catcher because of its perceived enduring relatability and its distinctive and perhaps groundbreaking approach to narrative form at the time. Holden’s conversational, sarcastic tone and his aloof, judgmental perspective seem to showcase a timeless portrait of teen angst. Generations of teenagers have embraced Holden Caulfield’s story of being expelled from his boarding school and wandering New York City before returning home to face his parents.

Whiny, self-critical, and sick of phonies (though, of course, never introspective enough to realize all the ways he too was a phony), Holden captured my teenage heart. In fact, to write this, I paged through my much-loved copy of Catcher, wincing a little at all my underlining where Teenage Amanda found Holden and his simultaneous hatred of and nostalgia for everything very relatable. He imagined his tombstone with an expletive on it; he wanted to volunteer to sit right on top of the atomic bomb. Holden was the original emo edgelord. But he’s hardly unique. Mr. Antolini, his former English teacher, tells him, “Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior." Indeed, young adult literature is rife with characters feeling this same way.

Holden, who is white, cisgender, male, and affluent, expresses anxieties many teenagers can relate to. Underneath all the privilege, snark and 1940s lingo, when we look past his own posturing, we find a character who is lonely, battling mental illness, grieving, and looking for his place in the world.

So, why challenge Holden? It’s not that Catcher is no longer worth picking up to read; it’s that in the nearly 70 years since this book’s publication, contemporary YA literature has flourished, offering teenagers reflections of all kinds of growing pains. When we challenge the classics, we make room for other texts, other voices, other experiences—ones more reflective of the teenagers reading them. Expanding the canon means centering and amplifying a wide range of voices.

Sometimes it’s necessary to move on not because a book is entirely problematic (though Catcher teems with the homophobia, misogyny, and racist stereotyping one may expect from a novel of this era), but because it’s just time to retire a classic and freshen up a syllabus.

Mr. Antolini also tells Holden, “You’ll learn from them [other troubled, confused people]—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement."

The following 10 books speak to the themes in The Catcher in the Rye and could be wonderful, modern, inclusive options for taking Holden’s place on the syllabus. With masterful writing, standout characters, and absorbing plots, the literary merits of these modern books make them strong contenders for new syllabus staples and are sure to generate vigorous discussion. I can picture the characters sitting down with Holden, connecting over grief, depression, cynicism, identity, and maybe even hope.



Charming as a Verb by Ben Philippe. The candid, conversational tone, the NYC prep school setting, and Haitian American Henri’s own admission that his school persona is not his true self makes him a good candidate for a much more well-adjusted modern-day Holden.

The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork. Set primarily in a hospital and in-patient mental health treatment center, Stork's honest look at mental illness, treatment, and recovery shines a light on the power of facing your pain. Holden could have used this group.

History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera. Much like Holden saying he’s just going through “a phase,” Griffin refers to his “quirks,” which, like Holden’s, are really symptoms of deep grief and mental illness. He’s doing worse than anyone can see as he forges his own path through challenges.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez. Fifteen-year-old Julia is blunt, funny, sneaky, and miserable. Her sister, Olga, was recently killed and Julia feels more off-kilter than ever. Her desire for something bigger in life as well as the reveal that people aren’t necessarily what they seem will resonate with teen readers.

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron. Cynical, sad James is witty, disenchanted, and has a phony online identity. He challenges his therapist, has self-involved parents, and is definitely Holden’s literary grandson.

We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson. Depression meets science fiction as nihilistic Henry must decide if he should let the world end or not. A powerful look at depression, grief, guilt, families, bullying, hope, and the power to change.

Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender. Felix, who is Black, queer, and trans, explores love, friendship, and possibly retribution in this powerful #OwnVoices story of identity and self-worth. His journey address privilege, marginalization, and intersectionality while he learns about what and who gets to define a person.

Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram. Persian American Darius’s quiet story will resonate with readers who feel they don’t fit in and can appreciate the profoundness of finally feeling like you can connect with someone. A heartfelt, complicated, and thoughtful look at identity, family, and unexpected connections.

We Are Okay by Nina LaCour. Marin’s story of love, grief, and learning to heal is beautiful and devastating. While Holden looks back upon his time in New York from an institution in California, Californian Marin is isolated in an empty dorm in New York, shutting out grief and nearly drowning in loneliness.

The Closest I’ve Come by Fred Aceves. Though Marcos’s story is filled with violence, loneliness, and sadness, it is ultimately hopeful. A powerful look into the life of one kid trying to answer the question of “Who am I?” amid both bleak circumstances and increasingly deep friendships.

Holden would probably think getting nearly 70 years in the spotlight makes him a phony and a sellout. It would probably make him want to puke. We can recognize The Catcher in the Rye as a touchstone while giving teenagers books that speak to them today, in 2020, in their voices.

If we look to Holden as a grandfather of YA, we can open the syllabus to include an inclusive, diverse world of characters who have joined him on his journey through adolescence and toward understanding. After all, Holden himself feels that when you really connect with a book, it just knocks you out, and you want to be friends with the author. And while The Catcher in the Rye may still elicit that very sensation, it’s time to make some new friends.

Amanda MacGregor holds a master’s degree in children’s literature from Simmons College Center for the Study of Children’s Literature in Boston, MA. You can find her blogging at and on Twitter @CiteSomething.

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Dale Harter

I agree with adding new voices, but I don't think you need to toss out the older, but still relevant voices like Holden's. How about continuing to teach it and directly addressing the problematic areas?

Posted : Oct 15, 2020 01:07



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