In my last post, I ranted about high school English departments that are still teaching the same old stuff that was in their book-rooms thirty years ago, most specifically novels from the fifties, literature read in the formative years of those at the centre of the countercultural revolutions of the nineteen-sixties. But, as my mother would no doubt say, you shouldn’t go whining about a problem unless you’re prepared to suggest a solution. I titled that earlier post “What’s worth reading?” because when I started it, I really thought I would get around to talking about some books that I think are a good idea to include in a high school curriculum. Now I will do so.
However, one caveat first: as Mary Schmich said in her often misattributed but really wise and funny 1997 column “most of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience.” I’m going to simply list some books that, over the last few years, I have brought into classes and that my students have enjoyed. I’ll only include books published in the last twenty years, since I believe the challenge is to refresh our reading lists with material that’s both new and relevant. I’m not suggesting throwing out all the old stuff; in fact, in the next post I’ll list some of the old stuff I think we should keep, including some very old stuff.
But for now, in no particular order, the new:
Sharon M. Draper’s Tears of a Tiger is a popular one in my ninth grade class. It’s a kind of multimedia novel which tells its story in the form of letters, diary entries, student essays, poems, newspaper articles and dialogues. The dialogues are a repeated technique, but every other text form in the book is used just once, a clever and inventive technique. However, if that was all the book had going for it, I wouldn’t be recommending it. This novel appeals to my students because of the heartfelt nature of its story. The main character, Andy Jackson, drives drunk and causes the death of his best friend. The novel tells the story of how Andy and his friends at school deal with this horrible event. The book doesn’t pull any punches, and it ends very unhappily, which I think is one of the reasons my students enjoy it. They often say that too much of what they have been given to read in their lives so far has endings that are too easy. Not this book. Another big advantage of this book is that, because it includes so many different text forms, it’s easy to think of tie-in writing assignments.
Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother doesn’t really need much talking-up from me, but I had such a good time reading it with my grade nines last semester, it would be crazy not to include it here. The story, set in the very near-future, involves teenagers hacking in rebellion against a government crackdown on basic rights following a terrorist attack on San Francisco. Aside from a couple of lengthy discourses on encryption, electronics, and right-based revolutionaries of the sixties, the book is pretty fast-paced, and it has characters that were easy for my students to relate to. The book has been criticized for its overly-didactic tone, but most of my students didn’t mind that at all. They liked the message, and even those who disagreed with it were very engaged in talking about the issues it raised. It’s definitely a book I would bring to a class again.
Todd Strasser’s Can’t Get There From Here is another issue book, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good. It’s narrated by a girl who gives only her street name, Maybe. She’s a member of a loose tribe of homeless kids living out a cold winter on the streets of New York. Headings at the start of several chapters mimic police reports of the deaths of various members of the group as we learn of their stories. In one sense the novel is simplistic, giving us one kid for each “type” that ends up on the street: the sexual abuse survivor, the physical abuse survivor, the neglect survivor, the LGBT-representative, the ADD-drug addict, the slumming middle-class kid, and so on. For me, it’s Maybe’s well-drawn character and deeply-felt emotions that make this novel authentic. And in any case, it doesn’t matter what makes it work for me; the fact is, my students very much enjoy this book, and are always engaged in the discussions it provokes.
Zack by William Bell is short but meandering exploration of identity and history. I really like this book, as I like most of Bell’s stuff. The eponymous main character is a biracial teenager out of place in a rural setting where his parents have just moved. Early chapters show him making friends, dealing with racism, flunking school, and generally being passive-aggressive to his parents to express his resentment of their new home. Eventually, an opportunity from his history teacher to salvage a failing grade leads him to a local mystery and from there to a mystery about his own family’s past. Bell is really adept at writing page-turners without villains, creating conflict without bad guys. This isn’t a loud book or a bombastic one, but its prose is crystal clear and its main character has a believable inner life. For anyone who has enjoyed Robert Cormier, I think of William Bell as a kinder, gentler purveyor of similar themes.
Iqbal is a fictionalized biography of Iqbal Masih, the murdered child labourer from Pakistan whose too-early-terminated struggle against de facto child slavery inspired Craig Keilburger to begin Free The Children. In this novel, Francesco D’Adamo imagines his story as told by a fellow labourer, a girl imprisoned in the same dingy carpet factory from which Iqbal twice escaped. The novel is very short and delivers a resounding impact. If you’re looking for something to shock students out of their privileged mind-sets and inspire them to take action about injustice, you couldn’t get much more bang for your buck than this story. D’Adamo manages to make Fatima’s narrative voice be all at once sweet, sad, heartbreaking and inspiring.
This post is getting a little long, so I’m going to cut it here. So far, I’ve stuck to novels I’ve brought into grade nine and ten classes. I think of those two grades as being all about winning readers over. Though many of my students are already committed readers, a significant portion are not. I want the novels I have them read be inspiring and seductive, drawing them into other minds, other lives and other experiences while being so entertaining or captivating as to never let them for a moment think they’re working. The next two grades are, I think, a little different.
And one final note: I really don’t intend this list to be comprehensive. In fact, don’t even think of it as a list, just a few suggestions. I happen to have included two women, and three men. In these five novels, there are two female point-of-view characters, two males and one novel that has an even mix of many. I didn’t aim for that diversity, but I think it’s a good thing.
Next? I’m looking for others’ ideas as well. What do you think kids at this age should read? Why?