“Books are a uniquely portable magic.”
― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
I don't know about you, but when I was in school, I often did not enjoy the books we were assigned. There was the unbelievably dull Dandelion Wine, the drier than the Sahara Scarlet Letter and the vastly overrated Lord of the Flies (all my opinions, of course). There was some really special books, too, which resonated with me, such as The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Diary of Anne Frank, Night by Elie Wiesel, Pride and Prejudice and The Princess Bride(courtesy of Mr. Miller Grade 11!) Largely, though, my assigned reading fell into the hazy limbo somewhere between love and hate and did not leave an impression on me.
I once read that 33% of people never read another book after high school (here are some more stats, if you are interested). This is sad, but I have to believe the reading material assigned to them in school had something to do with this lack of interest. There is a genre out there for everyone, I feel quite certain. I am not a classroom teacher, but if I were and the curriculum were up to me, here would be a few of the books I would include. These are books I wish I could have read in school - even though some are too new to have been taught then. These are books that would hopefully engage and encourage students to pursue reading in the future. Maybe some of these are already being taught in some classrooms, which makes the students lucky indeed!
March Book 1Books 2 and 3
This series format as a graphic novel is very accessible and easy to read, even if the contents are anything but. March tells the story of the Civil Rights struggle and that of several of its key players. I found it hard to put this down and have not stopped recommending it since I read it earlier this year.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Rebecca is a classic, but a page turner as well. Du Maurier's language is refined and almost melodious, and yet the story is not as inaccessible or dull as certain other required texts. It reads a bit like a psychological thriller, which I think would appeal to students.
I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
Malala's story is well known, but I think it would appeal to students both because of her age, and the fact that she overcame so much. I don't use the word inspiring much, but I think it would apply here.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
A vastly underrated classic, by the most underrated Brontë sister, in my opinion. Tenant tells the story of Helen Graham, who truly develops over the course of the novel, from a naive girl to a mature, self-aware and brave woman. It was considered a little scandalous for reasons we might call feminism today.
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Not as widely read in school as Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, this is probably my second favorite Austen novel. It tells the story of the Dashwood sisters who find their fortunes reduced. It gives good insight into the lives of women without means during Jane Austen's time and would make for an excellent high school read.
North and South
One more classic by a friend of the Brontë sisters. North and South offers a darker view of industrial London. Not quite Dickensian, but perhaps a little deeper. The characters are intriguing and multi-dimensional and the setting offers great insight into the class struggles at the time.
The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman
Another graphic novel, and another one I think which would make learning about the terrible events of the Second World War a little more accessible, even for middle grade students. Spiegelman cleverly tells the story of his own family. It is a very sad story, but one that needs to be told again and again.
We Should All be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (also her book Americanah)
Unlike the author's excellent novels, this is quite short and could easily be read in one sitting. It challenges certain misconceptions about feminism, and is an important read for anyone of any gender.
Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare
Though Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet are often the preferred Shakespearean texts read in school, I think it is easier to appreciate the wit of the bard with a comedy such as this one. It is, in turns, funny, clever, tragic and inventive and the Emma Thompson film serves as a perfect companion to the play.
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
This is a heart-breaker, but totally absorbing. It tells the story of two young women during the Second World War. It is educational, but also very gripping and moving. I read it years ago, and know it's one of those books I won't soon forget.
Salt to the Sea
This book is also about the Second World War and the stories are also very personal and moving, but it is told from a different perspective. While the characters in Code Name Verity belong to the Allies, the characters in this book are fleeing from the Russians and into Germany. It is tragic and fascinating and based on true events.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
This is a relatively new book, but I think it is very relevant and will force readers to confront and talk about issues of race and class that they might ordinarily shy away from. It is definitely a book that belongs in the classroom.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (but really the whole series)
If you want to awaken a love for reading, give someone a boxed set of Harry Potter books. What more needs to be said.
Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King
I know The Things They Carried may seem more appropriate literature to teach about the Vietnam War, but this book, told by a teenage boy who has learned about the war from his grandfather, is thoughtful and I venture to say, far more understandable for a young reader.
Agamemnon by Aeschylus
This drama (the first part of The Oresteia) is superior, in my view, than Antigone or Oedipus. It tells the story of revenge, madness, love and hatred. Gossip Girl, basically.