Your regular hostess, Jlongs/Fritz, is out of town this weekend, no doubt enjoying a well-deserved rest and a few good books!
So when she sent out a call for a guest host, I raised my hand and volunteered to play substitute teacher for this week’s installment. By way of introduction, I should probably mention that I am a “professional”—-that is, I’m a 20 year veteran high school English teacher, and the very best part of my job is getting to talk about good books every day.
At the end of each school year, I give my students a survey form, and one of my favorite questions is: “If you were choosing the literature for next year’s students, which books would you make sure to include again in the curriculum, and which books would you want to drop?”
The interesting thing about their answers is that, inevitably, books on one student’s “must read” list show up as another student’s “never read again” choice. To me, that says the range of literature that we’re using in high school classrooms is working, and also something about one man’s trash being another man’s “I’ll remember this for the rest of my life” treasures.
So what should be required reading for an American high school education? Which books that you were assigned to read by a teacher really stuck with you and taught you something? And which books were truly a waste of your time?
Usually when someone asks me to name my favorite book, it’s like asking a mother which one of her children she loves best– “I love them all the same, but different.” Just sitting down to make this list, I found it very, very hard to highlight just a few. How do you choose between Shakespeare & Shaw, Dickens & Dante, Tolstoy & Twain?
Except there are a few books that hold a special place in my heart.
These are the books that provide the underpinning for my entire teaching year–the books that make me smile when I see them on the syllabus, the books that make me walk into my classroom each day, excited to explore them all over again, and excited to see my students about to make the discoveries I made when I first cracked the bindings.
So in no special order, here are a few books from my high school’s “Required Reading” lists that make my literary heart soar each year:
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Usually taught in 9th grade, it’s what I like to call a “welcome to high school” book. Kids are intimidated by the length and vocabulary, but hooked, every.single.time, by the nobility of Atticus. And I get to watch the Gregory Peck movie at least once a year. Who says teachers don’t get good job perks?
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. This little book, originally conceived as a screenplay, begs to be read out loud, and often I do just that, reading whole passages to my classes. The kids are giggly and pretend-shocked at the language, but soon come to appreciate the gritty reality of the migrant worker’s world and the harsh choices of friendship in a society that has no place for the old, crippled, outcast, or poor. There isn’t a kid in the room who’s ever loved a pet who isn’t a bit choked up when Candy’s dog is killed. The newer movie remake with Gary Sinise and John Malkovich is also a gem.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo. This is the book that gets the most groans each year when I introduce it. I do a lot of scaffolding, hand holding and textual support for my sophomores who read this (honors classes only) but it usually ranks at or near the #1 spot of their favorite books at year’s end. Part of it is the adolescent obsession with beauty and appearances, where they recognize in Quasimodo a little piece of their own insecurities—“I’ll never be beautiful enough on the outside to be loved” and part of it is the outrage at the social injustices of Victor Hugo’s Paris. Me, I love this book for its dual villains–the vain and shallow Phoebus and the poor torn apart Claude Frollo, who can’t reconcile his physical desires with the morality imposed on him by his worldview, (Hmm, sounds like some Republicans I know) and who ends up blaming and destroying the very thing he most desires.
Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. This is the one book that I adore and most of my students barely tolerate. Maybe they need to get a little older to appreciate the depth of a father’s despair or the impact of hatred and racism, but for me, it’s a highlight of the year to journey through this book. Whole chapters are like poetry.
Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons. This is a relatively new novel (c. 1987) in the high school reading lists–we’ve been teaching it since the mid 90’s. My students are hooked from its opening page:
When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy. I would figure out this or that way and run it down through my head until it got easy.
The way I liked best was letting go a poisonous spider in his bed. It would bite him and he’d be dead and swollen up and I would shudder to find him so. Of course I would call the rescue squad and tell them to come quick something’s the matter with my daddy. When they come in the house I’m all in a state of shock and just don’t know how to act what with two colored boys heaving my dead daddy onto a roller cot. I just stand in the door and look like I’m shaking all over.
But I did not kill my daddy. He drank his own self to death the year after the County moved me out. I heard how they found him shut up in the house dead and everything. Next think I know he’s in the ground and the house is rented out to a family of four.
All I did was wish him dead real hard very now and them. And I can say for a fact that I am better off now than when he was alive.
Ellen Foster is exciting to teach. The literary devices of an unreliable narrator, point of view shifts, local dialect, etc make prepping for the end-of-course literary terms section a piece of cake. The characters are strong, memorable, and practically walk out of the story as living creatures. And the themes are powerful and important: self reliance, the psychological damage to Vietnam veterans, the injustice and bureaucracy in our social welfare systems, child abuse & neglect, and finally, overcoming racism, one friendship at a time.
Oh, gracious, there are so many others– The Bean Trees, The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby— it seems wrong to leave out so many of our treasures, but for the sake of time, I’ll leave you all some space to add your own.
I love my job.
So what was required reading in your own education? No grades & red pens here, no five paragraph essays, just some fun reflections on separating the gold from the dross in language arts classrooms.
Pencils ready? You may begin.
And as always, tell us what you’ve been reading this week!