Digging Through the Book St(ack!)

The three high schools in my district are about to enter a new round of textbook adoption and I need your help. If you’ve followed the blog for a while, you may have noticed that I don’t teach a lot of novels. Over the past decade, I’ve moved away from teaching novel after novel with an occasional play thrown in for variety; in fact, so far this year, I’ve taught only one novel to my freshmen, Of Mice and Men (a wonderful and required text at my school). For the rest of our time, I’ve pieced together short stories, non-fiction pieces I think are funny or clever, science fiction short stories, a whole month of poetry, and argument writing. Partly this shift away from novel units is because I like to build a wide variety of curriculum (you might have noticed) and partly it’s because many of the approved texts (that is, the ones I can actually find on campus – my bookroom woes are a story for another day) lull my students into a comatose state. My kids still regularly read novels on their own as part of the S.S.R. requirement, but class time is usually filled with a potpourri of other options.

Now, here’s where I need help. Novels, and non-fiction for that matter, are important and I want to lobby for some fresh, juicy reads when the district’s curriculum committee meets again. I need to arrive armed with a list of contemporary titles that will engage and challenge our students, grades 9-12. I’m certain my department will still teach Salinger, Shakespeare, and Steinbeck (love ‘em all), but I’m aching to add some folks who aren’t dead white men to our curriculum.

One of the sorrows of my life is that I’m an English teacher who has no extra time to read. By the time I settle in at night, I’m lucky if I make it past three paragraphs before my eyelids are 20-pound weights. So I turn to you, my teacher tribe. If you were in charge of curriculum, which books would you use as core high school texts? I’ll start this Mother of All Book Lists with a few recent favorite titles (I tend to tilt toward non-fiction – weird for an English teacher, I know).
Okay, any of these that you love/hate? What other fresh titles should we add to this list? Don’t be shy. Lobby for your favorites and/or enter your ideas below.

Teach on (and LEAVE A COMMENT), everyone!

70 thoughts on “Digging Through the Book St(ack!)

  1. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks! Love it and it’s non-fiction that reads like fiction! It made me think twice about reading non-fiction!

  2. 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher is loved by every student who reads it at my school!

  3. Oh yeah, tramey6, our science dept. snatched this one up already, but maybe a cross-curricular unit would be good? Hmm…you have me thinking… Thanks!

  4. Amy Goldasich says:

    Swallowing Stones by Joyce McDonald is loved by all.

  5. Wow, Amy, this looks amazing, too! I just Googled it and here’s a plot brief for those unfamiliar: “It begins with a free and joyful act – but from then on, Michael finds it impossible even to remember what it felt like to be free and joyful. When he fires his new rifle into the air on his seventeenth birthday, he never imagines that the bullet will end up killing someone. But a mile away, a man is killed by that bullet as he innocently repairs his roof. And Michael keeps desperately silent while he watches his world crumble.” Dang! I gotta carve out more reading time. I’m in.

  6. I am starting The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian next week. I asked permission from my principal first. He has read the book (I love having a principal who is a voracious reader) and sees the value in it, but he also asked me to have a solid defense ready in case parents question the choice. My students like the dystopian novel Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi. The books I teach at the 10th and 11th grade levels are heavy on male protagonists. I would love to add in some titles with strong females protagonists who are not accused of being witches or adulteresses or otherwise crazy. I look forward to hearing what you pick.

  7. Great tips, Hamy10! I also loved The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and know it has TONS of value, but my school board members would probably have a heart attack about the masturbation stuff and they’ll ultimately be the ones who approve the list. Dang it. Still, maybe I’ll float the title for freshmen anyway and just see what happens. (*Chuckling to self*)

    Ship Breaker is new to me, so I’ll check that one out, too. And, yes, female characters have a pretty rough ride, esp. in my school’s American Lit. choices. Preach!

  8. Robin Quinton says:

    I teach both How to Read Literature and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. I feel HTRLLAP is a must! It opens their eyes not only to what they are reading, but also in what they are watching. I bring in everything from music videos, to older film clips like Gone With the Wind. The kids are able to make connections they would not have before. Snow Flower gets mixed reviews from the students. Many, mainly girls, like it, while others think the relationship between Snow Flower and Lily strange and it is a matter of getting into the cultural customs. Overall, I find it valuable to my curriculum.

  9. Great feedback, Robin. This is EXACTLY what I was hoping to learn. Maybe Snow Flower as a lit. circle choice, then? Okay.

  10. These are all great choices! I taught The Glass Castle when I taught on-level juniors, and they loved it. It was by far their favorite reading of the year. Some of my seniors read The Curious Incident for Lit Circles, and it was a hit as well. Our AP Lit teacher tried to get The Handmaid’s Tale approved a few years ago, but it didn’t work out–it’s a little too controversial for our community. I read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore last summer, and I’ve considered adding it to our Lit Circles next year. If you create some resources for any of these and post them on TPT, I’m sure I’ll be purchasing them. 🙂

  11. Thanks for the comment and vote of confidence, Buffy! I’m a bit lacking in new product creation these days (oh, how I wish my days had more than 24 hours), but hope to have some fresh stuff up this summer. We’ll see which of these titles make the curriculum council cut, but I’d love to teach The Glass Castle. I just couldn’t put it down! Have a great Wednesday. 🙂

  12. I highly recommend A Thousand Splendid Suns for older students. It’s tough, emotionally, but so worth it . Also, Rena’s Promise. A great autobiography about two sisters and their experience during the Holocaust. Both introduce great perspectives of different cultures and times.

  13. Thanks, Jennifer. Yes, every junior girl who’s read A Thousand Splendid Suns has loved it. And Hosseini’s other book, The Kite Runner, is another great option, too, but only for seniors, I’d say. I’ll add Rena’s Promise to my “check this out” list, too! Thanks again. 🙂

  14. Nancy Robinson says:

    I’ve been playing with the idea of choosing a genre, say science fiction, and letting the kids choose which book they want to tackle. The unit could be organized around concepts. As far as titles, everything you have here is excellent. You might also consider Feed (about total reliance on computers) and Persepolis, an exceptional graphic novel about a young Iranian girl.

  15. Yes and YES, Nancy! I love the genre choice idea, which one of my sophomore-level friends uses with her honors kids. I think I need to take her out to lunch and pick her brain a bit more about this. Definitely a fruitful path to walk and student-choice is HUGE in terms of buy-in. I haven’t heard of Feed, but I’m definitely intrigued and I’d love to get more Middle Eastern voices in my room. Such good stuff! And thanks to EVERYONE who is chatting here today. I love my English teacher peeps!

  16. I am teaching The Book Thief by Markus Zusak to 9th graders. It is a long read and I read aloud the first 150 pages. I love it for its rich language and complex thinking. It is difficult, and long, but I still think it is worth it. It is the only novel I teach in a school year.

  17. I teach Curious Incident and my kids LOVE it! It ties very nicely with a movie called Temple Grandin, so if you get it, be sure to show that movie with it! 🙂 Have read Glass Castle–I don’t teach it, but I’ve had a few students read it and they love it too.

    If you need a world literature piece, I love Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. My students are not fans, though.

  18. My student teacher recommends FEED by M. T. Anderson. It is a dystopian novel set in the future and focuses on “…issues of corporate power, consumerism, information technology, and environmental decay.” I have not read it, but she thought it would be worth a look. She would like to add social responsibility and the affect it has on one’s empathy to the list above.

  19. I love “Nickel and Dimed”. It shows what it is like to have to live in poverty. I would also recommend “The Terrorist’s Son: A Story of Choice” by Zak Ebrahim. It’s a shorter book, easy read, but really dives into overcoming your parents’ prejudices. The book expands on his TED talk.

  20. I’m not an educator, but am a fan of your blog and an avid reader. Here are some of my favorites that I think would be interesting for a high school audience and which are beautifully written (my only concern about some of them would be length!):
    What is the What (about a lost boy of Sudan – non-fiction but written like a novel) – Dave Eggers/Valentino Achak Deng
    Boys in the Boat – Daniel Brown
    The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace – Jeff Hobbs
    Jamrach’s Menagerie – Carol Birch
    The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho
    The Dog Stars – Peter Heller
    The Universe vs. Alex Woods – Gavin Extence
    Every Day – David Levithan
    My son’s english teacher has used How to Read Literature Like a Professor as a compliment to a summer reading assignment. He had to select several chapters from the book and discuss how the author of the fiction book he also read employed the techniques described. I thought it was a great way to get the kids thinking about literary techniques before beginning the school year.

  21. Wow, everyone, I’m blown away by the breadth and depth of your suggestions. I went away for a few hours to teach my morning classes and came back to find a literary feast to enjoy on my lunch period. FABULOUS! Keep ’em coming, folks!

    Your fan,

  22. I’ve read (and loved) many of the books you have listed. I’m not an English teacher (former bio teacher) so not a good judge of what is right for your age group…However,what about Barbara Kingsolver? My favorite’s are Prodigal Summer, High Tide in Tuscon, and Animal, Vegetable, Mineral. Maybe not her most famous works, but I really loved all three.
    Some other thoughts: The Aviator’s Wife, The Glassblower, The Traitor’s Wife, The Moonlight Palace, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Birthmarked Series…

  23. Thanks, CWE. So many wives! 🙂 We have Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees on a supplemental list at my school; it’s chock-full of great symbolism and definitely creates rich classroom discussion. Also, it’s refreshing to have a strong female protagonist. Hmm…I’ll be sure to give her collection another look.

  24. Or what about something by John Shors?

  25. How sad that he’s new to me, CWE. Clearly, I need to get out more. The Shors collection looks really great; folks can see his titles here (yes, I had to Google him): http://www.johnshors.com/works.html

    Is there a favorite title that you think would be the best fit for high school readers, CWE?

  26. A Thousand Splendid Suns is one of my favorites; one you have to read. I think the students would really enjoy A Curious Incident.

  27. I didn’t even notice the “wives” theme in my first list. Good catch. I must have subconsciously keyed in to comments about needing strong female characters 🙂

    I have a confession to make…I’m one of those people who reads books really fast; I tend to skim through instead of slowly savoring. I have an obsession with endings (even predictable ones – I just have to get there and get there fast). So unfortunately that means I can’t always remember much in terms of details, more just an overall vibe of books. I even find myself halfway through a book before I realize I already read it. So with that, let me return to the John Shors suggestion…I only read Beneath a Marbled Sky, The Wishing Trees, and Dragon House (at least as far as I recall). I couldn’t tell you which would be best for high school, just that I loved them all and that they all felt very different to me. Sorry I’m not much more help. Maybe someone else might be able to offer insight here???

    I think the Kingsolver books I listed could be fun to do as cross-curric with bio/enviro science teacher. I know you are looking for novels, but I loved the essay in High Tide about circadian rhythms and their pet hermit crab. I love how all the story lines intertwine in Prodigal Summer (not to mention the bio stuff woven in). Animal, Vegetable, Mineral is great for talking about the strain we are putting on planet (especially with all the water shortages in CA) and the general trends towards sustainability and local foods.

  28. Jen Villalpando says:

    Hi Laura,
    I worked with a team to choose some new materials 2 years ago, and we went with:
    The Alchemist (My fave!)
    A Long Way Gone
    Ender’s Game (Not my fave)
    Omnivore’s Dilemma
    Midsummer Night’s Dream
    Edith Hamilton’s Mythology

    I started pairing A Long Way Gone with Night to get 2 perspectives on children in war. I use your Mythology unit and Edith Hamilton’s as a supplemental resource. We contrast R & J and MDSND as a way to see both the comedy and tragedy of life.
    I truly love all of your resources and use them all! Thank you!

  29. Oh, CWE, I’m just the opposite. I read SO slowly, partly because I can’t find the time and partly because I have the worst memory ever. I’m forever forgetting what just happened and needing to turn back and re-read the end of the last chapter. Seriously, if I don’t write an idea down the second it pops into my head, it’ll be gone five minutes later. Thanks for the follow-up info. I’ll definitely share your suggestions with my site team. 🙂

  30. Oh yeah, Jen, I also liked The Alchemist, which would be a good addition to the list, for sure. I also pair R&J and MSN’sDream in the spring to give ’em the bitter and the sweet. And I love knowing that some of my materials have found a home in your room. Success! Thanks for commenting. 🙂

  31. Heather Brown says:

    A great nonfiction is Columbine by Dave Cullen, but it would definitely have to be approved first! And a fiction I love is The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

  32. Heavy and important contributions, Heather. I know our AP teachers use The Road, in all of its bleak glory. As for Columbine, I wonder if I’d be strong enough to face that every day for at least a month. But literature is supposed to make us uncomfortable and reflect deeply on things that matter, right? Also wonder what the curriculum folks would say…maybe for a health seminar or psychology class? Hmm…

  33. I teach middle school, so my suggestions may be a little below your age group, but I like these:
    The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch,
    A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah,
    The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
    any of the Mitch Albom books

    One series that I absolutely love is the Shatter Me series by Tahereh Mafi. Her writing style is unique, and I was immediately hooked! My middle schoolers (especially girls) love it, too. This is probably more for a space on your classroom library shelf for students to grab at their leisure than it is for a whole-class novel, but I thought I’d pass it along regardless. 🙂

    Good luck on your decision, and happy hunting! Shopping for new novels is a fun but daunting task. Please share your final decisions with us. 🙂

  34. Actually, Michelle, I’ve seen these titles on several high school reading lists and we use some slices of the Tim O’Brien in our spring semester of American Lit. Your kids must be pretty advanced! 🙂 As for Shatter Me, thanks for the tip. Think I’ll give that one to my 7th grade daughter to pilot for me.

  35. I love this discussion! I teach mostly classics in a whole class format (Scarlet Letter for summer reading, Huck Finn, Gatsby, and Fahrenheit 451), but I added Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson right after we discussed Scarlet Letter. The students loved it (especially after Scarlet Letter!!).

    I’m also doing a Lit Circle/Book Club type assignment, too. Over the course of the year, my kids will read 3 outside novels (4 for Honors) as part of a group that changes for each novel. I’ve got a list of 14 books–half classics and half contemporary–and they get to pick the novels (but they have to do at least one classic). Then they have discussions (which they video on their laptops ) on character development and theme. I teach at a small Catholic school, but my principal is open to challenging their thought patterns, especially in a controlled setting where I can pop in and guide discussion), so my list has classics like The Bluest Eye, Catcher in the Rye, I Know Their Eyes Are Watching God, A Lesson Before Dying, and In Cold Blood paired with contemporary works including Conversion by Katherine Howe (awesome paired with The Crucible), Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher, Looking for Alaska by John Greene, Matched by Allie Condie, and Uglies by Scott Westerfield. They’ve enjoyed the process so far and have found that they actually do enjoy reading. 🙂 I’d be happy to send you my assignment if you’re interested. 🙂

  36. I think she teaches 7th grade so not sure her lists will be “too young” for your audience, but have you checked out Pernille Ripp’s blog? She has lots of posts on favorite books. http://pernillesripp.com/reading/our-favorite-books/
    I want to check out a bunch of the titles from her 2015 post about books she gave as gifts.

  37. Me too, MrsTurnerBlog! I love your blending approach, pairing our classics with the modern favorites of today. If you’re willing, I’d love to take a look at your assignment/structure. Feel free to email me directly at laurarandazzo@yahoo.com. Thanks so much! 🙂

  38. Thanks, CWE! Now I have a new blog to read, too. Looks like I need to be cyber-friends with this Pernille Ripp gal. So much to dig through. Thanks for sharing the link. 🙂

  39. And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini is also a great read; I couldn’t put it down. My students do love the Curious Incident book as well

  40. Thanks, Tanya. I’d forgotten about Hosseini’s other book. Great catch!

  41. Titles my colleagues and I have used successfully:

    The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
    The Glass Castle
    The Wars by Timothy Findley
    The Grapes of Wrath
    The Road by Cormac McCarthy
    The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
    1984 by George Orwell
    The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

  42. My juniors are reading Monster by Walter Dean Myers. It is a little below grade level, so it would probably be great for 9th grade. I bought an awesome Audible version for them to read along with when we read in class on Fridays, and they love it (or at least hate it slightly less??? ha)!

    Also, The Book Thief was a hit for the past two or three years with my Honors 12. They really enjoyed it and complained that the movie was not true to the story – win! haha!

    On my list to for Honors 12 next year is A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly. It is beautifully written, and I think my students will enjoy the main character.

    We adopted new textbooks last year and it can be frustrating, but I have to say I’ve enjoyed all the perks that come along with them!

  43. Perfect, Stephlongi! I’m going to be the deepest well of ideas at the meeting. YES!

  44. Thanks, Angie. Yup, it’s somewhat overwhelming to be tasked with such a large and important responsibility. I mean, if we mess this up, we might be stuck with these titles for 10-15 years before another round of textbook $$$ comes available. Can’t mess it up. There’s comfort in knowing you’ve cleared this path ahead of us. Thanks for the info. So appreciated!

  45. My team went through a curriculum cycle recently and we settled on using an “anchor” text which is well known and pairing it with contemporary pieces. For example, we read A Christmas Carol and students choose one of the following titles. Each of our text sets surround a quarter theme. The theme for all of these books is “sacrifice.” It also sets us up to contrast Victorian poverty and contemporary American poverty.
    Glass Castle
    Nickel and Dimed
    I Beat the Odds
    In A Heartbeat: Sharing the Power of Cheerful Giving
    Same Kind of Different As Me
    Girl in Translation—one of the most powerful books for my students
    While the Locust Slept
    Breaking Night: from Homeless to Harvard

    We found it helpful to attempt to have a balance of books that would appeal to guys and girls! Good luck and have fun! It’s a long process, but it’s exciting to gain a fresh approach!

  46. Katie, I love this fresh approach of marrying the classic with the contemporary. So thoughtful and exactly what I want for my students, to see the connections between then and now. Any chance you’d be willing to share your other three quarter themes/lists? I’m sure everyone would love to see those, too, because your C. Carol match-up list is just terrific! No pressure; I know it’s a lot to type up. Maybe there’s a link to an existing list? 🙂

  47. My 9th graders will be starting Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice next week. It’s my first time teaching it, but I’m pulling resources from friends who presented a paper on it at the 2015 NCTE conference. It’s the perfect book to teach during Black History Month, is easily paired with poetry, music, and modern issues, and most importantly it tells the story of a little-known minority/female/teenager/hero. I’m SO excited to see how my students respond!

  48. Oh my gosh, Chelsey, I love that you’re bringing this to your students. Great stuff. Don’t judge me too harshly, but I immediately thought of Comedy Central’s recent Drunk History episode on Claudette Colvin when I read your message. Definitely not school appropriate, but still one of my favorite guilty pleasures. You can see a slice of that episode here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m8Occ7XSgQc

    Hope you enjoy the nervous-excitement of your new lit. unit!

  49. YES! Drunk History is one of my FAVORITE shows. There’s even a line in the book about Claudette being “bespectacled” and I think I’ll crack up in front of the kids if we read it out loud!

    Also forgot to mention Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. I LOVED teaching that one with 9th graders. It’s a great intro to literary elements and a tough topic with modern connections.

  50. Awesome, Chelsey! I also try not to chuckle every time I have a new student named A-Aron. I mean, Aaron. If we were in the same hall, I think we’d be teacher besties. 🙂

  51. Laura, I’ll send it in a few!

    Katie, I’d love to see your pairings/themes list, too! Cool idea!

    What great things in this thread! Thank you all for sharing your awesomeness!

  52. Thanks, MrsTurnerBlog, for the encouragement. Hope Katie revisits us, too! 🙂

  53. Thanks for the great ideas, everyone. We’re looking for a new novel for year 10s. One I loved is The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. Boys in particular will like it. I read Thirteen Reasons Why and think it’s a book every student should read, but I’m not sure how parents would react if it was taught in class. I’ve made myself a reading list from these comments, but I don’t know when I’ll have time to read them. Swallowing Stones and Ship Breaker sound interesting so I think I’ll start with them.

  54. Having just found your blog a few weeks ago, I immediately liked your sense of humor, great ideas, and positive attitude. However, now that you dropped an Peele and Key “substitute teacher” reference (A-aron), I am totally smitten!

  55. Love that you’re finding this list useful, Jean. I just shared this blog post with my dept. chair last night and I’m hopeful our staff might be able to divide-and-conquer the list. If not, I still have a killer list of titles now, maybe to enjoy this summer? Sigh…so many books, so little time. Thanks for adding The Knife of Never Letting Go to the list; I’d forgotten about that one.

  56. Ah, thanks, CWE. Isn’t it great when we find our own people? Glad you’re here!

  57. I teach 10th graders and this year I taught Fences by August Wilson for the first time. My students absolutely loved it! It was such a success (grades and student engagement) that I am making it a regular part of my curriculum.

  58. Good to know, Melissa. Looks like we have another great read to add to the list.

  59. I taught The Glass Castle with juniors last year, and they LOVED it. I loved it. Just love, love, love all around.

    Taught On Writing this year with seniors, and they were so-so on the book. Many decided they didn’t like Stephen King after reading it. They took the book as him saying his way was the only correct way to write. Well, I liked it anyway. 🙂

    I’m getting ready to teach The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates (non-fiction) to a 9/10 Honors class. I have spent hours and hours and hours prepping and planning and creating a digital interactive notebook for this book, so if they don’t like it, I’ll be bummed. I thought it was a great (and quick) read with only eight chapters.

  60. Thanks, Kara, for this info. It’s great to know how the books have worked in the trenches. Appreciate it!

  61. I know this is very late, but I just finished “The Help” and thought it was fantastic. I teach middle school unfortunately. If I was in a upper high school classroom I would love to use this novel!

  62. Never too late to talk great books, Mr. Morris! I loved The Help, too, and it would definitely fit nicely into an American Lit. curriculum. Great suggestion. 🙂

  63. Christine Demerly says:

    My kids loved The Book Thief..the tear flowed from both the girls and boys….and the teacher.

    I teach 8th grade advanced ELA and try to raise the bar a bit for the kids. Here’s some of the ones I have taught that they loved:

    To Kill a Mockingbird (oh the discussions!!!!)
    Julius Caesar
    The Giver
    Of Mice and Men
    West Side Story
    Lord of the Flies
    The Most Dangerous Game

  64. I loved The Outliers, and my students did, too! It’s one of those books that’s really different, and that appeals to students who are used to seeing the same story formats. I saw earlier someone share The Things They Carried. I wouldn’t assign that book at all in my location. I allow students to check it out from me to read, but the language wouldn’t work for us.
    I’ve read Nickel and Dimed; it’s very thought-provoking and would work for discussions. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is great, too! It covers a wide range so that it could work as a collaborative read with almost any other class (biology, history, etc.)

  65. Laura, have you read “Educated” by Tara Westover? It’s fabulous non-fiction! I’d also highly recommend “The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother.” (Non-fiction, as well)

  66. Thanks for the suggestions, Jump! I haven’t read either of these, but I just added both to my “to do” list. 🙂

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