I am in the habit of giving vastly long reading lists, which I do believe are extremely helpful to students who already tend to read. Where this process falls sharply down is when students are not tending to read. I gave a reading list to a new group I was teaching in September, and their groans killed me. These aren’t low ability kids, although they were definitely under-achieving. I was delighted that despite the groans I saw a solitary child with one of the books from the list weeks later, but I’ve been thinking that my plan of attack for creating little readers needs to be more multi-pronged.
Then, my mentor and inspiration (Ms Moran), told me about an amazing thing she had been doing with her classes to foster a reading culture. She would stop the lesson five minutes before the end, and talk about the book she was reading. What genius. She’d put the front cover up on a slide, or read aloud to the students from the first page. The effect was unbelievable – students were clambering to read the books she was talking about.
I’m not saying I’ve never talked about what I’m reading with students. But it has usually tended to be spurred by them asking, or me carelessly leaving a reading book on my desk. I haven’t pre-planned these chats, and with sixth form, I have often had to castigate myself for “wasting their learning time” with the lengthy chats about books. The conversations are definitely worthwhile, but I do think a planned approach is safer.
With this in mind, I’m going to outline three great books I have read in the past year, which are my number one recommends for the three secondary key stages right now.
KS3 (year 7 or 8): A Monster Calls
I’m beginning with the book which began Ms Moran’s new policy. As she says, “no-one writes an opening like Ness.” I’ve recommended The Knife of Never Letting Go to high ability students in year 8, but even truly reluctant readers in year 9 are drawn in by the style and content of the opening.
A Monster Calls is a little over 200 pages, and looks manageable for, I would say, all but beginning readers. Ness’s characters in this book have the slightly other-worldly feel of David Almond’s; they speak to each other and it sounds plausible, but not familiar. That aside, the content and style are what sell this book.
The basic plot-line is that a tree-monster wakes a child up and scares him lots, but also teaches him lots, especially about the very difficult trials he is going through with an extremely ill mother. This isn’t a book about death though, or really even suffering. It’s a book about resilience and faith against the odds.
KS4: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
At open evening in my new school, I got chatting with a parent about books and she recommended that I read this one. (Parent, please send your child to my school!) This book has already rocketed into my all-time top ten.
The story follows Francie, who grows up in the 1900s in a Brooklyn slum. But the nuances are miraculous – so much is withheld; we see through Francie’s eyes, and if the blurb hadn’t given the setting away, we might have little idea she is living in poverty until some time into the book.
The novel is full of anecdotes; rivers of stories which make up the sea of human experience. It feels timeless and massive. I’m not too sure about reading the opening of this to hook students, but I would recommend a paragraph 14 pages in, where the main character observes an old man. Smith writes:
“He is old. He must be past seventy. He was born about the time Abraham Lincoln was living and getting himself ready to be president. Williamsburg must have been a little country place then and maybe Indians were still living in Flatbush. That was so long ago.” She kept staring at his feet. “He was a baby once. He must have been sweet and clean and his mother kissed his little pink toes. Maybe when it thundered at night she came to his crib and fixed his blanket better and whispered that he mustn’t be afraid, that mother was there. Then she picked him up and put her cheek on his head and said that he was her own sweet baby. He might have been a boy like my brother, running in and out of the house and slamming the door. And while his mother scolded him she was thinking that maybe he’ll be president some day. Then he was a young man, strong and happy. When he walked down the street, the girls smiled and turned to watch him. He smiled back and maybe he winked at the prettiest one. I guess he must have married and had children and they thought he was the most wonderful papa in the world the way he worked hard and bought them toys for Christmas. Now his children are getting old too, like him, and they have children and nobody wants the old man any more and they are waiting for him to die. But he doesn’t want to die. He wants to keep on living even though he’s so old and there’s nothing to be happy about anymore.”
KS5: Bright Shiny Morning
“Welcome to LA. City of contradictions” reads the blurb of James Frey’s masterpiece. This book is a gem for the sixth form: modern and realistic in its scope, but also creatively told with modernist sensibilities – dialogue without punctuation, and the stories interwoven with paragraph-long excerpts of the history of the city.
There are elements of comedy and tragedy in this epic tome, but there is also truth and hope. The characters are sketched but somehow they live more truly for that sketch-quality. Their stories are built up slowly, and this draws you in the more fully. They don’t all interlink, because that isn’t true to life. We have the homeless man, the child inter-state migrants, the rich and famous. We have all of human life at its extremes and in its non-extreme normality made beautiful.