Ten kids’ books you should read (if you want to be an English teacher)

This week, we welcomed a would-be PGCE student to our department for some experience of the wonderful world of English teaching. One of the things which struck me was how far removed recent graduates are from KS3, and the kind of books you want to be encouraging KS3 students to read. She mentioned the classics, but probably you want to teach these; a huge part of being an English teacher is encouraging students to read widely and for pleasure.

With this in mind, I recommend just ten wonderful books you can read and pass on to your future year 7, 8 and 9 students.

The Fault in Our Stars

Ok, if you haven’t heard of John Green you’re about to spend the next six weeks reading everything, and then wishing you’d gone slower (probably). The above is already a classic, and promoted Green to the stratosphere of great writers for young people. Green’s protagonists are often preternaturally wise, and alongside a brilliantly expressed story you can often glean interesting factual snippets. The characters are also both real and unreal at once; an unusual feat.

The Book Thief

I always despair when a popular book is turned into a film, because students start to tell me they have seen the film and therefore don’t want to bother to read the novel. Luckily, the adaptation of this was not as good as it could have been, and so I’ve found students largely receptive in reading this. An amazing creation in terms of perspective, this novel is narrated by death and takes students through the trials of surviving in Nazi Germany.

The Giver

This novel is a teaching staple in some classrooms (notably American ones, I’m reliably informed), but I’d not come across it until recently. A sci-fi look at a dystopian future where colour has been forgotten along with many aspects of freedom and experience we take for granted means this novel raises some thoughtful questions and issues for its young readers.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

You will undoubtedly be familiar with this, if not from the hugely acclaimed novel itself, at least from the stage adaptation. Seeing the world through the lens of an autistic boy is masterfully done by Haddon, and this is a brilliant book for year 9 (or even 8) students to read to help them to empathise with those different to them.

What is the What

Eggers is an epic story-teller, and each of his novels feels so distinctive I wouldn’t be shocked if you told me they were penned by different people. This one is definitely the most student-friendly, telling the true story of a young man’s plight in leaving war-torn Sudan.

The Knife of Never Letting Go

Though really, anything by Patrick Ness will be fabulous; he really is one of the foremost children’s writers today. I wrote about A Monster Calls here, but Knife was the first of his books I read, and it is the one I have most successfully managed to pass on to reluctant readers, chiefly due to the opening’s inclusion of a talking dog.

Looking for JJ

A sympathetic exploration of a child who has been re-assigned a new identity having committed a horrific crime. Written with bracing pace, and guaranteed to raise some moral dilemmas of interest.

Chains

Laurie Halse Anderson is another one of those authors who writes a wide variety of generally excellent novels for young people; Speak is similarly excellent though entirely different to the above. Chains explores aspects of American slavery and racism, so will often complement the kind of “civil rights” explorations in English many schools now offer at KS3.

We Were Liars

A year 10 student recommended this one to me, but I think most year 9s could handle it. This novel is engagingly written, with one of those shocking-twist endings that will stay in a student’s mind and have them coming to tell you they’ve reached it. Doesn’t everyone love a mystery after all? I really enjoyed this book too for its allowing me to live vicariously through rich, pampered young people with nothing much to do and their whole glorious lives ahead of them.

Wonder

I’m not sure there is a better children’s book out there, but I’d love to hear what others think. This book stayed with me long after I read it; I read the first gripping page to year 7 and year 8 during assemblies last year and I have lost count of the number of students who subsequently read it and let me know they had read it. The book tells the story of a boy with a disfigured face, exploring society’s expectations and making us question the extent to which we are hopelessly superficial. About halfway through this book I cried like a small child. Luckily, the ending is uplifting.

If you’d like more recommendations, I’ve blogged previously about reading lists:

And I would also definitely recommend looking at the Carnegie prize website for further inspiration:

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Books for the more little ones

I remember during teacher training I was told that one of the greatest challenges most English teachers face is knowing which books to recommend to years 7 and 8. As grown-ups, the vast majority of us don’t read kids’ books (I have a few friends who consciously do, despite not being teachers, but I’d put down mostly to personal peculiarities).

I pursued this angle fairly half-heartedly at first, surveying the oft-taught Skellig and Holes, and finding neither riveting enough to teach. I read mainly to look for teaching books that summer.

And then I met my year 7 and 8 students. I was struck by how eager they were to read, and by how clueless I was to guide them. We would stand for ages in the library, a student asking plaintively for a “good book” and I would find myself flailing – the only books I could recommend were trapped on the forbidden “senior fiction” shelves.

Fairly quickly, I tried to remedy this, and I still make a “children’s” book part of my trio of reading: I read in turn a book on education (or for my teaching practice – I cheat lots here), a piece of fiction for grown-ups (I never cheat here), a piece of fiction for children.

Here are a few books I have recommended that students read with fair levels of success.

Patrick Ness: The Knife of Never Letting Go

knife of never letting goAn esteemed colleague of mine believes that this man’s openings are among the best in fiction: she read the opening of another of his books to her class and reluctant readers physically fought over the library’s copies.

One major drawback with this novel is its length: I have had very many students begin it, and very few finish it. Those that did seemed to greatly enjoy it, and many read the next in the series.

Ness has a phenomenal imagination and a great sense of the absurd: this book begins with the killer line: “the first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t go nothing much to say. About anything.” Any language purists will find the informal style grating, but this is a super read for any advanced year 7 or 8 readers.

Jamila Gavin: Coram Boycoram boy

I am a huge fan of Jamila Gavin, whose books are engaging and entertaining, as well as beautifully written in a style stretching for most year 7 and 8 readers. The historical aspects of the story are dealt with clearly, meaning students can grasp the full nature of the story without needing any elucidation. Making use of the trope of intertwining stories of characters from dissimilar walks of life allows for a satisfying ending.

Helen Grant: The Vanishing of Katharina Linden

vanishing of k lThis is one of the many books I have bought on Kindle and regretted – my students are always looking for copies of it. As the title implies, this story has an other-worldly element, yet its tone is entirely realistic. There are plenty of suspenseful moments as you journey with the central character to find answers as the book goes on. 

Morris Gleitzman: Once

A year 7 student recommended this book to me early on in my teaching career, and I made oncethe mistake of reading it on a Friday evening after a long week. I cried lots, and went on to make several other children cry through this novel’s recommendation. It is a much simpler and shorter account of the horrors of the holocaust that several I have encountered, but this makes this text all the more perfect for reluctant young readers.

I’m still improving my knowledge of books suitable for little ones, so I’d be very grateful for any recommendations from lovely readers!

If you recommend one book

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

a monster callsI’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 booka tree grows in brooklyn 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

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.

Teaching Chaucer to Year 7

There are many things I did not think possible when I began teaching. The above didn’t even cross my mind. I studied The General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales when I was in year 12, and the wonderful Mrs Grinham made us love it (it was hard to dislike anything she taught; she sat at her desk, book in hand, and seemed to simply chat to us in the lightest, richest voice I ever have heard, interspersing literary gems with nuggets about knitting, baking and her grandchildren. I think it was looking at Mrs Grinham in her perfectly tailored clothes and perfectly shaped bob that made me think “I’d like to be like that one day”).

But teaching Chaucer to year 7? How we had struggled with the language and spent the first three weeks entirely blank-faced, as Mrs Grinham patiently explained the intricate meanings of each Middle English word.

So when my colleague, Ms Moran, told us last year she was teaching Chaucer to year 7, I personally thought she was having a laugh.

A word about Ms Moran: you know how people say watching a great teacher is like watching an artist? Ms Moran is probably the Monet of teachers. I have literally never seen a better teacher in my life. Oh, and you know people say: “but no-one is outstanding in every lesson.” Well, she is. I’ve sat next to her in the English office for nearly three years and 100% of her lessons are pure pedagogical genius.

She’s rolled out her scheme of work to the rest of the department for this year and we’re all giving it a go. As I’ve said previously, our department rarely works in tandem with each other. We’re encouraged to teach what we love, so our classes are usually experiencing very different topics at different times in different ways. Yet every year the whole of year 7 have a trip to Canterbury Cathedral, from our school in Southwark. Sound familiar? Almost irresistible for us English teachers. The RS department was keen to enlist English in making year 7 feel like modern-day pilgrims, and give the trip that cross-curricular dimension.

Obviously, the language is hard for them. The first lesson begins with a fifteenth century text of “The Prodigal Son”, a text our Church of England girls (the very vast majority) are familiar with. This eases them into Middle English, of which they explored only odd lines. The first lesson was a run-through of the pilgrims, with some lines from the opening, which they were scared of. Yet the challenge of those words really excited the students; with enough group work, one child suddenly “getting it” rippled through the class.

By the third lesson (after, I will mention, some extremely thoughtful chunking by Ms Moran of the lesson content), my students were quoting from the original text of the Portrait of the Miller to support their points about him. They were even able to explain the ideas behind some of the words. It was a complete joy to hear one student saying “this one’s my favourite line!” and explaining why.

Our pilgrimage to Canterbury was sadly less Chaucerian than we might have hoped. There were three modern coaches, for example; no horses; and a number of electronic pacifiers to ensure we teachers weren’t unduly subjected to mass-singing (though some did break out on the way back).

Of course, many did talk to each other. I wonder if any told stories? When our all-girls school coach was passed by a coach containing members of a male cricket team, there was immense excitement of some would-be wives of Bath.

At the Cathedral, our tour guide (a volunteer, and allegedly nearing 80, though looking and sounding far younger) took a small group of us around the Cathedral, using stories to engage his group. The students were especially excited by the “ghost of Thomas Becket” seen from a certain angle. In the afternoon, they settled onto the grass around the Cathedral to begin to plan their own pilgrimage story, complete with moral aspect.

So far, so good. This experience has taught me that there isn’t really a limit on difficulty of text. Properly supported, students will enjoy and learn with any text. Why not make it a great one?

Although my aim of teaching Beowulf in its original Old English may be a step to far…

Why students should read Homer

Recently, David Didau’s post here on a new curriculum for KS3 has got me thinking. I’m lucky to work in a school which gives me pretty much free reign on what I choose to teach, yet I have always artificially constrained myself: what texts are readily available in the cupboard? What texts have I studied before, and therefore know really well?

The more pressing question, which I’ve woken up to deplorably late, is what should students read in the course of their study of English?

At a wonderful weekend watching two plays at the Globe theatre, it occurred to me that although I felt my students were getting a lot out of studying Shakespeare, there were references in there that they didn’t get. Not only did they not get them, I wasn’t even planning on providing the core literary knowledge for them to ever get them.

With that in mind, I got to work writing, with my exceptional colleague, very many schemes of work of texts we think students should be know something about, particularly at KS3. One of the ones I’m especially excited about is The Odyssey, which I’m planning to teach year 9 next year.

The thing about classical literature is that students in some schools in the country are exposed to it from a young age as a matter of course. I don’t want to sound like a throwback, but while I do acknowledge that there are certainly more relevant courses for students’ development into outstanding citizens for our modern society, there is certainly a merit to studying ancient literature.

I was privileged enough to study Latin in school, and loved almost all of it (not grammar. I could never get my head around grammar. To this day I can’t decline nouns – sorry Miss Coote). The broad knowledge of both Greek and Latin literature explored in my seven years of Latin have left me fairly capable of understanding many references, particularly in Renaissance literature. Why not let students access this?

The first big barrier for me was deciding what text to focus on. We are creating an “ancient stories” scheme for year 7, to give students a broad grounding of different myths, but I wanted a deep exploration of a single ancient text at KS3. My initial choice was The Aeneid, which I studied for A2 very many years ago. Yet there is something about Homer which feels more original, I suppose because he was. Although The Aeneid combines the best parts of both “arms and the man”, the character exploration of The Odyssey mixed with the battles of The Iliad, I wasn’t sure whether this was the most important text for my students to read.

I opted for The Odyssey, therefore, as there’s too much listing in The Iliad. (I realise this sounds quite flippant, but I’d had a free period, and there’s only so much thinking you can do before the teaching and reacting to everyday crises needs to be done).

I’m pleased I did, actually, because The Odyssey touches on what are, for me, the key ideas in Greek literature that I wanted my students to explore: the Gods, the Trojan War, the myths. Pretty much every Greek myth is either found in or alluded to in The Odyssey. Scylla and Charibdis, the Sirens, Hades, the Cyclops; even Prometheus finds a fleeting mention.

Our students deserve an enriched and varied curriculum, and one which allows their depth of understanding to increase. Most books of substance, when critically explored, are inherently intertextual: The Odyssey is one small step to allowing students to access this.

odyssey

Recommended by students

It has been a long time since I delved into my favourite type of book: books that kids love. It has been a complete treat to be able to read some extremely entertaining books, on the premise that as a teacher I should probably 1) be aware of what my students enjoy reading, and 2) be able to share this knowledge with my more reluctant readers.

Second only to results day (some of us are in it for the glory, to our eternal discredit) my favourite thing about teaching is when a student comes up to me, thrusts a book into my hands and says “Miss, you need to read this!” and then I go home and absolutely love every minute of reading it.

Seriously, it doesn’t get any better than this.

I’m going to write about texts I believe students must read later; the below aren’t must-reads; rather they are vital gateways to enjoying reading in students’ spare time.

I’m going to put a caveat on this that I work in an all-girls’ school, so these books might seem a little more appropriate for your ladies than gentlemen.

So, below are some of my favourite books, in no particular order, which students have recommended, along with some ideas about who I would go on to recommend these for.

Looking for JJ

I noticed an extremely gifted year 8 student reading this in a library session, and worried it wasn’t challenging enough for her. In fact, it probably wasn’t; but the fact that it was her eighth time reading it, and that I have led a lot of more reluctant readers to it since, allows me to forgive her just this once.

Cassidy’s novel has a variety of rubber stamps from the book industry: it was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal and the Whitbread Book Award and won the Booktrust Teenage Prize.

It’s a great story involving murder, creatively told. Your year 7 and 8 students will love it; your reluctant year 9s will definitely get something out of it.

The Time Traveler’s Wife

Possibly one of my favourite books ever, and one of my most successful re-recommends. This is one of those books I staggered into school on four hours sleep for because I just did not know when to stop.

This was first recommended to me by one of my most widely read year 10 students, and now serendipity has made someone lose their library copy of it in my room. I could give it back, but I have some repeat-offenders who have taken to it in detention. I’m a greater-good kind of person.

The structure of this novel is its main selling point: incredibly creative narrative jumping all through time, as the title would suggest. At its heart, though, this is a romantic tale full of slush, not to mention some great vocabulary. I’d probably recommend for year 9 and above.

Major warning: there is a film version. I tend to find this makes some of my students immediately discount reading the book as they can just see the film. I’d hold off telling students it even exists.

Life on the Refrigerator Door

This book was recommended to me last year by an amazing year 7 student, who brought me dozens of books to read on an almost weekly basis. This was definitely my favourite. An undeniably easy read, it is certainly one for our non-readers to whet their appetite for reading. Extremely short and told in the form of notes on a fridge between a mother and daughter, this explores relationships and family tragedies convincingly. Students love the note aspect, especially how they are presented (often pictorially).

I’d recommend to Key Stage 3 reluctant readers; or any Key Stage 3 student before the holidays – they can read something easier if they also take out a Dickens. Them’s the rules.

The Sky is Everywhere

My year 9 tutees are my best book recommenders. I’ve taught them since year 7 so it has been a long time in the making, but when I’m stuck for something to read I sneak a bit of tutor time to pick their brains. One of the Beliebers (who has so far recommended about 7 excellent books for me) told me to read this, and I really did love it. Another one of those mushy romantic stories – they do love them so – this one also explores ideas of bereavement. Gorgeously written, and again some nice presentation for students needing the safety of images. Not to down-grade it – there’s a lot of words here too. I think year 7 and 8 could read it safely, although some of its themes might be a little boundary-pushing; this one comes into its own for year 9 reluctants.

I’ll definitely be revisiting this topic, not least because I’m always reading something a child has thrust onto my desk in the English office. Sometimes I truly don’t know what I’d read without my students.