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:

Easter reading

About one year ago, I attempted to go on holiday. After a day of biking around Central Park feeling smug, I contracted some hideous vomiting bug which had me laid up in bed for the full duration of the “holiday”, thus making that week the longest and most expensive lie-in ever. On the upside, I used my bed rest to write my first two blog posts (here and here), so beginning my foray into writing about books. Although I have strayed far from the tangent, I return today, partly for the sake of nostalgia, to some book thoughts.

I’ve gone about holidaying in a different way this time round. After six solid days of planning, marking, strategising and the obligatory running of many intervention sessions, I went on a holiday. One of those you might normally expect to occur in the midst of July or August, of the beach variety. On a beach holiday, I have two aims: one, spend as long as possible in the sun; two, read as many books as possible.

The Cuckoo’s Calling

I began in the airport, where all good holiday reading begins, with J.K. Rowling’s latest, written under a pseudonym (explained in more detail here). A colleague, who is also our department’s lead Harry Potter champion, recommended this and I’m delighted she did. I’m not normally a fan of crime fiction, but this is crime fiction sexed-up; with a massive dash of celebrity intrigue. It’s like crime meets the Daily Mail Showbiz website. Like The Casual Vacancy and Harry Potter I enjoyed this tremendously, perhaps in an intellectually uncommitted and vacuous way. That said, I do wonder if in a century’s time we might look back on this writer and concede her genius in the way of an Austen or Eliot, in holding up a mirror to our society and making it a rollicking good read.

I am Malala

This is a book for all of my year 11 to read (perhaps not yet – revise first ladies). Malala, also in year 11, has accomplished more than most of us will accomplish in a lifetime, and she is driven by a burning desire to promote education for all. Through this biography, I also learned lots about Pakistan and the Swat Valley, through nuggets of personal anecdote and news-worthy fact which made me hanker back to my pre-teaching days of reading The Economist and generally knowing what is going on in the world. A life-affirming, mission-confirming book.

Primary Colours

Believe it or not, before finding my “calling” in education, I previously worked in politics and sought to make that my life’s work. This novel reminded me of all the dirt and glory that comes with political intrigue. A thinly-veiled portrait of a couple closely resembling the Clintons (I wonder why it is anonymous?), this novel also prompted me to question the “real right” – not political, but moral. The central candidate has catastrophic personal flaws and human failings bordering on the obscene; yet his is absolutely driven by a central aim to make America a better place for its human inhabitants, and an absolute genius in his understanding of policy, strategy and governance. Do we need to care what our leaders get up to behind closed doors? I’m definitely undecided on this one.

The Wasp Factory

 I’m not sure why I read this, other than a feeling that the zeitgeist is normally right about “great” modern writers. For me, this novel felt like Faulks’ Engleby without the humanity. I wasn’t invested in the characters, and the whole climax of the novel fell flat for me. Undeniably, however, this book is beautifully written, and I do believe I have missed something in my underwhelmed response.

Divergent

This novel is known as the poor cousin to The Hunger Games, and with good reason. It rattles on, pure plot, for nearly 500 pages, including almost no characterization. Despite this, I enjoyed it hugely, partly because I’m a sucker for a kids’ trilogy and partly because I enjoy books which are pure plot, especially on holiday. The book is bizarrely almost all scene-setting, with the last 50 pages clamoring to an unexpected conclusion. Will I bother with the second book? It depends how “lite” I want my holiday reading to be.

Next term is short and vital. All term I have found it nearly impossible to read anything that is not about education, be that a piece of non-fiction, blog or child’s exercise book. It has been truly lovely to vegetate my brain with some froth.

 I felt painfully guilty about leaving during the “crucial holiday” for an entire week, but was greatly comforted (as happens so often) by my line manager’s wisdom: “next term is short. But we can do a lot in a very short time. Rest.”

Why students should read more: an assembly

Last Thursday was “World Book Day.” As Head of English and self-proclaimed “reader”, it was my responsibility to be all over it.

I really wasn’t.

I’ve been shamed by looking at the amazing things schools did on Twitter, and I have no excuses other than: 1. There’s absolutely no way I am dressing up as a book character and therefore I can’t really mandate other people to, and 2. It took me by surprise.

I feel like September was about fifteen minutes ago, when I started the year thinking about all the wonderful and exciting things I was going to implement in my department to do with reading. In our Middle Leaders CPD, I chose encouraging reading in the school as my project, and in November when I touched base with the CPD leader she gave me some inspiring ideas for this World Book Day thing and I became really excited about it.

And then, all of a sudden, it was next week and I had to give out some tokens; oh, and could you do an assembly?

Realising I had entirely missed the World Book Day boat, I tried to pull together the best assembly of my life (not hard – I have delivered precisely one assembly, albeit delivered four times).

The assembly begins with this image, which I stole shamelessly from Tessa Matthews, for students to glance at during the time they file into their seats.

tessa reading

I began by introducing myself, and this has proved to be a valuable aspect – I really ought to have done an assembly sooner, as the number of students who asked me what happened to the previous Head of English and why did I steal his job (he has been promoted to Deputy Head) has been incredible. Even some of my own students came up to me later that week asking: “are you really the Head of English?” which I felt was a bit of a title-fail on my part.

I then said that my opening gambit was that every book will teach you something, and I reeled off a variety of lessons I had learned from books. These were: amazing vocabulary from Woolf’s Orlando, about the Napoleonic Wars in War and Peace, how it feels to lose someone you love from Looking for Alaska and form Lord of the Rings that I don’t like that kind of book – but that’s ok, because you won’t like every book, you just have to read them all to find that out!

The initial image was then shown again, and I explained that it makes me think of all the things I don’t know, and all the things I haven’t done. I then listed some of the things I haven’t done:

  • Been to California
  • Lived in the Victorian era
  • Married a prince
  • Been elected to office

and explained that, through reading (The Grapes of Wrath, Middlemarch, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, The Audacity of Hope) I could experience all of these aspects, even if I will never experience some of them in reality.

For what I don’t know, I showed a slide with just an ellipsis, and waxed lyrical on how we don’t know what we don’t know, complete with Socrates’ famous quote.

I segued from this to say that it wasn’t only “really cool English teachers who love to read”, but that people slightly more famous than us also do. I used three examples, all of whom were white and male (and two dead), thus undercutting my own preference for an inclusive representation in all aspects of life – in my defence, I made the assembly at high speed. I spoke about Steve Jobs, who loved William Blake; Phil Knight (founder of Nike) who has a library in his house and makes his guests take their shoes off before entering (books before shoes!) and Winston Churchill, who accomplished many great political things but has a Nobel Prize for Literature.

Perhaps the most powerful part of the assembly came when I used Maths to back up my arguments – our kids seemed to love the facts and figures. I showed the following charts from the National Literacy Trust and talked the students through what they were showing – the more you read, and the more you love reading, the more you will achieve:

table 1

table 2

I also stole this image from someone on Twitter, but now don’t know who to thank:

why can't i skip

This image had a massive impact, and I enjoyed saying “one million eight hundred thousand words” about seven times in the course of the assembly.

All of which led to my final argument: the more you read, and if you enjoy reading, and the more you read great books, you will be smarter, happier and more successful.

I’ve had a lovely response to this assembly, including some warming comments from staff members. The best outcome is undeniably the number of students who I’ve not had any dealings with, coming up to me in corridors or in the lunch hall and telling me what they have read, what they would recommend to me, or asking for a book recommendation.

All in all, World Book Day came and went and I hang my head in shame; but I hope that my message of reading will live on regardless. Now: to plan next year’s reading assemblies!

Reading assembly

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!

The Book Whisperer

Before I took on the post of Head of English at my school, I knew that the main thing I needed to do was get children reading for pleasure. Six weeks in, when mock Ofsted came into our department, that was one of very few recommendations made for our improvement: get children reading for pleasure.

So, why haven’t I?

Partly it is because starting at a new school, in particular in a new role, is so exhaustingly difficult it’s hard to move beyond fire-fighting. And partly because every mistake I have made so far (and believe me, there have been many) has been linked to my tendency to make decisions too quickly. This is something I want to get right. I am taking my time.

Actually, I felt as if I’d almost cracked it when I read Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer about a week ago, and then I had to do some more thinking. The subtitle is “Awakening the inner reader in every child”, so I knew before I opened it that I would love it.

It is, without a doubt, inspiring, in the vein of Rafe Esquith and KIPP stories from the US. Teachers going above and beyond, but also around and in a peculiar swirly motion we’re not sure will work – but, yes, it does.

Miller’s initial prompting to decide her students should read forty books in an academic year is not grounded in evidence based research, but rather a moral certitude that this stuff if good for them. She glosses over some radically improved test results, but doesn’t make a song and dance about the improvement in the data – that’s not what this is about. Miller wants her children to be readers. And I would guess around 100% of English teachers want the same for their students; not to mention parents.

The problem is: how do we get there? It’s fair to say that the curriculum in the UK, while far from perfect, is a very far cry from the mish-mash of methods going on in American classrooms, where many teachers (if you go by the popular education literature) seem to be able to not only set what they are teaching but also decide how it is assessed. There are few schools I have visited that would allow teachers to go ahead and do what they like in the sanctuary of their classrooms.

Miller lets her students start from where they are, reading what they like. Through careful use of feedback, including surveys, she nudges them towards ever harder and more challenging tomes which will suit their interests. She doesn’t seem to ask them to write analytical essays on these texts, however, it is all about the mighty book review.

This is fine, perhaps, at KS2; I am finding it hard to see how such an approach would work, or is in fact right, at KS3 and beyond. Yes, I want my children to be readers, but more than that they need to be literary critics. Engaging with literature critically is a great joy, and no amount of reading can shake my belief in that.

That said, Miller has given me so much food for thought I cannot but recommend this book for English teachers.

Among ideas she has prompted are:

  • How much class time should I set aside for personal reading?
  • How should this change between years?
  • How far should I try to influence or control student choice of reading material?
  • Should I see reading a class text as something different from private reading?

I’ve written before about teaching Dickens to Year 7 (here). That first term was blissful, but we didn’t study full texts. This term, “A Christmas Carol” is markedly harder. The students are enjoying it, but if I’m honest mine aren’t really getting it. I mean, they understand the words, but there isn’t the time for that understanding and that critical evaluation, unless I want us to use the entire academic year to read the thing properly. Year 7 read slowly. Therein lies the rub.

A fabulous colleague of mine has come up with a lovely compromise, and I’d appreciate any thoughts English teachers have: give them the text, give them two or three weeks. During those lessons they read. During their homework for those weeks, they read. They read the entire text. We perhaps do some kind of writing or literacy activity one in every four lessons, to catch those who really do need to spend time on writing skills. But then, after they have read, we go back and select passages, and teach the critical and analytical skills then.

I feel like in not allowing students to just read, I’m pretty much wasting their time in a novel-teaching unit. But I’d be delighted to hear what other schools do.

To conclude, The Book Whisperer is inspiring and thought provoking, and not completely right. Well worth a read.

book whisperer

Vampire Novels and Wizards

I’ve never been an “early adopter”, as I am reminded with depressing regularity. I am often last on the bandwagon for all of life’s ingredients: when you spot me doing anything remotely trendy, you can be assured that trend is in its death throes.

I don’t recall the advent of Harry Potter. I think I first read it in 2001, 5 years after its publication, and incidentally around the time it was made into a film. I had indeed caught on very, very late.

One positive aspect of being a late adopter, though, was the presence of the other Harry Potter books. I’m not sure whether The Philosopher’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets would never have kept me hooked; it was only the knowledge of the following books which made me persevere. I really did love the fourth book in particular, The Goblet of Fire. Everything about these books appealed to me, even in my late teens. I had always been a complete nerd, and the stories of people who were cool because they excelled at school provided some welcome escapism.

Perhaps more embarrassing is my tragically late awareness of Twilight. I have probably told people that I read the Twilight series when I knew I would be teaching in an all-girls’ school. That would be a lie.

I began reading Twilight when my boss (happily the same age as me) bought me a copy for my birthday. My boss of that time was painfully cool, and extremely intelligent – she will soon be a doctor of philosophy. She handed me the book with joyful glee, and I went home to kill an hour reading. I don’t think I even paused for a tea-break: I was entirely hooked.

At that time, I didn’t know the immense baggage that went with this book. I was also not discerning enough to spot how annoying the central character was, or how utterly unrealistic even the most “realist” parts of the narrative. Like I have said before, I’m a sucker for a story, and I ate up Twilight.

In my excitement, I purchased the other three books in the series shortly after. I was about halfway through that second book when the Twilight craze truly hit; I’m going to guess again that this was when the films began to be released. Who can say whether this affected my response, but I just didn’t enjoy any of the following books. I remember stolidly picking my way through the final installment, telling my bemused husband through gritted teeth “I just need to know what happens at the end.”

When I began teaching, I was extremely grateful to have persevered. (I was also grateful to know the words to all the High School Musicals, as well as Camp Rock. Again, something that, embarrassingly, happened in advance of teaching in a girls’ school.) In my experience, students love that you take an interest in what they love. If you show that you are willing to try reading what they like, they are that much more likely to take on your recommendations.

I will defend, perhaps in the face of popular opinion, the rights of children and adults to read books like Harry Potter and Twilight. For so many children, these cult hits function as “gateway texts”, whetting the appetite for a good story. Their sheer length, in particular of the former, gives many children the feeling of having accomplished something massive; it makes them more confident of tackling the comparatively short class texts. Students move themselves into good habits, taking time to read when they might previously have been more engaged in other activities.

Moving students onto more challenging texts is obviously something I immediately seek to do, but hell will freeze over before I ban these hated tomes from my classroom.

Creating a community of readers

I have written before here about the importance of loving reading, and this post builds on what I’m trying to do with young readers.

When I was in school, I remember the sad day I told my friends: “there are no more books. I have read them all.” Child genius, you may think. In fact, what had happened was that I had no idea what to read. I had read the books which looked like I should read them, and then had no inkling where to go from there.

All that changed in year 10, with Dr Byrne. I will write about Dr Byrne at length another time, because he truly deserves all credit for anything I have thought or written about anything ever.

One day, for no reason that was clear to me at the time, he put a copy of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot on my desk. This play changed everything for me: it broke all the conventions of what I thought about drama at the time, in terms of character, unity and realism. It challenged my thinking in a way no other book had.

And the great books kept coming. When I was stuck, I only had to go to Dr Byrne and I would have a giant list of books I could be getting on with.

Due to this personal experience, from the start of my teaching career I endeavoured to make book lists for my students, usually of twenty to thirty titles, and often with a brief explanation as to why I thought that book was great.

To make this more visible for my students, I picked my favourite four books every term and made a poster of the front cover and something I had said about it, like this:

Gatsby poster

Pretty soon, I ran out of space. Here’s the corridor outside my classroom:

recommended wall

These posters prompted conversations, and, I hope, these conversations prompted reading.

On a visit to a school for a Debate Mate round, I noticed a teacher seemed to have lots of Philip Roth posters in his classroom. Loving Philip Roth, I had to investigate more. On closer inspection, it seemed these were hand-made posters, with a simple black background, which had the words “Mr… is currently reading.” I loved this idea and immediately stole it as my own. My apologies, sir.

Other teachers at my school loved it too. We put these up outside our doors, and changing them took all of two minutes. If a student or another teacher had recommended the book to read, we stuck their name on it too. This had the great side-effect of even more students recommending books for me to read.

ms is currently reading

One of the best interview tasks I have ever been given was a room of 5 delightful students who I had to consult in creating a whole-school “Reading for Enjoyment” policy. I could barely contain my excitement on being given such a task – my keenness was frankly embarrassing. These young people had some fantastic ideas, pointing out that reading sitting up wasn’t how they liked to do it – they suggested we give them an area which is comfortable, and filled with great books. They were also fond of the idea of eating and reading – they brought up the idea of giving dedicated readers free muffins when they came to read together, or even a standard school breakfast or lunch depending on the time of day. Open to abuse they might be, but both of these suggestions seem like small concessions to the reading community they could open up.

Yet the aspect these eloquent youngsters talked most about was recommendations: they wanted their teachers to recommend books to them. And I would guess that nearly all teachers, no matter what they teach, read. Making students aware of the fact that we are a community of readers can only encourage them. And if their students then want to read some Darwin or Dawkins? I’m sure that will be fine too.

i heart english