Recommended reads of 2014

This is something of a self-indulgent post, wherein I round up the best books I’ve read this year. In the past, I’ve stuck rigidly to my triumvirate of reading: one education book, one book for children (fiction), one book for grown-ups (fiction or non-fiction). I’ve let this slide somewhat for 2014; there is a definite bias towards fun fiction, perhaps an upshot of going on not one but two beach holidays, each involving a stack of paperbacks. For that reason, I’ll stick with two categories: fiction and non-fiction.

Fiction

Margaret Atwood: Cat’s Eye

It seems unbelievable to me now that the only Atwood I had read prior to this year was The Handmaid’s Tale, which I hated. I saw this book on a list of “realistic representations of girls in school” and, eager to gain an insight into my students (having been both female and a school child, I am constantly concerned I have subsequently unlearned all aspects of each) I picked this book up. It is a gorgeously rendered exploration of childhood, change and femininity.

Robert Galbraith: The Cuckoo’s Calling

This is sheer entertainment, and very much ties into my new-found interest in crime drama in general. The kind of book which, as you read it, you feel as though you are, in fact, watching it – that is how little effort it requires.

Sapphire: Push

I’d seen the film Precious, but the book is a much richer and more uplifting portrayal of the life of the central character. I wept at the bleakness of everything at the close of the film; ending this book I felt the opposite. There’s so much hope here, and it is cleverly expressed.

 R.J. Palacio: Wonder

Another book crammed with hope and inspiration, though never cloying – the central character feels realistically drawn; imperfect, self-aware. This was the book I recommended all of key stage 3 to read over the summer, and the one most students have run up to me to tell me they have read and loved.

Dave Eggers: The Circle

I really feel this is the 1984 of our time: a novel of the internet age, taking on every facet of life in a digital world. The silicon valley world feels real here, and if the love interest falls flat it does so for good reason.

John Green and David Levithan: Will Grayson Will Grayson

The imagination in this book is inspiring, and it’s a nifty venture – two authors writing consecutive chapters from different perspectives. The message is one of acceptance and love, and is one children and adults can learn a lot from.

Carys Bray: A Song for Issy Bradley

The tale of a mother dealing with grief in the context of her husband’s Mormon beliefs taught me a great deal about both. This was one of those books which left me feeling empty when it had ended; as if I couldn’t believe those characters had gone from my life.

Laura Wade: Posh

I missed seeing Wade’s play, and I’m sure reading it cannot compare; yet this play was so stark and so heinous, it made me really actually angry. But angry in a really good way.

Non-fiction

Martin Robinson: Trivium 21C

Robinson’s was the first book I read in 2014, and I couldn’t have asked for a better start to the year. The book is both a vision of how education ought to be, and full enough of personal insight to feel like a friendly conversation. One for re-reading into 2015.

Sheryl Sandberg: Lean In

I’m confused that so many people have strong emotions about Lean In, because I couldn’t see the controversy. This book felt like some really honest reflections about what it takes to be a successful woman, and the choices and mindset necessary.

Heather Kirn Lanier: Teaching in the Terrordome

I’m a sucker for a teaching memoir, and I’m a sucker for anything American. (what is the American version of a Francophile, a propos of nothing? I am that.) Lanier’s depiction of her Baltimore experience of Teach for America made me reevaluate everything I thought possible in my classroom.

 Malala Yousafzai: I am Malala

Of course, Malala is a complete inspiration for us all, but I would argue especially so for young women. This poignant and beautifully written book has been shared with all of my classes across the age groups of the school.

 Graham Nuthall: The Hidden Lives of Learners

I found this way of looking at the way children learn extraordinary. It made me consider that we probably do need to be much more careful about the evidence surrounding the way we educate, and left me with a lot of lovely quotable nuggets I have not hesitated to roll out in too many conversations.

Daisy Hay: Young Romantics: the Shelleys, Byron and other tangled lives

I’m not sure how, but the Romantics are a big gap in my literary knowledge. Preparing to teach Frankenstein to year 13, I sought to remedy this, and found in this particular volume a veritable sit-com of real-life entertainment.

Daisy Christodoulou: Seven Myths About Education

I wasn’t at all sure I would enjoy this book, as I’m not altogether fond of controversy or conflict, and it had felt to me that this book incited (or invited?) both, but after hearing Christodoulou sounding ever so likeable on the radio I decided to give it a go. Thank goodness – there’s nothing controversial here, just sensible observations on education, written in sparse prose (NO superfluous words – not even one).

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Leadership

Having trained with Teach First, I felt like I had heard enough about “leadership” to last me a lifetime. Prior to moving into a role as Head of Department last September, I thought I knew much on the subject – I could parrot, for example, the line about the difference between leadership and management; I could recite the vignette about the boss seeing where his people were heading so he could lead them.

But there’s a world of difference between knowing the shorthand and actually being an effective leader. Having heard the depressing line: “if you’re telling me to do it, I’ll do it,” I knew I needed help. I resolved to attack the problem the only way I know how: by reading all the books.

Of course, this is not the only way, and a lot of what I learned did not come from books. I’ll write soon about what I feel leadership is, at this uncertain moment of new enlightenment, but for now, here are some of the best leadership reads.

Leverege Leadership

The first book on leadership I read, this was perhaps pitched too far from my world of middle-dom; but nonetheless I gleaned some useful insights here, not least the resounding message that the key is focusing on great teaching. Bambrick-Santoyo lays out the ideal of principal as “instructional leader” and some examples of how this might work in practice. There’s a helpful distillation of data-driven leadership, as well as plenty on culture and vision.

Switch

Here’s the essence of Switch: people know a lot, but are still mostly driven by their emotions. To make people change (or, in my case, specifically change to wanting to follow you) you have to engage their emotions and activate their trust. The book sets out strategies for making people want to follow you, and steps for pushing positive change through.

 

Leadership Plain and Simple

The amazing Jill Berry recommended this book, and it could easily be the only leadership book you have to read. Amazingly straightforward, the book turns on the assumption that leadership means: engaging others in your vision of the future, and the plan you have to get there, and then delivering that plan. It is fuzzy on delivery, but that’s probably because delivery will be massively varied in different scenarios.

Leading in a Culture of Change

Although this book does contain some grating “management newspeak” (such as “simplexity” – definitely not a word), it is written clearly (useful for the midnight reading sessions of a first-year wannabe leader) and is full of awareness of the wrong turnings a potential manager/leader might take, as well as balancing concepts of confidence and humility.

How to be an Amazing Middle Leader

This is one of those “does what it says on the tin” books, and is a great primer for someone new to middle leadership. Occasionally over-specific, it enumerates tasks and activities you might do to hone your vision and create your action plan. Probably one to read the holiday before taking up a post.

Mindset

I am aware this is not a book on leadership, but if there is one thing I know for sure about leadership it is that it is all about your core values. You have to know what drives you as a human, and how that translates to what you are doing in your job. I’ve written before on Mindset but suffice it to repeat: I believe in the uncapped potential of every single child without any exception to succeed, and believe it is my job to create the conditions for success.

Finally, leadership in a school context is perhaps best served by the many wonderful bloggers out there. Stuart Lock is one of the most generous, encouraging and humble senior leaders I have met, and writes plenty that is both heartfelt and sensible on schools. Keven Bartle, a new headteacher, has written copious amounts of genius words on leadership at all levels. We are all waiting for Jill Berry, an ex-head and fantastic speaker, to begin her blog – in the meantime, she says many wise words on Twitter. Finally, Mary Myatt is a school inspector and writes with clarity on all issues Ofsted – always helpful.

More Reading Lists

Meeting my classes for this year for the first time, I was reminded more than ever of the great and pressing need for children to read.

I’m becoming more convinced of the power of sheer enthusiasm to move children to action. On giving the reading list below to my year 11, one student said: “Miss, can you read it out and talk about the books? It makes us want to read them more.” It was partly unfortunate, and partly brilliant, that their head of year walked in just as I was explaining Holly Golightly’s real job. A book containing taboos and crossed boundaries will be readily sought.

Year 10 needed little less convincing. They are a designated “extra English” group (they have more lessons of both Maths and English a week, having been chosen from their end of year 9 levels), and so are very small. They don’t feel “extra”; but they do feel urgent – yet they have started year 10 with the right mindset and I truly hope this continues. The very lesson after my book list talk, a third had not only taken their list books from the library, they were proudly putting them on their desks for the duration of the lesson lest the opportunity to read arose (they have not yet realised it rarely does).

Year 9 may prove more challenging. Again, an “extra English” group, there are far more of them; they are a “normal sized” class (if such a thing can be said to exist). At times, they felt like a mounting wave of apathy towards reading. Not particularly boisterous, they simply haven’t yet grasped the urgency of their need to read. Paragraphs are littered with “nice”, “ok,” and “gotta.” I’ve taken to packing them up five minutes before the end to read to them from a book I have loved, but so far they seem unmoved. I will wear them down.

A few people have mentioned that the lists are helpful, and in this continued hope to help I reproduce a couple here, in the wording exactly as has been given to the students.

*   *   *

Year 11: books you absolutely must read to take your mind off the impending doom of the hardest year of your academic lives

 

Truman Capote: Breakfast at Tiffany’s

In under 100 pages, this book explores the life of a New York woman who lives in an unpredictable way, and who expresses her dreams beautifully.

J.D. Salinger: Catcher in the Rye

Have you ever felt angry? Unhappy? Well, your suffering is nothing in comparison to Holden Caulfield, the angriest, unhappiest human in literature (probably).

William Golding: Lord of the Flies

A plane crash leaves a group of boys stranded on a desert island. In making their own “rules”, disastrous consequences ensue.

Henrik Ibsen: A Doll’s House

This is a play (so very, very short) about a woman trapped in an unfulfilling marriage, remembering she still has a mind.

Arthur Miller: The Crucible

Another play: this one explores a group of girls living in a stifling, controlling society. Once they realise how they can achieve power, all hell breaks loose… Literally.

Nick Hornby: About a Boy

A man invents a son, which brings him into a new circle of friends. Key themes include: falling in love, battling hardship, and a Christmas song that won’t die.

John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath

If you enjoyed “Of Mice and Men” you will love this novel – longer, more painful, more tragic even than George and Lennie.

Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice

Whatever your preconceptions of Austen, this book is simply hilarious. A (romantic) comedy of manners, including the worst proposal of marriage you will ever read.

Leo Tolstoy: Anna Karenina

I think you’re ready for the powerful and life-changing emotional charge of Tolstoy, and where better to start than a beautiful but troubled young lady?

Christopher Marlowe: Dr Faustus

Faustus wants to be more intelligent (don’t we all?) so he conjures the devil (as you do) and sells his soul for a few years of high-jinks. What could possibly go wrong?

Philip Roth: The Human Stain

Despite being completely hilarious, this book deals with (and challenges) the notion of “race” and our ideas about it.

F. Scott Fitzgerald: Tender is the Night

No book will ever match Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, but this novel follows a failing marriage and fascination with a young girl… And is scarily similar to Fitzgerald’s own life. (Read Gatsby first though. You won’t regret it.)

Raymond Carver: Will you please be quiet please?

Carver’s short stories, some fewer than ten pages long, paint interesting and troubling images, and show insight into our souls.

Erich Maria Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front

A depiction of World War I told from the German perspective. Powerful and extraordinary.

Walt Whitman: Song of Myself

Why not, if you’re a great poet, write a poem all about YOU? Whitman did, and it is brilliant.

Alex Garland: The Beach

A group of tourists create the perfect world on a beach in Thailand. What could possibly go wrong? (Spoiler: everything. This book is horrifying.)

Graham Greene: The Quiet American

A journalist living overseas becomes entangled in a knot of love and politics.

Ian Fleming: Casino Royale

Like the Bond films? Read a Bond book.

Sebastian Faulks: Engleby

Welcome to the mind of an increasingly concerning individual. Enter, marvel, leave in horror.

Ian McEwan: Atonement

A well-told story, full of misunderstandings caused by children knowing too little.

Truman Capote: In Cold Blood

A book following murderers through their lives, and their experiences facing the death penalty. Based on a true story.

*   *   *

Year 13 reading list:

 

Useful for your exam:

Bram Stoker: Dracula

The original vampire novel. Think about how women are represented though, and what them becoming a vampire might be a metaphor for…

 

Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

A poem, but one which will darken your soul. Truly terrifying. And what does it mean? (Please tell me.)

Matthew Lewis: The Monk

This has been called an exaggeration of every Gothic trope imaginable. It is, but it is also very entertaining, and a little disgusting.

 

Edgar Allen Poe: “The Tell-Tale Heart”

A very, very, very short story but well worth reading. Dark and psychological gothic text.

Robert Lewis Stevenson: “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”

Most useful companion to Frankenstein, and less than 100 pages. Can you see the links?

Useful for your soul:

Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray

A man wishes to never be old and to always be beautiful. This wish is granted. What could possibly go wrong? (Hint: lots.)

 

Colum McCann: Let the Great World Spin

The intertwined stories of various New Yorkers, under the shadow of a man walking a tight-rope between two sky-scrapers.

 

David Lodge: The Art of Fiction

Great ideas on literature. When you finish, you can read one of Lodge’s (hilarious) novels to learn more about university life.

 

Donna Tartt: The Secret History

Don’t get your ideas about university life from this book, but this one will stay with you a long time.

 

Dave Eggers: The Circle

An oddly familiar internet company and its quest for making information freely available starts to feel a little like Orwell’s 1984.

 

Margaret Atwood: The Edible Woman

One woman’s quest to find herself. Amusing but important also.

 

Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart

Exploration of the impact on native inhabitants of Western “do-gooders.”

23 books which changed my life

The original title of this document was “10 books which changed my life.” It was rapidly clear that I would not be able to cut down my selection so easily.

 I made this list as a parting gift to my year 11 class. Having only taught them for one year, I am racked with the guilt of having done little more than push them through two courses, re-do coursework, and rehearse exam technique; throwing only a handful of reading lists at them along the way. Each student in my year 11 class deserves more from their education in English, and I will always regret this lack.

I have utterly loved teaching them: I’ve never bonded with a class so quickly, which is absolutely down to their warmth, energy and boundless personality. They accepted me, and trusted me; in return I put them in the best position I could to pick up a few GCSEs. I’ll also, strangely perhaps, miss their parents: the support and encouragement and gratitude I’ve heard down the phone on my Thursday evening quests for contact have made a huge difference in my students’ commitment and effort this year.

Huge regrets. If any of them go on to study English at A-level, which a surprising number have hinted they might, I hope they find more inspiration and love of literature there.

A number of students came to see me and have the list, but the year group was granted surprise study leave at the final hour, and so not obliged to come into school yesterday. In the unlikely event that one of my most dear children ever stumbles over this post, I’ve pasted the entire list below as I would have given it to them on Friday. Year 11: you are truly amazing humans. Here you go.

*  *  *

With very few exceptions, each of these was read between the age of 16 and 19. I think those three years are formative, and what you read then will leave an indelible mark on you. I encourage you to read, read, read now – as much as you can.

J.D Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye

This short novel seems to me to epitomize everything it means to be a teenager. It is the rallying cry of disaffected youth.

 Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray

This story is part horror, part humour; wholly Gothic in setting and yet eerily familiar. The ending will never leave you.

 J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter

This writer reminded me that the best books to read aren’t always the ones being taught at school or university. Pure pleasure reading!

 Samuel Beckett: Waiting for Godot

This play made me think more than any book I had ever read before. What is it all for? Why are we here? What are we waiting for?

 Arthur Miller: Death of a Salesman

I’ve never cried so much before or since because of a book. This play explores a truly human tragedy; one we can all relate to.

 Ted Hughes: Birthday Letters

This was the first book of poems I had read cover to cover, and it seems to tell the story of a once bright love crumbling, leaving only remorse.

 Jane Austen: Emma

I dreaded studying Austen – I thought it would be hard, and boring. It is, in fact, hilarious and touching.

 Shakespeare: Othello

This is my favourite play. Not only one which explores ideas of prejudice, but also one which reveals how we tick, and how we can be ingeniously manipulated.

 John Steinbeck: East of Eden

More than Of Mice and Men, this epic tome brings the suffering and hope of the 1930s West Coast of America into sharp focus.

 F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby

An epic tragedy. Love, regret, carelessness and humanity, along with some of the most gorgeously expressed prose imaginable. 

E.M. Forster: Maurice

My favourite book by one of my all-time favourite authors. A beautiful romance, told beautifully and feelingly.

George Eliot: Middlemarch

The whole of human life is contained in this novel: through the microcosm of a Victorian village, we see into the minds and souls of humans.

 Thomas Hardy: Jude the Obscure

This book was the first which brought home to me the tragic inequality of society. For all his sins, Jude is a man doomed from the outset by an accident of birth.

Vera Brittain: Testament of Youth

An autobiography of a nurse in the First World War; no war book I have read has come close to creating the emotions and experiences of that time.

 William Faulkner: As I Lay Dying

Experimental and modernist, this text is raw with suffering and emotion. Told by one family about a dead body being transported to her final resting place.

Virginia Woolf: Orlando

All of history and gendered experience told through a single character who seems to live every life.

 John Milton: Paradise Lost

A poem which retells the Old Testament. Especially powerful on the fall of Satan from Heaven, and luxuriously worded.

 Patrick Marber: Closer

A play which seemed to me to reveal what relationships were really all about. Also quite tragic.

 Leo Tolstoy: War and Peace

All of the characters are immaculately drawn individuals, believable and perfectly recognizable.

 Nancy Mitford: The Blessing

Although pessimistic, I felt at the time of reading this novel that I understood what makes marriages work. I’m no longer sure of this assertion!

 Alex Garland: The Beach

The first book I loved. A group of individuals founds a “perfect” commune away from the “real” world. And yet, the real world cannot be escaped…

 Daphne du Maurier: Rebecca

The gift of this novel is the way the narrator hooks you in. It is only after you finish that you begin to wonder if there is an alternative version of reality hiding in the pages.

 Haruki Murakami: Norwegian Wood

Murakami makes real for me a country I have never been to, and in an other-worldly unfolding of events also reveals true, human emotion.

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.”

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.