In my other life, I teach English at GCSE and A Level – and (mostly) I love it. I also love being able to recommend great recent YA books to keen readers of all abilities – it’s a real perk. But wouldn’t it be great if I could just pick books to share with classes for my own reasons? Although I will defend literary analysis to the hilt and do not believe we English teachers invent meanings and symbolism (you know, that ‘curtains are blue’ thing…*), I would welcome the chance to discuss books in a different way with students from time to time. Here are a few recent reads I’d choose.
Asking For It, Louise O’ Neill
I’d love to be able to read this with a class, in a ‘class reader’ kind of way. It’d be great to set chapters for at-home reading but also explore some revelations in class. This brilliant and necessarily uncomfortable depiction of rape and further violation-by-social-media deserves a slow class dissection, with plenty of chance for discussion. I’d love to bring this book, which unflinchingly and carefully examines complex social issues without preaching, into classrooms. It’s well known that fiction is an effective tool for empathy building, so just think what this could achieve.
Seed, Lisa Heathfield
My reasons for wanting to share this with a class are quite different. Simply: I think it is so far removed from my students’ lives, and is such a good story, that it has the power to enchant and to engage and would just be great fun to talk about. The novel is contemporary YA set in an anti-technology and anti-modern cult. Characters grow their own food and live close to nature and in tune with her workings, which I think would fascinate many of my students. The story gradually reveals corruption and problems at the heart of the cult.
This one I imagine would be less of a class read and more of a book group type approach. I’d read the first couple of chapters aloud (this is my fantasy reading curriculum, remember?) to get the students engaged, and then we could chat about possible directions the story could take, and discuss the community etc. Students would then willingly read the rest at home with just a couple of lessons at key points to talk about how great it is, how the structure works etc and perhaps do some creative work inspired by it.
Bomb, Sarah Mussi
There’s been some talk about anti-radicalisation in schools lately and this all-action, high-pace thriller about a girl who wakes to find herself strapped into a bomb vest would certainly facilitate some interesting discussions.
I work in Leicester, in a school with a relatively high ethnic minority population (over 50% of our students), many of whom are Muslim, but even those who are not Muslim are (or have been) at risk from Islamophobia if they happen to look Indian as a result of radicalisation and its perceived effects. A book like this, therefore, which shows the kind of people who really are susceptible, would allow a lot of discussions to take place that are actually quite difficult for a white teacher to start on her own, however well-meaning she may be.
Joe All Alone, Joanna Nadin
Interestingly, this book would be a great discussion starter for the typical student in my school for a different reason. Yes, many are from ethnic minorities, but they are also from a middle-class part of Leicester and often have little understanding of poverty in the UK. This book, with its beautifully well-drawn working-class main character Joe, would be brilliant to show them – especially those who assume that those ‘chav’ or ‘gypsy’ TV shows have the whole story on working class culture in the UK.
I loved Joe All Alone, and think that it offers – and provokes – a lot of empathy for 13 year-old Joe, left behind by his Mum for a week while she goes on holiday with her boyfriend. He has quite a lot to cope with: budgeting with £20 to feed both himself and the meter; bullies; the unexpected non-return of Mum; men seeking out Mum’s boyfriend none too gently…
The Last Leaves Falling, Sarah Benwell
A bit like Seed, and a bit like Joe, this would be great to explore with my students because, for many, a lot of its content is unfamiliar. It’s set in Japan, and the main character is a young man called Sora, who has ALS (of controversial ‘ice bucket challenge’ fame). At the same time, Sora’s attempt to create normality by living online is one that many of us can relate to, so I think it would be great to explore issues around online identity and constructed identities with the early part of this story as a starting point.
I’d take a ‘class reader’ type approach with this one as well, since different opportunities open up as the plot shifts into debates about suicide and particularly differing cultural attitudes towards it. I think my students would enjoy following Sora’s exploration of Samurai ideals and concepts of honour as well as this being a very rich novel for discussion of a range of contemporary, relevant PSHCE-type issues. Of course, it’s also incredibly well-written and I’d love it put it in front of students as an example of a powerful, contemporary story that I think many of them could relate to, even though, ostensibly, it’s about someone very different to them.
So those are my fairly ad-hoc choices for now, none of which fit the curriculum or the exam specs, but all of which offer many valuable things to teen readers. There will probably be more posts like this, as there are so many books which would be great to explore with students.
*In case you didn’t know, here’s the meme:
Just so we’re clear: authors often do pick colours/symbols deliberately to carry particular meanings. And sometimes even if it isn’t consciously intentioned, those meanings are there because they exist culturally . It really grates that some students will accept that the tiniest detail in an Avengers movie has meaning and yet will argue that Steinbeck can’t have meant anything by giving Curley’s wife red lips or red shoes with feathers on (Feathers on her shoes! On a ranch! Not a practical woman, ok?). Yeah, sure he didn’t.
Er, sorry about that. It’s been a long week…