The Books That Should (and Must) be Taught

There are no better months to be living in Minnesota than October. The leaves turn brilliant colors before swirling around you, the apples are tart and crisp and abundant, the days are warm, the nights are cold, and your neighbors are plying you with food and conversation as we prepare ourselves to go into hibernation once our temperatures dip into the 30 below zero range.


But what I really love about October is school. Now, I know all of you know a thing or two about school: September a month of transition, a month of getting into the swing of things and feeling your way. But October! Now that’s the month when the real work begins. Back when I was a teacher, October was the absolute best month of the year. The students were primed, tuned and ready. They were at the top of their game. They produced fantastic work, asked fantastic questions and pushed themselves with wild abandon.


It’s in October that I miss being a teacher.


But my thoughts on teaching invariably lead me to thoughts of books, particularly the books that were taught –the ones taught to me when I was in school, and the ones I taught. And it makes me start to wonder:


If I was teaching this year, what books would I choose?

Now, when I was a bright-eyed sophomore in high school, I had the great pleasure of reading the books that still call out to me to this day. We read The Grapes of Wrath and The Jungle which, combined with my own natural inclinations, helped to build my political Self. We read Jane Eyre which fostered my sense of independence, a lifelong refusal to live my life by anyone else’s terms. We read The Scarlet Letter which taught me how to be really, really pissed off.


Later, when I was organizing my own curriculum, I tried to choose books that my students would enjoy, but that would also resonate with their experience. My kids read Monster, by Walter Dean Myers, and Holes, by Louis Sachar, both of which explore issues of justice, guilt and redemption, of the holes in the judicial system and in the inherent power of the individual. They read Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry and Because of Winn-Dixie and The Things They Carried and  The Invisible Man. These books were tough, affecting and meaty, and the discussions they engendered will ring in my ears forever.


Now, this October, I’ve been thinking about the books that I’d like to teach, if I happened to be teaching this year. Firstly, I would be the happiest little teacher on earth if I had the chance to teach a new novel that’s just about to debut called The Mockingbirds, a deeply affecting novel that tells the story of a group of teenagers who seek justice after one of them is the victim of a date-rape. What I love about this book is not its lovely, wounded, and ultimately very tough narrator, but its exploration of the nature of justice – and how true justice is built by particular communities as a way of tempering the inclinations and behaviors that could ultimately divide us. How just the fact of people seeking justice makes our communities better, stronger and more fair. I’m sure that some lucky teacher somewhere is getting ready to teach this book right now, and I’m insanely jealous.


Another is Swati Avasthi’s debut novel Split, a novel that beautifully, tenderly, achingly describes the aftermath of terrible domestic violence and abuse, and the necessary pull towards healing, reconciliation and making amends. I friggin’ loved this book, and if I was Queen of Everything would make it required reading for….I don’t know. The world.


And lastly, a book that I’ve often used in excerpts when I’ve taught my workshops in schools, I would love, love, LOVE to teach Sherman Alexie’s book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, one of the few books in YA that I’ve read to so explicitly and gracefully deal with issues of poverty – particularly poverty in opposition to those who have everything they need and want, as well as the unspoken (unspeakable?) shame of racism. This book changed how I read YA, and more importantly, it changed what I expect from YA. A gorgeous, tender, and heartbreaking read, (and hysterical, and bawdy, and unflinchingly true) and I would LOVE to teach it.


So here’s my question for you people: What were the books that were foisted on you as high school students? Did any of them change your thinking, your attitude or your life? And what, if you were writing up the curriculum lists in your school districts, are the books that you think ABSOLUTELY MUST BE TAUGHT? What books would you like to see in the classroom?

(this is cross posted on my other blog The YA-5. Feel free to comment here or there)