05 December 2013

My Booklist

As a change of normal philosophical pace, I've had several people (students, friends) requesting my book recommendations lately.  This is awesome because I rather selfishly enjoy thinking that I have good enough taste in literature to warrant making recommendations, and also because it gives me the chance to go through my books again and remember some favorites.

To make this list I've separated books into modern and classics categories.  I've also only included books that I've read.  For example - I own a copy of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  It's on my reading list.  People I know and love have said it's awesome and I fully expect it to be awesome.  But I haven't read it yet, so I won't put it on the list.  The classics I've included shouldn't be new names to anyone, but they're the ones that I'd recommend first if someone were looking to dive into some of the standards.

Also, this is long, but books are awesome, so. . . deal with it.

I'm sure I've missed some great books that I'll go back later and wonder how I could have missed putting it on this list, but in no particular order, here are the books I think that everyone should read at least once in their life:


1. The Thirteenth Tale (Diane Setterfield): A great book for any book lover, particularly those who have ever loved the gothic romances of the Bronte era (especially if you loved Jane Eyre).
2. Enchantment (Orson Scott Card): A mix of Babba Yaga, Sleeping Beauty, time travel, and religious conflict that miraculously works.  A fun read, but an engaging one too.
3. Matilda (Roald Dahl): Anything by Roald Dahl could be on this list, but if I could only pick one it would be this one.  Matilda is as great an underdog story as you could ask for, and I love books about kids that are smarter than their adult counterparts.
4. Ella Minnow Pea (Mark Dunn): The wordplay in this book is what makes it fun, but it also made me think, which is the mark of a great YA novel.
5. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Mark Haddon): A crazy fascinating narration and powerful (but not emotionally manipulative) story.
6. Anything Khaled Hosseini writes (Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, And the Mountains Echoed): They are all insanely beautiful and heartbreaking and wonderful.  I don't know how he does it, but Hosseini's books are all gold.
7. Ella Enchanted (Gail Carson Levine): Every girl needs to read this book.
8. Daughter of the Forest (Juliet Marillier): All of Mariller's books feature a strong female protagonist, but they do get slightly formulaic after a while.  Daughter of the Forest is her best (though the other two in the original Sevenwaters Trilogy were good as well.)
9. Atonement (Ian McEwan): The writing is so ridiculously beautiful in this book that I was half giddy when I read it.  The other half was in a great moral debate over the events of the plot.
10. My Name is Asher Lev and The Chosen (Chaim Potok): Potok has such a brilliant way about writing faithful characters who also doubt and question and push that I wish LDS writers could harness.  The Chosen and Asher Lev are my favorites of his novels, though I think Asher Lev meant more to me personally because of its discussion on the clash of art and religion.  Chosen is a winner each time I read it with my students.
11. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Mary Ann Shaffer): This book was utterly delightful.  I've never wanted a book to go on forever so much in my life as I did when I read this one.
12. The Light Between Oceans (M. L. Steadman): I started this book after three hours of sleep right before a flight home after Christmas last year.  I was halfway finished by the time I got home.  I finished the book after reading four hours straight a few days later and didn't realize that I hadn't eaten anything all day.  That is the sign of a great book.
13. The Mysterious Benedict Society (Trenton Lee Stewart): I loved how this book allowed each protagonist to play to their strengths when it came to problem solving.  I read this with my students the first year I taught and it was some of the best bribery I could have.
14. The Messenger and The Book Thief (Markus Zusak): Zusak's prose is incredible, and his way of emotionally engaging a reader with words makes reading feel like you're skating on ice (to borrow a friend's description).  Book Thief is a non-holocaust holocaust story, and The Messenger is the more moral version of Catcher in the Rye.
15. The Silver Lining's Playbook (Matthew Quick): The way that Pat (the main character) fought his demons in this book resonated so much with me that I felt like I understood myself better after reading it (though I pray that I am never that crazy.)
16. Ender's Game (Orson Scott Card): It's fun, it's got great discussion opportunities, and it's got super smart kids making the adults look bad.
17. Life of Pi (Yann Martel): Beautiful writing, fascinating story, powerful ending.  My students loved this one.
18. Stargirl and Maniac Magee (Jerry Spinelli): Spinelli writes books for kids that don't sound like books for kids.  There's much to be learned and enjoyed no matter what your age.
19. The Giver (Lois Lowry): This book is always the favorite of students when I teach it.  Even the ones who've read it before love reading it again. (One poor kid read it for the third time in my class last year after failing English a few semesters in a row and he admitted after much initial drudgery that it was a great book.)
20. Whirligig (Paul Fleischman): Slightly lesser known but still great YA novel.  Another one that doesn't talk down.  I hate YA novels that talk down to kids/teens and this one tackles big topics and challenges in a respectful and mature way that is still accessible.
21. The Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro): This book isn't for everyone.  The stream of thought writing style and meandering tone may bore some but I found it fascinating and endearing.  Maybe it's my anglophilia showing through.
22. The Hiding Place (Corrie ten Boom): Another one of those great inspirational stories that manages not to be too sappy or pedantic in its telling.
23. The House on Mango Street (Sandra Cisneros): I don't usually find myself so engaged in stories like this one but the images and phrasing in this is beautiful.  I loved the way the word play taught me new perspectives.
24. Out of the Dust (Karen Hesse): I read this in junior high and didn't quite get it.  I read it again as an adult and enjoyed it much more.  I've never been much of a poetry girl but this book helped me learn to appreciate modern poetic style much more.  I read poetry more often because of this book.
25. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Rachel Joyce): It started out as a quirky adventure story and ended with me trying not to cry in a car full of people heading down to Disneyland.  It's rare that a book gets me so hard emotionally that I forget to analyze structure and plot progression, but this book stunned me.
26. The Harry Potter Series (J.K. Rowling): You're probably wondering why it took so long for this to end up here, aren't you?  The thing about Harry Potter is that it's actually as good as the hype.  Maybe better.  Particularly the last book, which was a bold and powerful reminder that the heart of any good vs. evil story is not the adventure and the battle but the relationships that are worth fighting for.
27. The Hunger Games Series (Suzanne Collins): Again - this one really is as good as the hype and, like Harry Potter, remembered that the action matters less than the relationships in the end.  I can see why people would be bugged by the final book in the trilogy (Mockingjay) - especially if they were super invested in who ended up with who in terms of love triangle, but for anyone with half an eye on symbolism, the end of the book is a pretty powerful reminder about what really matters in our technology and Hollywood obsessed culture.  You can read my review of Mockingjay here.
28. The Sense of and Ending (Julian Barnes): A recent and delightful discovery about people and their flaws and our assumptions of them before we know the whole story.  Booker prize winners/nominees are always great and this is no exception.

1. The Anne of Green Gables Series (L.M. Montgomery): These books shaped my childhood.
2. Little Women (Louisa May Alcott): Jo March was my introduction to feminism.  She still gives me hope for finding a balance between independence and dependence in my relationships.
3. Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte): In my opinion, most people are either Wuthering Heights people or Jane Eyre people.  I'm a Jane Eyre people.
4. Les Miserables (Victor Hugo): I'll admit.  I haven't finished this one (yet).  But the section I have read (I'm up through the section with the bishop now) is worth reading all by itself if you can't muster up the stamina for the whole thing.  I cannot allow myself to die without having read this book.
5. The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexander Dumas): This book has everything.  Action.  Romance.  Mystery.  Revenge.  Power.  Humor (at least if you've got an eye for making fun of French writing styles now and then.)  It's the book that asks "if you had all the power in the world - how would you use it?"
6. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith): A powerful coming of age story in a time period I'm maybe a little obsessed with.
7. Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain): Another book you should be ashamed of not having read before you die.  The moral questioning of this book alone is worth the read, but it's an endearing character study no matter how you shake it.  (To be honest, though, I usually stop about 3/4ths through the book.  About the point Tom Sawyer shows up again, the book loses lots of its magic.)
8. To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee): I wish that I had read this book and appreciated it the first time through when I read it in high school.  I just don't think I was in the right mode to get it when I was in the middle of Harry Potter fever that year.  Since then I've read it several times and each time I do I'm stunned at how much I learn from and adore Atticus Finch, and how endearing Scout is.
9. The Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien): I can see why people struggle with these.  They're not really stories and the structure is messed up (especially in Two Towers), but if you can push your way through to the end, the result is amazing.
10.  Charlotte's Web (E.B. White): The first story I ever remember being truly obsessed with.  I can't wait to introduce this one to my own kids/nieces and nephews.
11. The Chronicles of Narnia (C.S. Lewis): The speak for themselves, don't they?  My particular favorites are The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
12. Little House on the Prairie (Laura Ingalls Wilder): I will never forget sitting in front of my 2nd grade teacher while she read this to us.  I've never wanted to play with a pig bladder or sit in an attic with dried herbs so bad in my life as when she read this book to us.  And the snow candy?!  Come on.
13. The Lord of the Flies (William Goldman): You don't read this book because it's fun and the characters are endearing.  You read this book because it matters.
14. Night (Elie Wiesel): "And though (it) be but little, (it) is fierce."
15. The Screwtape Letters (C.S. Lewis): Best digested slowly and with pen in hand.
16. 1984 (George Orwell): If nothing else than because everyone should know Big Brother, but also because it is such a potent warning on the danger of obliviously accepting a government.
17. Animal Farm (George Orwell): See The Lord of the Flies.  Same comment.
18. In Memorium (Alfred Lord Tennyson): The only poems I'll include on this list, mainly because poetry and I don't often enjoy one another's company, but In Memorium is incredible.  Those poems say what I can't about my struggles when faith and doubt clash with one another.
19. The Scarlet Pimpernel (Baroness Emmuska Orczy): A great adventure story, a great love story, good v.s evil - what more can you ask for?
20. Peter Pan (James Barrie): People make the mistake so often of presenting this story as though it was Peter's, when the heart of this story really belongs to Wendy - that's when this story stops being a fun story about a boy who can fly and becomes a powerful story of a girl facing a big world.
21. The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett): I like A Little Princess as well, but The Secret Garden was a powerful story for me as a kid.  I related to Mary with her exterior prickles but inner heart.
22. Shakespeare: My favorites are Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Othello, Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice, King Lear, The Tempest, Richard III and The Winter's Tale.
23. The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald): I can see why people struggle with Gatsby, but to me this is the grown up version of Peter Pan and I think it is stunning.
24. The Age of Innocence (Edith Wharton): One of the first books I read in college that taught me how powerfully engaging the classics could be.  This book (and it's sister House of Mirth) made me think and made me excited about reading for school in a way that most books hadn't before this.
25.  Jane Austen (Particularly Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Emma):  You can't not read Jane Austen at some point in your life.  Fortunately she's hilarious (Pride and Prejudice), great at creating memorable characters (Sense and Sensibility), and a great student of the foibles and challenges of being a mere mortal (Emma).

What am I missing?  What do you agree with?  Think I'm crazy about?  What do I need to add?  Send your own recommendations my way.  I'm pretty sure my bookshelves can handle more.

02 December 2013


I often think of teaching like a play.  The first act is exciting and sets the stage and goes from approximately August through October.  The second act runs from October through February and is where all the bulk of the conflict and drudgery happens.  By March, the weather is changing and with it comes a new invigoration in my students.  By that point they've usually figured out that I'm not crazy and that I'm not a complete moron and that even if they think I am that I hold their future at least partially in my hand (especially if they want a letter of recommendation from me.)

Following the play logic, the big finish should be something particularly memorable and awesome, but thanks to the Department of Education, instead the last month of school is spent with kids pushing buttons in front of computers, mindlessly answering questions to prove that they, that I, that their school and their state is doing something resembling learning.

This year they've changed the test.  One of the parents my students work with is very concerned.  Said parent attends loads of meetings about the Common Core and state tests and everything and sends all of that information to me.  "We need to do this!" parent says.


Sorry, parent.  I intend to spend as much time preparing my students for this brand new shiny exciting state test of awesome in the exact same way I did last year.  And the year before.  And the year before.  We'll spend approximately five minutes before the test explaining that yes, this test is a farce.  It is a waste of time.  I will not give them extra credit for doing well.  I will not put their score on their grade.  I will not bribe them in any way because I do not believe that I could sleep at night if I turned my students over to them.  The test makers.  I won't do it.  I will tell them that in spite of all of this, I expect them to pass.  I expect them to do their best to answer every question well.  I will tell them to do this because they are good, honorable people even though society tells them otherwise.  That everyone around them will believe that I'm crazy and that they are crazy for believing that a group of teenagers would do something well just because they are asked.  And then I'll turn them over to the computers and something magical happens:

They all pass.

Every single one of them.

This is not to say that every one of my students is genius.  "You teach honors students," people will say - excusing their accomplishments.  "No.  I teach students and I expect them to be honorable" I reply.  My students are excellent writers and really crappy writers.  They are students who read ahead and come prepared, and students who can go through an entire unit without a book and not even tell me even though I have extra copies ready.  There are students in my class ready to take over the world and students who still need their parents to make sure they tie their shoes and go potty before leaving the house (metaphorically, I hope.  But you never know.)

All of this proves two things to me:

1. Teenagers will rise to the level that they are asked to reach.  Most of the time, teenagers want to be treated like they are humans who matter.  They don't want to be told that real life is waiting.  Real life is there.  They are old enough to understand when things aren't right at home.  They see their friends struggle.  They experience and start to understand the weight of death or frightening illnesses.  They take their lives seriously.  They do not, contrary to popular opinion, consist entirely of punks who want nothing more from life than to defy authority and waste their lives.  They're not perfect, but neither am I.  Sometimes I'm a punk too.

2. These tests that we're shoving at them?  They're a load of (insert favorite four letter swear here.)  My students who turn in maybe two assignments a semester after a ton of hand holding pass the tests.  My students who turn in everything and are maybe smarter than me pass the tests.  Maybe this changes this year with the new test, who knows.  Maybe this is the year I don't get 100% passing.  It's possible.  But whether that happens or not, expecting every student to reach the exact same level of achievement in every area is not only impossible but also just flat out wrong.  We are wasting precious opportunities to cultivate the genius in every student when we tell them that they can be good but only that good, or when we tell them that - at the expense of a place where they are actually, truly good, they must abandon growing and excelling in that area in favor of matching where their peers are supposed to be.  In theory I don't hate the Common Core.  The desire to teach students how to think, to give them critical thinking skills - I completely agree with that.  But you will never ever get a kid excited about education when teachers aren't allowed or encouraged to think outside the box and when we are so married to the standards that we can't see the writing on the wall: you will never ever be able to get a good teacher or a good class when a teacher's opinion is no longer needed or respected, and their enthusiasm and love of their subject is a waste of time.

Let me give you an example:

My school has an incredible science teacher.  She's spunky and fun and the students love her.  She has fostered a love of science and experimentation in her classes that is truly impressive.  Her students bring her ideas for experiments and they make them happen.  She is, essentially, the closest to the high school version of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer loving Miss Frizzle I've ever met.  She started a Demonstration Team this year.  Their goal is to spread their love of science to other schools in the area.  They got awesome white lab coats and contacted schools all over the area offering a completely free demonstration of tricks and experiments as an assembly for elementary school classes.  Schools should be jumping all over this opportunity.  What gets kids more excited about learning chemistry than watching a group of kids turn pennies into gold?  Or learning biology by blowing up watermelons?  Only no one will take them.  Unless what they're presenting aligns exactly with the Common Core, then it's a waste of time.  It's no longer enough, even in elementary school, to do something that is both fun and educational.  They have to go through the core and point out exactly what they do that links and if it doesn't link they can't do it.  This means they can't present to more than one age group at a time.  It means that until they go through the Core, they're stalled in their tracks.  What a joke.

This year my students and I are studying the founding of America.  That in mind, I am giving them an assignment in a few weeks to assemble the Student's Bill of Rights.  I will also be writing my Teacher Bill of Rights.  It probably won't make any difference.  It probably won't go anywhere.  Heaven knows this blog isn't exactly viral, and I'm ok with that because it frees me to write when I like and what I like without an inbox full of nasty comments.  I get that enough from parents who are mad when I give their kid a bad grade.  But in the next few weeks when these go up and I'm done revising them - if you like it, spread it.  Because there can never be enough voice against what the modern education system is being morphed in to.