Alexie, Sherman, and Ellen Forney. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. New York: Little, Brown, 2007. Print.
The Absolutely True Diary is an extremely fun and versatile novel. Arnold “Junior” Spirit, a Spokane Indian living on a reservation, tells the story how he switched to a mostly-white high school and how that makes some big changes in his life (for better and worse). The most interesting thing about the novel is that the illustrations are crucial to understanding the story. Forney’s art style ranges from simple doodle to funny caricature to realistic portrait, which complements the changes in Arnold’s tone. Though the prose is not challenging by itself, the tough subjects this book discusses makes it better suited to an early high school audience. Alexie’s novel would fit nicely with units involving community, environment/setting, visual literacy and identity.
Bacigalupi, Paolo. Ship Breaker. New York: Little, Brown, 2010. Print.
Set in the presumably-not-so-distant post-apocalyptic future, Ship Breaker tackles issues of environmental degradation and conflict stemming from resource scarcity head on. Nailer, a teenage boy who breaks down cargo ships and tankers for scrap metal in America’s Gulf Coast region, comes across the wealthy Nita Chaudhury who is injured and shipwrecked after a hurricane. While there is an inkling of romance in this story, themes of loyalty, friendship, class struggles, human ingenuity, and the will to survive are much more important. As a result, this book is quite likely to appeal to high school male readers, who are sure to enjoy the action in this book. While I would not necessarily teach this book in a unit for its own sake, this would be a great choice for summer reading or literature circles. I have also considered using Ship Breaker (as a piece of speculative fiction) in conjunction with a piece of historical fiction about a tumultuous event to investigate how humans adapt to new and changing worlds.
Hinton, S. E. The Outsiders. New York: Viking, 1967. Print.
Told from the perspective of fourteen year-old greaser Ponyboy Curtis, The Outsiders follows the story of a group of working-class youths in their struggles against class-based prejudice and violence. The accidental murder of an upper-class Soc by Ponyboy’s friend Johnny catapults the two into a series of events that eventually leads to the death of Johnny and one of their friends. This novel has a lot of palpable action and drama, and takes seriously the problems that many teenagers face in today’s society. Because of its young, precotious protagonist and the serious subject matter, this novel can be taught for a wide age range (7th-10th grade). As a coming of age story centering around working-class “gang” members and an accidental manslaughter, this novel would work well in lessons on morality, the meaning of justice, relationships and family, socio-economic inequality and prejudice, and grief. The theme of heroism (i.e. what makes a hero and what is the journey a hero must make) could also lead to an interesting compare and constrast unit, since the model of heroism in The Outsiders differs dramatically from the classical heroism (as seen in works like The Odyssey).
Hoose, Phillip M. Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2012. Print.
Though a relatively simple read, Moonbird offers a lot for middle school classrooms. This book is best categorized as nonfiction, since it is mostly about the rufa red knot birds that migrate across the world each year. However, the book frequently turns to narrative to get its conservationist message across, using the example of the inspiring individual bird B95, who has survived at least 20 years. Moonbird also offers stunning photos of the rufas and their journey. Hoose also supplements his narrative with other in-text features, like sidebars discussing related topics and fun facts. After each chapter, Hoose also includes an occupation profile for others who work with the rufas, which shows career choices to students. This book would work well in literature circles or as a class text, and would be especially fitting in a unit surrounding civic engagement (letter writing and petitioning) and community service.
Lai, Thanhha. Inside Out & Back Again. New York: Harper Collins, 2011. Print.
Thanhha Lai’s poetic novel inspired by her family’s history is a good read for almost any age, but would probably be best studied in a middle school classroom. The poetry is simple yet beautiful, focusing in on the humanity, emotion, and identity of Vietnamese refugees in after the Vietnam War. Often we don’t consider the aftermath of the Vietnam War for the people in South Vietnam, so this would be a good way to study what is usually forgotten in history class. This would be an especially fitting text to be taught in collaboration with a history teacher. Each poem is dated, but certain poems are dated “every day,” which is an unusual way to show the desire for routine in a society experiencing normlessness. The chapter-like nature of the poems also allows for deep analysis into certain segments while also looking at connections between poems. I would recommend this book for units involving multiple perspectives, symbolism, the human will, and the Vietnam War. Of all the books in this bibliography, this is one of my favorites.
Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Grand Central, 1960. Print.
Harper Lee’s novel, long considered a classic, is definitely a popular choice in middle and high school classrooms already. The story follows Scout’s perception of the events that lead up to and follow the trial of a black man who has been accused of beating and raping a white woman in the Jim Crow South. Lee stays true to the young country girl’s point of view in her prose, which makes it simultaneously engaging and bitterly nostalgic. This book would work especially well with an interdisciplinary (Social Studies and English) unit on the Post-Reconstruction South. Aside from the obvious theme of racial prejudice and violence, this novel also touches on issues like gossip, bullying, social class, otherness, and many more. The events in the novel and the wide array of characters make this an easy book to do fun activities for, such as a mock trial or rewriting a scene from another characters’ perspective. However, this should not necessarily be the go-to book about racial prejudice or the segregated South. There are many novels written by black authors about this same topic that could be studied instead of, or in conjunction with, To Kill a Mockingbird for similar lessons.
Spinelli, Jerry. Stargirl. New York: Knopf, 2000. Print.
Stargirl is an interesting tale about a zany girl and her rise and fall in popularity in Mica High. It is told from the perspective of her to-be boyfriend, who learns through her example how to appreciate the little things in life (especially in nature) that he used to take for granted. Even though a love story is featured prominently, the fact that this book is told from the perspective of a boy makes this story easily accessible and appealing to readers of all genders. This novel seems to be especially suited to a 7th-9th grade audience. Stargirl would be a good novel to teach in units about fitting in and conformity, identity, character relationships and characterization, symbolism, and social expectations.
Stead, Rebecca. When You Reach Me. NY: Wendy Lamb, 2009. Print.
This book follows sixth grader Miranda as she investigates mysterious notes that reveal intimate details that no one should know. At the heart of the plot is the possibility and mechanics of time travel, which is intelligently and consistently theorized in a way that will interest sci-fi enthusiasts. Connecting well to the trials of friendship and redemption through its young protagonist, When You Reach Me is a book that is sure to appeal to a younger adolescent audience (6th to 8th grade). This book would be really appropriate for lessons concerning plot structure (actual temporality versus order in the book), perpectives (how the story might be different if told from others’ points of view), and setting (i.e. how does the New York cityscape shape and affect characterization and plot).
Tingle, Rebecca. The Edge on the Sword. New York: Putnam’s, 2001. Print.
This historical fiction novel is about an absolutely awesome female figure in British History: Aethelflaed the Lady of the Mercians. Tingle’s fictional imagining of Aethelflaed’s adolescence maintains a fitting historical atmosphere throughout, since she saturates her prose with accurate details about flora and fauna, architecture, geography, and other small details. This book focuses on the year before Aethelflaed, daughter of King Alfred, is married to Ethelred of Mercia. In the time leading up to her wedding, she learns how to fight and practices her leadership skills in the face of dangers all-too-real. The Edge on the Sword would be especially ripe material for studying setting and identity development in young characters, but would best be taught in conjunction with a history teacher. The novel is written in prose clear enough for 6th and 7th graders to comprehend, but some of the finer historical intricacies might best be grasped for an older 8th-9th grade audience.
Zusak, Markus. The Book Thief. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. Print.
After reading this book I can understand the hype. Zusak’s style is unique and exciting, incorporating choppy prose with a fresh perspective from yours-truly Death. he story follows young Liesel Miminger, a foster child, as she grows up in WWII Germany. There are so many subplots to this story that are rich in significance, it would be difficult to cover everything this book has to offer in the classroom. However, that is precisely what makes this a wonderful book to teach nearly any theme or literary technique. The Book Thief is worth many many reads, and, if taken in chunks, one that your students will be excited about. There are some hints at disturbing sights and some bad language, making this book most appropriate for an 8th-10th grade audience, but this book focuses more on transgressive thought than rebellious words. I would strongly consider using this book in a unit.