By: Liz Keiper
Need suggestions for a holiday break read? Or still looking for gift ideas for your second cousin’s kids? Maybe you just want to freshen up your classroom library with some new titles. (I know that’s ALWAYS a yes for me.)
This semester, I’ve happened upon some amazing reads. Here’s hoping that this list inspires you with some ideas of new titles to either check out for yourself, for your students, or both.
Genre: Realistic Fiction, written in verse
Description: The story begins in Juba, Sudan where Viola’s family is subject to a genocidal civil war fought between the SPLA (Sudanese People’s Liberation Army) and the Sudanese government. Because Viola’s community is not Muslim, they are watched at all times, prevented from going to school, do not have enough to eat, are purposely subjugated into poverty, and of course can be killed at any whim of a Sudanese soldier. Rape by Sudanese soldiers is also common, and Viola becomes a victim of this violence. After struggling for a long time between desires to stay in their homeland, fears of the dangers of escaping to Cairo, Egypt and surviving in refugee camps, and a desire for a better life for Viola and her brother Francis, Viola’s mother decides that the family has no option but to run for their lives. However, they find that life beyond Juba, and eventually life in America, is not so easy for them either.
Why I Loved This Book: I loved Viola as a character, and her honest portrayal of her perspective made me understand her worldview better. She loves learning, and she is both intelligent and motivated, and I loved watching her push through obstacles to achieve. However, it also made me understand more deeply how traumatic experiences at times impact a person’s ability to achieve their goals.
Why Your Students Will Love This Book: It’s written in verse, so the story goes quickly, which is helpful for struggling readers. Also, even though Viola is born on the other side of a world in a culture that is quite different than our own, she is still a teenager and ends up being more relatable to American teens than she is different. The Good Braider is an important window into a world that our students need to know about.
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Description: Socrates Fortlow is an ex-convict trying to live out the rest of his life in South Central Los Angeles. After doing 27 years in jail for murder and rape, he is determined to never hurt another person unless he has to, and he gives himself a “grade” every evening on how he conducted himself that day. At first, freedom is terrifying to Socrates, but as he settles into the community, he realizes that he still has much to offer in his time on earth and becomes a respected leader in the community. From singlehandedly curbing gang violence, sniffing out the identity of an arsonist, and pushing back against unfair hiring practices for African American ex-cons to mentoring a young boy named Darrell who is on a precarious path, Socrates lives up to his namesake by sharing wisdom and helping those around him while also continuing to internally heal from his years in prison.
Why I Loved This Book: I fell in love with Socrates Fortlow as a character. I felt like I came to understand his internal battle between living for others and falling into destructive behaviors. Deep down, Socrates is so servant-hearted and loving, and my heart broke for both circumstances and personal choices that led him to where he was in the story. The book did a great job of highlighting injustices both for the African American community and for formerly incarcerated people, and it also touched on the American industrial prison complex. However, I will always be a literature nerd at heart, and I loved the symbolism and archetypes woven into the fabric of the story. At one point, Socrates comes across a broken dining room table sitting out by the road. He picks up the heavy oak table, carries it on his back to his tiny apartment, fixes it, and gives it as a gift to a young couple struggling in their marriage whom he is also performing a sort of marriage counseling with. (Remind you of another figure from history/religion who carried a heavy piece of wood on his back a long distance for the sake of others?? Yeah, me too.)
Why Your Students Will Love This Book: Though there are many sections of Socrates’ philosophical musings and nuggets of wisdom to community members, they are balanced with scenes of action and mystery. Socrates Fortlow is described as a formidable character with broad shoulders, huge hands, and more strength and agility than a man his age would typically possess. Part of his respect in the community comes from his compassion and wisdom, but part comes from the fact that you don’t mess with Socrates Fortlow or with those he loves. When a community member is mugged and murdered and the only witness, a young teenage girl, threatened by gang members, Socrates “takes care of business” with the perpetrator himself and gives him 12 hours to get out of Dodge if he wants to live. This combination of brains and brawn is an important character trait for students to experience and admire.
Genre: Historical Fiction
Description: Ok, so, I lied… I technically finished this one at the end of the summer, but I figured it was close enough to this semester, and it’s just too good not to mention. Serena is set in 1930’s Southern Appalachia during the time of the booming clear-cutting log industry. Serena is the new wife of the esteemed Mr. Pemberton, a king of the logging industry. However, as Serena gradually shows herself to be even more ruthless than her husband, the local loggers begin to fear her even as the Pembertons’ logging empire grows. Pemberton’s inability to escape the shadow of his former lover, a local Appalachian girl, and his illegitimate child adds to the tension.
Why I Loved This Book: I’ll be honest—this book just gets darker and darker, which I love. It truly delves into the depths of human ego and power-thirst. Also, the literary love comes out again for this one. Serena is spoken of by the crew in almost supernatural tones, physically represented by a powerful eagle that she trains to hunt down rattlesnakes and generally do her bidding. That combined with her ever-growing sway over her husband’s actions draws interesting parallels to Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. Hmmm, Macbeth set in 1930’s Appalachia?? Makes for an interesting tale!
Why Your Students Will Love This Book: Murder and backstabbing and sex, oh my! There’s a bit of everything in this story. Is Serena really bewitched? What is she truly up to? And what will she plan next? As drama builds in the story, more and more lives are put on the line, and your students will be on the edges of their seats to see who makes it out alive.
Genre: Dystopian (kind of… see below)
Description: This story is set in the (apparent) future in an unnamed Spanish-speaking country in a society in which a few rich and powerful people hold most of the money while the ranks of the extreme poor grow. The main character Raphael grows up as a dumpsite boy—someone who lives in a landfill and who makes a living by picking through the trash of the wealthier to find recyclable items or anything worth a few coins to get himself and his family a bowl of rice for the day. Oh, wait… that’s not dystopian—not really, anyway. All of that literally happens in our world today. (Hence my qualification of my genre description.) However, one day, Raphael finds an item in the trash that will change the fate of himself and his nation. He is inadvertently pulled into a thrilling mystery to which only he has the key—literally.
Why I Loved This Book: In America, almost every citizen is “rich” by international standards. Our students who live in their American teenage bubbles placated by their cell phones, full refrigerators, warm houses, and closets full of clothes often have no conception that most of the world lives vastly different lives than they do. It is so important to expose students to concepts of extreme poverty and issues that hamper development (as the power-hungry bureaucrats do in the story).
Why Your Students Will Love This Book: Raphael and his two companions, Guardo and Rat, are lovable to the end. Everyone loves rooting for the outnumbered underdog and hoping beyond hope that he will win. Also, the mystery that sets the backbone of this story is good. Watching the pieces slowly unravel at the hands of the three dumpsite boys will rival any Sherlock Holmes story.
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Description: This is the debut novel of former English teacher, Ernie Quatrani. Set in a rural Eastern Pennsylvania town, the story starts on a school day that seems average until a lockdown is announced and gunshots ensue. The crisis spirals into the worst imaginable combination of assaults as it becomes clear that this is not lone wolf shooter but rather a crew of would-be domestic terrorists. As students and teachers of Vista View High School resist, protect, and try to stay alive, the danger continues to escalate.
Why I Loved This Book: While this book will hit home for anyone who works in a school, goes to a school, or has loved ones who do, this book especially impacted me because Mr. Quatrani was my 11th grade AP Language teacher. The school described has a similar layout to my alma mater, Upper Perkiomen High School, and many of the characters are inspired by well-loved figures in the school. Imagining some of the heroes and friends of my high school years resisting, and some perishing at the hand of, active shooters was sobering. However, this story brought to the forefront of my mind what is always somewhere in the background when I enter school on a daily basis—the question of, “What if today is the day?” While I do not want to live my life incapacitated with fear of the what-ifs, neither do I want to be oblivious to the dangers of the world in which we live. Some of the casualties at Vista View High School could have been prevented if better plans and more thorough training had been implemented, and I want to have enough of a plan so that I can act appropriately in an emergency situation while not having so rigid a plan that it cannot be augmented as necessary. This book also brings important questions of firearms legislation to the forefront.
Why Your Students Will Love This Book: Ok, full stop—this book is the one that I would deem the most disturbing on my list because of how real and visceral the story is. Though your students may not have attended Upper Perkiomen High School and may not know and love the real Mr. Zarlapski, Mrs. Robbinson, Ms. Snider, or Mr. Stefanowicz, we all know people to whom we can relate these characters. We know the English teacher who would give up their lunch for a paper conference to help us with our writing. We know the head athletic trainer who would patch us up and help us through our shin splints. We know the classmates who would, like the brave students of Vista View, try to carry a dying student through a bomb-infested high school to get him to the nurse’s office for his medication. This book is action-packed, well-described, and moving—just be warned that it could be a trigger for those dealing with or who have dealt with trauma.
Genre: Fantasy (with a Dystopian edge)
Description: In a world governed by The Final Empire, class stratification is at a peak. A small aristocracy enjoys enormous wealth and is placated with intrigues and balls while the majority of the people, the skaa, labor and die young for them. Skaa have no rights; they are disposable pawns to be used for wealth acquisition by the nobility and discarded. At the top is the being called The Lord Ruler. Legend has it that he is a god and invincible, but the mistborn named Kelsier isn’t so sure. Mistborn have the ability to manipulate metals which gives them superhuman powers. When Kelsier happens upon another unknown mistborn named Vin, he is just in time to bring her into his thieving crew. The heist? Topple the unjust empire and overthrow the Lord Ruler. All in a day’s work, eh?
Why I Loved This Book: I’m a sucker for well-constructed fantasy. Sanderson is a master of characterization, action, and description, so reading this book was more like watching an action scene from The Matrix or Inception. I couldn’t put it down because I fell in love with the characters, got swept into the ever-escalating drama of their plans, and couldn’t get enough of the fast-paced action. However, this book is more than just an action flick. Deep questions about society, government, power, and justice are all there and readily available. I got sucked in because I cared about the plight of the skaa, and I loved Kelsier for taking up their cause. The stratification of classes in the book inherently prompts a dystopian feel (see my caveat on genre description) which prompts the questions, What are the benefits and harms of increased globalization? How far will people go for power? How far should they go? Does absolute power corrupt absolutely? What is our duty in the face of injustice? Why is trust an essential human quality?
Why Your Students Will Love This Book: See everything that I said above… But also, the heroes in this story are so good. Every teenager could use a Kelsier to look up to—someone who takes the path of fighting for justice even when it’s hard. Also, seeing a wide bifurcation between rich and poor in a context outside of the “real world” can help students begin to see it in their own. While we don’t have a worldwide government funded by nobles and supported by a skaa slave class, human trafficking still exists in our world. In fact, much of your store-bought clothing, unless it is fair trade, was made by slave-class people working inhumanly long hours in a dangerous sweat shop for next to no pay, all so that you can have an abundance of cheap, trendy clothing that they could only dream of possessing. Well now, is our world sounding that much different than that of the Final Empire? And how much can we really blame the nobility in the story for failing to see the injustices perpetrated upon the skaa when many Americans are just as unaware of the human suffering caused to have the nice things that they own?
I hope that a few of these titles inspire you to extend your reading horizons or those of your students. Happy reading to all, and to all a good night!
Liz Keiper is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. When she’s not dressing up in togas or running around her classroom with foam swords reenacting Shakespeare, she can be found enjoying the great outdoors, playing guitar, or adding to her rather out-of-control rubber duck collection. You can follow her on Twitter @KeiperET1.
WVCTE is wondering…
- What else have you been reading this semester that you couldn’t put down?
- How do you help put interesting titles in the hands of your students? Through a classroom library? Through book exchanges? Share your ideas!
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