Well, here we are at the end of yet another school year! I can hardly believe that there are only three short weeks left when it seems like the first day was just yesterday. I’m so proud of all the things my students have accomplished this year. I’ve asked them to work very hard, and they’ve risen to the challenge and surpassed it! Now it’s time to let them go and pass them on to their junior English teacher–some of them are going on to AP Language, and a few into dual credit college English. But, they’ll always be my students, no matter how many years go by.
As I do every year, I’m going to give them a list of books that I recommend they read, and hopefully that they read over their summer break. This year I thought I’d share that list with all of you, too. Maybe you have a school-aged kid who could use a good book to keep busy with in their downtime. Or, maybe you need one yourself. Either way, I hope you find something that you like in this list. I’ve divided it into categories and have written short reviews, as well. Feel free to comment with your favorites and recommendations, and as always, please LIKE AND SHARE!!
From the category: Books I’ve Read Recently
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
First published in 1959, this coming of age tale follows two teen-aged boys, Gene and Finny, as they navigate the complexities of adolescent relationships. Set at a private boarding school during World War II, the novel explores a number of themes including patriotism, war and peace, identity, friendship, and death. Though it has been labeled by a number of modern critics as not having weathered the test of time well, I found the book to be relevant and easily adaptable to the struggles faced by, not only 21st Century adolescents, but to those faced by most of us regardless of age or social status. It is a “slow” read in that Knowles does not write rapid-fire transitions from one scene to the next like many contemporary writers. Rather, he lingers in the moment, thoroughly plumbing the depths of his characters and situations. A Separate Peace is a charming throwback to a simpler time and well worth the trip.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Until compelled to do so when one of my 9th grade Pre-AP English students turned in a surprisingly insightful response to literature paper back in 2016, I had never read Ellison’s most famous work. To say I found it moving and thought-provoking would be an understatement. The novel was first published in 1952. It chronicles the life of an unnamed narrator as he discovers the harsh realities of growing up a black male during what is a particularly turbulent time in America. At first I found the fact that Ellison doesn’t name the narrator a drawback. I kept going back and rereading thinking I’d simply missed it. As the story proceeded, however, I realized the brilliance of his choice. The narrator is an everyman who soon draws the reader into the story in such a way as to become an active participant rather than a mere observer. Whether it is the isolation of the Southern black community where he spent his childhood, the disappointment of being expelled from a black college, or the violence surrounding his life with “the Brotherhood” in New York, readers come away with, if not an understanding of, then an appreciation for his description of himself as invisible in a world which refuses to see him. Invisible Man will tug at your humanity in the very best way.
Lord of the Flies by Sir William Golding
I’ve actually read this book three times, most recently with my 9th graders back in 2016 as a class novel. While their reviews of the book were mixed (boys loved it, girls hated it), Lord of the Flies earns its way into the canon of modern classic literature in spades. First published in 1954 (are you getting a sense of the era I most enjoy), Lord of the Flies is the story of a group of boys from a well-to-do private school who are stranded on an island after the plane they were traveling in, fleeing war-ravaged Britain, is shot down over a deserted island. At first, there is actually a sense of relief amongst some of the boys to be away from the restrictions of their lives back at school. They exalt in their newfound freedom. Danger lurks nearby, however. Despite their realization that to survive they must establish order on the island, they soon give in to the animal instincts which lie just beneath the human surface–survival at all costs; kill or be killed. Golding’s raw allegory was the inspiration for director JJ Abrams’s hit television series “Lost” and is a sophisticated ancestor to The Hunger Games series. . .but, do yourself a favor and read Lord of the Flies before you watch “Lost” or read The Hunger Games.
From the Category: What Do You MEAN You Haven’t Read These?…Go Now!
The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger
What is left to write about JD Salinger’s only published novel that has not already been written? Not much, but I’m going to write a bit more anyway. It was first published in 1951 (see…what did I tell you?) and is, arguably, the quintessential American novel. From his bed in a mental hospital, young Holden Caulfield tells the story of his trek through the streets of New York City on his way home from the second boarding school from which he has been expelled. More than simply telling the story, however, Caulfield engages the reader in a conversation about his life, which could easily be the life of just about any angst-ridden teen. The book is Holden’s ironic commentary on the phony-ness of American society, and his search for authenticity, not so much in others but in himself. Many critics have surmised that The Catcher in the Rye is autobiographical in nature, a conclusion which Salinger would, given the little we know about the man, dismiss. This is a book which has delighted, inspired (often dubiously), and infuriated audiences for over 60 years and should be required reading for, well, everyone…in my not-so-humble opinion.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, Steinbeck’s 1937 novel about two friends who are migrant workers trying to survive. George and Lennie make their way to a ranch in California where they find more than just work. Lennie is simple-minded and almost completely reliant on George for his well-being. George, often frustrated at Lennie’s habit of accidentally finding trouble wherever they go, is nevertheless committed to their friendship. He frequently tells Lennie the story of how they will one day have a piece of land to call their own and will build a better life for themselves. Steinbeck weaves the tale brilliantly, endearing his surprisingly complex characters to readers through the poignant innocence of their friendship. By the story’s tear-jerking conclusion, readers are left wishing they knew Lennie and George, or Steinbeck himself just to know what happens after the men walk away. No spoilers here…you’ll just have to go read it.
From the Category: Books That Changed Me
Night by Elie Wiesel
This book remains the only book I have ever read in one sitting. I bought it and began reading it while on my lunch break from work one day. I was so hooked from the beginning that I actually called my boss and told him that I’d gotten sick while eating and would not be back in that day. I sat at B&N for three or four hours reading until I’d finished. Night is the autobiographical account of Nobel Lauriet and humanitarian Wiesel’s internment in Nazi death camps during World War II. It is a brutally honest recounting of the unfathomable and monstrous acts committed upon innocent men, women, and children by Adolf Hitler’s SS. Wiesel does not spare the reader details of what happened inside the barbed wire fences and gas chambers. Instead he confronts our notions of humanity, morality, death, life, and even of God himself. Night is a clarion call for the entire human race to never forget what can happen if we allow hatred to prevail. This book changed not only my understanding of the Holocaust, but also my understanding of the needs of those who remain oppressed even today.
The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch
I have a confession–I watched the video before I read the book. But, it wasn’t my fault because I didn’t know the book existed until after I’d already seen the video, so cut me some slack…I still read it. Dr. Randy Pausch was a popular Computer Science professor at Carnegie Melon University. In 2008, after being diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and announcing his departure from the university, he was asked to participate in the university’s lecture series in which professors were asked to give the lecture they would give if they knew it was their last. For Dr. Pausch, it was literal. The lecture he gave was titled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” However, it was about far more than becoming an astronaut or a pro ball player. Pausch’s lecture was about finding ways around the difficulties of life and also about encouraging others to do the same. The Last Lecture is funny, poignant, and inspiring on a soul level. It was after reading this book that I decided to put my past failures behind me and go back to school to finish the degree I had started nearly 20 years earlier. I guarantee this book will jump-start whatever stalled out dream you are carrying around.
From the Category: A Book I Have Not Yet Read By an Author I’m Determined to Love
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
I have a love-hate relationship with William Faulkner. I absolutely love his short stories. I’ve been in love with “A Rose for Emily” since I was a senior in high school and have studied it with both middle school and high school students in my classes. They all love it, too, and many of them still talk about it. Faulkner’s short stories make me feel like I’m reading about people I know. They make me feel at home. His novels, however, at least the two I’ve read so far, Absalom! Absalom! and A Light in August…not so much. It’s not so much the stories I don’t like–actually, it’s not the stories at all. It’s the way Faulkner wrote them. I read both books as assignments in graduate school and struggled mightily get around Faulkner’s train-of-thought style which is often laden with description and nearly absent any semblance of proper punctuation. But, because I love his short stories so much, I am determined to love his novels, too. So, this summer, I will be reading As I Lay Dying, of which Faulkner himself wrote, “I set out deliberately to write a tour-de-force. Before I ever put pen to paper and set down the first word I knew what the last word would be and almost where the last period would fall.” I don’t know what the story is because I stay away from summaries of books before I read them, but I’ve been assured by one professor and one well-read former student, that As I Lay Dying is, in fact, the tour-de-force Faulkner aimed for. It averages 3.5 of 5 stars on bn.com … I’ll report back when I’m finished.
From the Category: Other Books I Recommend But Don’t Have the Space to Write About
The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli
Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
Travels With Charlie by John Steinbeck
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansbury
The Crucible by Arthur Miller
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
Animal Farm by George Orwell
1984 by George Orwell
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Art of War by Sun Tzu
This is, by no means, a complete list (it’s not even close) of books I would recommend to you. I also know that you might be thinking that some of these books seem a little hefty for high school students. Well, it seems that Mr. Walker is a big believer in reading above where you think you can (that’s terrible grammar, but you know what I’m saying). Read books that maybe you don’t think you can–I promise you that the reward will be worth it! Reading and writing are noble pursuits, both of which are, sadly, becoming less and less pursued. Don’t miss out on something great. Go pick up and book and give yourself time to let it take you wherever it will.