Wednesday, 20 August 2008

School Books

I've been blogging over at this week ahead of the publication of Borderlands in the US. Tomorrow's post is one I thought I'd throw open to the MNW family as well, if you don't mind...

'I return to work next week after eight rain drenched weeks of a summer vacation. Today, I will be calling into school for a few hours to sort through the new books we have ordered for the coming academic year. It is a task I’m looking forward to doing. Although we have a fairly clear curriculum, there is room for English teachers to introduce texts that they like or think their pupils might like. Over the past few years, I’ve managed to include The Moonstone, Oranges From Spain, Ian Rankin’s A Good Hanging, The Outsiders and The Godfather into my classes, alongside The Great Gatsby and Hamlet which are two of my favourite texts from my own days at school. This year I’ll be teaching Dracula amongst other things to one of my classes.

I’m not going to argue that these texts are ‘worthy books’ as such, though some of them are great works. Some I’ve included because I think the pupils will enjoy them. (I teach 11 – 18 year old boys, by the way.) In fact, Oranges from Spain was written by Northern Irish author David Park who is also a teacher. He was teaching Treasure Island to a group of students and realised they were completely bored. Therefore he wrote this collection of short stories which deal with teenagers growing up in the North.

The books we engage with when teenagers stick with us all our lives. Each stage of my education is marked by one book in particular that spoke to me in a way others didn’t: as a child Leon Garfield’s John Diamond; as a teenager, SE Hinton’s The Outsiders and Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby; at university, The Name of the Rose. As an adult, I revisit the books of James Lee Burke frequently.

I suppose what I’m wondering is, if you could choose one book that isn’t ordinarily taught in school to be added to the curriculum, what would it be and why? And furthermore, are there any books you’d like to see removed from school reading lists? Personally, I could happily survive a few terms without Thomas Hardy…'


Declan Burke said...

They were bored reading Treasure Island? I'd take the cat-o'-nine-tails to 'em ...

Every teenager should read The Catcher in the Rye, The Summer of '42, and The Lord of the Flies. Cheers, Dec

Unknown said...

I've answered this over on my blog in a convoluted fashion, Brian.

David Isaak said...

I agree with Declan's list.

I also think that Candide should be taught more. It's smart, funny, easy to discuss, and in many ways could have been wrtten last week.

Stepping WAY outside the canon, I think there's something to be said for Gregory Maguire's Wicked. It's fun to watch him subvert the well-knwn Oz stories, and has a non-too-subtle message about how the nature of stories depends on who is telling them. We all know in principle that it's the victors who write history, but that's different from experiencing it as a story.

And I'll be keeping my eyes open for the US Borderlands!

Anonymous said...

My daughter is half-way through A level English and so far has read The Great Gatsby and The Spire (Golding). I was quite surprised that classics were not on the horizon, but she says her teachers think they are "too easy" in terms of direct narrative, so they (the teachers) choose the more modern books. (Dec: she did The Lord of the Flies for GCSE so a bit of a Golding overdose I think, though she has enjoyed both books.) I would personally be more than happy to see them forced to read a few Austens, Dickens, Eliots, Brontes and, yes, Hardys, call me old fashioned, but they opened my eyes when I was young.

Other of the English classes at her school read Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter and Alice Munro.

For my part, of the more modern books, I'd suggest one of William Wharton's, maybe one of Anita Brookner though perhaps she is easier to appreciate when one is a bit older. A very new book that I think excellent and would not be out of place on a syllabus is What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn.

Brian McGilloway said...

Thanks for your comments folks.

Some excellent suggestions - I may have to revise my reading list for next year!

Great choice Dec. Cat o' nine tails? You missed your vocation...

Interestingly, from a boys perspective, Aliya, publishers seem to be targeting teenage girls more than boys with books nowadays. That doesn't mean that those books are introducing them to normal characters who share their experiences, as you say.

David - Wicked has appeared in book samples in school a few times, but I've never got round to reading it. Must give it a go.

Maxine - generally we try to teach a range of stuff, from Chaucer and Shakespeare right through to the modern novel. You try to introduce something new and different, but you'd hate to think that the classics were being sidelined. Still can't be swayed on Hardy though.

Brian Web Admin said...

Hi, Brian

This goes hand in hand with the Today Program on Radio 4 recently - discussing the ideal books to kick-start reading in teenage boys. I'd say Gates of Fire by Stephen Pressfield is a rollicking good adventure, tragic, heroic and a darn fine history lesson. It would probably go down well in a class of 14-18 year old boys. Kinda like "300" but with brains and a better story.

If we're looking at schools as a whole, I'd agree with David on Voltaire. I read Candide for the first time not so long ago (a sheltered childhood, you know) and loved it. Cynical, magical, and hilarious.
I'd also suggest something by Wyndham, either Day of the Triffids or Midwich Cuckoos - if it isn't already on the curriculum.

And what's wrong with Hardy?! Loved Return of the Native - as Stephen King said, you know where you are with Hardy, something bad always happens...

Alis said...

Hi Brian - I too loved The Outsiders as a teenager - I read it so often I was virtually word-perfect! And as the mother of sons I'm so glad that you're trying to engage them with things they find interesting rather than classics which are 'good for them'. I'm basically allergic to the forcible introduction of classic novels to anyone under the age of 18!
As for things to add to the list, can I suggest a couple of Anne Fine's books for Yr 7 - Flour Babies and the much less well known The Granny Project which I think is a brilliant book on inter-generational family dynamics without getting heavy.

Frances Garrood said...

I'm with Alis on the subject of forced classics for the under-18s (although I adored Hardy - sorry, Brian! - and wept my way through the lot). Not being male, maybe my tastes were different from those of boys, but one of my sons was very into George Orwell at this stage. How about Cold Comfort Farm? A classic, certainly, but funny and entertaining. Also two novels set in WW1 - Strange Meeting, by Susan Hill, and How Many Miles to Babylon? by Jennifer Johnston - both of which are shortish, but very poignant, and besides an absorbing story-line give a flavour of what it was like to fight in the trenches.

Ann Weisgarber said...

Thinking back to high school, I remember being haunted by Shirley Jackson's short story, The Lottery. The novel I loved was All Quiet On The Western Front.

How about McCarthy's The Road? It's on the reading list for high schools in my area. Then there's Planet of the Apes (What? It's a novel?), The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, and Saramago's Blindness.

All of these are thought-provoking, have interesting writing styles, and are kind of creepy. Can it get any better?

Brian McGilloway said...

Thanks folks - a wide range of suggestions there, unsurprising as we're all writing different genres, I suppose.

My own personal choice - I think all boys should read Lord of the Flies and, especially, To Kill A Mockingbird because it's a beautiful book written from the point of view of a child, it deals with adult issues in a non-patronising manner, it has the perfect father figure in Atticus. And of course, it has that last line.

Sion Scott-Wilson said...

I couldn't agree more with the choice of Stephen Pressfield - also, The Afghan Campaign. And Candide is a great choice, along with Rabelais.
I'd also recommend Patrick O' Brian - the entire Aubrey/Maturin canon (sorry). Wonderful stuff.