Winter break is a time for teachers to recharge, reset, and most importantly, REST, but when you're feeling up to it, it can also be a great time to reflect and play around with ideas for the following year.
As fellow ELA teachers know, it's a beautiful thing when we get bookworm students, but the reality is that most teens today simply don't have a connection to books. This month 11 other incredible ELA teachers and me have teamed up to bring you novel options to help your students fall in love with reading.
You can use these as class novels, for lit circles, or as recommendations for your classroom library - and/or even your own TBR list!
I know we've all heard it: A student saying, "I'm just not a reader" or "I don't like to read", to which I always respond, "maybe it's not that you don't like to read, but that you have yet to find a book that you like." 9 times out of 10, if I put a novel-in-verse (NIV) like Punching the Air in a reluctant reader's hands, they are beautifully surprised - not only at the content and the layout, but also at their own buy-in while reading.
Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and one of the exonerated five, Yusef Salaam, is a heart wrenching and poetic story of identity, anger, systemic oppression, family, freeing art, and second chances - all through the eyes of a young black teen male.
It's a beautiful piece for reviewing and analyzing poetic devices, looking into social justice issues, and inspiring creativity. Many of my students could not put it down when we read it whole class and whenever I recommend it for independent choice reading, students always give it 5-star reviews.
It can be a little heavy, but it's the perfect depiction of "fiction is a lie that tells us true things", and there's few things students appreciate more than realness. There are also sooo many options for supplementals, and as a quick read, it fits perfectly within a larger unit (I paired it with Frankenstein - see here for info and here for resources).
Disclaimer: the text includes profanity, and scenes of violence and racist slurs
When Samantha from Samantha in Secondary chooses a full class novel, she likes to consider a few things. Is it accessible for all students? Is it highly engaging? Does it have strong literary merit? Will students actually ENJOY reading it? When the answers to all of those questions are a resounding YES then she knows she’s picked a good one.
Enter: Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds.
Long Way Down is a novel in verse that takes place over the span of ONE MINUTE. (Yes- one minute.) It’s high energy, incredibly thought-provoking, and students are consistently captivated by it. It’s also a short read with plenty of depth which makes it perfect for concurrently running a choice reading unit right alongside it. (Samantha’s favorite!)
In Amanda’s experience, there has been no other novel as powerful at uniting a classroom full of readers through empathy. Set in a tumultuous time frame of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, A Thousand Splendid Suns tracks the story of two women and their intertwining lives.
Students love the relationships between the characters and find them completely relatable -- even half a world away. The human connection between the main characters and students’ own lived experience is palpable and one of the most unique ways she’s ever seen students connect with a novel that seemingly has so little in terms of “relatability”. That’s why she uses the Essential Question, “Why do relationships matter?” to thread the unit together. They study the psychology of attachment theory, examine the science behind isolation vs. community, and so much more.
And here’s the thing: Suns is tragic and deals with a LOT of trauma, but the novel ends with hope. Real hope. So many of the books in our curriculums and on our library shelves are tragic start to finish, but this one is so special.
If you ever consider teaching it, Amanda has a complete unit set with materials and you can grab it here!
Krista from @whimsyandrigor uses the oldie but goodie The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin to hook even the most reluctant reader while also engaging my most avid book lovers.
Why? Because Raskin has created an incredible mystery that not only the characters in the novel have to figure out but the reader is left to muddle through the clues as well. And, wow, is it a mystery!
There are A LOT of characters to keep track of so Krista assigns each student one character to pay extra attention to and at the beginning of each class period, experts share what details they have gleaned from the most recent reading.
She also hangs a poster at the front of the class to keep track of clues the characters receive. Every year, the students gather around the poster, point excitedly to clues, make informed (but often wrong!) guesses, and beg to read during class. What else could an English teacher ask for??
Warning! It is EXTREMELY difficult to not give anything away while the students are making their wild claims. Be prepared to keep a neutral expression while students are reading! It is a challenge but so worth it just to see their eyes bright and eager to read this classic novel!
Molly from The Littlest Teacher was gripped by the exotic work of fiction, Life of Pi, the first time she dove into it. Rightfully acclaimed as a “modern classic,” Life of Pi is the epic story of a sixteen-year-old boy who finds himself adrift on the ocean in a lifeboat along with a small menagerie, the most shocking member of which is a fully-grown Bengal tiger.
Out of painful circumstances, Pi embarks on a journey of self-discovery and cultural exploration. He finds himself seeking answers to difficult questions, and finding those answers in unusual places.
Students are likely to find Life of Pi an unputdownable treasure that will have them exploring right along with the brave teenage protagonist.
Whether you use this as a whole-class novel study, or an option for independent reading, check out this post with ideas for fun post-reading activities students can complete after reading Pi, or any novel.
Lesa from SmithTeaches9to12 suggests reading Moon of the Crusted Snow by Indigenous author Waubgeshig Rice. Published in 2018, this book is a post-apocalyptic novel set in northern Canada that follows Evan Whitesky through chaos as a cataclysmic event cuts the community off from power, communication, and supplies. But when an outsider shows up and adds to the turmoil Evan has a big decision to make - stay and hope for the best or return to traditional Anishinaabe ways of life. The story will keep you on the edge of your seat as readers move quickly through the 235 pages.
Lesa uses this gripping novel in her grade 11 English classes as part of a literature circle unit focused on Indigenous storytellers and it is always a popular choice. In recent years even reluctant readers come away having finished and enjoyed the story!
And the best part? There’s a sequel set for publication in 2023!
Thinking about which books her students have loved reading this year, Walking In Two Worlds by Wab Kinew is at the top of the list for Katie from Mochas and Markbooks. After reading the first chapter of this YA fantasy for “First Chapter Friday,” it has quickly become the most checked out book in Katie’s classroom library.
This story centers around Bugz, a shy and self-conscious Indigenous teen on the Rez whose alter-ego in a multiplayer video game universe conversely embodies confidence and power.
While the phrase “walking in two worlds” has historically been used to describe Indigenous peoples embracing their traditional culture while also living within the dominant culture, it is an interesting take on the phrase to represent Bugz existing in both her real and virtual realities.
This book will appeal to your avid and reluctant readers alike, and its depiction of an Indigenous teen in an authentic, contemporary context is a refreshing representation much needed in our classroom libraries.
Helping students fall in love with reading is all about pairing them with the right book. Carolyn from Middle School Café uses fairy tale retellings as a place to start with many of her reluctant readers. Students are often reluctant to read because they struggle with comprehension. The beauty of fairy tale retellings is that students already have a basic understanding of the original plot which helps improve their comprehension when reading the retelling.
Carolyn has had great success introducing her classes to The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer, a science fiction fantasy series. The Lunar Chronicles is a four-book series plus a prequel, anthology and two graphic novels. There is something for every type of reader! Set in a futuristic world, each book in the series is a twist on the familiar stories of Cinderella (Cinder), Little Red Riding Hood (Scarlet), Rapunzel (Cress) and Snow White (Winter).
While the stories are new, Marissa Meyer keeps enough of the original characters and plot which helps students connect the characters and stories they already know.
Staci from Donut Lovin’ Teacher absolutely loves connecting her students with graphic novels! She’s had so many students jump into reading through graphic novels, but one that got her hooked was They Called Us Enemy by George Takei. It is a graphic memoir that shows what it was like for George and other Japanese Americans during World War II--a time when people of Japanese descent were seen as the enemy. It pairs well with Farewell to Manzanar or can stand alone to start or continue conversations about identity, family/oral history, and loyalty. Although the text may be easier to access for all students, it can start a deep analysis and critical conversations among students!
Staci recommends this book for a unit on identity, memoirs, or even family history. You can check out Staci’s Instagram for more book recs, like this reel with 27 graphic novels!
Sharena, The Humble Bird Teacher, loves having her students read Ghost by Jason Reynolds. This novel grabs the attention of most readers in her classroom. Many students feel like they can relate to the character of Ghost, and they are hooked by the first page. This novel is about a teenage boy who wants to be on the track team, but his past prevents him from moving forward with ease. With the help of his coach and team members, he learns how to deal with his past and focus on the present and future.
Yaddy from Yaddy's Room loves showing her high school students This Is My America by Kim Johnson. This novel is great to pair with nonfiction texts like Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. This novel is a murder mystery which tackles complex topics, like race, privilege, and the prison industrial complex. This young adult novel by Kim Johnson that deals with issues of racial injustice and the criminal justice system in the United States. It may be beneficial for students to read and discuss this novel in order to gain a better understanding of the ways in which these issues have affected and continue to affect people of color in the United States.
Students will fall in love with Tracy’s voice and root for her as she tries to discover the truth about a murder in her town, and ends up finding out the truth about the crime her father was unjustly convicted of. Read more about This Is My America here or check out some lesson ideas here.
Olivia's middle-school students LOVE reading Full Cicada Moon, a historical fiction novel about a 12-year-old girl who struggles to find her place in the less-than-diverse Vermont of the 1960s. Olivia's students get so caught up in the story that they actually jump out of their seats and pound on their desks. It's a favorite read-aloud for sure! This book is lovely and innocent in so many ways, but it is still a perfect book to begin discussions about race, gender, and identity. Read more about Olivia's favorite read-alouds in this post!
Take a chance on some of these if you haven't already and let us know how it goes :)