Response to “Some Books Are More Equal Than Others” (NYT 6/24)

I sent this response  to the NYTimes op-ed section, but it wasn’t chosen for publication.  Instead, I will share my thoughts here.

Response to Some Books are More Equal than Others

Like Claire Needell Hollander, I am often asked for summer reading advice.  Because I teach English at the #1-ranked STEM high school in the nation, friends and colleagues often email me for book suggestions for their own middle and high school students. Because I run a relatively well-known blog, I also receive countless emails from parents and teachers across the country who want advice about summer reading assignments.  I am always happy to share with them the summer reading assignment my 9th grade colleagues and I use for our students. For the past two years, my summer reading assignment has been a blend of fiction and nonfiction with a great degree of student choice.  Like Hollander, I believe that it is important for our students to read during the summer, but I know that it is important that they read both fiction and nonfiction.

We know that reading selection does matter, as Hollander points out in her essay.  Students do acquire verbal and world knowledge when reading classic literature like Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage”.  However, many students lack the background knowledge necessary to make the connection between the main character “donning blue” and his enlistment in the Union army.  And this is the problem I have with assigning dense classics as summer reading, rather than as part of a rich English class where students and teachers work alongside one another.

So how do we encourage students to read during the long summer months?  Hollander and I agree that nonfiction is all-too-frequently overlooked when it comes to summer reading assignments and that teachers need to reflect on the intention of their summer reading assignment.  But it is also important that part of that intent is to give students choice in their reading.  It is possible to this, without succumbing to the pressure of choosing a handful of classics for students to read, without support. Students should be encouraged to read fiction and nonfiction during the summer, while looking for the connections between the books they choose, and then making connections to the wider world.

My colleagues and I at HTHS have worked together, across disciplines, to develop the summer reading assignment for our incoming freshmen.  Our students come to us from over fifty towns and must apply for a spot in the 9th grade class. They are high-achievers but their academic backgrounds vary due to the number of middle schools they come from.  Because of this, we know that it is important to provide students with more than a required reading list of a title or two.  We also work together throughout the year as part of an integrated curriculum of Biology, Humanities, and Applications of Software, so we want our list to reflect that.  Our intention is to introduce students to real-world applications of the topics we will cover in class during the upcoming year while focusing on the importance of cross-curricular connections.

There is no written assignment for our summer reading.  Students are asked to read at least one fiction book and one nonfiction book, along with a One Book, One Class selection.  There are no notes, no written tests, and no book reports. Like Hollander, I believe that this only hinders students.  Instead, students are told that they will reflect on their reading throughout the school year, especially as they begin their Free Form Friday project (an initiative based on Google’s 20% Time).  Free Form Friday allows students to create a project centered on a topic of their choice as long as they can show the connection between their topic and our subject areas- Biology, Applications of Software, and Humanities.  This year’s projects included the effects of reading fiction on empathy, fashion and sociobiology, parkour, designing a better cardboard box, and designing and building a 3D scanner for under $60.  The project begins by asking students to draw connections between the books they chose to read over the summer.

Over the summer, students are asked to read Brian Christian’s “The Most Human Human” as part of our One Book, One Class initiative.  Mr. Christian is an alumnus of the school and his book is the ideal composite of cross-curricular connections between math, science, English, history, biology, linguistics, computer science, and much more.  His book inspired more than one Free Form Friday project this year, including a group that wrote the code for their own vocaloid program.  This is what we intended when we chose the book as our all-class read.

Students are also asked to read at least one fiction and one nonfiction book over the summer.  We provide a list of close to thirty titles that cover a variety of topics, genres, authors, and eras.  On the list, we also note which books are our personal favorites, which many students appreciate.  My students are high-achievers, and both they and their parents appreciate the list of suggestions, which cover a wide range of reading levels, from middle grade to adult books.

My colleagues and I hope that students begin to make connections between the books as they read, as the books are deliberately chosen.  For example, last year many students noted the similarities between Rick Yancey’s “The Monstrumologist”  (fiction) and Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” (nonfiction).  Both books force the reader to ask themselves if it’s better to sacrifice one for the survival of many.  We frequently discuss the book selections in class, making connections to in-class reading and current events.  There is no right answer, and many times I am surprised and impressed by the ideas my students come up with!

By asking students to choose from books like John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars”; Laurie Halse Anderson’s “Catalyst”; Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”; Jarred Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel”; Lauren Redniss’ “Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout “; and Deborah Heigelman’s “Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith”, amongst others, we are pushing students to make connections between the known and the unknown.  We are allowing them to choose the books that work for them, but we are also pushing them to step out of their comfort zone.  Come September, they will understand “Antigone” better for having read Neal Shusterman’s “Unwind” or  Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”.  All three books deal with heavy themes that include the sanctity of life.

Where Hollander and I differ is that I see value in students reading popular literature alongside nonfiction.  By reading popular books like “The Hunger Games” alongside nonfiction such as “The Diary of Anne Frank”, students are forced to consider themes like the power of dehumanization to justify inequality.  Then, while reading the newspaper in class, or studying imperialism history, or discussing eugenics in biology, or reading “Things Fall Apart” in English, this theme can be further explored.  Pairing fiction and nonfiction and empowering students to make connections between books will push them to make similar connections between the works they read independently and the classics read in class, or the articles they read in the newspaper, or the textbooks they use in science and history.

Any reading is good reading, as long as we make our intentions clear to students and hold them to a high standard.  Hard truths can be found in nonfiction, as Ms. Hollander points out, but they can also be found in fiction.  It is important for our students to read both in order to grow into critical readers who can comprehend, evaluate, and synthesize all kinds of texts.

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

This is going to be a short review.  I read Salvage the Bones: A Novel because it was a National Book Award winner and I thought it might be a possibility for my senior English class.  In the end, I had a hard time finishing it.

Salvage the Bones is the story of a poor, rural, African-American family in Mississippi who survive Hurricane Katrina.  Somehow, I was not aware that the vast majority of the plot focuses on dog fighting.  The book is extremely graphic, unnecessarily so in many parts, and it made me sick to my stomach.  I finished the book, just barely, and I’m not sure how it won the National Book Award.  The prose is sparse and it’s well-written, but I have a hard time believing it was the most well-written book of the year.  The characters are unlikeable, the story is too graphic, and there was little plot development.

Not for me.  There are plenty of 5-star reviews out there, but there are also a lot of one-star reviews and abandoned reviews.  This book was not for me.

Appropriate for upper YA, possibly some crossover appeal.  Not for younger YA readers.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

I have no idea how to review Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity without giving away all the twists and turns of the plot.  So, I won’t be summarizing the book much, that’s for sure.

I avoided reading Code Name Verity for a few months, even though I had purchased a copy, because it was receiving so much praise. (Sometimes, I can be quite contrary).  When I taught 6th grade, we studied WWII and the Holocaust in literature, and it played a large part in our curriculum.  Because of this, I’ve read a lot of WWII fiction aimed at middle grade and young adult readers.  I’m pretty picky when it comes to books set during the time period because there are so many choices.   But I finally sat down to read Wein’s book a few weeks ago and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I closed the cover.

I started the book and read a few pages here and there for about a week.  Be forewarned- this one starts slow.  So slow, that I considered abandoning it.  But when I did sit down and give it my full attention, I found that I was fascinated, even if it did move very slowly.  It took about 100 pages before I was completely sucked in. But at that point, I couldn’t stop reading.  I stayed up way past my bedtime, on a school night, and read the rest straight through.

Maggie Stiefvater said in her review that this book is unlike anything else she has read before.  I have to agree.  The book defies categorization.  It’s historical fiction but it’s immensely personal and internal.  It’s about WWII but it’s not really about the war.  Instead, it’s about two girls who join the war effort because it allows them to do what they love- fly, flirt, and gain power in some relationships.  It’s about friendship; true, never-dying, I’ll do anything for you friendship.  It’s about once-in-a-lifetime friendship and love.  It’s a haunting book that you will want to reread.

Code Name Verity isn’t perfect, but I expect to see it on many mock Printz lists at the end of the year.  It’s a slow book, and it’s not a typical YA.  I think it will appeal to adult readers and I plan to recommend it to some of my colleagues.  I also think my STEM students will love this one, because of the intense focus on pilots, engineering, planes, and and radios.  It would make a fabulous cross-curricular read, and I am thinking about ways to use it with my seniors during their 21st Century Human Condition unit.

Highly recommended for YA and adult readers.

One for the Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

One for the Murphys was recommended to me by many of my Twitter friends.  A lot of my middle grade reading had to take a backseat for last few months, as I finished my National Board work and tried to keep up with the reading my students were doing.  I finally had a chance to sit down and read Hunt’s debut novel and I’m so glad that I did.

Carley is placed in temporary foster care after her mother’s boyfriend almost beats the two of them to death.  While her (neglectful and abusive) mother is in a coma, Carley is sent to live with the Murphy family.  What I loved about this book is that Hunt doesn’t place Carley in the family and then turn this into a happy, everyone-loves-each-other story.  It’s realistic, which means you will want to keep your tissues close.  Carley is angry, hurt, and lost when she arrives at the Murphy’s house and she has a lot to process.  The Murphy boys also have to learn to deal with this new “sister” who has temporarily invaded their lives, taking their mother’s attention and time from them.  And Mr. Murphy isn’t all that sure that they are doing the right thing, either.

But this isn’t just a book that will make you cry.  Hunt’s lyrical prose will also have you laughing out loud, sometimes while tears are running down your face.  Carley is a pip, and her attitude will remind you of many tweens in your own life.  She has an attitude, but she is also vulnerable.  She thinks she knows everything, but she’s also lost.  In other words, she is a girl on the cusp of becoming a teenager but she has been forced to grow up too fast.

One for the Murphys was nothing like I expected it to be.  It’s not just another middle grade novel to hand off to girls who like contemporary tales.  I would not hesitate to give this to my freshman, because I think they could get a lot out of it.  Readers are almost forced to empathize with Carley and to contemplate the importance of giving people the benefit of the doubt.  We can never know what another person is going through, so it’s important to be understanding and compassionate.  At the same time, Carley shows the reader how important it is to let your guard down sometimes and let the world (or at least one person) in.


Highly recommended.  I also think this would make a fabulous read aloud in middle school classrooms.


*review copy courtesy of the publisher


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#48hbc Finish Line Post!

And I’m done!!!  It was a busy weekend, crammed with a wedding all day yesterday, visiting the in-laws, food shopping, taking the dogs for a run/hike, and watching the Tony Awards.  But I did it!  I made my goal and got back into the groove of reading.  Plus, I am about to make a $30 donation to RIF.  🙂

Final Stats:

Time spent reading:

12 hours, 18 minutes

Time spent blogging/tweeting/encouraging others/catching up on the challenge:

1.5 hours

Total time: 13 hours and 58 minutes

Books completed:
Capture the Flag– Fantastic MG mystery.  I loved it!
One for the Murphys– Get your tissues ready.  Loved the connection to Wicked.
The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo– A Christmas gift from my baby sister, which came highly recommended.
Salvage the Bones: A Novel– I am too much of a dog lover to be able to enjoy this book.  I appreciate that it is well-written, but it left me feeling sick to my stomach.  Warning: excessive focus on dog fighting.
Sudden Flash Youth: 65 Short-Short Stories (Karen and Michael Braziller Books)– Looking forward to using this with my freshman next year.  Some of the stories are really powerful!
Mangaman– A student recommendation. Not my favorite, but enjoyable. I’m not a graphic novel reader, yet.
Trafficked– So, so good.  I love watching Law & Order: SVU, and this read like an episode of the show.
The Polar Bear Scientists (Scientists in the Field Series)– I love this series so, so, so very much.

I also got halfway through the e-galley of Rebecca Stead’s upcoming Liar & Spy.  It was my “squeeze in some reading” book, because I try to avoid reading on my iphone unless I have to.  But it’s so worth it!