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Choosing Kick Butt Books for Your Class

kickassbooks-seniorenglishI’m always on the hunt for youth fiction that would be good for my students. I’m not actually directly in the market for any new class books at the moment, but in my continual process of seeking quality fiction that will be appealing to the modern teenage mind, I have Googled book lists and youth fiction award lists–finalists and winners–, read other teachers’ course outlines that are posted online, talked to teachers on English Companion Ning site, perused book stores, and conversed with teachers from other schools. Below I am sharing some of those great finds, some of which don’t really seem to be on anyone’s radar right now.

These are books used in grade 11 and 12 college bound English in Ontario. These courses lead to college programs (anything but univeristy). The students are 16 and over and their parents are generally not concerned with the content of the novels. In parent-teacher communication most express that they are just glad their child is reading!

Kick-Butt Books for Reluctant Reader Senior Students:

  1. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls – This autobiographical novel has been a best seller for more than a few years now and is even used on some AP course syllabus’ (as well as other senior English classes). It is the most difficult read with the most number of pages as well, but the students are attracted to the novel because of its attention-getting introduction and the parent permission form I require them to get signed! I once read this novel aloud while on a road drive with a couple of women. I only intended to read the introduction just to show them the greatness of the novel, but they kept asking me to read more. On our nine hour trip, I read two-thirds of the novel, and they both went to get a copy so that they could finish it on their own. I hate when someone ruins a book or movie by telling me about the story, so I’m not going to discuss the plot; however, it starts with the author describing an experience when she’s on her way to a swanky event in New York, and from her cab she sees her homeless mother rooting through the garbage. Every student who read it expressed that it was the best or one of the better novels they had ever read.
  2. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. This novel is labeled semi-autobiographical because he used numerous true events from his childhood to form this fictitious narrative. Again, students were attracted to this novel after I read the first chapter aloud and announced that to choose it they must have a permission form signed. I think that as well as being an engaging story, the students really liked the narrator’s candid manner of speaking about his life. Junior uses profanity in sometimes offensive ways, but there is a definite purpose for representing the character in this way. As well, some of what’s offensive is racial prejudice directed at Junior which he recounts in his own voice. This book is definitely strong in theme and relating to real life. Alexie is a Spokane Indian from Washington state, and Junior’s story is really a reflection of his story of being the first Indian to attend the local white school, in town, off the reserve.  There are drawings in this book because Junior is an aspiring artist, and the drawings are meant to create a greater impact for his story–to support the text. A great film to use in conjunction with the novel is Smoke Signals which is also a novel by the same author. He had a hand in the development of this film festival type film that has some overlap of characters. It also takes place on the same Reserve.
  3. Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin. This novel was only chosen by female students possibly because there was a female protagonist, but it was also more focused on self-reflection in what I consider to be a more typical female manner. This amnesia victim, who has lost the last four years of her life, must try to remember her life by rediscovering her family and friends. The book is reflective, focusing on the question of how we build our lives as the protagonist explores and discovers that she may not be happy with the person she had become. It has some interesting twists. I thought it would be better received that it was. We use another of Zevin’s books, Elsewhere,  in our grade nine Academic classes, and it was well-received by both males and females; however, boys in Academic classes tend to be more willing to read novels with female protagonists.
  4. Theories of Relativity by Barbara Haworth-Attard. This is a Canadian novel that was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award which is considered a significant honour in Canada because only one book is chosen for the award each year. The author lives in London, Ontario, and she was willing to do a Skype interview with our students which was a first at our school. Being located in Northern Ontario, there’s not much opportunity for students to meet or talk to authors, so this was a new opportunity for our students last year. The novel is focused on Dylan, a teen who is living on the streets in an unnamed Canadian city which is likely Toronto. Teen homeless issues are explored in a really meaningful way, and the author doesn’t gloss it over with a fairy tale ending to more accurately reflect what happens with teens who are on the street in the city. There’s a great deal of profanity in the novel to reflect the talk and behaviour on the streets of the city–the language of pimps, drug dealers, prostitutes, and other street kids.
  5. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. This author is quite accomplished and has a great website to feature her novels and support materials for readers, teachers and students. This novel is about teen rape. Although several reviews describe this novel as contrived and vilifying the male involved, the author meant to bring awareness to this issue through her creative storytelling. There is also a film for the novel in which Kristen Stewart, Bella in the film Twilight, plays the main character. The novel is constructed in an interesting format using the grading periods to reflect the character’s development. As well, there tree symbolism that enriches the development of the character and her coming to terms with her rape. Since the rape scene is described, I would not use this for a junior class without parental permission; however, at the senior level permission was not required. This author has numerous good novels, but this one especially attracts female attention.
  6. Acceleration by Graham McNamee. This Canadian novel is an easier read that is primarily focused on the solving of a mystery that begins in the lost and found of the Toronto subway. It’s an action novel that was a first choice for my reluctant readers. I don’t believe that it really meets expectations for the reading level of the novel; however, it allowed my weaker students to read successfully so that they could complete their writing tasks that accompanied the novel. It is a great novel for students who don’t like to read and generally don’t understand symbolism or other implicitly stated information. I’ve just ordered a copy of his other books in hopes that they illicit a similar positive response.
  7. Swim the Fly by Don Calame. Another Canadian novel that’s a laugh from start to finish. Three teenage boys decide to make a summertime goal of seeing a real, live girl naked. Their efforts end in disaster over and over again. If you have reluctant male readers, I’ve had a great response from this book including, “It’s the first time I’ve finished a novel.” It does have sexual content, so I’ve used it with senior students; however, I would use it at the grade 9/10 level with a permission form. I’ve never had a parent say no yet!
  8. Spanking Shakespeare by Jake Wizner. The writer of this highly entertaining novel is from New York and and English teacher. When I first read it, I was unsure whether I could use it because it’s very sexually focused; however, it’s very honest about the teenage male experience regarding hormones and sexuality. It focuses on Shakespeare’s last year of high school and the goal of not graduating a virgin. He’s also in the midst of completing his graduating project which is a memoir of his life so far. Each regular chapter focuses on a month of the school year, and the alternating chapters serve as flashbacks being the chapters of his memoir. I’ve only used this with high school senior students who are reluctant readers. I only ordered a few copies, and had a waiting list for this novel.

Do you have suggestions of other novels that are high interest, a little easier reading, and the right length for school study (200-250 pages)? Please share them below. I’m ESPECIALLY interested in acquiring humorous selections!

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4 comments to Choosing Kick-Butt Books For Reluctant Readers

  • Carter Finally Gets It by Brent Crawford has been popular with boys in my library. It has the same kind of humour as Swim the Fly.
    This is a blurb from Goodreads:
    Join Carter for his freshman year, where he’ll search for sex, love, and acceptance anywhere he can find it. In the process, he’ll almost kill a trombone player, face off with his greatest nemesis, suffer a lot of blood loss, narrowly escape death, run from the cops (not once, but twice), get caught up in a messy love triangle, meet his match in the form of a curvy drill teamer, and surprise the hell out of everyone, including himself.

  • This sounds fantastic! Exactly the kinds of books I hope to find. Thanks.

  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie is funny and relevant. Most of my students enjoy this engaging read. We are located near a Native American Reservation and Native students appreciate the humor in this story about a young Native boy attending his first year of high school off the reservation.

    So happy you had this on your list!!

  • My students in Canada also relate to the situation as we have many students who come to our city from reservations to go to high school, and we also have other closer reserves as well. They identify with the main character and the general experience of going to school in the city after living most of their lives so far in their remote northern community.

    I’ve also used a few scenes from Smoke Signals (film) based on his novel of the same title. It’s quite entertaining and overlaps in ideas.

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