5 books to help teachers escape the crisis

Marcus Rashford is promoting the escapism of reading to children – but teachers need it, too, says Yvonne Williams
18th November 2020, 12:36pm


5 books to help teachers escape the crisis

Woman Lies On The Sofa, Reading A Book

Marcus Rashford is in the news again - deservedly so - and still full of life-affirming ideas. This time, he's promoting "the escapism of reading", and launching a book club for children. 

Tes has already released teachers' top 10 choices of escapist books to inspire disadvantaged children. But it's not just children who need to escape into the alternative reality of books. What about teachers who need an escape route from the daily grind?

Perhaps we can profit from the example of the French. While we British descended on the supermarkets for toilet roll and pasta at the start of our first lockdown in March, Parisians fleeing the capital city ahead of their second lockdown raided the libraries - apparently you can take up to 15 books out at once - to ensure they had plenty of reading material.

Coronavirus: a literarary escape route

In the middle of a November lockdown, it can feel as if teachers - along with the rest of the population - are trapped in viral gloom. Where can we turn for our escape? Frothy reads by the pool are for summer relaxation, and crime fiction is too grim to provide any comfort.

In case you are stumped for a good book to banish the November lockdown blues, here are some suggestions. What I've set out to provide with these five titles is a menu of beautiful prose, alluring characters, layers of philosophical debate and life-affirming messages. 

1. The Secret Commonwealth, by Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman is an excellent crossover author, whose books enchant the child within and challenge the intellectual adult. Sunday evenings in our household have been immeasurably brightened by the return to television of His Dark Materials

So it may come as a surprise that I haven't settled on the first trilogy. Instead, I've chosen the second book of the second trilogy.

I have to admit that I was disappointed with the first part, La Belle Sauvage. Luckily, Pullman is right back on form with The Second Commonwealth. It's an ingenious metafiction: the reading equivalent of triple chocolate fudge cake.

Lyra is separated from the more intuitive side of herself - and her daemon, Pantalaimon - when she becomes enthralled by a bestselling novel, The Hyperchorasmians. In a quest to save Lyra, her daemon Pan sets off to rediscover her imagination.

The multi-layered plot twists mean that The Secret Commonwealth is a page-turner. But it's the philosophical discussions about what literature should do that keep me thinking long after the book has been returned to the shelf. 

In this time of crisis, separated from friends and family, it's our humanity that we miss most. Pullman's characters fill the gap: characters and relationships are his forte. They make this book a much-needed antidote to the stagnation and isolation of lockdown.

2. The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Suitably, this novel begins in a library: the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, in the old city of Barcelona. 

A rites-of-passage story involving a quest to find the writer of the novel that gives the book its name, The Shadow of the Wind is one of the most mesmerising books I have ever read. I hate to use the cliché "lyrical", but every once in a while there's a book that really is so aesthetically pleasing it's even sensual. 

At the end, when the plot threads have all been tied up, the narrator inhales "an enchanted scent of promise that comes with all new books". 

3. The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje 

This was a beautiful film, and is a sensual novel. It deals with the suffering caused by war, transporting the reader into the bombed-out ruins of an isolated Italian villa. Here, a bereaved nurse finds meaning in her life by nursing a badly burned patient. 

The back story is wonderfully tragic. The privations and danger, the legacy of the Second World War, are all undoubtedly present - but so, too, is love. 

Usually, I want to rush to the end of a book. It seems perverse to want to prolong those precarious days in the villa just because of the beauty of Ondaatje's prose. But, at the same time, I found it very hard to let go. 

4. The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry 

The arresting green and gold snake cover leads you into the marshes of Essex in the late 19th century, and subsequently into a debate about the power of faith and science, and romance (inevitably). 

How better can we escape our isolation and reconnect to the human race than via a gentle love story? But before you get too sentimental, there's an awful lot of rain to walk through. 

5Dear Life, by Rachel Clarke 

An excursion into non-fiction may seem the strangest of choices on which to end. Perhaps we can only retreat from the present for so long. 

This book seems to be everywhere: on the radio, on Twitter and in every bookshop I've passed. So I gave in and bought it. 

I never believed I would want to read a book about palliative care, still less did I expect to find it at all optimistic. But the quality of writing draws you in, as does the opening, with its redemptive vision. So far, it hasn't disappointed.

Yvonne Williams is head of English and drama in a secondary school in the South of England. She has contributed chapters on workload and wellbeing to Mentoring English Teachers in the Secondary School, edited by Debbie Hickman (Routledge) 

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