The books I studied at school were rubbish. The one memorable exception was Robert C O’Brien’s apocalyptic allegory Z for Zachariah. My classmates and I were growing up next door to Greenham Common with its American warheads, so the diary-novel’s incredible resonance with us could have been measured in kilotons.
Now, as a teacher in the war against distraction, functionalism and cultural impoverishment, there’s little point bothering with conventional weapons. I’ve found the following books can have a nuclear impact. Here are five books you simply have to teach GCSE and A-level students.
Background: Five reasons why teaching is like Warhammer
More Than This by Patrick Ness
“Here is the boy drowning.” From the opening line you’re in that freezing, terrifying water, too, and I’m not sure I’ve encountered a more arresting piece of writing than the prologue. I love reading it aloud to classes, taking my time to draw out every visceral, breath-taking word. Even in the toughest contexts, it’s never failed to hush a group into rapt silence. After the plunging ordeal of the prologue, the first chapter hits them with a mystery that cannot be left unanswered. I’ve no idea how many copies of that book I’ve ordered over years leading literacy and English, but whatever Patrick Ness owes me in royalties is small change compared to the value of the open-mouthed wonder I’ve seen his writing provoke.
Amadeus by Peter Shaffer
OK, so it’s a play, not a novel, but I only promised “books”. It was the text that bonded an A-level literature group in my first year teaching. Either I had more energy and creativity back then or I’m looking back with rose-tinted nostalgia, but I remember running a mock trial of Salieri, playing the overture to Don Giovanni during timed-essay practice and abandoning the classroom for any vaguely suitable drama space every time we needed to read a scene. I recall nagging one student to note down more key quotations, and as quick as a flash she tapped her forehead and quoted Shaffer’s comical Mozart: “It’s all right here in my noodle.” The truth is, I was an unqualified teacher back then with no idea what I was doing, but Amadeus remains a delightful highlight.
Between Shades of Grey by Ruta Sepetys
This unfortunately titled young-adult novel, which was published around the same time as its almost-namesake, tells the story of a girl deported to Siberia during Stalin’s repressions. It was nominated for the Carnegie Medal in 2012. A year earlier, I’d taken on a Year 8 tutor group who I also saw for English. I was told that they had driven my predecessor out of the school and the word “feral” was whispered to me with pity. Through a little bloody-mindedness and a lot of help from the writers of the transformative books we read together, things were very different by the time they got to Year 9. We took part in the wonderful Carnegie, shadowing events that ran alongside the book prize. Seeing those kids movingly acting out the roles of characters 80 years and thousands of miles distant from them was one of my proudest moments. One of the questions the book prompted was, “Why did Stalin want to get rid of teachers?” With the outrage behind their question, they had become their own answer.
Tales from the Loop published by Fria Ligan
Again, not a novel, but this captivatingly illustrated book contains a role-playing game that transports its players to a small town in an alternative version of the 80s. The school caretaker is a mad scientist, the librarian is an android, and was that a dinosaur in the woods? I used this for an extracurricular club a few years ago and it felt like the students were creating their very own episode of Stranger Things every fortnight. Their humour, storytelling and attention to detail were deeply impressive, with their hideout in an old water tower so vividly realised in their enthusiastic descriptions that I can still picture it now.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Under one of the old English literature specifications, I was guilty of lingering over my favourite novel for almost 18 months with a GCSE group, then cramming the whole of the language paper into the last few weeks prior to the exam. It was worth it. I think the group, ironically, loved how much I loved it. I made a poster to stare down at them from above my whiteboard: “What would Atticus do?” which they took to quoting back at me as a non-sequitur.
“Becca, can you put your hair straighteners away?”
“What would Atticus do?”
They also very gently but firmly put a stop to my attempt at a southern-states accent when reading it out. “It’s a good book,” they told me, “so please don’t do that.”
I haven’t had the opportunity to teach it since reading the sequel Go Set a Watchman and I’m not sure I could separate the two now. Mockingbird captures our sepia longing for innocence whereas Watchman hits you with a sucker punch of disillusionment.
'Selling the soul of the subject'
Back to the literacy wars, and part of the problem is that the sides are so entrenched they’re tearing English in two. The functionalists are willing to sell the soul of our subject to meet the imagined needs of employers. On the other side are those living a Dead Poets fantasy where they imagine that their teaching of Thomas Hardy has the lads from the estate gathering in the park on Saturday night to recite Byron. Meanwhile, in reality, the disadvantage gap persists and young people are stopping reading.
We must keep them engaged with books, by any means, until they reach out for them willingly and full of curiosity, so that, like the boy in the Patrick Ness novel, they start asking questions: “Haven’t you ever felt that there has to be more? Like there’s more out there somewhere, just beyond your grasp?”
Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in an FE college. He is an ambassador for education charity SHINE