Not THAT Top 10 List by Cathy Blackler
It was my original intent to write a “Top 10 Most Pilfered Books from my Classroom Library” post. Teachers and librarians everywhere could easily come up with their own lists, containing the books that you repurchase each and every year, after discovering that they have failed to make their way back to your bookshelves.
This is not that list. While the titles came easily, my mind kept drifting to another set of books. The books that are hand delivered back to me, so matter-of-factly, with the “let’s talk about it” expression. These titles want a list. These titles need a list.
10. The Rose that Grew from Concrete by Tupac Shakur
This book could easily make both lists. I have a class set; hence they are housed in the class set “cubbies.” Some of the most genuine and authentic conversations my students have with one another each year center around the poems in this collection; poems that are both accessible and powerful. Recently I had a young woman volunteer to read her favorite poem aloud. “Under the Skies Above,” subtitled “After the Miscarriage.” The strength it took for her to share this poem, also her personal story, will undoubtedly help her move towards healing. With titles like “The Eternal Lament” (great vocabulary!), “Things that Make Hearts Break,” and “The Power of a Smile,” my readers are drawn in. I always have requests to take this book home, and it is usually returned, the reader better for having savored it in solitude.
9. Butter by Erin Jade
We all yearn for acceptance. Students find an unlikely ally in Butter, a 423-pound high school Junior who makes an unbelievable decision that is met with surprising reactions. Butter’s pain is palpable, and my readers feel it. I believe empathy is something that cannot be taught in and of itself, like tying your shoes. Sharing someone’s journey in the pages of a book provides us with a window of opportunity. A window through which we can glimpse experiences that helps us to remember to
“be Kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”
8. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Sáenz has written a beautiful love story, plain and simple. My readers, regardless of their sexual orientation, love this story. They want to be friends with Ari and Dante. They long to experience a romance that is not fraught with the drama and entanglements associated with the balkiness of adolescence. Dante’s self-assuredness coupled with Ari’s uncertainty marries perfectly with the teenage perspective on a number of issues. So much is written about powerful first lines in novels, but the last sentence in this book is exceptional ending to an outstanding novel.
7. Crank by Ellen Hopkins
Crank, like The Rose That Grew from Concrete, could have easily made the “pilfered” list as well. While my copies are usually returned by the close of the school year, it is only after they have been passed around from one reader to the next of the course of 180 days, and sometimes into summer. Students need to share Christina/Bree’s story with one another, even with classmates who are normally not immediately thought of as readers. Book movers will enter into some impressive tactics of persuasion in an effort to ensnare more readers. More readers mean more opportunities to discuss. It provides my students with a sense of community where one didn’t necessarily exist before.
6. Winger by Andrew Smith
Just as Crank is propelled throughout our school by teenage Book Movers, Winger floats along, from reader to reader via peer endorsements; trumping my mere mortal teacher recommendation more often than not. Like Crank, Winger reaches my students who don’t frequent the bookshelves. Ryan Dean’s story is one that immediately draws readers in; not an easy feat given the size of the book. Once they find themselves lost in the pages they rarely come up for air. More than one young man has admitted to becoming “a little teary” upon completion, and pauses just long enough to spot someone in class who needs to read “this book.”
5. Cinder by Marissa Meyer
Readers who take a chance on Cinder, a Science Fiction Fantasy novel, return it clamoring for more. ‘You said there is a second book? Do you have it?” Meyer’s world building is spectacular. Her ability to seamlessly thread time-honored fairy tales within this world gives readers a touchstone. As a teacher I am constantly reflecting on my readers. I believe that they are drawn to contemporary literature because they see themselves in these stories. So unsure of their own place in the world, they experience a sense of triumph as they journey along with characters and plots straight out of their own homes and neighborhoods, thereby validating their own journey. Meyer’s smart series is a great way to move readers beyond their comfort zone, allowing them to experience the power of universal themes to transcend plot and story.
4. Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr
Our school offers a program for Pregnant/Parenting Teens. These students are a subgroup of our population who desperately need to make sense of their world, other’s reactions/perceptions of their world, and how they can move forward without becoming yet another statistic. Zarr’s story strikes a cord with these readers. They are especially moved by the relationship between Deanna and her father, something shared with me by almost every reader when the book is returned. The recent “Why we need diversity in Children’s Literature” campaign hit home when David Lubar posted his photo on Facebook. “We need diversity because kids who never see themselves IN a book will eventually become the kids we see WITHOUT a book.” Zarr’s novel is one that, when handed to a reader, is often met with a look of incredible disbelief. There is a book about what I am going through? Is this even possible? All readers should find themselves in the pages of a book. It is our job as educators to make this possible.
3. Cracked by K.M. Walton
Walton has written a novel that is relatable on a number of levels. My readers find pieces of themselves in Victor AND Bull. Once again, they learn to empathize. Blurred lines thus far have shadowed much of their own experience. Recommending this book to a few students at the start of the school year sends it on its way for the remainder. The pain both boys experience as the story progresses is real, providing many readers with that pathway over what to them may seem to be insurmountable obstacles. As high school teachers is it easy to forget that the big, self-assured boy, on the verge of manhood, didn’t always appear this way. More than once I have had a boy share that he was the victim of bullying in elementary school; something that may not have occurred to either of us to discuss were it not for Walton’s incredible story.
2. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
I apologize for appearing as if I am bandwagoning this selection. Green’s snarky, tragic love story about what it means to live, NOT what it means to die, has been a visceral experience for many of my students. I receive sobbing text messages, am ambushed heading back into my classroom, and more than with any other book, I am shown a debt of gratitude by readers who borrow copies from my library. Green is the current Rock God of YA Lit. I myself have ridden on those rock star coattails. When I share my picture taken with him at the LA Times Book Prizes and recount the conversation we had (“Yes,” I tell them, “I actually spoke with him!”), my students feel special, too. My status has been further propelled very recently as I was privileged to attend a pre-screening of the film Thursday night. I am emotionally spent; the same response the book has created for my readers, and readers everywhere. Green’s novel creates a true bonding experience amongst those who venture inside its pages.
1. Mexican White Boy by Matt de la Peña
I taught this book whole class for the first time this year. The experience created a bond within my classroom community like no other. When the final page was turned, boys asked me to “read the next page” (the acknowledgements). When that was finished they asked me to “read the next page” (the author bio). They were not ready for Danny’s story to end. Students in other classes, seeing the books stacked on the table groups each and every day, begged me to let them borrow it as soon as the other class was finished. Danny’s story of loss, pain and uncertainty shakes my students’ to their deepest emotional core, often causing them to look at themselves in the mirror and face issues they’d long thought were dead and buried. Matt de la Peña tells the story not just for Danny but also for all the others who travel his journey.
No good list is complete without a bonus pick. For this I will select The Secret Story of Sonia Rodriguez by Alan Sitomer. I don’t like to limit the choices of my readers. In order to get them to make choices, however, I have to get them in the game. To do that I need to find a book that will speak to them, and them alone. Each time I hand Sonia to a girl in my classroom, as she reads the inside flap; there is inevitably a pause. Then there is a look. Then there is “this book sounds like it was written about my life!” With that type of connection comes buy in to the powerful reading experience, something that the majority of my students haven’t had in who knows how long.
My students, and students everywhere, need to see themselves in the pages of books; whether they see themselves in Sonia Rodriguez, Ryan Dean West, or Linh Cinder is of little consequence. What matters is that someone who is far more eloquent than they are at this point in their lives has validated their story. It may be just the push they need to find their own voice and to validate their own story. For this, their teacher is forever indebted to all these authors, and so many more.
Cathy Blackler teaches High School English in Southern California. A proud, card-carrying member of the #nerdybookclub, she served as her District’s Teacher of the Year during the 2012-2013 school year, is currently serving a three-year term on the California Young Reader Medal (CYRM) Committee, and was recently inducted into her High School’s Alumni Hall of Fame. She truly leads a reading life, and still owns the first book she purchased with her own money.