Ten Texts I Never Would Have Read–Had It Not Been for a Recommendation by Shawna Coppola

I take great pride in being the sort of person whose essence can be difficult to “nail down.” Take a look at my Twitter feed and you’ll see that I post about everything from education reform, to inequality, to literacy learning, to The Bachelor. My iPhone’s music library is filled with a wide spectrum of tunes, spanning 80’s bubblegum pop all the way to the “Blood Theme” from Dexter (which, as it turns out, doubles as my ringtone). Most perplexing of all is my personal book collection, which includes titles that range from Tina Fey’s Bossypants to Lucy Knisley’s Relish to one of the best short story compilations of all time, Gary Soto’s Baseball in April.


So when friends, family, and colleagues recommend titles for me to read, they often miss the mark (by a lot–looking at you, Middlesex). Their suggestions are thoughtful–and enormously appreciated–but tend to be slightly under-nuanced: “If she likes Bossypants, she’ll love Mindy Kaling’s latest!” (Not laugh-out-loud-funny enough.) “She raved about Gone Girl, so I’m convinced she’ll enjoy The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” (If I could navigate all those unfamiliar Swedish names, maybe.) And instead of becoming part of my ever-growing hoard of “most beloved” texts, these recommendations more often than not become paperweights, dust-collectors…yard sale fodder.


There are times, however, when the recommendations of those who know me well–and occasionally, those who don’t know me at all–are so spot-on that I wanted to take the time honor them here. These are texts that, for a variety of reasons, would likely have never found their way into my reader’s heart had it not been for a smart, and timely, recommendation. For that, I am forever grateful.

WWF jacketmech_OTP-REV.indd

World Without Fish by Mark Kurlansky and Frank Stockton


A beautifully-illustrated, narrative nonfiction account of what is happening to our oceans–and its alarming impact on the rest of our world–World Without Fish would certainly never have entered my radar had it not been for a colleague of mine, an astute, eclectic reader who also happened to recommend…


The Riverman

The Riverman by Aaron Starmer


There really is no way to adequately describe this book–or its intended audience–except to say that it’ll grab you from its first chapter (as it did me) and refuse to let go until you devour every single one of its 320 pages. It is a darkly funny, heartbreaking, perfectly-attuned account of a loner tween and his unlikely friendship with a decidedly atypical girl-next-door. As soon as I read my colleague’s classroom copy of this fantastical yarn, which she stealthily left on my desk one afternoon, I ran out and bought my own.

before after

Before After by Matthias Arégui & Anne-Margot Ramstein


Another colleague of mine–one of the most book-savvy educators I know–has a penchant for recommending titles that’ll get both kids and grown-ups talking. This wordless, digitally-illustrated book is seemingly simple, but full of complexity in its depiction of before-after pairs (an acorn and an oak; a slingshot and a broken window). I fell in love with both its content and its design, which are perfect for sparking a slew of conversations among readers both young and old.


ant man

Ant-Man: Season One by Tom Defalco


I’m all for comics, but I’m more of the Betty and Veronica, Calvin and Hobbes-type of comic fan. Action heroes? Meh. But when a student recommends a text to read, I read it. No matter what. And after thoroughly enjoying this classic origin story of the original Avenger (after suffering the unexpected loss of his beloved wife, of course), I found myself eyeing the rest of the comics in this Marvel hardcover series during my next trip to the local book store.



Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy


While I’ve always been darkly fascinated by the spectacle of beauty pageants, my only connection to Dolly Parton, an idol of gutsy protagonist Willowdean Dickson, was when she played salon owner Truvy Jones in Steel Magnolias back in 1989. But when a Twitter pal told me this genuine story of a spunky Texan teen was a “must-read,” I downloaded the sample of this heart-stealing book, and Willowdean instantly shot into my Top Ten list of Favorite Protagonists of all time. A few short hours later, I was clutching the hefty book in my hands and gazing, starry-eyed, at its gorgeously spare cover design.



Revolution by Deborah Wiles


As a fan of vintage vinyl, cat-eye glasses, and Mad Men, you may have thought that this second installment of The Sixties Trilogy would be right up my alley. But admittedly, the book’s breadth, along with its genre-bending mash-up of photographs, song lyrics, poetry, and speeches, scared me off. Thank goodness Penny Kittle requested that my classmates and I read this fictional account of two tweens during the Freedom Summer of 1964 for one of her outstanding NH Literacy Institute courses, or Revolution may never have become what it now has–one of my absolute favorite books of all time.


mental floss
Mental Floss magazine


Back in the early aughts, my friend Randy–by all accounts one of the nerdiest (but most lovable) guys within my social circle–practically salivated as, over dinner one evening, he relayed what he’d learned from reading an article about patents in one of his favorite new periodicals. “You’d like it,” he told me, flashing his goofy grin. And he was right. Mental Floss may sound boring (see: article about patents), but it’s anything but: each issue is chock-full of witty, visually-appealing features about everything from “Dirty Hotel Secrets” to “8 Genius Ideas That Will Change the World.” Not convinced? Check out one of the best pieces from their November issue, “21 Writers on Their Favorite Bookstores,” and then get back to me.


into thin air

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer


OK, look. I’m not the most adventurous person in the world. And sub-zero temperatures? Probably not my thing, considering my favorite part of any ski outing is the aprés-ski portion of the day. But for whatever reason, my then-boyfriend-and-future-husband, David, told me to give this nonfiction account of the 1996 disaster that left several would-be Everest conquerors dead a chance. I did, and can say with all honesty that this incredible read was the beginning of my ongoing love affair with narrative nonfiction. Over fifteen years later, I’m still chasing the reading flow I experienced while reading this heart-stopping, real-life tale.


doodle revolution

Doodle Revolution by Sunni Brown


Don’t try to persuade me to read a book from the “Business” section of the book store by telling me it’ll transform my teaching life. Yet that’s just what a kind stranger did nearly two years ago when she pointed me to Sunni Brown’s ode to the power of visual thinking. Thank goodness I was in a generous mood that day, or I likely would never have laid my hands on this fascinating, mind-opening book that–you guessed it–has quite literally transformed my teaching life.


god got a dog

God Got a Dog by Cynthia Rylant & Marla Frazee


I hope I don’t offend anybody by saying this, but putting the word “God” in a book title is a sure-fire way to send me running in the opposite direction. But you guys. This book. Originally published in 2003 with the title God Went to Beauty School, this thought-provoking, witty, imaginative collection of poetry received a second chance at life when it was reorganized, repackaged, and accompanied by Marla Frazee’s fantastic illustrations. My personal favorite, “God Got a Boat,” concludes with two of my favorite last lines of any poem I’ve read. This is the only text in this list for which I cannot recall how it ended up in my lap–only that someone recommended it to me late in the summer of 2013. If you, beautiful person, are out there reading this…thank you.


Shawna works as a literacy specialist in rural New Hampshire, where she and her family are currently building a roomful of floor-to-ceiling bookcases in order to keep up with her ever-growing stacks of reading material in their home. For those of you who recommended a text that was not featured here, she was only kidding about the whole “yard sale fodder” thing. If you are interested in extending this list, however, feel free to send her your recommendations at shawnacoppola@gmail.com or via Twitter, where you can find her at @shawnacoppola. Good luck!