One of my first assignments for my AP Literature students the past two years is to write about their lives through a journey of four books. I made a commitment in my teaching manifesto to write alongside my students, so I will attempt to narrow this list to choose four books that have been significant in my life as a reader.
“Oh, you’re an English teacher. What’s your favorite book?” What a loaded question. When interviewed by Parade magazine, author Ann Hood said of choosing favorite books that these books “show us something at the exact moment we are seeking it.”
Books from my past, present, and even my future (the towering to-be-read list) loom large in my mind. Is it a literary classic? A book we read for book club? One that I have shared with my children?
Book #1: The first book of significance in my life was I Am a Bunny (A Golden Sturdy Book) by Richard Scarry. This was the first book that I learned to “read” or rather memorize. My mom had a cassette tape of my reciting Nicholas’ story as he journeyed through the seasons and finally curls up in his hollow tree and “dreams about spring.” I have my childhood copy that I now share with my boys.
Book #2: The next important work was the first series that made me a voracious reader, Sweet Valley Twins and, of course, the grown-up counterpart, Sweet Valley High. The main characters, Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield, were beautiful, older than me, and had the most interesting lives. They had boyfriends, and cars, and California tans. With titles like Jessica’s Secret, The Older Boy, and The New Girl, what 8-12 year old could resist?
Of course, I identified most with Elizabeth. She was dependable and serious; she loved to read, and I clearly remember her starting a sixth grade newspaper. I loved Elizabeth, but I was entertained by Jessica and her escapades. Francine Pascal’s series finished with 144 books. I am certain that I did not read all of them, but I read a ton. I remember distinctly going to the bookstore in the mall where my mom bought the next book in the series for me. I started reading it as we rode down the escalator and finished before I went to bed that night. Strangely enough, I do not consider myself a “series reader” at all now. I feel like there are just too many books to be read to focus just on one series; however, I am always so thankful to authors’ series that get kids hooked on reading.
Book #3: Early on in high school I knew I wanted to be a teacher, but I actually thought that I would be a math teacher. My sophomore year, we read To Kill a Mockingbird and I felt like I was reading “real” literature for the first time. The following year, an essay I wrote about Harper Lee won several local awards. I started to realize that I loved to read and write and I just possibly might be good at it.
I went on teach TKAM in sophomore English for six years in a row, sometimes to six classes a year. I used to be able to recite large portions of the text when prompted. I miss teaching so many scenes in the novel, especially when Calpurnia takes the children to her church. I also looked forward to seeing the students act out the courtroom scene. Atticus’ kind-nature and wise words made this a book I looked forward to teaching and reading over and over.
Book #4: The logical place to go next in this book journey would be a book from my college days. I mean, I was an English major after all. I recall several poets and writers that made an impact on me during those years: Adrienne Rich, James Baldwin and Ernest Gaines; however, there is no full length work that I remember just swooning over. I think it was the sheer magnitude of reading in all of my classes that made all reading a rushed job.
So, the final book to make an impression in this journey was the first book that really demonstrated the joy of sharing a novel with a class. In my third year of teaching seventh grade language arts, armed with too much confidence and tons of scholastic teacher points, I ordered a classroom set of Christopher Paul Curtis’ Bud, Not Buddy. I bought enough Ticonderoga pencils for all of my students so they could really see just how the orphan Bud was woken up by a foster sibling shoving a pencil up his nose “all the way to the R.” This opening scene always had the students hooked, and then Bud was off on his journey.
We laughed and cried with Bud. We journaled, wrote poetry, and made connections to math, geography, and history. I loved teaching it so much that then I order Curtis’ first book, The Watson’s Go to Birmingham, and we did it all over again.
Your challenge: I really want to hear about the four books that show your journey as a reader in the comments below. It is harder than you think! There are no great tomes of literary merit on my list. Just the ones the made a difference to me as a reader.
Honorable Mention Books:
The Nancy Drew Series–My father read these books to me each night which scared me to death, but I never told him because I was afraid he would stop reading them to me.
The Grapes of Wrath–I did not appreciate this book in high school at all, but on a second-read in my 20s realized the profound political importance of this book. I went on to teach this for eight years under mixed review from students, but the ones who gave it a true chance will never forget the Joads (or possibly Mae, the one-eyed man, and the turtle).
The Glass Castle–This book showed me how wonderful nonfiction can be.
Call of the Wild Great Illustrated Classic–Patrick’s first favorite book
Ralph and the Motorcycle–Liam’s first chapter book
Thank you to Roy Smith for the idea of the four book journey.