Teachers are often on the lookout for unique books to get their students interested in the coursework and in literature in general. With the advent of technology that challenges young people to squeeze and entire story into 140 characters rather than 140 pages, the literary community and the educational community are both struggling to hold students’ attentions. Here are a few literary gems that teachers may wish to use to stimulate their students’ interests in literature and in learning. Though both quite unique, none is so outside the box that they have never been considered for use in the classroom.
My Ishmael by Daniel Quinn
Publication Date: 1997
My Ishmael opens with this line, “I think it’s pretty lousy to wake up at age sixteen and realize you’ve already been screwed” (1). This line is hard to ignore. It catches the attention of anyone who reads it. The novel is narrated by sixteen-year-old Julie, recounting a series of events that happened to her when she was twelve. Julie is the daughter of an alcoholic single mother who pays little attention to anything Julie does. One day Julie is cleaning the kitchen and comes across a newspaper ad that states, “Teacher Seeks Pupil: Must have earnest desire to save the world.” The ad also contains an address, so Julie sets out on a quest to answer the ad. She arrives and enters a strange room with a glass wall. It takes her a while to realize that on the other side of the glass is a gorilla. It turns out that the gorilla is a telepath named Ishmael, and he is the teacher. Together, Julie and Ishmael go on an educational journey that completely changes Julie’s understanding of the world around her (often through a series of stories). Ishmael helps Julie to see the world around her, and in turn Julie ends up helping Ishmael taking the two on a grand adventure. This book will expand your students’ minds more than you can even imagine! The stories that Ishmael tells Julie are simple and easy to understand but will challenge students to see the world (or better, “our culture”) in a completely different way. The book is an easy read but has challenging material (though nothing truly controversial). I would recommend it for sophomores in high school and older.
Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya
Publication Date: 1972
Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya is an acclaimed novel about a young boy named Antonio Marez. He lives in New Mexico with his family and the novel is set during World War II. Ultima, a curandera (a woman who heals with herbs and “white” magic), comes to live with his family when he is six years old. Antonio develops a close relationship with Ultima and learns magic and the use of herbs from her. Ultima is preoccupied with stopping the dark magic of the three daughters of the villainous Tenorio Trementina, a battle that Antonio becomes witness to and a part of. While all of this is going on, Antonio is also challenged to find his own identity trying to choose between the wildness and freedom of his father’s family and the deeply religious (Catholic) family of his mother. His mother wishes him to become a priest, but through his experiences with Ultima and through growing up Antonio moves farther and farther away from the Catholic faith. Ultimately this is a tale of growing up and finding one’s identity with religion and folk magic intertwined. It is a rich and beautiful story. This book can serve as a perfect introduction to Latino literature, and this particular novel is one of the most popular and acclaimed in the genre. It is appropriate for students as young as freshmen up to seniors. If you are trying to introduce more multicultural literature into your curriculum, this would be perfect for you.
These are just two literary examples that can be used to spark students’ interests. Keep an eye out for my next piece on adolescent literature that explores unique novels that poignantly explore issues of importance to students’ lives today. Novels that will speak to them and craw them into their schoolwork.