In my job, I get easy access to a huge amount of books. Most of that is young adult literature, and when I really like a YA novel I inevitably end up thinking about its potential as an English class text. Before I moved to Sydney, I taught at a selective high school for different blocks of time and subjects. Mostly English, but also Drama, Ancient History, Society& Culture (with one or two terrifying PE periods – I’m thankful no one got hurt!). The teachers I worked with were AMAZING people, both as educators and as general human beings, and at times the students had moments of intelligence and creativity that make me smile years down the track (they also had moments of being noisy and obnoxious, but that’s less important to remember).
(Below – essential staffroom equipment and the gorgeous view from my old desk)
I also spent about a year tutoring primary and high school students in English once I moved to Sydney. As an English teacher or tutor, you’re constantly on the lookout for texts that are new and interesting that have classroom potential. What you can teach is obviously very tied to the syllabus requirements, the particular culture of your school and the age of the students – and actually having the time to wade through new books, movies & articles can be a daunting task for an already time-pressed teacher. Every now and then I think to send a quick message to an old co-worker with suggestions of books I’ve read recently that could be useful in a classroom, but I haven’t been keeping track of these – I’d like to start now. An ongoing feature on this blog will be new & older/potentially overlooked books that I think could be useful to teachers – whether as set texts or even just to recommend to a student. I’m probably going to keep my notes fairly casual rather than specifically going into detail about which outcomes/etc would be addressed in studying a particular title. I’m also not doing books in any particular order at this point, it’s just what comes to mind first.
Illuminae by Jay Kristoff & Amie Kaufman –
Ok, it’s a large, heavy book and might be a tough sell for a class set of 30 but this would be such a fun novel to teach, even just a close study of an extract. You’ve got a fairly relatable high school breakup angle, along with the slightly less relateable but very exciting spaceship war going on, and the storytelling is done through so many different text types – interview transcripts, official reports, casualty lists, and more. Experiencing a story in this way can help students be more creative in their storytelling as they see a model of ‘showing, not telling’. The inclusion of propaganda and meaningful silences in the story can be a gateway to discussions of critical literacy and the essentially biased nature of history where the winners write the definitive accounts. It’s scifi that’s found a place with lots of people who don’t normally enjoy scifi (me, for one) and could potentially open up a teen to whole areas of literature they’ve not considered before.
The visual element of Illuminae is also a key factor in my enthusiasm for its use as a teaching tool. The different types of documents all look authentic and stand out from each other, and in the second half of the books a particular character’s thoughts are presented in artistic, striking ways that feel like they belong in a graphic novel (trying to do this without too many spoilers).
A really good interview with both authors can be found here, and I want to spotlight one particular point Kaufman makes about the balance of plot and form, for anyone concerned that the novelty of the format could overshadow the story.
Although you can’t separate out the story from the way we tell it in ILLUMINAE, we wanted to make sure that the characters had depth, that our plot had all the twists and turns, surprises and swoons and drama that you’d hope for in a book you love. We wanted the story to be good enough that even if it had been written in the conventional way, readers would love it—and then we wanted to meld it with the alternate format we’d chosen. So that meant really looking at every character arc and every inch of the plot, and making it stand up to the standards we’d set.
I’m not the only one who strongly feels that Kaufman and Kristoff most definitely succeeded in creating such a story – Illuminae received fantastic reviews. “Ambitious, heartbreaking, and out-of-this-world awesome” was one review’s closing line, and I’ve seen this sentiment echoed many times in real life, on blogs and Twitter since the book’s release last year. One review in Publishers Weekly stated “The more experimental sections may require extra effort on readers’ parts, but the result is worth it” which seems like a ringing endorsement for educational use in my view. The sequel, Gemina is coming out later this year, Brad Pitt’s production company is turning it into a movie and another series from the pair has just been announced, so the reaction to Illuminae has been positive in a range of ways.
There are some seriously creepy horror elements & violence that would make Illuminae most appropriate in my opinion for senior students. I know there are many younger teens that can and should read this novel on their own, but if you’re teaching a novel in class it can be risky to assign anything too scary/adult (it’s all about knowing your students and your school’s philosophy around this kind of thing, really). You can definitely find excerpts that would be safe for most high school classrooms, and if you haven’t read Illuminae yet, I highly recommend you do so.