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I was recently invited to submit a column to The Nerdy Book Club, a well-known book blog moderated by four teachers, so I thought it would be a great opportunity to talk about classics – because that’s sort of what I wrote about.
The impetus for the discussion was actually a discussion I had with my tenth grade English class after we finished reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I love the book, of course, and while the majority of my students could see its merits they also wondered why we were reading something so – as they put it – old. So that lead us to a great discussion of what makes a book a classic.
What makes a book a classic?
First off we had to decide on the criteria we’d use to determine whether or not a book is a classic. In the end, we liked the list of qualities Laura Miller listed in her Salon article “What makes a book a classic?” She actually compiled her list from a Goodreads discussion. So, according to Miller via Goodreads a classic
- Must have stood the test of time
- Be filled with eternal verities
- Capture the essence and flavor of its own age
- Have had a significant effect on that age
- Have something important to say
- Achieve some form of aesthetic near-perfection
- Be challenging or innovative in some respect
- Scholars and other experts must endorse it and study it (I guess that leave out 50 Shades of Grey)
- It has been included in some prestigious series like Penguin Classics or Modern Library
- It appears on lists of great books
Ultimately, though, our idea of a classic is probably defined by our own personal and highly subjective criteria…meaning, I guess, 50 Shades is back on the list.
So what happened to To Kill a Mockingbird based on this criteria. Well, of course, TKaM totally meets most of that criteria and my students could see that, for sure. Will this list make the book any more palatable for students who don’t necessarily want to read it? Like, is there anything worse than someone telling you you MUST read a book and write an essay? Unless you’re totally geeky like me, probably not, right?
My students wanted a crack at compiling their own list of classics. So, they had to pick a book – any book they’d read – and pitch it to the class. These are books that they really felt should be available for them to read in the classroom. Studied even. I’ve got 25 students in that class, so I’m not going to share all their titles, and truthfully I didn’t agree with all of them, but I will share three.
The Book of Lost Things – John Connolly
So some people might know John Connolly as the author of Charlie Parker mysteries. If you’re already a fan, you can’t go wrong with this book. It’s the story of 12-year-old David who goes on a magical quest to save his mother after she dies. And that’s the simple version. I read this book a couple years ago and I heartily recommend it.
The Art of Racing in the Rain – Garth Stein
Now this is a book I haven’t read, but the student who pitched it, Chloie, totally sold it. Kirkus says the novel “uses a dog as narrator to clever effect in this tear-jerker about an aspiring race-car driver who suffers more woes than Job but never mistreats his dog.” Chloie said she’s read it several times and never gets sick of it, always sees something new in it. I think a book the bears up under repeat readings is pretty solid.
13 Reasons Why – Jay Asher
Now this one I have read and this one I do have some issues with, but what I like about the selection is that it demonstrated how impactful the book was for this student and there was a lot of agreement in the class about the books merits. Will it stand the test of time – or will other books eclipse it. I think probably, but what Asher did do is find a unique and original way to tackle a really difficult subject – teen suicide.
Other titles the students suggested included:
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – J.K. Rowling
I Am Malala – Malala Yousafzai, Christina Lamb
Perfect Chemistry – Simone Elkeles
The Book Thief – Marcus Zusak
The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky
Freak the Mighty – Rodman Philbrick
The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien
City of Bones – Cassandra Clare
Pawn of Prophecy – David Eddings
Ruby Red – Kerstin Gier
Playing with Fire – Theoren Fleury, Kirstie McLellan Day
I Hunt Killers – Barry Lyga
The Green Mile – Stephen King
The interesting thing was the some of these books, by their advocate’s admission, did not stand up to Miller’s criteria – but they loved the book anyway. And that’s good enough for me.
Speaking of classics, Huffington Post recently posted a list of the 20 new classics every child should own. These are picture books geared for younger readers.