Novels and NovellasLinks and learning materials about English-language novels and novellas
In my twenty years as an English tutor, I’ve helped my students read, analyze, and write about about any number of novels. In the course of doing so, I’ve developed various materials to help them understand these books and prepare for tests or essays on them. I’ve chosen some of the more polished materials to share here. I’ll add more as time permits.
Anderson, Laurie Halse
Speak, about a ninth grader robbed of her life and identity by a traumatic experience, is one of my favorite books to teach to late middle school or early high school students because it’s written in a compellingly insightful and sarcastic voice and because it’s a powerful tool for teaching empathy.
Fahrenheit 451 is a quirky but fascinating and prophetic book that I have enjoyed discussing with many of my students. It’s always an exciting moment for me as a teacher when they, after almost always struggling with Bradbury’s style and ideas initially, make a breakthrough in understanding and appreciating the power of the story.
The Education of Little Tree is a soulful, wise, and humorous book about a boy’s Cherokee upbringing in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee during the Great Depression. I was introduced to it when I was 15 by a relative I loved dearly, and I’ve read it many times. Much later, I learned that the author was actually a white supremacist who changed his identity and hid his personal history, and that the source material may have been largely fictional. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s a beautiful story, but it does offer an opportunity for reflection and discussion. If you choose to read or teach this book, first understand its background, and read it (as one always should anyway) with a critical eye.
Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street is a unique coming-of-age story told in the form of a seemingly simple series of vignettes. Despite its brevity, it packs a remarkable dramatic and stylistic punch.
Although most American high school readers struggle a bit with nineteenth-century style, Dickens’s insights into the human condition are universal and timeless. Great Expectations is probably his most widely taught novel in American high schools.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott
I enjoy discussing The Great Gatsby because of how effectively it works on two levels, as both an entertaining story and a rich and carefully crafted work of literature.
The Scarlet Letter is a dense work that has tormented generations of students, though I think it’s the kind of suffering that builds character. The notes below will help you focus on the important aspects and characteristics of the novel. The excerpts, which feature selected key passages with notes and comprehension questions, will help you develop the skills you need to read the rest of the text.
Siddhartha presents deep and difficult philosophical issues in an incisive, memorable, and enjoyable way through the story of one character’s search for enlightenment. As a former student of philosophy, I have an abiding fondness for this book, which I highly recommend to anyone who is haunted by questions about what is often called “the human condition.”
Although George Orwell’s 1984 gets more attention from critics, and Orwell’s ideas and insights have rightly been singularly influential, Huxley’s Brave New World presents a different vision of a dystopian future that has also proven disturbingly prescient. Ideally, they should be read together for comparison and contrast.
Among dystopian science fiction novels, Never Let Me Go is unique in that it doesn’t conform to the standard patterns of the genre. It tells its haunting story about the moral hazards of technological advances by focusing on the lives and relationships of children at a boarding school as they grow up together.
The Bean Trees is, at least in the Bay Area where I lived for many years, a widely taught text, in part because it has the virtue of being both accessible to a general audience and rich in material for discussion and reflection. The following materials may be helpful to those reading it:
Le Guin, Ursula K.
Le Guin was a versatile and prolific writer and a remarkable human being, and I’ve read A Wizard of Earthsea more times than I can remember. It mixes magic and dragons with horror and philosophy and is stylistically unique among fantasy novels.
Dystopian science fiction just might be my favorite genre. The Giver is aimed at a somewhat younger audience than other dystopian novels like 1984 or Never Let Me Go, but it still fosters deep thinking about difficult philosophical questions while telling a moving story.
Taylor, Mildred D.
For anyone reading or teaching The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I recommend an essay by Shelley Fisher Fishkin that deals with a fresh and important interpretation of the depiction of Jim in the novel: In Praise of “Spike Lee’s Huckleberry Finn” by Ralph Wiley. Many critics and readers have focused on the issue of African-American stereotypes in the novel, and Fishkin’s essay discusses Wiley’s insightful approach to this issue.