5 Books You Wish You Read in High School

Before I went crazy and decided to be a perfume maker, I taught middle and high school English. That lasted a hot minute and I am one of the people who buckled under the pressure of teaching. I worked with students in the inner cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco and it was one of the most joyous, enlightening, humbling, and heartbreaking (all at once) experiences of my life. Yesterday, my friend told me about a new book by Sara Benincasa called Great. It's a YA geared retelling of The Great Gatsby with gender-swapped characters. I haven't read it yet but I can't wait, the reviews are pretty stellar and its supposed to be wickedly funny. I bring this up because as I read the description of the novel it reminded me of my biggest failing (but also biggest breakthrough) as a teacher.

Picture it: I was a newly certified teacher taking over for my master teacher who left on maternity leave. The kids knew me in the role of cool teacher helper who had their back, and now I have the audacity to come in and tell them what to do. The first month was hard and I was desperate to re-connect with them and find a piece of literature to bring them back to me. I thought back to my high school days - what was my favorite book to read in English class? Lord of the Flies. It was violent and scary and had all that crazy Freudian/religious stuff going on. Plus, lets tie it into Lost (which was in it's last season at the time) and do a survivalist, philosophical theme, it will be great! And it was great, they loved it and their minds were blown when they found out Lord of the Flies means "the devil." But the very first day one of them raised their hand after we were only a few pages in. "Ms. why are we reading a book about a group of British white boys?" My heart sank. In that second it all clicked for me - my upbringing and background were privileged in a way these kids hadn't seen and instead of finding something that spoke to them, I just rolled out the same "classics of literature" and expected them to react the same way I did.

I'm not saying that the classics shouldn't be taught or that they aren't relevant. That's not the case at all. But so often in high school English (at least from what I saw from my fellow colleagues and what I was guilty of) was an adherence to the old standards with modern supplements strewn in on a limited time budget. Which, again, is fine and at least we're throwing them a bone by including things they might like, however, the bulk of what they are tested on is the old stuff. Why not start integrating more diverse books and using the classics as the backup? Or have special English classes devoted to modern literature? When I say diverse and modern, I don't just mean issues of race (in the classroom described above I was the only white person which is problematic for lots of reasons I won't get into here) but also issues of gender, and one of the most important things I found during my time teaching - having texts that were representative of my students' neighborhoods/cities. And none of this is a question of whether or not modern students can handle the complexity of classic literature (um they totally can and excel at it) but more a matter of being tired of stories told by predominantly rich, white, privileged characters. Hell, I fall into that group (sans wealth) and I get tired of it.

So here are some ideas for books that we might look to that can speak to modern kids. I'm not adding Great to this list just yet since I still need to read it, but that's what we need to be going for!

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian (I'm going to write most about this because I actually taught it)

Of course today, the day I write this blog post, some school district in Idaho bans this book. I really don't know why, this book is absolutely amazing and should be required reading for all students. Sherman Alexie's semi-autobiographical novel won the National Book Award and is loosely based on his life growing up on a reservation, or "rez" as he calls it in the book. It's funny, it's heartbreaking, it's about real teenagers. The premise is that a 14 year old Native American boy named Junior, a smarty, a cartoonist, a basketball player, but most important of all, a kid who dreams of breaking the cycle of poverty and making a new life for himself, decides to transfer to an all white school. Junior has to navigate the world of the white people who don't accept him for his race, as well as his tribe who feels that he has betrayed them. This in addition to dealing with teenage hormones, a disability, death in his family, alcohol abuse, and poverty. The language in this book is accessible and it absolutely killed when I taught this. Before we started I brought in photos of a reservation (I can't recall which one) but the photo series was from Harper's Magazine and it was about alcoholism and poverty in the particular tribe it represented. We did a gallery walk and the students looked at the photos and then had to write reactions. This was paired with an excerpt from Howard Zinn's A Young People's History of the United States (more on this below). This unit was poignant and all of my students - African-American, Asian, Hispanic, White (no Native American kids in my classes unfortunately) - connected with the material. Junior is an underdog, an everyman. You root for him. The book is also hilarious. This was my favorite thing to teach.

The Madonnas of Echo Park

I mentioned earlier how important it is for student's to read books that take place in their neighborhood. When I taught in LA it was for middle school and this book is way too advanced for that; I didn't pull it out at the high school in San Francisco because the Nor Cal/So Cal rivalry is apparently a real thing and those kids would have killed me if I brought in an LA book. This novel follows a similar format to the movie Crash and features interconnected stories from a cast of characters spanning several decades of Echo Park in Los Angeles. Madonnas, like Crash, explores the different people that comprise the neighborhood but mostly focuses on the plight of Mexican-Americans and how they live between their traditional and "adoptive" worlds. The author's words are elegant and as someone who lived in the area, it was a completely surreal experience to read about my neighborhood and know exactly what he's talking about and just nod in agreement with everything. I can't even imagine what that would be like for a kid who maybe hadn't shown an interest in reading before - you see yourself on the page.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

This book, a Pulitzer Prize Winner, is slated to be a modern classic. If it's not being taught already, it will be. Oscar Wao is another hilarious underdog character who is grappling with the realities of life as a member of an immigrant family in America. It's been a long time since I've read this book so it'd be better if you go read a summary (or the book outright!) but like the previous two books mentioned, I love how relatable the character is for young readers (he likes Tolkien and Marvel). This book as well as Madonnas are both more advanced so I'd wait until junior or senior year (or even honors classes).

The Hunger Games

I have mixed feelings about the inclusion of this book because I don't think it's the best thing out there, but there are two reasons why I feel that teachers should spend a little time on it. 1. Katniss Everdeen is one of the strongest female characters out there (in the first book, I think the world could have done without her getting coupled up by series end) and we need more strong female characters. The Emmas and Elizabeth Bennets just don't compute anymore. 2. This book is a phenomenal way to incorporate a unit on media criticism into your class. Most students came to me believing that whatever they see in a newspaper or on TV must be fact because of how it is presented. This book completely puts that idea on it's head and is perfect for having larger discussions about the role of government, propaganda, how media can spin pretty much anything, and it's also a great introduction to the fact that girls have grit (you would be amazed at how rampant gendered stereotypes are in a class of 14 year olds). I am also pro-books that have an associated movie because I love using media in the classroom and comparing the two, it adds so much depth. We read some excerpts of this during our Lord of the Flies unit (before the movie came out so many of them weren't familiar with the story).

A Young People's History of the United States

This is a supplemental history book but I used it all the time in my English classes. It's always a good idea to prep your class for the time period they will be encountering when you start a new book. What I love about this one is that it's not the PG history that students have heard all their life. It's history from the losing side whose voices are seldom heard and when you are competing for a high schooler's attention, giving them information that is new and refreshing and interesting, goes a long way. This book is a great supplement to any humanities class and is another way to help students learn to question everything...because the world is not so simple as many history books make it out to be.

I'm all for reading Pride and Prejudice, A Tale of Two Cities, and The Great Gatsby in high school... but let's add these books too, shall we? If you have more suggestions, let me know below.



I went to the AWP Bookfair so you didn't have to

AWP, or Association for Writers & Writing Programs, has a huge yearly conference in a rotating lineup of cities. This year it was in Seattle and I am seriously kicking myself for not finding out about it until two weeks before because I WOULD HAVE SOLD SO MANY BOTTLES OF DEAD WRITERS. OY. Oh well, I will pay more attention for next year (I heard it's in Minneapolis). Basically, the conference is a week of writing workshops and off-site readings with lots of booze because writers. (I would like to take this moment to quote my mother this weekend when I said I was going, "It's good to have a little to drink to spark your creativity, but there is a line. Like Hemingway. Look what happened to him.") My mother ladies and gentlemen.

Anywho, the conference was really expensive and we had family in town so I only got to go to the Bookfair. If you're looking for books you'd find in Barnes and Noble, this fair isn't for you... however, it was a paradise of indie presses, literary journals, MFA programs, and sign ups for moar writing conferences.

So here are the things I enjoyed:


These guys put an entire book on a print/t-shirt/or canvas tote of your choosing in really modern designs. So cool and not expensive! My favorites are Pride & Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, Dracula, and Anna Karenina. But they're all pretty amazing. Great gift.

Whidbey Writer's Workshop MFA

I'd like to eventually get an MFA and if I'm still living in the Pacific Northwest, this is the one I want to attend. It's a low-residency program on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound about 30 miles from Seattle. They have great instructors and interesting program emphases to choose from (Children's and YA for me). Also of note about this program: 1. it is one of the only MFAs not given by a university but of an actual writers organization and does a great job of teaching you the business of getting published; 2. you can attend the residency on the island as a trial to see if their MFA is for you. Win win.

Sackett Street Writer's Workshop

This is a top rated workshop for people who want to take classes but not necessarily go for an MFA. Classes are held in instructors' houses in New York City. Sounds really fun and they gave me a free tote bag so sold. I'm going to check them out the next time I'm in NYC.

Hugo House

I already knew about Hugo House as I take classes there (fun fact: I pass this place every day shipping your orders and I always thought it was a halfway house until I looked it up lol). If you are in the Seattle area and are a writer, this is your haven. It's an old house named after the Seattle poet Richard Hugo. They have all sorts of classes to help you grow as a writer, supportive instructors, and lots of readings and other activities. At AWP they had a jar full of fortunes. My AWP fortune was, "When God closes a book he opens a chapbook." #truth

Conference I signed up for: Napa Valley Writer's Conference

Because wine. My friend was at the conference later in the day and saw my name on the sign up list and we had a laugh.

Journals I liked enough to buy and will probably submit to:

Ploughshares - this is a popular one I'd heard of. They lured me in with a free t-shirt with Edgar Allen Poe on it.

Fairy Tale Review - this is on my radar to submit to. Their latest issue is Wizard of Oz themed. They gave away a packet of "magic seeds" with every journal.

The Rumpus - they lured me in with onesies for my baby that say WRITE LIKE A MOTHER. I thought they were affiliated with McSweeney's and I had a good talk with one of the editors. They have ties to McSweeney's but are their own thing. I was confused because I used to volunteer at 826 Valencia and they were down the street from each other. I am going to submit some nonfiction here.

The Austin Review - this is a brand new, snazzy looking journal from super cool city I haven't been to, Austin. They are just getting started and are really passionate. Worth a look.

Zyzzyva - I heard about this journal because Junot Diaz really likes it so I bought a copy. The editor told me the name is the last word in the dictionary and is an insect. She said that their logo is a beetle made out of typeset. Super cool! My favorite story in the latest issue is Photisms.

Rock and Sling - Ok this one is strange for me. This is a Christian journal. I am not religious (I'm what they call a bad Catholic or recovering Catholic) but it's pretty modern and looks like it allows for different forms of spirituality. I've got some stories from my catechism and confirmation days as well as lots of ghost and insanely spiritual dream stories so I am a little interested in what I could create for this. The journals they had also had some really insane art.

Bitch Magazine - I'd already heard of this, a feminist magazine. I really enjoy that it's pop culture through the lens of feminist viewpoints. I picked up their new food issue which is not at all what I thought it would be and it is even more awesome than I could have imagined. They were selling really cool mugs with famous strong ladies from history. The girl working the booth told me that her presence there had made for interesting conversations with all the people who hadn't heard of this one lol.

The Paris Review - this is an old prestigious journal I want to submit to but won't get into, which is fine. They were selling old journals from the 40s and 50s with names such as James Thurber and T.S. Elliott. I would have bought those but they were too expensive. I did get the latest issue, and sigh, really want to get published there.

There were literally a billion other cool things but these are the ones that caught my attention. Hoping to have a booth for Dead Writers next year.

Writing, Writing, Writing

I have not yet started selling Pemberley and my three newest, Archibald, Madame Moustache, and VIII are sitting on the counter waiting for me to get it together. After all the baby's activities - music class, story time, and baby French class (yes I'm one of those people) - it's hard to concentrate on the perfumes when I've been so excited about writing again. It all started when I read a YA book over Christmas travels. The book hit a nerve with me because I have written two unfinished YAs and it got me thinking...now's the time. Especially because my YA genre is still on the outskirts of what's popular but I definitely see the trend heading in its direction. I have three friends working on novels so I've been long distance workshopping with them. Not only that, but Seattle has a very strong writing community. I'm taking a class at Hugo House right now where I've met several really cool people with similar goals so hopefully more eyes to help me work out my manuscript's kinks.

The one I'm working on right now, was originally written in 2010 during Nanowrimo. I left it alone for a while because the subject matter was still very raw to me, but now that I've had some distance, this is the year I've decided to get it out there. It's a fairy tale - sort of Neil Gaiman hanging out with the Brothers Grimm type thing about a teenager on a journey to the underworld. I enjoy it. The other one I will edit when the first is complete is a steam punk story that grew out of a short story I wrote for the Machine of Death franchise. I didn't get in to my great sadness, but that's a good thing because the novel that came out of it's ashes is way cooler.

Anyway, perfume releases are on the horizon but taking a backseat to some creative endeavors I want to take on this year. The perfumes I talked about in the first paragraph will come out within the month but after that I won't be releasing anything new for a while.

Win an F. Scott Fitzgerald Library

Literary friends! I just saw this on Facebook and thought I'd share. Sribner is having a contest to win an F. Scott Fitzgerald library including: The Great Gatsby /  The Beautiful and Damned / This Side of Paradise /  A Short Autobiography / Tender Is the Night / The Love of the Last Tycoon / The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald Pretty sweet! If you win and I don't we may have words.

Enter here: http://pages.simonandschuster.com/fitzgeraldclassics/