If you’re a high school English teacher – especially of the AP variety – it’s easy to get smug about books. We believe that some books are better than others and that every student should believe that Hemingway is a better author than Sparks or Rowling. We may not believe that “at least they’re reading something” holds true, and we look in horror at the proliferation of adults reading YA books. At one point or another, I’ve held all of these positions.
However, my view over time has softened quite a bit as my criteria for what makes a good book has changed and become more inclusive. My dad loves Clive Cussler novels. For him they are good books. Enough said. He’s not interested in me telling him he should read something better.
But how do we reconcile that view with our role as teachers? We want students to love to read, but we also want students to read important books that they wouldn’t otherwise, and we want them to think they are great books too. Is there a definition of a great book that teachers and students can both live with? I believe there is, and we can ask two questions to arrive at that answer.
How well does the book achieve its main goal?
According to Thomas Arp in Sound and Sense, the primary goal of all literature is to entertain. Personally, I would broaden that definition to say that the primary goal is to provide a significant experience, because I would never call a book like Elie Wiesel’s Night “entertaining.” But there are plenty of books whose main goal is to provide escape. If the book provides you with a respite from your otherwise boring life, then the author has done what he or she set out to do.
Of course, some books want to do more than just entertain, which brings up the second question:
How significant is that goal?
And it is at this point that we can distinguish between books that merely provide entertainment value and those that provide additional value through giving us a lens into human behavior. We can then claim that Huck Finn is a more significant book than The Hunger Games because Mark Twain has a more significant purpose in his story.
We don’t want to tell our students that the books we read in class are better than the ones they read outside of school (if they read at all) because they never respond well to that. But we can tell them that we are reading books that are more significant, and that will continue to enrich their lives in a second or third reading. As I’ve written in a previous post, Harry Potter has become that for a lot of our students – a series that is entertaining, but also provide a great deal of wisdom as well.
Some of this has been adapted from Thomas Arp’s book Sound and Sense.
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