I think I’ve always been a list maker. My wife often discovers scraps of paper with some of my lists. I make them in notebooks and on yellow legal pads, too. I’ve tried writing them on my phone using the notepad app, but there’s something sterile about it. It’s just not as satisfying as pencil and paper.
A few weeks ago, as I began my 17th year as an English teacher at a small rural school in northeastern Pennsylvania, I asked my students to make some lists of their favorite books. I thought this would be a great way for me to get to know my students, and for the past few years, the first assignment for my freshman English classes has been to write a short essay about one of their favorite books. This has served me well, and I’d like to think it’s been good for my students, encouraging them to reflect on themselves as readers and put into words what motivates them to read. And that relates to the biggest challenge of the assignment, which is that they need to avoid plot summary as the content of the essay; instead, they must articulate the reasons this book is their favorite.
This sounds easier said than done. Oh, you want me to write about my favorite book? Sure, let me tell you what it’s about. No, no. Tell me why it’s your favorite. What do you like about the book? Well, the story is about… No, no. Give me three reasons you like the book. Oh, well, because, I don’t know. It’s good. Yeah. But why? Well, because, it’s a good story.
And that’s the way it goes, despite my every effort to be clear in my directions, and, as usual, provide several models for their writing. Inevitably, a student will ask me for feedback, claiming the essay is almost done, and I’ll have to say, but you didn’t tell me the reasons it’s your favorite. You still have a lot of writing to complete. And sometimes the essay never gets much further. Indeed, I’ve discovered the assignment requires more mental effort than I expected when first adding the essay to my curriculum.
It’s difficult, for many students, to even name a favorite book. That’s my problem, as well, sometimes. My favorite books are always changing. Certainly, there are few that remain in the top ten, but as I continue reading more and more, my favorites shuffle and slide about. In addition, I’m almost loyal to certain books to a fault. I have this same problem when naming favorite albums, because I have my list of favorite albums from my teenage years, but now that I’m older, I’ve listened to so much more. I can list favorite albums from the past ten years or even the past year. A definitive list, however, seems impossible. How could I make any list of favorites without including The Dark Side of the Moon or Nevermind?
The trick for me, I guess, is to narrow the focus in some way. My friend, Jon, does this often. He’ll post lists of his favorite albums each year on Facebook, sometimes dividing the year into two or three parts. I’m always intrigued by his lists, and following his lead, I look forward to December and thinking back on all the new music that was released during the past year. And then I share my list of favorites. Sometimes, my picks even earn a Grammy, as Kacey Musgrave’s album, Golden Hour, did for 2018.
Books are a little harder, of course, but as my students wrote about their favorite books, I decided to make a list of my ten favorite books for teenage boys, a group I often find myself worried about keeping motivated to read over the course of the year. Obviously, I was once a teenage boy, and I remember reading Choose Your Own Adventure and Lone Wolf books before getting to high school and discovering classic authors like J. D. Salinger and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In the past thirty years, however, the market for teen and young adult literature has exploded. There are so many books, so many choices for teenagers. Some of my choices fall into this category while others are simply books I think teenage boys would enjoy. And naturally, now that I have a teenage son, these are books that I’d like him to read at some point in the next few years.
Top Ten Books for Teenage Boys
- The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
- Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
- Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers
- King of the Mild Frontier by Chris Crutcher
- Fat Kid Rules the World by K.L. Going
- Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson
- The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
- Looking for Alaska by John Green
- Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
Now I could annotate each of the books on the list, but that seems too tedious. However, I will say that there’s only one book that I read as a teenager on this list, which is The Catcher in the Rye, the classic coming of age novel. I think that’s something interesting to note, because I expected to have a few more books that have been with me a long time. It’s actually the oldest book on the list, and I still teach this novel to my high school juniors. I also teach The Things They Carried, and I’ve written previously about this novel as well as the important lessons this novel about the Vietnam War offers for teenagers. Fallen Angels is also about Vietnam, and I hesitated to put two novels dealing with the same topic on the list, but Walter Dean Myers is such a good author for teen boys.
In fact, most of the authors on my list are well-known, and I imagine many people will recognize their names. Chris Crutcher, though, might be less familiar. I highly recommend his novels, many of which center around sports, especially high school swimming, which was Crutcher’s sport as a teenager. I remember first discovering Crutcher while in graduate school. My wife, who is also an English teacher, had a colleague introduce her to books like Whale Talk, Stotan, and Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes—all great novels for teenage boys. She even met Crutcher at a middle school book symposium. My favorite book by Crutcher, however, has always remained King of the Mild Frontier, which is an autobiography about Crutcher’s childhood and teenage years. It’s very funny, and I’ve often recommended the book to reluctant readers.
The other nonfiction choice on my list is Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. Here again, I feel obligated to put one of my favorite Krakauer books on the list. He’s such a good writer, I could list almost all of his books here, but for teenage boys, Into the Wild rises to the top. As I think about it, I’m reminded of Hatchet, since both books are about surviving on your own; however, Krakauer’s book about Chris McCandless is a true account, which sets it apart. He’s such a compelling writer, and I’ve always loved the way Krakauer weaves his own personal experience into this story about modern adventure and authentic experience. I’ve always wanted to teach the book to my older students, especially with all its references to many of my favorite authors like Jack London, and of course, Henry David Thoreau. Indeed, I thought I could write a post without mentioning old Thoreau, but he always finds a way, the little bugger.
On second thought, nevertheless, that Thoreau might show up in some form isn’t really that surprising. To make any list of favorites, our choices most likely contain something of us, too. Maybe it’s when the writer captures something about the reader, maybe something that the reader doesn’t even recognize before reading the book, that a book gains some extra significance. For me, Jon Krakauer is one of those writers, and making a list of favorite books allows me to understand myself a little more. It’s also one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed assigning this essay to my new students over the past few years. And every year, the best essays, by far, are the ones that reveal the personality of my students more than the contents of the book. Whether they consciously realize it, when they write about their favorite books, they are really writing about themselves.