Rebecca Bird says war stories, ‘own voice’ novels and topical reads, as well as alternative styles of writing, are some of the types of books that will engage secondary students.
Rebecca Bird from Peggy Williams bookshop joined literacy experts Phil and Sharon Callen on episode 32 of The Teacher’s Tool Kit for Literacy to talk about how to find that right books to help engage secondary students in their reading (you can find a list version with links to the books here).
Firstly, Rebecca touched on how war stories can be enthralling for high school students, especially those such as When The World Was Ours by Liz Kessler which provide deep insights and even unheard perspectives.
“It is a very interesting look at the Holocaust. So these sorts of books are extremely, you don’t want to say ‘popular’, but they are, and especially non-readers seem to really engage with these war stories … And the reason I find this one more fascinating probably than any other is that the Leo character is the author’s grandfather, so she has a personal connection to the story, which I think always makes a massive difference,” she said.
“So these three friends go their separate ways … but Max is German and wants to be Hitler Youth. And it’s a very interesting perspective because you don’t often see that side of things and you realise that these children didn’t really know it was the ultimate thing for him to be. His dad was a Nazi officer, so he just wanted to be the best little Nazi that he could be. And it’s not until the end of the book that he realises what that’s going to mean. And it’s very confronting.”
Another growing interest among teenage readers is ‘own voice’, which are crucial in providing readers insights into the lives of others.
“So ‘own voice’ is when an author is from another culture, maybe they’ve come to Australia or they’re not a white Australian person writing their story. And there was a thing a little while ago that we don’t have a huge multicultural representation in our writing in Australia. But I think that’s just something that has had to happen over the years, once people are living in our country and feel comfortable to write,” Rebecca explained.
“Maybe most people have ideas of what [other people’s lives] might be like, but you don’t ever get to see. And that’s my biggest thing about reading is to be able to see somebody else’s life, and it might not be somebody in another country or it might not be somebody in another time. It could just be somebody down the road, somebody that you might see at school every day, and you don’t really know anything about what’s going on in their life at home and you might never have even bothered to ask them.”
Sharon added: “That bravery to expose one’s own feelings or confusions, challenges or struggles. It allows young readers to be tolerant of other cultures by learning about them.”
Using topical books which align with the current news and trends are also an effective way of engaging students in both the reading itself and discussions on the text.
Rebecca said a perfect example of this is the book I’m Not Dying With You Tonight by Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal, which related to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ riots in the United States in 2020.
“So one of these authors is a black American and the other is white, so they’ve written alternate chapters from different characters and points of view,” she said.
“It’s set at a football game, where a fight breaks out between a white kid and a black kid … and it’s the story of these two girls that were not friends, but have found themselves together on this one night, having made judgments of the other based on nothing but what they look like and them later realising that their judgments were perhaps wrong and that perhaps their judgements about a lot of things were wrong. And so it’s how they worked together to get out of this terrible situation on this one night.
“It’s very good and very readable. And I guess we were talking about whether that could engage a student because it is something that they’ve seen a lot in the media, and what would that be like if you were caught in the middle of that riot and what would it mean if you were a black person and what would it mean if you’re a white person? So you don’t always want to read the news to find out that and so this is fiction, but it is full of feeling.”
Throughout her recommendations, Rebecca broke down the assumption that high school literature needs to be ‘thicker texts’, for quality can trump quantity.
“I’m a big fan of a book that’s quite simple, but has a big message or a lot to talk about,” Rebecca shared.
“Ambelin Kwaymullina put out this book called Living on Stolen Land. If we’re looking at the size of the book, this one is tiny, like really, really tiny, and it’s got a beautiful illustration of a tree on the front. But I keep saying to people don’t be deceived, for this is not a book for young readers.
“it is a verse novel. It’s very confronting as a white Australian to read it because she’s not pulling any punches. It’s not berating, it’s just stating facts … The very first verse is called ‘stolen land’, and after reading that it was enough to just sort of take my breath away and think, ‘ok, I have to read the rest because what can we do?’ This book is all about opening discussion and what questions to ask, but it says you are living on stolen land. What can you do about it?”
Rebecca also encouraged secondary teachers not to shy away from different styles of writing, such as slam poetry or picture books.
“I have this brand new book, it’s called Common Wealth by Gregg Dreise. So it’s a slam poetry persuasive and a picture book for older readers. And it does say that it does contain confronting imagery in it, but it’s all about Indigenous culture and how we can connect better with it,” she said.
“I put it in for this year level because I do think it can work perfectly well with secondary schools. I think it would be good for debating. It would just be good for perspective and obviously for poetry.”
She even extended her discussion to audio books, which Rebecca believes can be just as powerful for high school students.
“Teenage readers should also not feel bad about audio books. I’m a massive audio book listener. I double my reading because of audio books. I literally listen to books in the car, when I’m walking, when I’m cleaning, when I’m cooking,” she said.
“I don’t think it’s cheating. You’re never too old to have somebody write to you, and I think that’s the same with an audio book. I can listen to a much wider range of genre than I will read.”