6 21st-Century Novels to Teach in English Class

Move aside, Gatsby…

There’s a lot to be said for literature that stands the test of time. Namely, How do writers do that?! 
But if you’ve been teaching Gatsby and  Heart of Darkness year after year and are looking for a new book or two to add to your syllabus, we love the following choices, all published within the last 15 years. Plus, right now you can enter to win a class set of any one of the titles below.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller 

songAuthor Madeline Miller has taken the phrase “don’t reinvent the wheel” and turned it on its head. In her retelling of Homer’s The Iliad, Miller focuses on the story of Achilles and the Trojan War, emphasizing the ever-present struggles with friendship, loyalty and love. Time magazine credits Miller with “updating the classics,” and teachers everywhere applaud her for making this incredible Grecian adventure accessible with its timely relevance of heroic characters and universal themes.

The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

tearlingFollowing the Hunger Games trilogy’s success comes The Queen of the Tearling. Feisty and fierce protagonist Queen Kelsea evolves from an exiled nobody into a young lady with nerves of steel. Her story of righting wrongs and taking back what’s hers is an inspiration to young readers everywhere. Regardless of grade level, students will be riveted by Queen Kelsea’s quest to “ascend her rightful throne” with the help of her magical Tearling sapphire necklace and a bevy of brave men. A fantasy, The Queen of the Tearling has enough magic, adventure and romance to help turn the “meh” reader into a “More! More!” reader.

Orphan #8 by Kim van Alkemade

orphan 8Based on historical fact, Orphan #8 turns one Holocaust victim’s nightmare into an unlikely chance for revenge … or a rarer opportunity for grace. Separated from her family then tortured by dangerous medical experiments in a New York City Jewish orphanage, Rachel Rabinowitz is held captive by Dr. Mildred Solomon. Rachel finally escapes the physical and emotional anguish by running away and starting a new life. Years later, Rachel again comes face-to-face with Dr. Solomon, only this time the good doctor is dying of cancer and Rachel is her nurse. The internal struggle of good vs. evil, and the way students become emotionally invested in this storyline makes Orphan #8 a fantastic read in English and history classes. “Lush in historical detail, rich in atmosphere and based on true events, Orphan #8 is a powerful, affecting novel of the unexpected choices we are compelled to make that can shape our destinies.”

The Bees by Laline Paull 

beesImagine Katniss Everdeen as a worker bee, and you’ve got the basic premises of The Bees. Modern, feminist twists find protagonist Flora 717 questioning tradition and subsequently at odds with the queen bee. With a pinch of bee biology, a dash of environmental and natural intricacies, and boundless lessons in love, The Bees is an incredibly creative, gripping perspective piece. Teachers will note “… parallels to 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale are numerous but this story is also its own.” The beauty of bringing this book into the classroom is that it allows students to suspend disbelief and appreciate the exquisite detail with which The Bees is written.

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

racingThe Art of Racing in the Rain has everything: love, tragedy, redemption, danger, and—most especially—the canine narrator Enzo. This old soul of a dog has much to teach us about being human.” Despite the ever-present theme of love and loss, this book is fantastically funny and uplifting. Though there won’t be a dry eye in the classroom, the lessons from this family pet and his fast car will have students thinking about life and their relationships in a much more profound way. And a four-legged, hairy narrator? It doesn’t get any better than that!

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

orphan trainI could probably just tell you this novel is a #1 New York Times Bestseller and leave it at that; Orphan Train‘s accolades speak for themselves. But I would be remiss if I didn’t praise this powerful narrative for shining a light on a forgotten piece of our shared history: “Between 1854 and 1929, so-called orphan trains ran regularly from the cities of the East Coast to the farmlands of the Midwest, carrying thousands of abandoned children whose fates would be determined by pure luck.” Based on the emotional journey of two women who, on the outside, appear to have nothing in common, Orphan Train is a story of second chances. And who doesn’t need a second chance? Students will be enraptured with the beautiful writing and oh-so familiar desire for belongingness, especially in one’s own skin.

Enter HERE for your chance to win a class set of any one of these titles from HarperCollins!

Posted by Stephanie Jankowski

English teacher by trade, smack talker by nature, Stephanie Jankowski loves words and has a knack for finding the funny in everyday life. A mother of three in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Stephanie subscribes to the mantra: “Life is too short, laugh!” Visit her site, WhenCrazyMeetsExhaustion.com, for more!


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