We Recommend: What Should Eighth Graders Read?

Oh, look, it's We Recommend, in which you send us your seemingly intractable problems in finding what to read, and we easily solve them with our superpowers. More or less. Interested in having a book recommended for you or a kid you know? Send the person's interests, loves, hates, and any other relevant information to thediamondinthewindow (at) gmail (dot) com, and we will do our best. And just to let you know: the best recommendations are in the comments. Always.

This one will make you laugh, it will make you cry, it will send your mind reeling back to 8th grade, upon which you will collapse to the floor in a sobbing heap. (Maybe that's just me?) Anyway, most of all, it will make you think about what it means to be human. No, wait! It won't do that at all. It will make you think about what these lucky 8th graders should read. See this plaintive cry from an 8th grade teacher:

We have been reading Fahrenheit 451 and Lord of the Flies for as long as I can remember. We also do a book linked to WWII, so we've read Night, Book Thief, and our newest addition, Maus, this year. But Fahrenheit 451 and Lord of the Flies are the old standbys. And now I'm officially done reading Lord of the Flies. If you've noticed a theme here, all of our books are written by white men and they're all about white men, particularly violent men. I loved Book Thief for its amazing female protagonist, but it took us about half the year to read the book because of it's length. Here's what I'm looking for: a great book with a female character who leads and is strong, and the book has some room for exploration as literature. It is more than just a plot, it's got places where we can dig in and questions to ask as readers. If I can be really demanding, I'd love to have a girl of color or minorities represented. It can also be a play or short stories, or really anything other than a story about boys killing each other. I'm not picky here. Our seventh graders are reading To Kill a Mockingbird and House on Mango Street, so those are out.

Wow. When I read this to my associates and colleagues, Chestnut said, "It's true! They have to read Lord of the Flies in 8th grade at our school and everyone hates it! They all talk about it!"

Which leaves us with an interesting and excellent problem on our hands: what should these kids read?

In Diana's 8th grade class they read Speak, which indeed has a strong, female main character, but it's a lot about the aftermath of a rape, which seems to me (and her school) like an eminently reasoable thing for 8th graders to read about, but some will disagree. Though it's true, too, that there isn't a lot of minority representation. We thought about Jane Eyre (such a good book!), but it is long. Chestnut mentioned the books of Tamora Pierce, though we're not certain about the literariness of them. I thought, too, about Bone, which is pretty good, but not great. It's the first-person story of a young asian woman in LA (I think?). But I don't know—it's not great, and they should read something great. If stories are good, maybe Jumpha Lahiri? But the stories are very much adult-centered. Which might not be ideal. We thought of The Bluest Eye, but she's not exactly a leadership type character. Yikes. So we came up with this.

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Downsides: the main character is actually a (sort of) white man (everyone's color changes later, it's complicated), but (upsides) he is joined by another major female character, who starts out as a black woman. It's a great book, it really is, and I think 8th graders would love it, and would find a lot to talk about in it.

But honestly, I am more excited for seeing everyone else's recommendations, because it seems to me like there is a whole world of options. So what do you guys think, what should replace Piggy? Put them in the comments!

17 thoughts on “We Recommend: What Should Eighth Graders Read?

  1. I thought of Tamora Pierce too, but that’s just because my daughter only reads Tamora Pierce, and that’s all she’s read for like a year now, so probably that’s not worth much. Anyway. I don’t know if she’s literary enough either.
    How about Handmaid’s Tale? Is it too adult?
    Raisin in the Sun?
    Something by Maya Angelou? Are all her books too young?

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  2. I just walked over to my bookshelves and got really excited.
    I think the class should read:
    Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl
    It’s a play. Written by a woman, retelling the myth but exploring such great themes. Fathers & children. The loss of memory. Young (naive) love. It would be so great to pair with a reading of the original myth plus, I believe, there’s a really interesting poem by Rilke. I wrote a grad school paper about this, but of all the plays on my shelf, I think this one would fit best in an 8th grade classroom.

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  3. Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith. WWII, a teenager who passes as white to join WASP. By a woman of color, about a woman of color, addressing racism and sexism.
    The Real Boy by Anne Ursu, a retelling of Pincocchio with a non-white cast, a non-European setting, and a non-neurotypical lead.
    Kindred by Octavia Butler, in which a contemporary woman of color time travels and ends up a slave.
    And I’ll second lathe of Heaven.

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  4. I can recommend When I Was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago (her memoir of coming to NYC from Puerto Rico); I’ve used it with 8th and 9th graders. Also recommend An Island Like You, a collection of interconnected stories by Judith Ortiz Cofer, about teens from Paterson, NJ whose relatives live in Puerto Rico: again, good for 8th/9th. I would also second the recommendation for Kindred by Octavia Butler, though I’ve never taught that book.

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  5. What about a different Laurie Halse Anderson? I really loved Chains, which is about a young black girl who ends up spying for the Patriots in Revolutionary NYC. I hesitate a little because I’d rather see a minority character that is NOT a slave, but Anderson does a good job giving her protagonist what agency she can in a society that gives her none. It is also part of a trilogy, so the teacher can encourage students that like the book to read further outside of class (bonus!).

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  6. How about:
    -Autobiography of Alice B Toklas
    -The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds
    I’ll second The Secret Life of Bees too.
    Have I dated myself too much?

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  7. How about The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man On the Moon Marigolds and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas?
    I’ve got to read some Ursula Le. Guin…

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  8. What a great question! Code Name Verity is fantastic, but it might be a bit demanding– both emotionally and plot wise– for a whole-class read.
    You know what I love? Love, love, love? This amazing book called The. Lost Conspiracy, by Frances Hardinge. It has a fantastic young female protagonist who sets out to save…oh, drat, I just checked and it’s over 500 pages. Too long, probably. But it’s great and inventive and has lots of food for thought and discussion about culture and bravery and colonialism and–
    Oh, you know what hits sort of the same themes, and is also really good, but shorter and not so overwhelmingly inventive? Nation, by Terry

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  9. …pratchett. Who is, admittedly, a white guy. And his main protagonist is a guy (though not white). But the secondary protagonist is a girl, and has excellent leadership qualities. And it even takes place on an island! Like lord of the flies! But it’s not about killing, it’s about building and preserving a culture. It’s kind of the anti-LOTF now I think of it.
    The other island book that came to mind was Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens. But I’m thinking that’s a no-go for a school assignment.
    Will think more on this.

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  10. Or The Freedom Maze– MC is a white girl but mistaken for Black when she travels back in time to the antebellum south. Lots of good stuff to discuss/teach, and subtle & nuanced about race & other things. Just came out in paperback. Author lives in NYC & I bet could visit if the school is near.

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  11. Devil’s Arithmetic.
    And I would recommend The Watson’s Go to Birmingham rather that Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry.

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  12. Was thinking more about this and so many of the books are what I call “problem” novels (e.g. involve some big social issue). More subtle, but very well written and on the newer side: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. Looks at the role of women vs. men, the idea of evolution vs. religion, technological changes and scienctific observation. The last two are not typical fare in books with femal protatgonists.

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  13. Thanks so much for all of your suggestions! I love the variety. Lathe of Heaven was actually being read in this class when I arrived at the school ten years ago, so maybe it’s time for another shot at it. LeGuin is also a local author here in Portland, Oregon and pieces of her books are set here. I’ll let you know what we cook up for next year– most likely figured out this summer since brain power is at an all time low right now with only four weeks of school left. I am either peeling kids off the ceiling in their excitement for summer or peeling them off the floor in an effort to get them through the remaining weeks. Wish me luck and thanks again for all your thoughtful ideas!

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