Bob Boone

Good Books For Teachers


January 2014

Some travel narratives like ON THE ROAD or the ODYSSEY are about places because the characters are constantly on the go. Others, like THE QUIET AMERICAN, are about a single place: the leading character is in a land foreign land and stays there.

Here is a highly useful list of all kinds of travel books. It appeared recently in TRAVEL MAGAZINE:

  • AMONG THE RUSSIANS, Colin Thubron
  • ON THE ROAD, Jack Kerouac
  • NAPLES ’44, Norman Lewis
  • COASTING, Jonathan Rabin
  • TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY, John Steinbeck
  • HOMAGE TO CATALONIA, George Orwell
  • OUR MAN IN HAVANA, Graham Greene
  • ARABIAN LANDS, Wilfred Thesiger
  • THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS, Arundhati Roy
  • THE SUN ALSO RISES, Ernest Hemingway
  • IN PATAGONIA, Bruce Chatwin

Obviously you could add your personal favorites to the list. If you recommend one of these or another work of travel fiction, ask your students to consider these questions while they read.

Where is the author especially strong with place descriptions?
How important to the characters are the various places?
Could this story have happened in other places?
Does the author rely on stereotypes of these place or places in the novel?
What do you actually learn about the places or the places in this novel?


May 2013

Each month, starting now, we will include essays about writing by people who are not authors or teachers.

This month that person is Maggie McDowell, a young actor living in Brooklyn. Like any actor, Maggie studies scripts to decide just how to make the words on the page work the way the playwright intended. And, though she is just beginning her career, she has already formed ideas of what good writing should be.

There was a time when I couldn't quite wrap my head around the idea of "good play writing.." As an actor, I consider a script and to try to figure out how to make it come alive, make it tell the story, make it vibrate with meaning and experience. For me, good playwrights write words that feel natural to speak, and tell a story that speaks in a profound way to the human experience.

Playwrights have an incredibly difficult job because their life's work is ultimately only a means (a script) to an end (a production). One writes a play in the hopes that it will be performed (and goodness knows--the number of elements or steps between the script and the production is vast and all color the text with particular creative agendas). All of this is to say that, after having read, seen, and been a part of many wonderful plays, many disastrous ones, and many in between, I have begun to be able to pull apart the many strands of form and function in this art form, and draw some conclusions about what good playwriting means to me. One of my early beliefs still holds true: a good play resonates emotionally and intellectually with its audience; but the means by which the playwrights reach that end can be diverse, enigmatic, telling, and inspiring.

I'd love to start with--yep, you guessed it--William Shakespeare. There is something about Shakespeare's writing, that, when I read it, urges me to speak it aloud, tempts me to physically feel the words in my mouth. Although his antiquated vernacular and rhetorically complex constructions can be puzzling, every syllable, every irregularity in the verse, every juicy phrase, is somehow essential, and acts as a piece of the puzzle which creates the characters and their specific experience. As an actor, to get to perform in a Shakespeare play is a dream come true. He writes about love, betrayal, honor, loss--experiences which, at their core, pervade our lives, and each actor is free to color these themes and archetypes with his or her own understanding. But Shakespeare's text facilitates the actor's connection to the specificity and depth of one character's experience--he gives us the consonants, the meter, the rhetoric which clue us in and allow us to embody each moment of the story.

In one of his later plays, THE WINTER'S TALE, Paulina, a friend to the queen Hermione, informs the king that his irrational jealousy and impulsive actions have killed his once beloved wife:

What studied torments, tyrant, hast for me? What wheels, racks, fires? What flaying? Boiling in leads or oils? What old or newer torture must I receive, whose every word deserves to taste of thy most worst? ..... The queen, the queen, the sweet'st, dear'st creature's dead. And vengeance for it not drop't down yet.

To articulate all of those hard, relentless "T" sounds physically feels like spitting on the person to whom you're speaking. Paulina's anger, condescension, and sorrow are embedded in the text, and resonate in the actor's body (breathing apparatus, lips, tongue, etc.) accordingly. The speaking of that text literally creates a part of Paulina's emotional life. Searching (and speaking) through Shakespeare's words for textual (and textural) clues is like piecing together a 1,000,000 piece puzzle.

And now for a playwright who does not write in iambic pentameter: Harold Pinter. Although some of his plays are more impenetrable than others, he is famous for the pauses and silences he meticulously places throughout his text. His characters are never particularly verbose, and all of the weighty, abstruse, ambiguous information lies in what is not said. In BETRAYAL, Emma and Jerry (Emma's husband's best friend), discuss their deteriorating affair:

Jerry: What do you want to do then? (PAUSE)
Emma: I don't quite know what we're doing, any more, that's all.
Jerry: Mmnn. (PAUSE)
Emma: I mean, this flat.....
Jerry: Yes.
Emma: Can you actually remember when we were last here?
Jerry: In the summer, was it?
Emma: Well, was it?
Jerry: I know it seems--
Emma: It was the beginning of September.
Jerry: Well, that's summer, isn't it?
Emma: It was actually extremely cold. It was early autumn.
Jerry: Its pretty cold now.
Emma: We were going to get another electric fire.
Jerry: Yes, I never got that.
Emma: Not much point in getting it if we're never here.
Jerry: We're here now.
Emma: Now really. (SILENCE)

Speaking his rhythmic text--fast-paced, terse dialogue followed by a pause that explodes like a silent bomb allows the actor (and audience member) to explore the ambiguity and intangibility of the human experience. The frenetic movement of the heart and mind in both the written text and unwritten text tells a story of troubled yet unknowable complexity.

And then there's ultra-contemporary Annie Baker. Highly naturalistic in style, Baker paints word pictures of people trying with all their might to communicate, to articulate, often to no avail--complete with interruptions (indicated by a /), trail offs, strange moments, and plenty of lonely, quiet stage pictures. In CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION, a play about an acting class at a rec center in a small town, two classmates have this exchange during a break:

(Theresa is squatting in the corner next to her hula-hoop, listening to a cell phone message. Schultz is drinking from a bottle of water and eyeing her.)

Schultz: How long did she say?
(Theresa holds up one finger and mouths, "Sorry." after a few seconds she snaps her phone shut.)
Theresa: Sorry. What?
Schultz: How long did she..... (a pause while he tried to reformulate his thoughts) Ah.....How long is the break?
Theresa: I think she said ten minutes?
(Schultz nods, embarrassed, and goes back to drinking water. Theresa watching him drink and smiles at him.)
Schultz: I'm sorry You have.....Sorry. Do you/ah--
Theresa: What?
Schultz: I just ah.....i was going to say that you have have very alive eyes.
Theresa: oh. Wow. I--
Schultz: But that sounds/kind of--
Theresa: No! Thank you.
Schultz: I don't mean it in a, a weird way.
Theresa: No. It's a--it's a compliment.

Unlike Pinter's stylized voids, Baker's writing evokes a searching, a floundering, a stumbling which, when spoken feels easy to slip into, as it almost mirrors contemporary speech and thought patterns. But it's that almost which draws me in as an actor, makes me yearn for more intimacy with these characters, to breathe with them, and think with them, and figure out what it is they are really trying to say.

In plays, and in life, people speak because they MUST. These playwrights harness that need (in themselves and their characters) to explore moments which encourage actor and audience member alike to touch base with our own humanity. And the best playwrights use the form--the words they choose (or don't choose), to give me a little glimpse through the key hole into the whole colorful world pulsating within the text, and therefore, the character.

Maggie McDowell



If you want to assign one book to a serious young writing student, this might be the book. Certainly the person will get caught up in the story of the rise and fall of an international newspaper. Beyond that, your student will be fascinated by how brilliantly the author holds the whole thing together -- much of it through clever dialogue. The conversation following the book between the author and Malcolm Gladwell is an added bonus.

NAMING THE WORLD edited by Bret Anthony Johnston.
This old favorite has some excellent chapters on dialogue: "On Dialogue and Voice" by Bret Anthony Johnson; "Dynamic Dialogue" by Jewel Parker Rhodes; "On Dialogue" by Katherine Min; "Using Summary, Indirect, and Direct Dialogue" by Robert Rosenberg; "Dialogue: Master of Multitasking and Sleight of Hand" by Kate Meyers Hanson

"Common Core Standards: Consider This" by Richard Hollinger
in the Spring Issue of the ILLINOIS ENGLISH BULLETIN. Clearly written and persuasive. This will not make you feel any better about the Common Core Standards.

April 2013

Here a few books about schools. You might recommend some. You might also read the or reread yourself to get some ideas for stories.


John Rae was a well-known headmaster of a well-known school in England. He was articulate and outspoken. This is a book of letters that he could have written in response to typical questions that he received throughout his career. The subjects include, cheating, bullying, and racism.

Going to School: An Anthology Of Prose About Teachers and Students. Perhaps out of print, but should be available. This is an extraordinary collection of stories by some remarkable people such as Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, George Orwell, John Updike and 37 other writers.

Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. This never gets old.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney

Funny and not so funny. It captures the junior high school feelings. The voice is perfect and the movie's good too.

Speaking of movies, you might want to recommend two great Comedies: ELECTION with Matthew Broderick and BACK TO SCHOOL with Rodney Dangerfield.


January 2013

The NCTE is a great resource for books. Their new 2012-2013 Catalog has a wide variety of resources ranging from the obvious - Common Core, K-12, and College to more specialized. The lists of poetry and creative books are particularly useful. Visit to browse. There are also links to supporting websites and sample chapters.

Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, by Rust Hills, is a good read on technique for short story writing.


September 2012

I recommend The Warmth Of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson. It tells the story of the Black migration from the South by focusing on concentrating on the stories of three families but mentions hundreds of others. It's great history, great sociology, and great writing. Somehow she has taken what she learned from 1,300 interviews and woven it into a remarkable book. For teachers this not only an inspiring book, but one packed full of descriptions and personal profiles.

You might also check the Ken Burns series on World War II. He tells the story by sharing the memories of people who were there at the battles and also those back on the home front.


Check out the September/October issue of Poets & Writers magazine, which has an interesting article: The Teachable Talent: Why Creative Writing Can Be Taught.


The Illinois English Bulletin is the oldest English publication in the state of Illinois (1913). It is published 3 times a year and features articles dealing with literature, writing, language, media, speech, drama, film, culture, technology, standards, and professional development. They accept submissions.


Creating the Memory Map for Your Memoir, by Danielle Trussoni
(pg. 184 in Naming the World)

Revisit "Required Reading" – here are some sources from a recent Printer's Row article.

The 100 Best Ever Teen Novels from NPR.


May 2012

John O'Connor's book, This Time Its Personal: Teaching Academic Writing Through Creative Nonfiction, offers a varied, engaging assortment of creative writing exercises and actual assignments which can be used in class. The student writing is dynamic and is well interspersed throughout the book.

Chapters (which cover a wide range of forms such as autobiographical writing, blogging, interviewing) guide teachers through lessons and show how transforming writing can be (should be) for students. It's about much more than just college essays or research papers. Clearly O'Connor is a gifted teacher, he uses his own writing talent in this book to share his own teaching experience and inspirations with others. (fz)



March 2012

Books about events from recent history:

  • Haiti, After the Earthquake, by Paul Farmer
  • The Looming Towers, by Lawrence Wright
  • The Big Short, by Michael Lewis
  • Too Big To Fail, by Andrew Ross Sorkin
  • Tower Stories, An Oral History of 911, by Damon DiMarco

Historical Fiction for High School Students:

  • Blood Red Horse, by K.M. Grant (12th century crusades)
  • Coram Boy, by Jamila Gavin (18th century England)
  • Fever 1793, by Laurie Halse Anderson (yellow fever pandemic in Philadelphia)
  • Forgotten Fire, by Adam Bagdasarian (Turkish genocide of Armenian citizens 1915-18)
  • Marie Dancing, by Carolyn Meyer
    (accurate portrayal of late 19th century ballet dancer who was a model for Degas)
  • Postcards From No Man's Land, by Aidan Chambers (flashbacks of life in World War II)
  • Shackleton's Stowaway, by Victoria McKernan
    (disastrous expedition of the ship Endurance)
  • The River Between Us, by Richard Peck (set in 1915 and civil war period)
  • The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, by Rosemary Sutcliff (Roman Britain times)
  • The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien (Vietnam)
  • Under the Persimmon Tree, by Suzanne Fisher Staple (9/11)

Movies about events from recent history:

  • Inside Job - a documentary film about the late-2000s financial crisis
  • Moneyball - a biographical film about how money works in a professional sports
  • Social Network - the 'story' of how Facebook came to be
  • United 93 - a fact based historical drama film about the passengers aboard a doomed, hijacked flight that fought back
  • When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts - Spike Lee's documentary on Hurricane Katrina

January 2012

Poets & Writers Magazine – The New Year's Guide to an Inspired Writing Life

November 2011

1) They Say I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing Gerald Graff, Cathy Birkenstein, Russel Durst

They Say/I Say (Birkenstein, Durst, Graff) is a composition book that offers many tips on persuasive academic writing. "Writing well means engaging the voices of others and letting them in turn engage us." In argumentative writing the main goal is to summarize another's view and set up one's one argument. In this book the authors move beyond the standard agree/disagree writing framework. "Effective persuasive writers do more than make well-supported claims ("I say"); they also map those claims relative to the claims of others ("they say")." This "model can improve not just student writing, but student reading comprehension as well."

Good writing means mastering some specific verbal "basic moves." They Say I Say provides templates. "Templates do not dictate the content of what you say…{they} only suggest a way of formatting how you say it." The templates show students how to make these moves in their own writing. Some tips, such as: "It is generally advisable to begin a text by citing others rather than plunging directly into one's own views," – might be common sense or intuitive to seasoned writers, but the authors restate them in an engaging way that makes them user friendly for anyone.

By taking a difficult subject – persuasive arguments - and making the How To's clearer and easier to understand, the authors succeed in offering pragmatic tips. "In other words, listening closely to others and summarizing what they have to say can help writers generate their own ideas." This is a very useful teaching book whose advice "cuts across different disciplines and genres of writing, including creative writing." (FZ)

2) Surprisingly, many students have not read Lord of the Flies by William Golding. Along with being a first-rate adventure, this is an excellent character study. You can really show that the action is dictated by what motivates the characters.

3) A Separate Peace by John Knowles is another great character book for high school students.

4) The "Best" series is now out. (Best Short Stories of 2010, Best Essays, sports writing etc.) These are always useful. Check out the introductions.

September 2011

Our Difficult Sunlight by Georgia Popoff and Quraysh Ali Lansana is, as the subtitle reads, "A guide to Poetry, Literacy and Social Justice in Classroom and Community."

The book provides many strategies for using reading and poetry in the classroom. It also offers many valuable insights about how to engage young people in writing, creating, sharing and interpreting poetry. All of which will also improve students' reading comprehension and writing skills. The authors' believe "the value of writing and reading go far beyond life's practicalities," and that "poetry is an effective and under-utilized tool for developing competent literacy." The authors feel our society has become "satisfied with mediocrity when it comes to communication and expression." Our "consumer,"orientated and "fast-food mentality of immediate gratification" (hello text-talk, habitually abbreviated language) are proving to be huge flaws in our education system and society.

The book is meant to be a resource guide for teachers, offering very specific advice as well as comprehensive lesson plans. Too many people "feel inept in relating to and understanding poetry." Poetry is creative and "creative writing is not linear." There are no right or wrong interpretations but many people (students/teachers??) get caught up in the "need to be right," have the correct interpretation. If students do not have an open minded teacher and deviate from the "accepted or perceived meaning" of a poem, they may feel "too dumb to "get" poetry" and this is a foolish belief, there are no singular answers/interpretations.

From novel ways to teach poetry "as a video game" to "6 Word Memoir Self Portrait" exercises, the authors' aim is to support teachers and help them appreciate the value of poetry as a means to better teach students how to glean meaning and inference (their own) from poetry. And to enjoy it instead of being frustrated by it.

Our Difficult Sunlight is recommended for use in K-12 classrooms - covering a lot of ground and students. (fz)

Book Crush

Many parents, reading and writing teachers struggle to find the right book for their children. The seemingly endless choices make it more of a challenge than one might think. From Caldecott and Newberry winners to Captain Underpants and Harry Potter, there is a big selection out there. Nancy Pearl's Book Crush is a great resource book that is like your own personal librarian or book shopper. The author of Book Lust and More Book Lust (good books for adults), Pearl brings her chatty, informal expertise into the arena of infant to teen readers.

The book is divided into 3 broad age categories – younger readers, middle-grade readers and teens - with each part divided further into sections that reflect different genres, subjects, categories and themes. With more than 1,000 recommendations, this is a book filled with solutions and ideas. Have a middle school kid who likes orphans or the supernatural – no problem. Teen looking for historical fiction or GLBTQ reading– you're covered. Looking for a bedtime story and not sure Go the F#*k to Sleep is appropriate? Pearl offers alternatives.

This is a fun book filled with ideas for stimulating younger readers. Pearl is a book champion not a book reviewer, this distinction gives her the freedom to read and recommend only what she likes. Her next book is tentatively titled Wander Lust, a collection of favorite travel-related books. (FZ)


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