Tag Archives: Recommendations

Science Fiction and Fantasy Books That Should Be Taught in School

I thought this would be a fun post to share now that the 2017-2018 school year has either begun or will begin soon for many schools in North America.

As you might have already guessed, English was my favourite subject from the time my mom began the homeschool version of preschool for me until I graduated from college.

My classmates and I read countless short stories, novellas, and novels during those years, but I barely remember ever being assigned a science fiction or fantasy book until I entered college.

This is a real shame. The sci-fi and fantasy genres are full of stories that can be used to as a jumping off point to explore logic, history, math, geography, ethics, and so much more. I wish my classmates and I had been exposed to these genres as an official part of our curriculums from the beginning.

There are five books in each section of this post for the different age ranges: elementary school, middle school, and high school.

Elementary School

Fantasy sure seems like it has a stronger influence on elementary-aged students. I wonder if it’s because of the lure of traditional fairy tales to young children? At any rate, most of my recommendations for this age groups will sit firmly in the fantasy camp.

 

Gwinna by Barbara Helen Berger

I know I’ve blogged about this book before, but I simply must mention it again. This is the most beautiful modern fairy tale that I’ve ever read. It would be a wonderful place to introduce all kinds of classroom discussions about adoption, the dangers of breaking a promise, and what the students think happened to Gwinna after the end of the final chapter.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

One of the things that first drew me into this story were its descriptions of what life was like for children in England during World War II. There are many things that have changed since then, but basic human nature will always remain the same. It would be very interesting to see how today’s children would react to the idea of being sent away from home for their own safety during a war.

Of course, some students will already have personal experience with that kind of huge life change! Immigration, the separation of families, and the sad consequences of war are still every bit as relevant today as they were in the 1940s.

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Rabbit

I have a vague memory of one of my elementary school teachers assigning this book to us when I was in the fourth or fifth grade. The thought of living forever had never crossed my mind until I learned about Winnie’s life, but I loved watching her mull over her choices once she discovered that the family she’d recently met had a surefire method to remain young and healthy until the end of time.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

This series covered so many timeless issues: child abuse; discrimination; grief; what happens when family secrets are finally aired. What surprised me the most about all of the Harry Potter books was how much fun the characters had even when they were dealing with serious topics that many kids face in real life.

 

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

I mean, who wouldn’t want to read a book about a factory filled with candy and other sweets?

On a more serious note, I liked the way the main character responded to the difficulties he faced in life. He was such a brave kid even when the odds were stacked against him and he couldn’t imagine how he’d get out of his latest predicament.

Middle School

Middle school is a tough age. Tweens and young teenagers are often suspicious of admitting they like stories they think were written for kids, but they’re also not quite ready for more mature material. These books – or portions of them –  would be perfect for this age group.

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

It takes courage to face an angry dragon, and that was only one of the many dangers Bilbo was exposed to during his first big adventure. If I were going to teach this book, I’d round off our readings with a discussion of what happens to people after other huge changes like going to war or being diagnosed with a serious disease. Bilbo’s response to what happened to him mirrored both of these real-life experiences in all kinds of interesting ways.

This is also the perfect introduction to the the Lord of the Rings universe for students who like Bilbo and want to find out what happened to him after he returned home.

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

This book was about a developmentally disabled man who was given an experimental medical treatment that quickly began to raise his IQ. Suddenly becoming much more intelligent than you were before isn’t necessarily an easy experience, but the main character’s diary about what that process was like made me think about everything from how disabilities are defined to what happens when someone is given the chance to change their life in all kinds of unpredictable ways.

The Giver by Lois Lowry

Imagine a society without war, hunger, prejudice, or pain. In fact, all but one of the people in that society couldn’t even begin to tell you what any of those experiences were like.

This was by far my favorite book when I was in middle school. I thought the society the main character lived in was a paradise at first. Figuring out its dark side made me ask myself all kinds of questions about the meaning of life and how much freedom I’d be willing to sacrifice to permanently remove suffering in the world for just about everyone.

Animal Farm by George Orwell

One of the biggest reasons why I believe this should be read by middle school students is because it distills complicated arguments about freedom, politics, communism, and propaganda into a simple allegory about a farm full of animals who decide to revolt against their owner.

The twist ending is my second largest reason for recommending it to this age group. It was as funny as it was thought-provoking.

The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

The silly sections will make middle schoolers laugh, but they’ll also learn a few things about getting along with others and not assuming that you’re the centre of the universe. The sometimes-convoluted storyline would also be a good place to talk abut everything from unreliable narrators to how two people can remember the same event completely differently based on how their minds store memories and what small pieces of that day they’ve forgotten.

High School

My high school English classes assigned us a lot of John Steinbeck and Shakespeare readings. I think these books would make a perfect addition to that kind of curriculum.

Beowulf

I first read this in college, but I wish I had discovered it years earlier. The dark themes and occasional scenes of violence are best suited for more mature readers who are willing to push forward to the conclusion.

I also believe that everyone who speaks English should be familiar with the first poem we know of that was written in Old English. There is so much about the beginnings of our language that we simply don’t know. Holding onto what we do know is important.

1984 by George Orwell

Should the government be trusted? Is everything that’s shared on the news actually true? How do you know when you’re being lied to?

These have been dangerous questions to ask in many different cultures and eras. Knowing when you’re being deceived is nearly as important as knowing how to react when it happens. I think every high school student should graduate with at least a little practice at weighing what they’re told carefully.

 

 

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

Climate change has already begun to affect our world. How people live in a generation or two will probably be quite different from how the average westerner lives today.

Ms. Butler had such a creative take on what our future could be like. I wish she had lived long enough to finish this series, but I relish what she was able to write. High school students could learn a lot from her thoughts on prejudice and what happens when an entire society falls apart.

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

This is a classic piece of science fiction about time travel and the ethical dilemmas that result from knowing what will happen in the future but not being sure how to warn everyone about what is coming. Not every conflict in life has or should have a black-and-white solution.

Hominids by Robert J. Sawyer

Most high school students are probably aware that there used to be other human-like species living on Earth, but I doubt most of them have wondered how our planet would be different if early humans had died out and another species had become dominant instead.

This tale asked a lot of hard questions about intelligence, environmentalism, and what it would mean to be human if we discovered that we weren’t the only intelligent hominids wandering around after all.

What science fiction and fantasy books do you wish would be taught in schools?

Who to Follow on Twitter If You’re Into Mindfulness and Meditation

A few weeks ago I started a new series of posts on this blog about Twitter accounts that share the same theme. This week I’m going to be recommending accounts that are about mindfulness and meditation.

There aren’t as many mindfulness and meditation suggestions as there were for the science fiction and fantasy version of this series, but I’m tentatively hoping to eventually write a part two for this once I’ve found more high-quality accounts that talk about it.

If you have suggestions for specific accounts to recommend or topics for a future post in this series, I’d be quite interested in hearing about them.

@bunnybuddhism‬.

The cute rabbit pictures were what first drew me into following this account, of course, but one of the reasons why I enjoy the tweets from the woman who runs it so much is how insightful she is about topics like grief, death, and truly living in the moment.

‪@tinybuddha‬.

This is the official account for a Buddhist website by the same name. They tweet a lot, but their articles are well-written and full of helpful advice for people from many different walks of life.

‪@yogainspiresyou‬.

Ntathu teaches yoga and meditation. I love the positivity of her tweets, especially when it comes to the short quotes she shares regularly.

@SatyaRobyn‬

Satya is a Buddhist priest I’ve known online for years. She has a lot of interesting things to say about mindfulness and her belief system in general.

‪@calm‬

This is a meditation app I’ve used off and on for years. The guided body scans in the app itself are fantastic, and their Twitter account is full of good information as well.

Previous posts in this series:

Who to Follow on Twitter If You’re Into Science Fiction and Fantasy 

5 More Modern Scifi Books You Should Be Reading

Last month I recommended five modern science fiction books that I really enjoyed to my readers. Today I decided to write a follow-up post so that I can recommend even more great reads to you! Who knows? Maybe this will become a series on this blog. We will see what happens in the future.

The Passage by Justin Cronin.

What is it about?

A virus turns humans into vampires so quickly that our species is now on the brink of extinction.

An FBI agent suddenly finds himself in charge of keeping an abandoned child safe in a world where no child is safe anymore.

Humanity must adjust to this new world, so the rest of the plot is about how that happens over a long period of time and what happens when the precautions people take to protect themselves begin to fail.

Why should you read it?

This is one of the most suspenseful and action-packed books I’ve read in a long time. Dividing it up into sections that told different pieces of the same story was a good idea. In some ways, it was sort of like three novellas set in the same universe one because each section was focused on such a specific part of the storyline.

One of the other things I appreciated about it was that the vampires weren’t misunderstood, secretly romantic, or anyone’s boyfriend. They were violent, dangerous, ugly, and menacing. This black-and-white approach to the genre was refreshing. I really like it when monsters act like monsters.

Oryx and Crake  by Margaret Atwood

What is it about?

It’s a dystopia set in the near future. Jimmy, a man who thinks he’s the last living human on earth, is grieving the loss of his friends Oryx and Crake.

His only companions are the Children of Crake, a small group of genetically-modified, human-like creatures who are about as intelligent as the average 7-year-old child. They think of him as a messenger from their creator and obey his every command.

The plot thickens when Jimmy runs into his old friends and realizes that he isn’t alone after all.

This is the first book in her MaddAddam trilogy. If you like it, the next two books in the series are just as excellent.

Why should you read it?

The first thing that drew me into the plot were all of the flashbacks to life right before society collapsed. Your social class determines everything from what kind of school you’re allowed to attend to how much food you have to whether or not you survive in this society. It is a very rigid system that’s basically impossible to escape.

The Children of Crake weren’t the only genetically modified creatures in this universe. In fact, they weren’t even the most interesting ones!

I also enjoyed the storytelling. This is something I’d especially recommend to anyone who has read a lot of science fiction or who is already a fan of Margaret Atwood’s writing in general. She plays around with this genre in some pretty spectacular ways.

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie 

What is it about?

This is a collection of interviews done with people of all ages and backgrounds who survived the zombie apocalypse many years after humanity more or less won the war.

Patient Zero’s experiences are included early on. Most zombie fiction doesn’t bother showing where the virus comes from or how it started to spread, so I was fascinated by this section.

Another interview is with a feral child who somehow escaped being attacked and then survived alone in the woods for years before finally being rescued. Despite being much older now, this witness will always remain a small child as far as their mental understanding of the world goes.

There is also a dog who was trained to fight the zombies as part of a military strike against them. That interview was obviously done with one of the humans who worked with the dog, of course, but it was fascinating to see how such a partnership was created and why it functioned so well.

Why should you read it?

Regardless of whether you hated or loved the movie that shares the same name, this book is nothing like that film. The only thing they share in common is their title.

I loved the interviews because they covered the civilian, military, and medical sides to the story. Some characters saw and fought multiple zombies. Others had more sheltered experiences because of the nature of the work they did or where they happened to be when the outbreak began.

This reminded me of the oral histories I’ve read about real historical events. One person’s perspective can’t tell you the whole story, but you’ll learn a lot about what happened and what was possibly a myth or a misunderstanding if you interview many people and compare their memories.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

What is it about?

The title gives away much of the plot. Harry August is a man who keeps living the same lifetime over and over again.

No matter what he does or where he goes, every death that finds him only brings him back to the day of his birth.

This isn’t to say that every single lifetime of his is exactly the same, though. He makes different choices every time that lead to happier (or sadder!) outcomes later on in life.

Why should you read it?

Reincarnation is fascinating.

I’m also intrigued by the idea of reliving your life in order to correct mistakes that you made in it. Would things be better or worse if you hypothetically took back those cruel words you spat at someone, or never travelled to the place where that awful thing happened, or ordered a salad instead of the shrimp special on your twenty-third birthday that gave you life-threatening food poisoning the last time around?

11/22/63 by Stephen King

What is it about?

A high school English teacher named Jake who travels back through time to attempt to stop the assassination of President Kennedy.

Like The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, trying the change the past is much harder than it looks. Every time Jake changes one thing, the universe does its best to thwart him and restore time to the way it originally was.

Why should you check it out?

This isn’t your typical Stephen King tale. There are no monsters, demons, or gory plot twists. As much as I occasionally enjoy his pulpier work, this is a wonderfully mature and complex story that I’d recommend to people regardless of whether or not they’re already a fan of this author’s writing style.

This is one of those rare cases where I’d recommended watching the TV show by the same name just as much as I’d recommended reading it.

Is it cheating to admit that I’m not entirely sure I finished the book when I tried it a few years ago?  It’s been so long ago that I can’t remember for sure, but I love the TV show so much that I’m now planning to give the original story another try. Sometimes it takes me a few tries to read all the way through a full-length novel, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

This is the kind of story that excels on the small screen because of how much it depends on small details. In this case, visualizing those little details was much easier for me to do by watching it unfold one episode at a time. You may want to try both and see which one appeals to you most.

Happy reading!

5 Modern Scifi Books You Should Be Reading

This post was inspired by a few different conversations I’ve had recently about my favourite science fiction books. I hope you find at least one new recommendation in this list!

The Book of Dave by Will Self.

What is it about?

A grim, futuristic society set in the land formerly known as England. This society’s religious beliefs and social structure are based on a long rant written by a frustrated cab driver hundreds of years before the events of this story began.

Why should you read it?

There is a lot more going on in the plot than what I shared above. I won’t share spoilers about the rest of the storyline, but I still think about these characters even though it’s been years since I read this book.

Their experiences cross the boundaries between religion and science as well as between what is currently possible in 2017 and what could become possible in a few short decades.

This is the kind of fictional world that bleeds into our own. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone say something in our reality that sounds like it came straight from the Book of Dave. It surprises me a little bit every time it happens.

Feed by Mira Grant.

What is it about?

Imagine a world where cancer and the common cold no longer exist. What’s the catch? The cures for these diseases unleashed a virus that turns people into zombies.

The main character grew up in this world. She can’t remember what life was like before people risked their lives every time they left the safety of a compound.

Why should you read it?

The characters understand the campiness of certain situations, and they’re not above playing up those moments at times. I enjoyed those brief moments of humor in what was an otherwise serious tale.

I also liked the fact that human society adjusted so quickly to the reality of living alongside zombies. Most of the characters make logical choices. There weren’t any instances of people suddenly forgetting to follow basic safety rules or doing other things that don’t fit what the reader knowns about them as an individual.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.

What is it about?

A group of children growing up in a remote boarding school, none of whom have ever known their biological parents. Their strict, isolated upbringing only grows more bizarre over time.

When they grow up and start to fill the roles they were meant to fill, the mysteries of their odd childhoods finally begin to make sense.

Why should you read it?

To be honest with you, I didn’t know what I thought of this book the first time I read it. My interpretation of what was going on with the characters was completely different back then as compared to what it is now.

I can’t say much else about this without give away the ending, but Kazuo gave me a lot of food for thought. It was especially interesting to look back at how everything started once I knew how it ended. There were plenty of clues about what was going on from the beginning if you paid attention to what the narrator was and wasn’t saying along the way.

The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey.

What is it about?

A child named Melanie who lives on a military base with a small group of other children. All of the soldiers who guard the building where the kids live are inexplicably terrified of them.

Melanie’s teacher, Miss Justineau, isn’t scared, though. For now she seems to be perfectly content teaching the strange, little children who only eat once a week and never seem to grow.

Why should you read it?

Those of you who have been known me for a while might remember how much I loved this story. It’s hard to talk about the rest of the plot without giving away spoilers, but I was fascinated by the idea of a 10-year-old girl being perceived to be such a huge threat by the soldiers who guarded her.

The plot twists were simply well done. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t figure some of them out before the characters realized what was going on, but it was still exciting to see how they unfolded. This was especially true when it came to the ending. I couldn’t have imagined a more fitting one for Melanie and her friends. As much as I’d like to see a sequel, I felt genuinely satisfied by how the author wrapped everything up.

The Martian by Andy Weir.

What is it about?

An astronaut named Mark who accidentally gets left behind on Mars after an accident. His fellow astronauts believed him to be dead when they left. Now he has to survive alone on a hostile world for years until a rescue mission can save him.

Why should you read it?

Simply put, the storytelling was phenomenal. It was so good, in fact, that I’d recommend watching the movie just as heartily as I would recommend reading The Martian. You don’t have to experience both of them if you don’t want to. They both were the exact same story.

Both versions of this story are full of tension. Mark is injured when he wakes up on Mars after the accident. He quickly has to figure out not only how to treat his injury but also how to repair the damaged equipment that he will rely on to survive.

These are the first two of many problems he has to solve on his own. From what I’ve read, the scientific portions of Mark’s adventure were pretty accurate. Knowing that these were fairly close to the kinds of dilemmas that real astronauts would deal with in this situation made me even more invested in finding out if Mark would ever figure out a way to get back to Earth.