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20 Moving Novels Every Educator Should Read


"Moving" means different things to different readerships, so pitching a little Internet hissy fit over inclusions or exclusions isn't exactly going to accomplish anything. This list strives to feature books that will appeal to a few different demographics rather than sticking exclusively with the tried-and-true maudlin Hallmark tearjerkers. Just about the only thing they have in common is an education theme or setting, which might very well pique the interest of industry professionals. Love them or hate them, all of these reads still provide a lesson or two — maybe even a bit of inspiration as well.

  1. Goodbye, Mr. Chips by James Hilton

    The eponymous schoolteacher overcomes his own insecurities regarding the succeeding generations, only to find himself losing colleagues and students alike in the Franco-Prussian War and World War I. But in spite of everything, Mr. Chipping eventually solidifies his reputation as an ardent people-person absolutely adored by everyone at Brookfield (the all-boy's private school at which he teaches). Interestingly enough, it is his complete dismissal of all things political, no matter the side, as all rather silly and pointless that ultimately wins him such favor.

  2. To Sir, With Love by E.R. Braithwaite

    Part autobiography, part novel, E.R. Braithwaite's intense, inspiring 1959 publication tells the tale of a former RAF crew member who finds himself teaching secondary school in the volatile London East End. Battling apathy in the classroom and racial discrimination outside it, Ricardo Braithwaite decides to carpe himself some diem and take an even-now-unorthodox approach to educating his sighing students. Since they desire treatment as adults, by god he'll give him that, and lessons include museum trips and more open, frank communication — all of which prove incredibly effective, long-term strategies.

  3. Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman

    One of the quintessential stories featuring an inspiring teacher reaching out to struggling inner-city students, Up the Down Staircase simultaneously kicked off and defined a genre. The whole narrative is relayed through letters, notes, memos and other epistolary communications and takes place during one of America's most game-changing eras. School prayer is now outlawed, and tensions swell thanks to desegregated campuses and buses — and bureaucratic migraine after institutional migraine definitely don't make the protagonist's life easier.

  4. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

    Educators who love memoirs and nonfiction novels might want to consider picking up Azar Nafisi's bestselling, inspirational sensation. She moved back to her native Iran shortly after the Shah's deposition and the installation of a militant Islamic regime commenced; as pressures mount, defiance emerges as an all-woman book club. Although the ladies share "Western" literature — which Nafisi adores — they bond over finding commonalities with their trying situations, perfectly illustrating just how the best books resonate across time and geography.

  5. Dialogues by Plato

    Plato's adaptation of discussions between his mentor Socrates and other highly influential Classical Greek philosophers may not possess a traditional novel structure, but warrant inclusion here all the same. His series of detailed dialogues serve as a particularly piquant read for teachers fascinated by education's rich history and seemingly endless approaches. No matter one's opinion of Socrates' philosophies, one has to admire how he'd willingly face false accusation, conviction, prison time and execution (famously via hemlock) all for the sake of pursuing greater knowledge.

  6. On Beauty by Zadie Smith

    In her homage to E.M. Forster's Howards End, the sparkling British writer cheekily satirizes higher education while proffering some provocative, essential insight into race relations. Here, Zadie Smith compares and contrasts the UK and US, atheism and belief, black and white (and mixed-race), conservatism and liberalism, wealth and poverty and other common binaries; Affirmative Action, of course, stands as one of the book's more fiercely-debated topics. Despite considerable drama both on and off campus, however, the two families at the novel's core still manage to find common ground and strive towards some semblance of harmony.

  7. Plum Wine by Angela Davis-Gardner

    An American educator at Tokyo University buckles under isolation, a complex romance and the loss of a beloved colleague — all made more trying as she begins learning more and more about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Through bottles of carefully labeled plum wine and stacks of written memories, she grows even closer to her deceased friend and fellow professor…as well as the childhood friend pressed into translating. Valuable lessons about bridging cultural, political and generational gaps abound, which will certainly benefit real people as much as their fictional colleagues.

  8. Possession by A.S. Byatt

    Audiences craving a romantic read without all the fluff and puff will find this Man Booker winner a nicely stimulating read for more than one reason. Both a rumination on love and the nature of research, the masterful Possession juxtaposes the passionate affairs between two Victorian poets and the academics reading and writing about their letters. It's a beautiful, haunting and intelligent book even for those normally angrily foaming at the mouth over lovey-dovey narratives.

  9. On Borrowed Wings by Chandra Prasad

    Told from a student's perspective rather than a teacher's, Chandra Prasad's debut novel illustrates just how far some women would go just to seize educational opportunities. Taking place in the 1930s, a working-class Connecticut girl disguises herself as her own brother in order to attend Yale, where she struggles to maintain her façade while simultaneously promoting change. On Borrowed Wings not only makes valuable statements about equality across gender lines, but economic ones as well — particularly reflected in how protagonist Adele Pietra approaches a staggeringly classist research assignment.

  10. The Big U by Neal Stephenson

    The Big U definitely moves all right, but not exactly in a manner that would win a film adaptation any Oscar nods. Rather, this frenetic, kinetic satire joyfully rips apart anything and everything about higher education, culminating in a literally explosive civil war of a (lightly) sci-fi finale. It boasts a far sharper, harder edge than some of the quieter, more reflective reads listed here, but warrants consideration for its thought-provoking — if not outright relatable — commentary.

  11. We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver

    Following a brutal school massacre, the perpetrator's grief-addled, confused and deeply mourning mother turns towards letter writing for solace. Although fiction, it presents a very sensitive look into one way a murderous, sociopathic student might emerge — audiences are left to decide for themselves whether or not they consider such behaviors the result of nature, nurture or some blend. Anyone tasked with teaching or mentoring troubled teens might appreciate the insight, however intense the narrative gets.

  12. Pym by Mat Johnson

    Mat Johnson is one of America's sharpest, humorous and wholly underrated social commentators, and his third novel explores themes of race and higher education's uneasy relationship. When protagonist Chris Jaynes loses his shot at tenure because he won't exclusively teach African-American literature or serve on a diversity committee, he instead latches onto his The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket and Edgar Allen Poe obsessions. What follows is a whimsical, but thoroughly provocative, trip down to Antarctica in search of a legendary island without meddling white people.

  13. Villette by Charlotte Bronte

    Ostensibly about a young woman teaching at an all-girls school, readers find this novel more attractive for its uniquely Gothic take on psychology. Whether issuing an intentional challenge to patriarchal standards or not, central figure Lucy Snowe proffers some fascinating insight into life as a Victorian educator. Fictional yes, but nevertheless partly culled from both Charlotte and Emily Bronte's experiences trading teaching services for a boarding's schools rooms and resources.

  14. Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

    As of April 2011, many claims presented in the nonfiction novel and memoir Three Cups of Tea have fallen under heavy, painstaking scrutiny. Since resolutions are still pending in August 2011, it's up to the reader to decide whether or not s/he wants to accept the stories or approach them with skepticism. The story revolves around Greg Mortenson's ill-fated K2 climb, kind welcome by Korphe, Pakistan chief elder and subsequent promise to build a school there — particularly focusing on educating the village's women.

  15. Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov

    Teachers who've struggled with language barriers, whether working overseas or overseeing an ESL classroom, might very well see a little bit of themselves in Timofey Pavlovich Pnin. He desires very much to fit in with the American school to which he is assigned, but frequent cultural and linguistic roadblocks render his work under-recognized and underappreciated — to the point he never earns tenure, even. Certainly sympathetic, both international educators and those working beside them might find Pnin an effective, enlightening novel.

  16. A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines

    Set during the interim between World War II and the Civil Rights era, this necessary novel showcases the unique struggle of educated African-Americans in the South. Here, a teacher feels himself suspended between his heritage (and community) and his few professional opportunities, which results more in apathy than any real drive. But an opportunity for (mutual!) personal enrichment and discovery emerges when he finds himself mentoring a young, wrongfully accused death row inmate.

  17. Fathers and Daughters by Benjamin Markovits

    At an exclusive New York prep school, four narratives parallel corresponding seasons and personally and thematically intertwine every so often. Typically navel-gazing, stressful and tragic, the book hinges more on exploring personalities rather than issuing any overarching statements about education. Despite this, though, many readers enjoy the watching interplay between students and authority figures — some of whom find the age difference a serious internal challenge — slowly unfold.

  18. Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum

    Sarah Shun-lien Bynum earned a 2004 National Book Award nomination for her stirring story collection about a much-beloved middle school English teacher. The eponymous educator approaches her newly-established career with a relatable welding of excitement and trepidation. Over eight vignettes, she gains her students' trust and admiration, but — more importantly — starts building the confidence necessary to become the best teacher she possibly can someday.

  19. Academy X by Andrew Trees

    Academy X may be a satirical comedy, but it has plenty of intelligent (and frequently scary) insight into how caught up parents, students and administrators get in the Ivy League game. Taking place in the elitist of elite private high schools, honesty and integrity mean absolutely squat if it means little Dakota and Thurston end up at Yale or Harvard. Once a poor, hapless and thoroughly confused English teacher finds himself stuck in the flurry, a pathetic hilarity ensues.

  20. Dancing in a Distant Place by Isla Dewar

    Following the death of her husband and subsequent debt crunch, a Scottish schoolteacher and her two children move to a remote area and attempt rebuilding their lives. She takes up a head teacher position and finds herself embroiled in student drama as a coping mechanism against facing her own serious personal issues. And this extreme concern with other people's children cause both her son and daughter to find their own destructive outlets as well.

August 23rd, 2011 written by Staff Writers

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