Literary nonfiction belongs in English courses

If you teach high school English and you aren’t having students read some book-length literary nonfiction each year, you ought to start.

Nonfiction is the writing that each of your students will be required to read and to write outside your classroom. Most of it (such as your lesson plans) are deadly boring.

Literary nonfiction is nonfiction that isn’t boring because its writer smuggled techniques out of fiction and put them into nonfiction writing where nobody will be looking for them. Then, when unsuspecting readers come along ready to suffer through another boring recital of facts, Zap! the writer pulls a fiction trick. Before readers know that happened, they are caught up in reading the story they thought was going to be a colossal bore.  

photos of covers of three books
Three can”t-put-down literary nonfiction books to be reviewed here in July..

In an English class, literary nonfiction is an equalizer. It gives those students (mostly males) who gag on Jane Austen a chance to read something as challenging as Jane Austen but on topics that appeal to their interests.

It also gives the Jane Austen fan club crowd a chance to see that techniques of fiction can be used for more than just entertaining readers. Fiction’s techniques can be used in discussions of factual data to show people how and why some nonfiction topic is important to them.

Next week, I’ll post brief reviews of literary nonfiction I’ve read since April 1 that I can recommend for use in high school English classes.

Literary nonfiction books should meet five criteria

To get my recommendation as literary nonfiction suitable for assignment as reading for students in high school or college English classes, books need to meet five standards.

Books must be well-written. They can’t be stuffy, academic, or too technical for an ordinary reader. I prefer books set in in a large enough typeface to be comfortable reading, as I think students also do.

Books must tie in with students’ academic work. History, science, the arts, sports, and the backgrounds of current events are topics that often appear as literary nonfiction.

Books should have short chapters. Students are more likely to read chapters under 10 pages than to read longer chapters. Also, if books have short chapters, it’s possible for two students to share a book and both get assigned reading done without too much hassle. (This requirement is one I recently added after struggling through a book with three 150-page chapters.)

Books should be found in libraries. While not all students have access to public libraries, some will. And the presence of a book in a library is a sign that the book has staying power.

Books should be readily available at second-hand booksellers and book discounters. It’s cheaper to buy hardback books that last years than to pay a licensing fee to rent digital books.

Finding literary nonfiction that meets all five criteria takes some work. Probably half of the books I read won’t work as assigned reading for students for one reason or another. Often the book is good, but just not suited to high school students’ backgrounds.

5 books of literary nonfiction
These nonfiction books didn’t meet all five criteria for assigned student reading

The best thing about selecting literary nonfiction for your students to read is that you get to read books that will expand your horizons.

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Two young people’s true adventures

My 2020 first quarter literary nonfiction reading included two books that focus on the formative years of two very different people: twentieth century aviation pioneer Beryl Markham and eighteenth century wannabe author—and surelywas forger—William-Henry Ireland. Both books are readily available, new and used, from booksellers and in libraries.

West with the Night

Beryl Markham. West with the Night. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1983. (paperback) ISBN: 0-86547-118-5

Beryl Markham in aviator attireWest with the Night is an autobiography written by a pioneering woman quite different from the calico and wagon train pioneer typically encountered in American classrooms. Beryl Markham was born in England but,  from the time she was four, the motherless child was reared in Kenya where her teachers and playmates were the natives.

Markham’s story opens with her childhood adventures going hunting barefoot with her Murani friends, seeing “dik-dik and leopard, kongoni and warthog, buffalo, lion, and the ‘hare that jumps.'” She relates an incident which her friend Bishon Singh told her father Beryl had been “moderately eaten by the large lion.”

Markham’s father clawed a farm out of the land, in true pioneer fashion. It was beginning to be profitable when a drought killed it. Markham’s father moved to Peru to raise horses. Beryl, 17, decided to stay in Africa and try for a job training thoroughbreds. Her father advised she saddle up and move to Molo, a town where he knew a few stable owners would be willing to risk having a girl train horses. “After that, work and hope,” he said. “But never hope more than you work.”

Markham was becoming a successful trainer when a chance encounter with a pilot changed her trajectory for a few years. She took flying lessons and became a bush pilot.

In 1936 she decided to try to become the first person to fly solo from London to New York, which meant flying for more than 24 hours in the dark. In the cold atmosphere, the fuel tank vents iced over. Starved of fuel, her plane went down on Cape Breton Island. West became the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo from east to west, but hadn’t made it to New York as she’d hoped to do.

photo of Markham's downed plane
Markham’s crashed plane shares space with Hemingway’s praise.

Markham ends her autobiography with that Atlantic flight, but she went on to have further adventures. She went back to Africa and resumed her career as a trainer, becoming the most successful horse trainer in Kenya for a time.

When first published, West with the Night was included in the U.S.A.’s Armed Services Editions, and Ernest Hemingway praised the book, but it wasn’t a great commercial success. The autobiography was rediscovered and republished in 1983. It ranks eighth in National Geographic‘s list of best adventure books. It’s a beautifully written story that both teenage boys and girls can appreciate.

The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare

Doug Stewart. The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare: A Tale of Forgery and Folly. Cambridge, MA, Da Capo Press, 1910. ISBN: 978-0-360-81831-8

Shakespeare peeks from right hand side of old manuscriptIf students are inspired by Markham’s autobiography, let’s hope they won’t be inspired by William-Henry Ireland’s story as told by Doug Stewart.

Stewart, a freelance journalist, tells the true story of 19-year-old William-Henry Ireland who in 1795 began writing documents that he passed off as the works of Shakespeare.

His father, Samuel Ireland, who thought William-Henry a dolt, got him a job as an unpaid apprentice to a lawyer who was never in the office. Most of William-Henry’s work was sorting through old documents.

William-Henry’s father, an ambitious author and illustrator of a series of travel books, had a keen instinct for what appealed to the public taste and he was obsessed with everything Shakespearean. He collected memorabilia, particularly items associated with famous or notorious figures. Samuel was not adverse to fudging the truth when it was to his advantage to do so.

William-Henry was not stupid, but he had been a failure in school. He had seen no reason for learning Latin or math since he had no plans to use either. (Does this sound like anybody in your classes?) However,  he read voraciously, was fascinated by the theater, and loved to copy verse by his favorite authors in an elegant, Elizabethan script.

William-Henry penned his first forgery more or less as a joke. When his father and his father’s friends were taken in, William-Henry was both amused and angry: He was amused that experts didn’t recognize the deception and angry that his father didn’t think him smart enough to have concocted the forgery and its cover story.

Samuel saw fame and profits if William-Henry could get him more manuscripts. Samuel particularly wanted something by Shakespeare: no handwritten copies of his plays were knows to exist. Samuel pushed his son to produce the desired scripts, not realizing that William-Henry would literally produce them.

Stewart takes readers on a tour through late 18th century London using the psychologically damaged William-Henry and his crazy family as the tour guides. Stewart’s text includes 16 pages of intriguing images, and his descriptions of the English playhouses at the end of the 18th century will entertain anyone with even a passing interest in theater.

The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare will probably be heavier reading for high school students than Markham’s story, because Stewart’s book requires wider background knowledge. You might to have students for whom the book is too tough read Stewart’s article about William-Henry Ireland’s forgery career  “To Be…Or Not: The Greatest Shakespeare Forgery”  in Smithsonian magazine. On the other hand, the emotional and personality issues that the book raises may make it worth the extra effort for students who have what are politely called “issues at home.”

 

© 2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Nature and human nature: a writing prompt

In the last two weeks, Hurricane Dorian displayed the awesome power of Nature and triggered displays of human nature, some of which were less than awesome.

Thinking about what we’ve watched on the news suggests an English language arts writing prompt that is timely but won’t go out of date.

The formal writing prompt

Here’s the core of a formal writing prompt on natural and human-aided disasters:

John C. Mutter writes in his book The Disaster Profiteers, “It is human nature more than Nature that makes disasters so terrible.”

Thinking of a natural disaster that’s occurred in the last 24 months, use digital and print news sources to explore how human nature compounded the effects of the natural consequences.

Write an informative/explanatory text in which you support Mutter’s assertion that, “It is human nature more than Nature that makes disasters so terrible.”

Format your response for reading as a digital document. Please keep your text to under 650 words.

By way of additional help, I suggest you tell students they must:

    • include their definition of human nature.
    • use both print and digital sources
    • include live links to your sources
    • summarize information to which you refer except for brief quotation of strikingly effective language.

Appropriate uses for this formal writing prompt

This prompt would be appropriate for students reading Mutter’s book, a literary nonfiction work I’ve recommended here earlier. It would also be a good prompt for students studying research and source use.

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Who’s helping teachers teach academic content?

I’ve recently received a list of new webinars for teachers from a prominent provider of professional learning webinars. There were eight or nine webinar titles listed. Not one webinar on the list was about teaching content.

As I looked at the list, I tried to remember the last time I saw a webinar that was targeted at helping teachers do a better job of teaching academic content.

In the last year, I’ve seen lots of webinars offered on topics such as

  • mindfulness,
  • family engagement,
  • social and emotional learning,
  • dealing with traumatized youth,
  • selecting technology.

Is anybody offering webinars on academic content teaching topics such as:

  • using informal writing to teach grammar
  • teaching dual-enrolled (high school and college) students to write across the college curriculum
  • using literary nonfiction in teaching high school courses
  • how to teach high school writing so every student writes at least competently?

I hope somebody is teaching some of those topics because reading and writing nonfiction is a requirement in the working world outside education.