Posted May 26, 2014 by in Book Lists

A Teacher’s Guide to Summer Reading

The textbooks are shelved. The desks are empty. The days are quiet. Yes, it’s that time of the year. School is out for summer! For all of us English teachers, it’s the time of the year when we separate ourselves from the classics of the literary canon in which we’ve been engulfed since the end of last summer and, instead, dive into the overflowing stack of new releases. We can never completely break away from the stories we teach; it’s true. We probably wouldn’t even want to. We’ve compiled a helping of commonly read short stories and made a few recommendations of similar, contemporary novels. Take a couple to the beach for summer reading, or just curl up under your air conditioner. Maybe you can even teach one when next school year begins.

You’ve taught this: William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”

Faulkner’s 1930 short story tells about a woman murdering her closeted boyfriend and is one of the famous writer’s very best. On the outside, “A Rose for Emily” is about Miss Emily, a faded, troubled Southern belle who refuses to adjust to the ever-changing society outside of her door, and her dive into madness. More, though, and what makes the story ultimately teachable is the way in which Faulkner so descriptively paints the South. He captures the voices, the scenery, and the attitudes that fill Mississippi (and its surrounding states). It’s a story about the real world refusing to stop even when the people in it so desperately need it to.

Now, read this: Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones






Faulkner’s influence is massive, to say the least. So many of today’s great Southern writers (Wiley Cash, Ron Rash, Richard Ford, and Daniel Wallace) have styles that in some ways reflect Faulkner. Perhaps none so readily recall Oxford, Mississippi’s hero as the brilliant Jesmyn Ward. All of her work is good, but Salvage the Bones is a masterpiece—a true classic-for-the-future. Ward creates young Esch, who is a pregnant, teenage girl. Her father is mostly absent. Hurricane Katrina is coming. Esch is in a bad predicament. Like Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” Ward’s work closely examines the South. The language and behavior of the people of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, is on full display in Salvage the Bones. When Katrina hits, Esch refuses to give in—she salvages everything that she can.


You’ve taught this: Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”

A man admits his war plans to the wrong fellow in Ambrose Bierce’s classic story from 1890. After telling his secrets, Peyton Farquhar winds up with a noose around his neck on Owl Creek Bridge. Bierce chooses to present his story with back-and-forth chronological shifts to make the scenes in the protagonist’s life play like short vignettes. We piece together his life and just about have it figured out when Bierce pulls the plank on us. The ending, no matter how many times one reads it, is a surprise, and leaves the reader agape and truly speechless.

Now, read this: Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!






If the twist ending of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” threw you for a loop, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! is another one that will leave your head spinning. The entire premise is imaginative. Ava Bigtree, the thirteen-year-old protagonist, lives with her family in Swamplandia!, an alligator theme park. Soon, her family falls apart, beginning with the death of her mother. Eventually, the story takes a turn into the realm of magical realism—or, at least, that’s what we are to believe. Ava goes into the nearby swamp with the aid of the Bird Man (who Ava thinks is a mythical creature). From here, things get dark—and terrifying. I didn’t see the ending working out like it does. It’s a wonderful novel.


You’ve taught this: Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”

Twain’s 1865 “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” is several things. It’s a cautionary tale of talking to people, trusting people with your pets, and wasting bets on things that you can’t win. It’s downright fun. Plus, the language he evokes is purely brilliant. His characters are true Southern (almost) gentlemen.

Now, read this: James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird






There is a difference between light reading and fun reading. James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird falls into the latter category. The story begins with Henry Shackleford, but after his father is murdered, he must resort to a different name. Henry becomes Henrietta to save his skin; eventually, the little boy who lives as a girl takes on the name Onion. The things little Onion endures aren’t funny, but the way McBride writes them is. Frederick Douglass, John Brown, and Harriet Tubman are only a few of history’s famous names that appear throughout The Good Lord Bird. Each character’s arrival is memorable, but John Brown is a hoot. The story ends at John Brown’s raid of Harpers Ferry, so, as you might remember, the ending is not all that happy for everyone involved. The language is so reminiscent of Mark Twain that you’ll wonder if the late author appeared in one of McBride’s dreams for inspiration. This is a novel not to be missed.


You’ve taught this: Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”

Finding the perfect classic horror story for students is a tough challenge. Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” is a good one in the post-Hunger Games era, and Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” always gets attention. The one that is the most literary and the toughest to swallow belongs to horror genius Flannery O’Connor. “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is a road-trip story. Its cast (a grandmother, a mom and dad, a cat, and young children) doesn’t necessarily include fearful types; however, a misfit appears with a gang of no-gooders. They are worse than even the most fearful monsters. Things get messy. We don’t know when the madness will stop. We have hope that things will get better. They don’t. Madness escalates, as does the body count.

Now, read this: Victor LaValle’s The Devil in Silver






When thinking of kind and innocent people, grandmothers are probably some of the first to come to mind. Well, Flannery O’Connor proved otherwise in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” When we think about safe places, most of us probably consider hospitals to be near the top of the list. Again, we are off. New Hyde Hospital is the setting for Victor LaValle’s 2012 horror novel, The Devil in Silver. Things get weird quickly. Pepper, LaValle’s protagonist, awakens to find himself in a psychiatric ward by surprise. He doesn’t consider himself crazy at all; in fact, he thinks of himself as a champion of the human race. At night, something happens that makes him rethink his admission. A creature that is part human and part bison visits Pepper. It doesn’t happen only once. The creature continues to appear. Sharing his fear with other residents, Pepper realizes that the creature isn’t of his imagination. He sets out a plan to kill it before it gets him first. Pepper enlists a crew of oddballs to help him along the way, and they become a mad, murdering family. The Devil in Silver hooks you until the very end and is perfect for that stormy summer night.


You’ve taught this: Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path”

Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path” is a story about survival. Phoenix Jackson, the elderly protagonist, struggles on her journey into town to get medicine for her grandson. She encounters racism, dogs, and barbed wire, but she keeps going. She has a mission, and this woman’s love for her family carries her through all of the difficulties. The beauty is that she doesn’t regret it. Love and life stand tall among all other roadblocks.

Now, read this: Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River






Whereas Eudora Welty depicted survivalism through the actions of the aged Phoenix Jackson, Bonnie Jo Campbell captures this same theme through the eyes of the much younger Margo Crane in Once Upon a River. Margo is a teenager, but her journey is not typical. Margo kills her own food, paddles her own boat, and lives by rules of her own. She makes mistakes—trusting men she shouldn’t and putting herself in potentially violent situations. She does all this because she must survive. She needs to prove to herself that her life is worth living. Once Upon a River is set in a world that continually attempts to extinguish Margo’s flame, but she continues to hope. Campbell’s novel is a great reminder to all of us that trials are conquerable.

A Teacher’s Guide to Summer Reading 5.00/5 (100.00%) 4 votes

Bradley Sides

Bradley Sides is a graduate of the M. A. in English program from the University of North Alabama. His fiction appears in Belle Rêve Literary Journal, Birmingham Arts Journal, Boston Literary Magazine, Freedom Fiction Journal, Inwood Indiana, and Used Gravitrons. He is a contributor to Bookkaholic. He resides in Florence, Alabama, with his wife, and he is actively seeking representation for his debut middle-grade novel.