Image: Bookshelves, by Giuseppe Maria Crespi, 1725 (Web Gallery of Art)
In a continuing series, Vitae asks academics, administrators, and Ph.D.s to pick the five books that most influenced them in some aspect of their work, professional life, and career — and why. Next up: Jennifer Burek Pierce, an associate professor of library science at the University of Iowa. Here she recommends five novels for young readers (other than those books about you-know-who) that may well have shaped many of your students.
This week marks 20 years since Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone first appeared in print. Many of our incoming undergraduates, then, live in a post-Potter world — one where magicians and muggles have always mingled, and where the four houses of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry serve as a shorthand explanation of one's personality and identity. As a scholar in the field of children's literature, I've followed the transformative effect of the Harry Potter novels. They're not, however, the only books that have framed our students' pre-college years.
Connections between popular culture and academia — and between children's books and the wider, arguably more adult, world — have only increased since the success of Potter. The Hunger Games followed on Harry Potter's heels as a controversial series with strong print and movie-ticket sales. Young adult novelist John Green has been featured in Time magazine's list of 100 Most Influential People, and recent news of his much-anticipated new novel, due out in October, made headlines. This past spring, Thirteen Reasons Why returned to The New York Times' bestseller list, coinciding with the release of Netflix's adaptation of the title as a multi-part series. Several schools, in turn, banned the book, fearing its portrayal of suicide would lead to self-harm.
Not all books for young readers, however, focus on the emotionally dark and angst-laden side of adolescent life. For insights into other fictional worlds that our students have contemplated — the imagined cultures that inform their ideas of community and self — the following titles resound with hope, connection, and learning. Reading them can help you better understand your students and offer you a sense of the richness of literature for young readers. Many of these titles are simply delightful, too.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret
By Brian Selznick
I have long regarded Selznick's book, which unfolds through the alternating use of text and image, as an exemplar of ground-breaking narrative technique in contemporary children's literature. Years of teaching have now accustomed me to another response: Semester after semester, my undergraduates tell me it's a childhood favorite. An orphaned boy with a talent for mechanical work finds a friend and a new family in this critically acclaimed title that places considerable value on words, feelings, and history.
The Magic Thief
By Sarah Prineas
Conn is a parentless, homeless boy who steals to survive. His theft of a magical device results in his induction into a wizard's menage and the development of his own skills. Before he can participate fully as a student in the school that will train him as a magician, Conn must learn to read and to accept others' help in the first of this five-volume series that has been translated internationally and praised by legendary fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones. More than magic, Conn's story directs our attention to themes of prejudice and trust, constituted families as well as natural ones, and balancing independence with support. Lest this sound moralizing, the long arc of these stories is also engaging and fun, the result of a sure and convincing narrative voice, as well as authorial vision.
Fangirl: A Novel
By Rainbow Rowell
Rowell's works are often described as crossover titles — ones that appeal to both teens and adults. Fangirl features Cath in her first year at college, struggling to acclimate to the conditions of her changing life and to the expectations of higher education. Her identity as a fan-fiction author doesn't help her in the college classroom, though it does factor into her friendships and a blossoming romance. Her gradual transition into a more independent and capable individual and writer is mirrored in passages of fan fiction that recreate a Harry Potter-esque series.
Carry On: A Novel
By Rainbow Rowell
While the fan fiction in Fangirl is written in the voice of 18-year-old Cath, in Carry On, we see what an adult novelist with considerable skill makes of the premise introduced in the earlier title. At the Watford School of Magicks, language is central to power. Familiar phrases aren't disparaged as clichés. Instead, magical power derives from repeated use of conventional expressions, whether slang or song lyrics. Seeing that premise play out throughout the novel is fascinating, as are the relationships between richly imagined characters. While Simon Snow is the hero, the clever and emotionally complex vampire, Baz, lingers in the reader's memory.
An Abundance of Katherines
By John Green
Among Green's fans, this novel is too often relegated to the status of least favorite. He's best known, of course, for the deeply felt and rending novel, The Fault in Our Stars. For me, however, the lighter tone of An Abundance of Katherines and — spoiler alert — its happy ending make it suited for inclusion in a young adult literature syllabus with varied characters, moods, and themes. Colin, once a well-known child prodigy, deals with the double blow of feeling that he's not living up to his youthful potential and losing his girlfriend just after their high-school graduation. His friend and foil Hassan insists that a spontaneous road trip will break Colin out of his doldrums. Although Colin clings to his notebooks and intellectual ideas in hopes of a breakthrough, in the end, Hassan is the one who is proven correct. With David-Foster-Wallace-style footnotes and considerable wit, this summer road trip novel is a thing of joy.
Got a booklist to share? Send it to editorial_at_chroniclevitae_dot_com. List your 5 favorite books in your field or in some other category — and tell us in a few sentences why you would recommend them — and we will consider your booklist for publication.